Key Thinker: Catharine Macaulay

Key thinker: Catherine Macaulay (1731–1791)

Catherine Macaulay (1731–1791)


Catherine Macaulay (neé Sawbridge) was born into a wealthy family in Kent, England. Her mother died while giving birth and left Macaulay and her siblings in the care of her father. Although she received little formal schooling, Macaulay had access to her father’s extensive library and developed an interest in Greek and Roman history ( Macaulay was especially interested in republican and libertarian ideas, which would remain her philosophical preoccupation throughout her life. In 1760, Macaulay married the Scottish physician George Macaulay and moved to London with him (

In 1763, with the encouragement of her husband and their neighbour, Thomas Hollis, Macaulay published the first volume of her History of England from the Accession of James I to That of the Brunswick Line (1763-83) ( The publication of six further volumes followed between 1763 and 1783, and earned Macaulay a considerable amount of fame as a historian ( Macaulay’s Whig interpretation (see Key Concept: The Whigs) of the English Civil War (1642-51) was considered by many to be a response to David Hume’s (see Key Thinker: David Hume in Chapter 11 on Montesquieu) Tory account in The History of England (1754-61).

In 1774 Macaulay, by then widowed, moved to Bath (George had died in 1766). In her writing, Macaulay continued to advocate for popular sovereignty and land reform in England ( Macaulay also took up the cause of American colonists, which brought her into contact with prominent figures like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, the first president of the United States. When Macaulay travelled to America with her new husband, the 21-year-old William Graham, in 1784-85, Washington even hosted the couple at his house in Mount Vernon (

Towards the end of her life, Macaulay wrote a final political tract, Observations on the Reflections of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke on the Revolution in France (1790), which defended the achievements of the French National Assembly and the idea of popular government against Edmund Burke’s critique. Macaulay vehemently opposed what she considered to be the arbitrary power of the aristocracy ( For Macaulay, moral truths could only be derived from reason, not aristocratic traditions or customs as Burke claimed. Macaulay died in June 1791, not long after the publication of her book. She was 60 years old.


Macaulay was part of an intellectual and political circle that included prominent figures like Richard Price, Joseph Priestly, and Thomas Paine (see Key Thinker: Thomas Paine). But while her male contemporaries achieved fame as republican thinkers, Macaulay’s work was often ignored by scholars and commentators (see 17.2. Catherine Macaulay). Although Macaulay was a political outsider, she was a respected historian. Burke considered her a formidable political opponent (see 17.1. Introduction) while Mary Wollstonecraft (see Chapter 21 on Mary Wollstonecraft) praised Macaulay as the ‘woman of the greatest ability, undoubtedly, that this country has ever produced’ in A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792).

Macaulay’s eight-volume History of England from the Accession of James I to That of the Brunswick Line (1763-83) offers a republican (see Key concept: Republicanism) interpretation of English history, from the rise of the Stuart dynasty to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (see Key Concept: The Glorious Revolution). Unlike Burke, who was often considered more of a polemicist, Macaulay was a systematic thinker whose republic convictions are visible throughout her writing (see 17.1. Introduction). While Burke thought the ‘Revolution’ had successfully preserved certain laws and liberties, Macaulay argued that the Revolution had not gone far enough in constraining the arbitrary power of the monarch and securing the freedom of English citizens. Macaulay openly supported both the French and American Revolutions.

Macaulay’s political thought prefigures modern democratic ideas about how states should be governed. She argues that any legitimate government must guarantee three things to its citizens: liberty, virtue, and happiness (see 17.2.1. Accountable Government). For Macaulay, liberty is the primary value, while virtue is what makes liberty possible in the first place. Happiness, on the other hand, is the result if the other two values are fulfilled. Macaulay’s conception of the ideal government is closely related to her understanding of the person. For individuals to truly be free, she argues, their actions must be governed by reason. On the level of the state, the laws that govern a society must be morally sound for citizens to truly be free. This is what Macaulay means by virtue.

Macaulay’s view of liberty incorporates both positive and negative conceptions of freedom, i.e., the freedom to live a fulfilling life and the absence of domination. This dual conception of freedom is reflected in her claim that freedom is synonymous with independence. For citizens to truly be free, however, they must also be equal. Inequalities such as legal discrimination or disparities in income, for example, corrupt the virtue of the state and thereby prevent the flourishing of freedom among its citizens. For Macaulay, virtue and equality are inextricably linked; if one of these components is missing, this automatically undermines the state’s ability to provide the other two (see 7.2.2. Three Connected Values: Independence, Virtue, Equality).

For Macaulay, education is a means of preserving the virtue of a society: if citizens are educated, they cannot be taken advantage of by corrupt leaders. Moreover, educated citizens can contribute more to the common good, since education allows them to harness their talents (see 17.2.3. Government and Education). The aim of education, then, is to provide a solid moral foundation for society by shaping individuals into republican citizens who act in accordance with the dictates of reason. Macaulay acknowledges that elites could take advantage of citizens by taking over institutions and shaping educational policy to further their own ends. But she insists that her institutional design ensures that reason will eventually prevail over moral corruption. 

While her vision of a society in which reason always triumphs over prejudice might seem idealistic, Macaulay’s ideas have inspired a tradition of republican thinkers from Wollstonecraft to Frederick Douglass (see Chapter 30 on Frederick Douglass), who similarly connect individual to civic freedom. Macaulay was a contradictory thinker, whose advocacy for women’s education and republican equality was at times undermined by her virtual silence on the question of women’s independence, understood as equal rights or access to citizenship (see 17.4.1. Can Macaulay Reconcile Universal Principles with Social Context?). Nonetheless, Macaulay is considered a radical and emancipatory thinker, whose rejection of non-democratic, non-representative, inegalitarian, or oppressive forms of government still resonates today.

Further Reading

Macaulay, Catharine (2020). The Correspondence of Catharine Macaulay. Ed. Karen Green,
Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Green, Karen (2020). Catharine Macaulay's Republican Enlightenment. London: Routledge.

Burke, Edmund (2009). Reflections on the Revolution in France, Oxford: Oxford University

Coffee, Alan (2017). “Catharine Macaulay’s Republican Conception of Social and Political
Liberty”. Political Studies, 65:4, 844-59.

Back to top