Catharine Macaulay’s Difficult Years, 1778–1787


September 23, 2019
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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Between 1775 and 1784 Catharine Macaulay’s social and personal life was one traumatic event after another. She accepted the invitation from Rev. Dr. James Wilson, a retired minister from London now living in Bath who admired her writing, “to share his home—No. 2 Alfred Street;” because she was twenty-eight years his junior rumors started almost immediately. Early in 1776 she sought treatment from Dr. James Graham for her physical maladies; his medical practices were questionable and in the end offered little relief. In April, Doctor Wilson, who was by now smitten with Macaulay, threw a lavish birthday party for her that was criticized by many in Bath for being ostentatious. In the autumn, at the advice of Dr. Graham, she travelled to France to rest and recuperate. Shortly after returning to Bath in January of 1778 her first volume of The History of England from the Revolution to the Present Time in a Series of Letters to a Friend (the Reverend Doctor Wilson) was published, written to be an attack on Lord North’s administration and a statement of opposition to the current war. In it she attempted to lay out the events that led to the loss of political liberty in England. She was critical of the “Glorious” Patriots who neglected the “opportunity to cut off all prerogatives of the crown [to which they] justly imputed the calamities and injuries sustained by the nation,” and of King William III (1650–1702) whose succession began a series of “wars and debts” that became “the bane of this country”—wars that were “unnecessary and expensive” and in which the British people were “beggared and fleeced” by their own government.[1] The work was not well received by the general public, especially her treatment of King William. Two things stood out about the work: first, there were no footnotes, and second, its tone was both acrimonious and fearful.

In October she traveled to Leicester. Two months later on December 17, she married William Graham, a surgeon’s mate and younger brother of Dr. James Graham; because he was twenty-six years her junior rumors started again, this time for the opposite reason. When news reached Doctor Wilson, he felt betrayed and in January 1779 demanded Macaulay move out of Alfred House. He decided that the only way he could preserve his pride “was to show that Catharine Macaulay had never been distinguished, and her ‘Publick Character’ was undeserved.”[2] With the help of John Wilkes he planned to ruin her reputation. Sadly, some of her friends began to distance themselves from her, others simply abandoned her. Edmund Rack, a Quaker friend, wrote, “Her enemies’ triumph is now complete, her friends can say nothing in her favour. O poor Catharine—never canst thou emerge from the abyss into which thou art fallen.”[3] The height from which she fell from grace was pronounced in the European Magazine: “Certain it is that the respect in which she had been held, as an author, began to manifestly decline . . . [Her History was] no longer a popular performance, nor did the booksellers contend for the publication of the remainder of it.”[4] Macaulay never returned to Bath; she sent a friend to gather her belongings at Alfred House.

For the next five and a half years, Macaulay and William Graham lived in Leicester. Not only was this where they were married but it was also where Graham’s sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Arnold, who had been Macaulay’s travelling companion in France, lived.

In 1781 Macaulay proved her critics wrong when she published Volumes VI and VII of her History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line. Both volumes covered the reign of Charles II (the Restoration, 1660, to 1685). Horace Walpole wrote, “Kate Macgraham has published two more; yet does not advance beyond the death of Algernon Sydney. I believe England will be finished before her History.”[5] Walpole sometimes expressed admiration of Macaulay’s work and at other times was highly critical of it. This time his comment fell somewhere in the middle.

The European Magazine reported that “Since her second marriage, Mrs. Macaulay has lived retired from the world,” and the Gentleman’s Magazine reported that she “retired to a cottage in Leicestershire.”[6] In 1783 she published the eighth and final volume of her History. It covered the brief reign of James II, his eventual flight to France and the arrival of King William III.

With the war over, Macaulay and Graham decided to tour the United States. She would be the first major English radical to visit the United States after the Treaty of Paris was ratified on January 14, 1784. According to Ezra Stiles, “Mrs Kate Macaulays Travel[ed] in America 1785 about 600 miles . . . She landed at Boston July 15, 1784. Travelled to Piscataqua spent the Winter at Boston. In May passed thro’ Newport to N. York; thence to Philad’ & so on to G. Washington’s Seat at Mt. Vernon in Virginia.”[7]

In a letter to her son, Winslow, dated November 11, 1784, Mercy Otis Warren wrote,

The celebrated Mrs. Macaulay Graham is with us. She is a lady whose resources of knowledge seem to be always inexhaustable. She has suffered much by the spirit of party, but I think her not only a learned but a virtuous worthy character with much sensibility of heart & Dignity of Manners. Indeed when I contemplate the superiority of her Genius I blush for the imperfections of human Nature, & when I consider her as my Friend, I draw a Veil over the Foibles of the Woman . . . Mr. G appears to be a Man of understanding & Virtue.[8]

While in Boston, she was given three letters of introduction; two addressed to George Washington, written by Mercy Otis Warren, Gen. Benjamin Lincoln and Gen. Henry Knox. Warren’s letter was not addressed to George Washington but rather to his wife, Martha. Warren wrote ,

The truly republican spirit of Mrs. Macaulay Graham awakened a curiosity in her to see the American world which has done so much to establish their principles among mankind. She thinks she should neither do justice to herself or to the opinions she has disseminated by her writings if she finished her excursion without paying her compliments to a gentleman whose name stands at the head of a list of heroes, who have ventured their all, in a cause which has entailed on them a degree of glory, that neither time nor the adventitious circumstances of future revolutions will ever erase.[9]

Lincoln wrote,

The reputation of the Lady extending through the literary world, I need but mention her name—The dignity of her character is already intimately known to your Excellency . . . The sentiments of genuine republicanism, which this Lady has exhibited in her celebrated history of the Stuarts must render her an object of veneration and esteem to all such as have espoused the cause of America.[10]

Knox wrote,

A glorious enthusiasm for the cause of general liberty and human happiness has impelled this Lady and her husband to visit the Country whose inhabitants have had the hardihood to encounter formidable dangers, rather than submit to a principle of taxation, which though not grievous in the first instance, would probably have terminated in a flagitious abuse of power.[11]

Macaulay and Graham arrived at Mount Vernon on June 4, 1785. “In the Afternoon the celebrated Mrs. Macaulay & Mr. Graham, her Husband, Colo. Fitzgerald & Mr. Lux of Baltimore arrived here.”[12] During the stay Macaulay had a number of conversations with Washington. After one of them he “placed [his] Military records into the Hands of Mrs. Macaulay Graham for her perusal & amusement.”[13] On June 14, the day Macaulay departed from Mount Vernon, Washington wrote in his Diary,

At 7:00 Oclock, Mr. Graham & Mrs. Macaulay Graham left this on their return to New York. I accompanied them to Mr. Digges’s to which place I had her Carriage & horses put over. Mr. Digges escorted her to Bladensburgh.[14]

Upon reaching New York City, Macaulay wrote a heartfelt letter of appreciation to Washington,

When we address ourselves to characters so eminently distinguished Sir as yours we wish to describe the impressions which very extraordinary virtues never fail to make on the candid mind . . . The voice of flattery has so often swelled moderate virtues into all the magnitude of excellence which speech can convey to the imagination, that we in vain search in the language of panigeric for some arrangement of words adequate to that superiority of praise which is due to the first character in the world—my present feebleness obliges me for the present to desist from the arduous undertaking especially as I know the delicacy of your mind makes you as backward to meet applause as you are forward to deserve it.. . . The more attentively Sir you are examined by the inquisitive mind the more it finds, that the voice of fame . . . has in your case even lessened truth; and whilst we contemplate with an exalted admiration the grand features of your public character we indulge with delight those softer sentiments of friendship which your domestic and private virtues are so well calculated to inspire . . . That Heaven may long preserve that mode of existence in which so many bright, useful, and amiable qualities, are united, and that it may long preserve to you Sir, every pleasing circumstance.[15]

From this point forward, all communication to and from Macaulay was directed to only two individuals—Mrs. Warren and George Washington.

Two days later, following the letter to Washington, Macaulay wrote a thank you note to Mrs. Warren:“I return you my thanks, Dear Madam, for the very kind remembrance which followed us to Providence [Rhode Island]. Our reception at Mount Vernon was of the most friendly and engaging kind. We spent ten days very happily in one of the sweetest situations on the continent.”[16]

On July 17, Macaulay and Grahamdeparted for Port L’Orient, France. It was later reported in Jackson’s Oxford Journal, “After having visited several Parts of America, and received many Tokens of esteem from the principal Characters in the United States, [she has] now retired, on account of her health, to the south of France; and lives with her husband . . . at a beautiful villa in the environs of Marseilles.”[17]

In January 1786, Washington wrote his first letter to Macaulay:

I wish my expression would do justice to my feelings, that I might convey to you adequate ideas of my gratitude for those favourable sentiments with which the letter you did me the honour to write to me from New York. The plaudits of a lady, so celebrated as Mrs. Macaulay Graham, could not fail of making a deep impression on my sensibility; and my pride was more than a little flattered by your approbation of my conduct through an arduous contest . . . I hope, and most sincerely wish that this letter may find you happily restored to your friends . . . whose anxiety for your return must have been great.[18]

By September, the couple was back in England. A letter was waiting for her from Mrs. Warren:

I congratulate you that you have safely arrived on your beloved Island after a long and hazardous voyage across the Atlantic; a journey through the greatest part of America; and since that the fatigues of a tour through a considerable part of France . . . I do not wonder that a mind formed like yours, glowing with the love of freedom and independence, should risk the danger of crossing the seas with the hope of seeing the system of virtue and liberty, the Idol of political and philosophical writers of former ages realized in modern times.[19]

Their stay in the south of France appears to have lasted no more than nine or ten months because a letter to Washington, dated October 10, 1786, bears a return address of Knightsbridge near London. Three months later Macaulay sent a letter to Mrs. Warren: “We have indeed much alarmed for the safety of the infant Governments of America, and I sincerely hope that this attempt to disturb the public tranquility will like most others of the same Nature when they fail only serve to give it a more permanent establishment.”

Macaulay was referring specifically to Shays’s Rebellion and generally to the corruption and mutability of the legislatures of some of the states. She went on,

We are now upon the Eve of a Treaty with France which is in a style of politicks so new to this Country and so agreable to the present views of our old enemy that it alarms many. Yet the two houses of parliament seem only to have considered it as a party business, tho it might have been imagined that the spirit of reformation which has taken place in the counsels of that formidable power would have produced more serious and anxious debates and more deliberate conclusions.[20]

She was referring to the Eden Treaty that effectively ended the economic war between France and England and set up a system to reduce tariffs on goods from either country. The treaty was to go into effect two months later in May.

Mrs. Warren did not write back for six months:

I wished for the Pleasure of transmitting to You the result of the Grand Convention of the United States . . . It is now only three days since the publication of the recommendations . . . Our situation is truly delicate & critical. On the one hand we stand in need of a strong Federal Government founded on Principles that will support the prosperity & union of the colonies; on the other we have struggled for liberty & made lofty sacrifices at her shrine: and there are still many among us who revere her name too much to relinquish the rights of man for the Dignity of Government . . . Happy indeed will this country be if a tranquil energetic government can be adopted before the sword is drawn to give it a despotic master. The rumours of war assail our ears from the European shores. If the Flames should really kindle there, I hope they will not spread beyond the ocean.[21]

This was Mrs. Warren’s brief explanation of the difference between Federalists and Antifederalists. Little did Macaulay know that her dear friend would soon inform her that she was joining the Antifederalists.


[1]Catharine Macaulay, History of England from the Revolution to the Present Time in a Series of Letters to a Friend (Bath: R. Cruttwell, 1778), 1: 200.

[2]John Wilkes, Letters from the Year 1774 to the year 1796 of John Wilkes, Esq., Addressed to His Daughter, the Late Miss Wilkes (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme, 1804), 2: 125.

[3]Revd. R. Polwhele, Traditions and Recollections; Domestic Clerical and Literary (London: John Nicholls and Sons,1826), 1: 123.

[4]European Magazine, Vol. 4 (1783), 333.

[5]W. S. Lewis, ed., Horace Wapole’s Correspondence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937-83), 29: 102.

[6]European Magazine,Vol. 4 (1783), 334; Gentleman’s Magazine, 61 (1791), 589.

[7]Franklin Bowditch Dexter, ed., The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, January 1, 1782 – May 6, 1785(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1901), 3: 172.

[8]Mercy Otis Warren to Winslow Warren, November 11, 1784, in Jeffrey H. Richards and Sharon M. Harris, eds., Mercy Otis Warren: Selected Letters (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2009), 192.

[9]Ibid., 198-99.

[10]Richard Henry Lee to George Washington, May 3, 1785,” in The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, 18 July 1784 – 18 May 1785, W.W. Abbot, ed. (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1992), 2: 532-34n3.


[12]The Diaries of George Washington, inThe Papers of George Washington, Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1978), 4: 148.

[13]Ibid., 4: 149.

[14]Ibid., 4: 153.

[15]Catharine Macaulay Graham to Washington, July 13, 1785, in The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, 3: 115-17.

[16]Catharine Macaulay Graham to Mercy Otis Warren, July 15, 1785, in The Warren-Adams Letters, 1778-1814(Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1925) 2: 257-59.

[17]Jackson’s Oxford Journal, No. 1717.

[18]Washington to Catharine Macaulay Graham, January 10, 1786, in The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, 3: 502-03.

[19]Mercy Otis Warren to Catharine Macaulay Graham, September 1786, in Mercy Otis Warren: Selected Letters, 208.

[20]Catharine Macaulay Graham to Mercy Otis Warren, March 6, 1787, in The Warren-Adams Letters, 2: 283-85.

[21]Mercy Otis Warren to Catharine Macaulay Graham, September 28 1787,” Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, #GLC01800.03.

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