Catharine Macaulay: Her Final Gifts to America and France, 1787–1791


October 16, 2019
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

In September 1787, Mrs. Mercy Otis Warren informed Catharine Macaulay of the results of the Federal Convention in Philadelphia. She was guardedly optimistic. Macaulay, upon receiving the letter, responded immediately:

Indeed I have expected with much impatience the result of the deliberations of your convention . . . I find in the propositions they are grounded on simple Democracy and appear to me to be so well guarded that in the present situation of the United States were they to be adopted they bid fair to stand for age . . . It is my opinion that were some plan of the kind now proposed by the convention to be adopted and carried into execution and were your people less fond of Commerce and European luxuries, and employ their industry in those manufactures which are necessary to the comforts of life . . . you would in a short time be the happiest and the greatest people in the World.[1]

On November 16, George Washington unknowingly followed up Mrs. Warren’s letter and Macaulay’s response:

Your favor of the 10th of Octr 1786 came duly to hand, and should have had a much earlier acknowledgment, had not the business of the public engrossed the whole of my time . . . and my own private concerns required my unremitted attention, since my return home . . . You will undoubtedly, before you receive this, have an opportunity of seeing the plan of Government proposed by the Federal Convention . . . You will very readily conceive, Madam, the difficulties which the Convention had to struggle against. The various & opposite interests which were to be conciliated. The local prejudices which were to be subdued . . . And the sacrifices wch were necessary to be made on all sides, for the general welfare . . . that I think it is much to be wondered at, that any thing could have been produced with such unanimity as the Constitution proposed.
It is now submitted to the consideration of the People & waits their decision. The Legislatures of the several States which have been convened since the Constitution was offered, have readily agreed to the calling a Convention in their respective State . . . but whether it will be adopted by the People or not, remains yet to be determined.”[2]

One month later, Mrs. Warren updated Macaulay on how the ratification process was unfolding:

Pennsylvania, the Delaware counties, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut, have already adopted the proposed system, even without hinting at the necessity of any amendments. Massachusetts and Maryland have also ratified the doings of the convention, though they have given a list of necessary alterations: but they have not made this the condition of their acceptance. New Hampshirehas met and adjourned on a pretty equal division: in Rhode Island the plan is rejected by five sixths of the people, the Carolinas will come in, Virginia and New York are still doubtful, but most probably will accede. Thus stands the system how it will operate must be left to time . . . [and] If you wish to know more of the present ideas of your friend and the consequences apprehended from the hasty adoption of the new form of government, you may find them . . . in the subjoined manuscripts I now enclose with a printed pamphlet entitled the Columbian Patriot by the same hand.[3]

The full title of the pamphlet that Warren wrote was Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions by a Columbian Patriot. It laid out the reasons for her opposition. Because her pamphlet came out just as her home state of Massachusetts was voting in favor of ratification, she hoped the pamphlet might still influence the final decision of the New York legislature.

The most important thing in Macaulay’s next letter to Warren came at the end of the letter, in fact, in the postscript: “I have taken a small Villa in Berkshire about thirty miles from London where I propose to reside chiefly being quite tired of the absurdities of the Capital.” The County of Berkshire was south west of London. The town that she and her husband would live in was Binfield. In the body of her letter she made an interesting observation: “Mr. Adams I see by the papers has been long returned to his native Country. He is a very warm Federalist and by what I have discerned of your and Mr. Warren’s politicall sentiments and opinions you will not agree quite so well on public matters as you did formerly.”[4]

Mrs Warren’s letter to Macaulay of July 1789 was one of anger and apprehension,

The old Republicans who have uniformly adhered to their free and independent Principle . . . are neglected by their less principled but more Fortunate associates—who for a time struggled with them for the security of liberty, and the inherent rights of man. They are feared by the ardent and aspiring spirits . . . [and] ridiculed by the dissipated and licentious as bigots to private virtue, religion, and public liberty . . . It is true we have now a government organized and a Washington at its head—But we are too poor for Monarchy, too wise for Despotism, and too dissipated, selfish, and extravagant for Republicanism.”

She was concerned about the action that the “aspiring spirits” would take on behalf of the infant government “whose foreign and domestic arrearages are large, and whose recourses are small . . . [Would they] shackle its commerce, check its manufactures, damp the spirits of agriculture by imposts and excises.” She believed there was “a disposition in many to trifle away [the young government’s] advantages so recently and so dearly purchased.”[5]

In October Washington received a letter from Macaulay:

It is now about a year and a half since I had the honor of receiving a letter from You . . . My congratulations on the event which placed you at the head of the American government . . . Yr. wisdom and virtue will undoubtedly enable you to check the progress of every opinion inimical to those rights, which, you have so bravely and fortunately asserted; and for which many of yr Country men have paid so dear . . . All the friends of freedom on this side [of] the Atlantic are now rejoicing for an event which in all probability has been accelerated by the American Revolution. You not only possess yr selves the first of human blessings but you have been the means of raising that spirit in Europe, which I sincerely hope, will in a short time extinguish every remainder of that barbarous servitude under which all the European nations in a less or a greater degree, have so long been Subject. The French have justified the nobleness of their original character . . . and have set an example that is Unique in all the histories of human society. A populous nation effecting by the firmness of their union, the Universality of their sentiments, and the energy of their actions, the intire overthrow of a Despotism that had stood the test of Ages.[6]

On her trip to France in the fall of 1777, she learned that many rejected the Ancien Regime. Some of the reasons they gave were:

1. French society was divided into the First Estate—the Clergy, the Second Estate—the nobility, and the Third Estate—everyone else; the Third Estate made up ninety-eight percent of the population but was excluded from positions of honor and political power;
2. The First Estate owned ten percent of the land but paid no taxes; the Second Estate owned about twenty-five percent of the land but were exempted from most taxes. It was the Third Estate that paid almost all of the taxes;
3. Over the last thirty years, France had participated in two wars that had driven the country into serious debt which could only be paid back through taxation;
4. Severe winters and extreme droughts caused poor harvests which in turn caused the price of flour to increase, and in the end increased the price of bread;
5. The lifestyles of the Royal Court were extravagant;
6. Men like Rousseau, Locke and Montesquieu, philosophers of the Enlightenment, questioned the absolute authority of the King and the divisions of society.

On the same trip she experienced the plight of French peasantry first hand when she was en route to Paris. They were “an indigent and miserable people . . . they exhibited in their persons and squalid appearance every variety of want and of human wretchedness.”[7] On January 9, 1790, Washington wrote his third letter to Macaulay:

In our progress towards political happiness my station is new; and, if I may use the expression, I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any action, whose motives may not be subject to a double interpretation. There is scarcely any part of my conduct wch may not hereafter be drawn into precedent . . . after all my humble but faithful endeavours [to] advance the felicity of my Country & Mankind; I hope that my labours have not been altogether without success . . . The Government, though not absolutely perfect, is one of the best in the World, I have little doubt. I always believed that an unequivocally free & equal Representation of the People in the Legislature; together with an efficient & Responsible Executive were the great pillars on which the preservation of American Freedom must depend . . . The harvests of Wheat have been remarkably good . . . the encrease of Commerce is visible in every Port—and the number of new Manufactures introduced in one year is astonishing . . . I think you will be persuaded that the ill-boding Politicians, who prognosticated that America would never enjoy any fruits from her Independence & that She would be obliged to have recourse to a foreign Power for protection, have at least been mistaken.[8]

In the spring, Macaulay wrote to Mrs. Warren. She expressed her concern that the American Legislature must be a separate and independent branch of government from the Executive. She believed it was the best way to overcome corruption in government. “A Legislat[ure] independent of any undue influence from motive of personal interest with sufficient power to sustain the ambitious Schemes of the Executive Magistrate appears to me to be the most perfect of all practical forms of Government.”[9]

This was a change in Macaulay’s political thinking from twenty years earlier when she wrote in her pamphlet, Observation etc. On a Pamphlet Entitled Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, that the best safeguard against corruption was rotation in office. “That as democratical power never can be preserved from anarchy without representation, so representation never can be kept free from tyrannical exertions on the rights of the people without rotation.”[10]

In June Macaulay cautioned Washington about the powers of the Legislature, the Upper House, assuming an aristocratic persuasion and the nation’s future wealth overcoming virtue.

I must acknowledge to you that the corruptions which have crept into our [English] Legislature since the [Glorious] revolution . . . have led me to alter my opinion; [they] incline me to fear, that ill consequences may arise from vesting the Legislative body with the power of establishing Offices, of regulating their salaries, and of enjoying themselves the emoluments arising from such Establishments . . . I see also that you have . . . [divided] yr. Legislature into an Upper and a Lower House. I once thought that this was the only method of obtaining the result of deliberate Counsels; but I at present am of [the] opinion . . . of confining the Legislature to one equal Assembly . . . May not yr Upper House in length of time, acquire some distinctions which may lay the grounds for political inequality among you . . . [Americans] having been exempt from the evils of Aristocracy, may not have the principle of aversion to such pretensions . . . [With] the difficulties which the Americans have to struggle with in the settling a new country, and the mediocrity of wealth which must naturally have attended such difficulties; it is impossible to tell what may be the effects of a change in the internal prosperity of the Country. When the Era now so ardently desired by the Americans shall arrive, that commerce pours in wealth on every side, and when they will by this means have it in their power to import all the luxuries and copy all the excesses of the Mother Country . . . it is more than possible, that the novelty of such seductive enjoyments will overturn all the virtue which at present exists in the Country.[11]

On February 10, 1791, Washington offered a response that probably was not what Macaulay was hoping to receive:

The political sentiments which are contained in your letter merit a more particular reply than the multifarious and important business in which I am constantly engaged will permit me to make. I must therefore, Madam, rely upon your goodness to receive this short letter as an acknowledgment of your polite attention, and beg you to be assured that my not entering at this time, more fully into the subject of your favor does not proceed from a want of that consideration.[12]

Some of the issues Washington was dealing with were repayment of all war-related debts, imposition of tariffs to pay down debt, creation of a Supreme Court, creation of a national bank, establishment of national credit, growing conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton in his Cabinet, and adoption of a Bill of Rights, to name a few.

On March 1, 1791, Macaulay wrote her last letter to Mrs. Warren:

It is long since I have had the pleasure of hearing from you . . . I have lately been informed that a parcel for me [is] laying at Mr. Dilly’s, my Bookseller. I have not yet seen it but I hear it contains a volume of your excellent poems. This agreeable intelligence gave me pleasure both to be in the profession of my dearest friend’s literary performance and on receiving this cordial mark of her friendship. I am also in hopes that I shall find a letter among the contents of the parcel. With this letter you will receive my observations on Mr. [Edmund] Burke’s ‘Reflections on the French Revolution . . .’ you will be surprised at this when you find that [Burke’s work] is a vehement and virulent attack on the French Constitution and Legislature. I must tell [you] that [many of the people of England] in general look with a very malignant eye on the prospects which our enlightened neighbors are making towards political perfection.[13]

Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event, in a Letter to Charles-Jean-Francois-Depont first appeared in November 1790. Depont requested his opinion on what was taking place in France.[14] In his work, Burke argued against the dissolution of the First and Second Estates, the treatment of the King, the treatment of the clergy, the confiscation of property, the creation of a new currency tied neither to gold or silver but rather to confiscated property, the disregard of tradition, precedence, convention and the hereditary principles of succession, property and distinction, the framing of a new constitution, the manner of electing the National Assembly and the abolition of the parlements, to name a few. The full title of Macaulay’s pamphlet in response to Burke’s condemnation was Observations on the Reflections of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke, on the Revolution in France, in a Letter to the Right Hon. Earl of Stanhope.[15] In her work, she stated,

The French revolution was attended with something so new in the history of human affairs; there was something so singular, so unique, in that perfect unanimity in the people; in that firm spirit which baffled every hope in the interested, that they could possibly divide them into parties, and render them the instruments of a resubjection to their old bondage . . . It appeared as a sudden spread of an enlightened spirit, which promised to act as an effectual and permanent barrier to the inlet of those usurpations which from the very beginning of social life the crafty have imposed on ignorance.[16]

If Burke’s Reflections was published in November 1790 and Charles Dilly published Macaulay’s Observations in 1790, it would seem that she completed her work in just one month. On March 1, Macaulay wrote her last letter to Washington; it was similar to the one she sent to Mrs. Warren, and included her pamphlet.

I now send you my observations on Mr. Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution—a work which has been much used in England both on account of the importance of the subject and the virulent manner in which the Author has abused the French Legislators and supported all those unjust distinctions in society which has so long oppressed and humbled mankind. When you have read Mr. Burke yr Excellency will not be surprised that he has a large party in this country as it comprehends the Court, the Dignified Clergy, the Aristocrats, and their dependents.[17]

The last letter written by Mrs. Warren to Catharine was dated May 31, 1791.

I am sorry for the sake of the human character, that a gentleman whose oratorical powers have been so often honourably employed and exerted in favour of the rights of society, should so far deviate from the principles he has supported, as to vilify the advocates of freedom . . . Even some Americans who have fought for their country and been instrumental in her emancipation from a foreign yoke . . . are now become the advocates for Monarchy . . . from age to age, are the people coaxed, cheated, or bullied until the hood-winked multitude set their own seal to a renunciation of their privileges, and with their own hand rivet the chains of servitude on their posterity . . . It is my opinion the commotions in France will check the designs of certain characters: and for a time keep them within some bounds of moderation and perhaps make a vigilance of others.[18]

The “gentleman” in this letter was Edmund Burke and the “certain characters” were probably John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Burke’s Reflections surprised people like Mrs. Warren. Soon after reading Macaulay’s Observations, Mrs. Warren not only encouraged its publication by Thomas and Andrews in Boston, but also wrote the preface for the edition.

Macaulay had devoted her declining energies to her reply to Burke’s Reflections. Illness had always followed an intense period of writing for her just as a period of extended rest had always brought about a recovery in the past. This time, however, what followed was different—this time she did not recover. According to the Gentleman’s Magazine, “after a long and very painful illness,” Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham died on June 22, 1791.[19] Her personal physician in 1777 noted in his records her “complicated and obstinate maladies: an irritable state of nerves, pains in the stomach, indigestion . . . shivering fits, repeated pains in her ears and throat, and continual agitation of body and mind.” These ailments reduced her constitution, “originally delicate, to an almost insupportable degree of weakness and debility.”[20] Adding to this fourteen more years of suffering and an unimaginable amount of stress that the typical woman in the eighteenth century would not have been subject to, it is remarkable that she lived as long as she did. Her obituary read,

The celebrated Mrs. Macaulay Graham, author of several admired productions on historical and political subjects, died on Wednesday last, at her house at Binfield in Berkshire . . . By the death of Mrs. Macaulay, her whole fortune goes from her husband, 400 pounds a year to the executors of Dr. Wilson, and the remainder to her daughter.—Her personal effects are said, however, to be considerable, and they of course are her husband.[21]

Macaulay was buried in All Saints Churchyard in Binfield, Bracknell Forest Borough, Berkshire, England.

Catharine Macaulay (née Sawbridge)
by Robert Edge Pine on display in Room 14 at the National Portrait Gallery, London. (©National Portrait Gallery)

It is difficult to appreciate how amazing Catharine Macaulay was in her lifetime. She was self-taught, well known on two continents, a friend to some of the greatest leaders of her time, a female historian who challenged the Tory view of England’s seventeenth century history, an advocate for the rights of man, a supporter of the American Revolution and the early stages of the French Revolution, a person of renown in France, the first English radical to visit America following the Revolution, a woman who married a man half her age, and a woman who was never reluctant to take on the likes of Dr. Samuel Johnson, Horace Walpole, or Edmund Burke if she believed their positions were incorrect.

Room 14 in the National Portrait Gallery in London is entitled “Britain Becomes a World Power.” Eighteen portraits are on display in the room. Seventeen of them are of key men in the second half of the eighteenth century. Many are familiar: Lord North, General Burgoyne, Admiral Keppel, William Pitt, the Marquess of Rockingham, James Cook, General Amherst, General Cornwallis, the Earl of Mansfield and George Washington. The eighteenth portrait is of a woman, the celebrated Catharine Macaulay.


[1]“Catharine Macaulay Graham to Mercy Warren, November 1787,” in The Warren-Adams Letters, 1778-1814 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1925), 2: 298-300.

[2]“George Washington to Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham, 16 November 1787,” in The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, 1 February 1787—31 December 1787, ed., W.W. Abbot (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1997), 5: 440-41.

[3]“Mercy Otis Warren to Catharine Macaulay, 18 December 1787,” in Mercy Otis Warren: Selected Letters (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2009), 215-17.

[4]“Catharine Macaulay Graham to Mercy Warren, 29 October 1788,” in The Warren-Adams Letters, 2: 303-05.

[5]“Mercy Otis Warren to Catharine Macaulay, July 1789,” in Selected Letters, 221-23.

[6]“To George Washington from Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham, 30 October 1789,” in The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 8 September 1789—15 January 1790, ed., Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1993), 4: 257-59.

[7]The Belfast Monthly Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 60 (July 1813), 31; had Macaulay lived during the Reign of Terror (September 5, 1793—July 27, 1794) when hundreds of thousands were arrested, nearly 40,000 aristocrats guillotined and King Louis XVI and his Queen beheaded, she would have abhorred and condemned the mob rule.

[8]“George Washington to Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham, 9 January 1790,” in The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 4: 551-54.

[9]Catharine Macaulay to Mercy Otis Warren, April 1790, Gilder Lehrman Collection #:GLC01800.05.

[10]Catharine Macaulay, Observations etc. On a Pamphlet Entitled Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, 2nd edition (London: Edward and Charles Dilly, 1770), 20.

[11]“George Washington to Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham, June 1790,” in The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 16 January 1790—30 June 1790, 5: 573-75.

[12]“George Washington to Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham, 10 February 1791,” in The George Washington Papers, Presidential Series, 1 December 1790—21 March 1791, ed., Jack D. Warren, 7: 328-29.

[13]Catharine Macaulay to Mercy Otis Warren, 1 March 1791,

[14]Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event (London: J. Dodsley, 1790).

[15]Catharine Macaulay, Observations on the Reflections of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke, on the Revolution in France, in a Letter to the Right Hon. Earl of Stanhope (London:c. Dilly, 1790).

[16]Ibid., 10.

[17]“To George Washington from Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham, 1 March 1791,” in The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 7: 489-90.

[18]“Mercy Otis Warren to Catharine Macaulay, May 31, 1791,” in Selected Letters, 230-31.

[19]Gentleman’s Magazine, 61 (1791), 589.

[20]James Graham, An Abstract from a Book Just Published Initituled “Medical Transactions at the Temple of Health in London, in the course of the year 1780,” (London, 1781), 5.

[21]“Mrs. Macaulay Graham,” Caledonian Mercury, June 30, 1791, 3.

One thought on “Catharine Macaulay: Her Final Gifts to America and France, 1787–1791

  • Very much enjoyed the whole set of these five articles chronicling Macaulay’s life and contributions to liberty, and this was certainly a fitting end. It’s always interesting to see a view of the War and Founding era through a British lens, especially considering her remarkable role as a woman and leading figure of the Enlightenment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *