Catharine Macaulay, England’s First Female Whig Historian, 1773–1774

Arts & Literature

February 26, 2019
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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By the end of 1772, Catharine Macaulay had completed and published the first five volumes of her History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line. The effort had taken a toll on her health. Instead of continuing to write her History at a feverish pace, she turned her attention and pen to the efforts of the American colonists.

On December 31, 1772, Macaulay received a letter from John Adams.

My country is in deep Distress, and has very little Ground of Hope . . . The System of a mean and a merciless Administration, is gaining Ground upon our Patriots every Day. The Flower of our Genius, the Ornaments of the Province, have fallen, melancholly Sacrifices . . . A Mayhew, a Thatcher, an Otis to name [no] more . . . Victims to the Enemies of their Country. The Body of the People seem to be worn out . . . Our Attention is now engaged by the Vengeance of Despotism . . . This evening . . . Mr. Collins, an English Gentleman was in Conversation about the high Commissioned Court, for enquiring after the Burners of the Gaspee at Providence. I found the old Warmth, Heat, Violence, Acrimony, Bitterness, Sharpness of my Temper, and Expression, was not departed. I said there was no more Justice left in Britain than there was in hell.[1]

In order to be kept up-to-date on the colonists’ struggles and efforts to maintain their liberties, Macaulay would be sent pamphlets, Assembly proceedings, manuscripts, resolutions, histories and, most important, letters over the next three years. Not only were they helpful to Macaulay, but when reprinted in England, were helpful in securing support for the American cause. After receiving a packet from the Boston Committee of Correspondence on April 15, 1773, she wrote back to Samuel Adams, the leader of the Committee, “Every service which it is in my power to perform the town of Boston may command, and may depend upon a faithful and ardent execution.”[2]

Four days later John Adams followed up his letter to Macaulay of December 31. He described the escalating tensions over the winter in Massachusetts and the mounting opposition to Gov. Thomas Hutchinson. He was

a thorough Master in Theory and Practice of the Political Principles of Machiavell. There is no Quantity of public Mischief [ie “that Salaries were granted by the Crown to our Judges, already dependent for their Continuance in office, on the mere Will of the Governor and Council”][3], no Sacrifice of Truth, Honour, [or] Virtue . . . through which he will not cheerfully force his way to Wealth and Power. I know of no greater Anguish than to see, half a Dozen men (Hutchinson and some members of his Council) . . . cherished on one side of the Atlantic as their best Friends, and are not detected on the other as their worst Enemies.

John Adams wrote to Macaulay again on June 28, 1773; he included with his letter one from Mercy Otis Warren, a friend and the leading female political writer in the colonies. He introduced her in following manner:

I have taken the Freedom to inclose to you a letter from a Lady, who is one of the ornaments of her Sex in the Country, and not the less amiable, for being attentive to Public affairs, and a Friend to Liberty. She is Daughter, Wife and Sister of Patriots—The Daughter of Coll. Otis, one of the Council, Wife to Coll. Warren, a member of our House of Governors, and . . . Sister to your Friend Mr. Otis of Boston who has Sacrificed himself his Fortune & family in the Cause of this Country.[4]

Mercy Otis Warren’s letter was dated June 9:

Impressed with the strong sense of the natural rights of mankind, which your masterly pen has so finely delineated, you will permit me to address you, and the ambitious hope of a long correspondence . . . I am led to flatter myself with a favourable reception both from the knowledge I have of your respect for some persons in this country and from the generous principle of universal happiness so conspicuous in your works . . .

She then addressed the loss of liberty in the colonies:

Has the Genius of liberty which once pervaded the bosom of each British hero animating them to the worthiest deeds forsaken that devoted island—or has she only concealed her lovely form until some more happy period shall bid her lift her avenging hand to the terror of every arbitrary despot and . . . their impious minions on each side of the Atlantic . . . What ideas arise in your mind . . . [about our] peaceful asylum of freedom; [where] an intrepid race whose glorious love of liberty prompted them to explore the uncultivated wild and with fortitude and patience that would have done honour to the annals of Sparta and Rome . . . What fatal infatuation has seized the parent state that she is thus making illegal encroachments on her loyal subjects, and by every despotic measure urging them, to a vigorous union in defence of their invaded rights? . . . I doubt not your candour and ready pardon for this free communication of sentiment from a person unknown to you, [but be] assured madam, it is from one whose bosom has been long warmed with affection and respect for your distinguished literary character.[5]

John Adams’s letter again focused on the Massachusetts governor and council. In March, a packet of letters arrived in Boston for the general assembly from Benjamin Franklin, the colony’s agent in London. Most of them had been written by Governor Hutchinson and Lt.Gov. Andrew Oliver prior to taking office to Thomas Whately, the assistant to Prime Minister George Grenville. They described the heated debates in the Assembly over the royal prerogative, the role of Parliamentary Supremacy in local governance, and whether the council should be appointed by the King or elected by the assembly. Franklin believed they mischaracterized the situation in Massachusetts to Parliament. Samuel Adams, the clerk for the assembly, would soon have them published in a pamphlet.

As I Promised I have enclosed, the Proceedings of our Council and House of Representatives, relative to certain Letters. These Letters have broken the charm, in this Province—They have furnished full proof, of what was suspected by many and fully believed by a few, that all our Calamities have originated in the cruel, rapacious Breasts of Some of our own Countrymen . . . We are anxious here to know what is meditating for us in England. What is the opinion of People there concerning the controversy last Winter between the Governor and House . . . It is now generally hoped and expected that the Nation will learn more Wisdom than to suffer themselves to be led bilndfold, by a few needy Americans who have much Ambition, but no Honor or Virtue.[6]

Macaulay wrote back to John Adams in August,

I was much concerned at the account you gave me of . . . the situation of your public affaires. There are some matters of importance which have come to light since the reception of your letter which will be I hope leading steps to . . . the reformation of that unjust system of policy which has too long prevailed in your Government . . . I have just received intelligence that Governor Hutchinson has desired leave to resign. The wicked have fallen into the pit they have digged for others . . . In your next Letter . . . I hope to hear that the appearance of a renovation of the union betwixt the Colonies is become a reality. It is the Jealousies and Devissions which has always subsisted among you that has encouraged Ministers to attempt those innovations which if submitted to naturally lead to the subversion of your Liberties.[7]

Macaulay received two more letters from leading colonists before the close of 1773. On December 6, Dr. Ezra Stiles wrote,

My Ideas of the Eng[ish] Constitution have much diminished. It has become . . . a kind of fortuitous consolida[tion] of Powers now in Opposition to the true Interest of the People, to patch up [or restore] this Constitution . . . is almost as discouraging . . . as to assay the Recovery of a Subject which with many Excellencies in it carries about it the seeds on inevitable death.[8]

On December 11, five days before the Boston Tea Party, John Adams wrote,

The Tea Ships are all to return, whatever may be the Consequence.—I Suppose your wise Ministers will . . . quell this Spirit by another Fleet and Army . . . But let me tell those wise Ministers, I would not advise them to try many more such Experiments.—a few more such Experiments will throw the most of the Trade of the Colonies, into the Hands of the Dutch, or will erect an independent Empire in America—perhaps both —, Nothing but equal Liberty and kind Treatment can Secure the attachment of the Colonies to Britain.[9]

Macaulay had compromised her health for her writing for the last five years. Vicar Augustus Toplady, a friend, was very concerned about her health. He wrote to her,

You, whose constitution is almost as delicate as your mind is elegant . . . [must at present] write little, that you may write much . . . When you perceive fatigue and langour approaching, lay down your pen for that day . . . be tender of that exquisite machine which Providence has formed into the distinguished tenement of so much exalted reason and virtue.[10]

She needed to get away from the social and political pressures of London. This meant she had to change her living situation. Sometime between January 11 and February 18, 1774,[11] Macaulay moved to the city of Bath in southwestern England. It was a cultural center and a city of spas. Initially, she stayed in St. James Parade. It was more difficult to receive letters or packets in Bath than in London. To continue the flow of correspondence with leading colonists, she decided that all correspondence would travel through Edward Dilly, a London bookseller and her publisher who John Adams first became acquainted with in April of 1771.

On March 4, 1774, Dilly sent his first letter on behalf of Macaulay to John Adams:

Mrs. Macaulay . . . has found some benefit by Drinking the Waters, and requested me to . . . inform you that she will embrace the earliest Opportunity (when her Health will permit) to Answer your last favour, and likewise that of the Bostonian Lady [Mercy Otis Warren] . . . [Enclosed is] “a Book [James Burgh’s Political Disquisitions—Volume 1] which the author begs you will accept as a small token of his esteem for a just Character as a friend to Liberty . . . The Affairs relative to North America are expected to come on in the House of Commons in a few Days, and Lord Dartmouth will lay the Papers concerning the Transactions of Boston before the House of Lords at the same Time so that we shall know in a short Time, what Steps the Ministry will take to Subdue what they call the Evil Spirit which is gone forth in America.[12]

Events proceeded quickly over the next few months: the Boston Port Bill on March 18; the Quartering Act, March 24; the Impartial Administration of Justice Act, May 20; the Massachusetts Government Act, May 20; and the Quebec Act, June 22.

On July 30, Dr. Ezra Stiles wrote to Macaulay,

The last and recent stroke of Parliament at our liberties, has astonished America, into a real and efficacious union . . . We know that the assumed parliamentary right of taxing and governing unrepresented millions, and the whole system of domination founded on the claim, are repugnant to all the principles of the Jus Civile, and law of nature . . . We shall continue our useless and repulsed supplications to our King . . . But if oppression proceeds, despotism may force an annual Congress; and a public spirit of enterprize may originate an American Magna Charta—There will be a RUNEMEDE in America.[13]

In September came the First Continental Congress on the 5th; the Suffolk Resolves on the 6th, and the Septennial Act (Dissolution of Parliament) on the 13th.

On September 11, John Adams received a letter from Macaulay; it had been her first in twelve months, and acknowledged his letters of August and December of the previous year.

You desire me to inform you of what is meditating against you in England but had I received that Letter in time it would have been impossible for me to have given you any hint concerning the Boston Port Bill and the Bill for the better regulating the trials of the Soldiery and the Canada Bill. No items were dropt of the intentions of the Ministry till they were ripe for execution . . . The people of this country are so dead to any generous principle in policy that they regard the Quarrel of the Government with the Americans only as it may affect their own interest. They will snarl a little if they meet with interruptionin their commerce but I believe no evil short of the entire destruction of their property will produce an effectual opposition.[14]

On September 24, John Adams received a second letter from Edward Dilly.

Little did I think . . . that such Violent and may I say Oppressive Measures would be adopted by any administration, and even some of the friends of the Ministry have been Astonished, at their going such lengths. It will not be long before the Grievances you feel in America, will be most severely felt in this Country, in the decline of our Manufactories and Commerce—however you have many warm and zealous friends on this of the Water, and I hope we are just upon the Eve of a new Parliament, that your grievances will soon be redressed . . . [Catharine] has been much indisposed for many Months past but is now much better, and I hope will be able soon to go on with her Work . . . Mr. Burgh has just Published his Second Volume of Political Disquisitionsand I have . . . sent you a Copy together with . . . Bp of St. Asaph’s Intended Speech upon the Bill for altering the Charters.[15]

In October, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress met on the 7th; the Declaration of the Rights and Grievances was passed on the 14th; the Proclamation Prohibiting the Importation of Gunpowder, Saltpetre and Ammunition into North America on the 19th; the Articles of Association on the 20th; and The Galloway Plan on the 22nd.

Henry Marchant, the attorney-general for the colony of Rhode Island, was sent to London in July 1771 on legal business. During the summer of 1772, he met with Macaulay six times. They talked at length about the affairs of England, the affairs of America, and liberty in general before he departed for Providence. Now, two years later, she wrote to him.

The situation in England and her colonies is grown very alarming and critical. You undoubtedly saw enough of this country on your last visit to be convinced that no degree of public virtue exists in the generality of Englishmen. Some few amongst us yet retain sentiments worthy of a Roman breast, and those few wait with all anxiety which the possession of fear and hope occasion . . . determinations which will either establish the power of our despots on a permanent basis, or lead to the recovery of our almost lost liberties. As you read the English papers, it may perhaps be needless to inform you that my brother [John Sawbridge] has strenuously defended the rights of America through the whole last session of Parliament, and even in some points when almost every member of the House was against him.[16]

John Adams did not return home from the Congress until late in November. The first record of his arrival is dated November 23, when he was “desired to favor” the Provincial Congress, sitting in the Cambridge meetinghouse, “with his presence, as soon as may be [possible].”[17] In the last letter that he had received from Macaulay, she asked to become acquainted with the views of American ladies. Abigail Adams, in her husband’s absence, took on the responsibility.

The cause of America . . . is now become so serious to every American that we consider it as a struggle from which we shall obtain a release from our present bondage by an ample redress of our grievances—or a redress by the Sword . . . Should I attempt to describe to you the complicated misiries and distresses brought on us by the late inhumane acts of the British parliament my pen would fail me. We are invaded with fleets and Armies, our commerce not only obstructed, but totally ruined, the courts of Justice shut, many driven out from the Metropolis, [and] thousands reduced to want . . . the Horrours of a civil war threatning us on one hand, and the chains of Slavery ready forged for us on the other . . . You will think we are in great confusion and disorder—but it is far otherways. Tho there are but few who are unfealing or insensible to the general calamity, by far the greater part support it with firmness, fortitude and undaunted resolution . . . Notwithstanding the inveterate Malice of our Enemies who are continually representing us, as in a state of anarchy and confusion, . . . and guilty of continual riots and outrage, this people never saw a time of greater peace and harmony among themselves.[18]

Abigail Adams ended her letter with an apology. “I could not refrain giving utterance to some of those Emotions that have agitated my Bosom.”

The reconstituted Parliament sat on November 30. Franklin’s reconciliation proposal, “Hints for Conversation upon the Subject of Terms that might probably produce a Durable Union between Great Britain and the Colonies,” was dated December 8, and the letter from George III to Lord Dartmouth, December 15.

On December 28, John Adams wrote his own reply to Macaulay’s letter of September 11.

Americans . . . expect to fall [as] a sacrifice to the knavery in the Cabinet and the Folly out of it, unless preserved by their own Virtue . . . I have a long Time attended, with Pleasure, Gratitude and Veneration, to the upright conduct of Mr. Sawbridge in Parliament . . . A Shorter Parliament, a more equitable Representation, the abolition of Taxes and the Payment of the Debt, the Reduction of Placemen and Pensioners, the annihilation of Bribery and Corruption . . . are all necessary to restore your Country to a free Government . . . I am also very anxious to know, what the Friends of Liberty think of the hasty Dissolution of Parliament . . . a new Parliament is called [all] of a sudden, before the People could hear from America, as if the Minister disdained or dreaded that the nation should have opportunity, to judge of the State of America, and choose or instruct the Representatives accordingly . . . The People [of Massachusetts are] determined never to Submit to the Act of destroying their Charter . . . [and] are everywhere devoting themselves to Arms . . . Our enemies give out, that persons, who have distinguished themselves here, in opposition to the Power of Parliament, will be Arrested and Sent to some County in England to be tryed for Treason. If this should be attempted, it will produce Resistance, and Reprisals, and a Flame through all of America—Such as Eye hath not yet Seen, nor Ear heard.[19]

The next day Mercy Otis Warren wrote to Macaulay. It appears Mrs. Warren was in somewhat of a reflective mood because she began the letter by considering how history would view the present discontent.

How Absurd will the plans of Modern policy appear when the faithful Historian shall transmit to posterity the Late Maneuvers of A British administration—when they shall Behold them plunging the nation still deeper in an immense debt. Equiping her fleet, to Harrass the Coasts & her armies to insult & subjugate these loyal & populous Colonies who . . . have been Voluntarily pouring their treasury into the Lap of Britain. Will not Succeeding Generations be Astonished when told that this Maritime city was Blockaded at a period when her Commercial interests were Closely interwoven with those of Britain . . . America Stands Armed with resolution & Virtue, She still Recoils at the thought of Drawing the sword against the state from whence she derived her Origen. Tho the State has plung’d her dagger into the Bosom of her affectionate offspring . . . If the Majority of the Commons still Continue the Dupes of Venality and Corruption they will soon see the Genius which once Animated their Hampden, Harrington, & Pyms, has taken up for Residence on their Distant shores . . . Each City from Nova Scotia to Georgia [is] Ready to Sacrifice their Devoted lives to preserve inviolate . . . the inherent Rights of Men . . . Heaven only knows how Long we Can Continue in this state. [It may] finally drive us to assume such a form [of government] as is most consistent with the taste & Genius of a Free People. I behold the Civil Sword Brandish’d over our Heads, & an innocent Land drenched in Blood.[20]

These two letters were powerful examples of the fervor in the colonies. The year 1774 ended for Macaulay on a dark note— a confrontation in America seemed inevitable.

Between 1775 and 1783, Macaulay would write her finest pamphlet, An Address to the People of England, Scotland and Ireland on the Present Important Crisis of Affairs, the American War for Independence would be fought, she would remarry, would return to London, and would publish the final three volumes of her History. After the war, she and her husband would make a year-long visit to the United States, would write her pioneering work, Letters on (Equal) Education (of Women), and carry on an extensive correspondence with George Washington until her death on June 22, 1791, at the age of sixty.

 [This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is here.]


[1]L.H. Butterfield, ed., Diary and Autobiography of John Adams (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), 75-6.

[2]Catharine Macaulay to Samuel Adams, April 15, 1773, in Samuel Adams Papers, Lennox Foundation, New York Public Library.

[5]Jeffrey H. Richards and Sharon M. Harris, Mercy Otis Warren: Selected Letters (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2009).

[7]Macaulay to John Adams, August 1773, in Robert J. Taylor, ed., The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, September 1755 – October 1773 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 1: 352-3.

[8]Ezra Stiles to Macaulay, December 6, 1773, in Ezra Stiles,  Ezra Stiles Papers (New Haven, CT: Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library ).

[10]Augustus Toplady, The Works of Augustus Toplady, Late Vicar of Broad Hembury, Devon (London: J. Chidley, 1837), 846.

[11]Ibid., 853, 855.

[12]Edward Dilly to John Adams, March 4, 1774,in Robert J. Taylor, ed., The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, December 1773 – April 1775, 2: 18-20.

[13]Abiel Holmes, The Life of Ezra Stiles (Boston, MA: Thomas and Andrew, 1798), 179-80.

[14]Macaulay to John Adams, September 11, 1774,”in Robert J. Taylor, ed., The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, December 1773 – April 1775, 2: 164-65.

[15]Dilly to John Adams, September 24, 1774,in Robert J. Taylor, ed., The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, December 1773 – April 1775, 2: 171-72; Rev. Dr. Jonathan Shipley, A Speech intended to have been spoken on a Bill for Altering the Charter of the Colony of Massachusetts-Bay (London:1774).

[16]Edward Field, ed., State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century: A History (Boston and Syracuse, NY: Mason Publishing Company, 1902), 224.

[17]Journal of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, 49.

[18]L.H. Butterfield, ed., Adams Family Correspondence, December 1761 – May 1776 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963), 1: 177-79.


  • Bob, I was hoping you were going to tell us whom she married, what year exactly that the couple came to the States – exactly where they stayed for that year. Where did she die?

    The story is too good to leave off here.
    Karen Prytula ka************@gm***.com

    1. Karen,
      Catharine does not marry until 1778; she marries a man half her age. After the war she visits America for a year and upon her return to England begins a corresponding with George Washington until her death in 1791.

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