“Whilst a new, a flourishing, and an extensive empire of freemen is established on the other side the Atlantic, you, with the loss of all those blessings you have received by the unrivalled state of your commerce, will be left to the bare possession of your foggy islands . . .”
In historical analysis, much is made of the influence that British and French political theorists and philosophers of the Enlightenment period had over American revolutionaries. As colonial leaders in America attempted to recast their relationship with Great Britain’s Parliament and Crown, they drew inspiration from the writings of republican philosophers whose ideas had circulated for two generations. Yet the independence movement also took inspiration from more contemporary English writers and thinkers, who used books and pamphlets to criticize specific British government policies in North America. Catharine Macaulay’s “Address to the People” is an excellent, if often-overlooked, example of pro-American and anti-British sentiment that emanated from 1770s England. Macaulay, a celebrated historian, a staunch advocate of republican governance, and a leading voice for parliamentary reforms, considered her government corrupt and its policies tyrannical. Disillusioned by the political apathy of her countrymen, she criticizes the people of England, Scotland, and Ireland for their indifference to the plight of the British subjects in the American colonies.
By early 1775, Macaulay saw a “dark cloud” hanging over the British Empire. Months before in reaction to the infamous Boston Tea Party, Parliament had enacted a series of measures aimed at punishing the residents of Boston and forcing them into submission. By making an example out of this city at the center of transatlantic commerce, government ministers in London sought to quell resistance across the thirteen colonies. From Macaulay’s informed perspective, however, the measures were not having the intended effect. Instead of fostering obedience, they had become a catalyst for drawing the various American colonies into “one strong bond of union” against Parliament and the Crown. Denying its subjects across the Atlantic those rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights of 1689, the British government had encouraged rebellion. Civil war, Macaulay believed, was now inevitable.
In the wake of an earlier English civil war, the rise of parliamentary power, and the subsequent Glorious Revolution, British monarchs had accepted limitations on their authority. Ruling by the consent of Parliament since 1688, the Crown had formally surrendered absolute power and embraced constitutional monarchy. From the start, this arrangement was a work in progress, and the task of balancing royal and legislative powers for the long term fell upon future generations. In the early eighteenth century, influential voices of the Enlightenment strongly advocated for a government based upon republican principles of popular sovereignty, representative assemblies, and citizenship rights. Yet by the middle of that century, a cohort of radicals in and around London had grown dissatisfied with governance; elected legislators did not adequately represent their constituencies, corruption was rampant among them, and legislative agendas responded to privilege. At the same time, critics charged the monarchy with failing to protect the rights of its subjects. Macaulay, the historian among the radicals, was particularly concerned that royal authority remained unchecked. Fearing weak and corrupt parliamentarians could never prevent a return to absolute monarchy, she led a vocal minority who promoted reforms toward purer republican governance.
Macaulay’s address scolds the people of England, Scotland, and Ireland into action. Retaining the American colonies seems a lost cause to her, but she argues that it is not too late to save the European portion of the empire. Through their silence and indifference to parliamentary reforms, the “people” have been complicit in stripping their North American countrymen of constitutional rights. With the impending loss of those distant colonies, Macaulay warns, tyranny will now reign directly over the British Isles. As she argues in her address, the time for reform at home—the time to elevate republican principles—has arrived.
Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay was born into an aristocratic family in Kent, England, in 1731. As was typical for women of her class, she received a basic education in the home but no formal schooling. Her family was heavily involved in politics, and debates over contemporary affairs of state formed a backdrop to her upbringing. With access to a sizeable family library, she educated herself and pursued her interest in history.
The Sawbridge men were Whigs, members of a political party that dominated Parliament in the first half of the eighteenth century. Advocates of constitutional monarchy, the party had played a crucial role in the Glorious Revolution that eliminated the absolute authority of the Crown. Many Whigs championed republican principles and worked to maintain them in governance. After about fifty years, however, some grew disillusioned with the new system they had helped forge. Parliament and the Crown were meant to balance each other’s powers toward the protection of citizens’ rights, but internal corruption and collusion between them made a farce of republican ideals. By the 1760s, radical Whigs, the Sawbridges among them, emerged as unbending advocates for reform. Republicanism became their cause, even at the expense of Whig Party unity.
Between 1763 and 1783, Macaulay produced and published her eight-volume History of England, a narrative of the nation from a republican perspective. Focused on the failures of the monarchy in the seventeenth century, it was also perceived as a critique of royal authority in its present. The early volumes sold well; Macaulay gained fame among radicals and reformers and infamy among her critics. Along with her books, the pamphlets she authored covering contemporary politics were widely circulated on both sides of the Atlantic. By the 1770s, her influence on America’s revolutionary generation was well established. Not surprisingly, when Macaulay visited the independent United States in 1784, she was hosted by leading figures of the Revolution.
A woman who successfully asserted herself in the male sphere of domestic and international politics, she also suffered some degree of ridicule and discrimination throughout her life. Widowed young, she later married a man less than half her age, and the increasing public criticism sparked by her marriage dimmed her stature. Though her fame was waning well before her death in 1791, she continued to write and engage in social and political debates. Notably, her 1790 “Letters on Education, with Observations on Religious and Metaphysical Subjects” articulated a key lesson of her life: Women could achieve equality with men if given an equal education.
Though many on both sides of the Atlantic would have disagreed, in early 1775 Macaulay believed civil war between Britain and its North American colonies was inevitable. Six months earlier, Parliament had passed a series of measures designed to punish the people of Boston for their 1773 Tea Party. These measures, referred to by colonists as the Intolerable Acts, went to an extreme, and Macaulay believed they elevated the intra-imperial conflict to the point of no return. She expected that American independence would result, but while lamenting the impending loss of the colonies, she both anticipated and celebrated the rise of an American republic. A leading critic of Parliament and the Crown, she seized the moment to remind fellow citizens in England, Scotland, and Ireland of the need for political reforms at home. While the American colonies were all but lost, it was not too late to establish republican governance and save much of the remaining empire from tyranny. Her essay “An Address to the People of England, Scotland, and Ireland on the Present Important Crisis of Affairs” is an attempt to spark a reform movement in Britain. Chastising inhabitants of the British Isles for their indifference to government abuses in North America, Macaulay warns that they will be the next victims of tyrannical rule. She argues that the time to act on reforms is at hand.
Like any historical document, An Address to the People is a reflection of the period in which it was written. By the 1760s, Macaulay, like other radicals and some Whigs, had grown less tolerant of constitutional monarchy. Formally established under the Glorious Revolution eight decades earlier, this new governmental system had replaced the absolute authority of the Crown and vested power in an elected Parliament. Since that shift, monarchs had remained the heads of the British government and retained significant influence over imperial policies, but they were required to defer to the elected assembly as the voice of the people. In line with republican principles, both the royal and legislative branches were expected to uphold the constitution—a body of laws and legal traditions that served as a roadblock to arbitrary rule and guaranteed subjects’ liberties. From Macaulay’s perspective, however, the practice of governance did not match the ideal. Instead of a “glorious” balancing of power in the interest of liberty, the system bred tyranny. Corruption within Parliament and the royal court as well as collusion between these government branches made a mockery of republican ideals. Campaigning for reforms, Macaulay and others demanded that Parliament be the representative voice of the people and that the Crown protect the constitutional rights of its subject.
Macaulay’s “Address to the People” was published at the height of her fame as a historian and political reformer. The first of the eight volumes of The History of England from the Accession of James I. to That of the Brunswick Line had appeared in 1763. This was the very year that the Treaty of Paris settled the French and Indian War and that Parliament, facing postwar debt and economic crisis, began to impose new taxes on the American colonies in the interest of balancing the imperial budget. Though focused on the seventeenth century, Macaulay’s History of England offered implicit commentary on the present. As the first history of the nation told from a republican perspective, it was highly critical of the absolute monarchs of the earlier century. Asserting that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had failed to adequately restrict the power of the Crown and to guarantee liberty, Macaulay emerged as a leading republican and antimonarchist at a critical moment for the British Empire. Written with intent to uphold republican principles and specifically responding to David Hume’s defense of monarchy—the Scot had finished his own multivolume history of England in 1762—Macaulay’s history was agenda driven. Yet while its critics dismissed it as propaganda, it sold remarkably well and soon grounded an emerging political movement. Embraced by reformers and radicals at home, the series also received a warm reception from many in the American colonies. With several volumes published by the mid-1770s, Macaulay’s series inspired bold demands for government reforms, increasingly harsh critiques of monarchy, and rebellious activism on both sides of the Atlantic.
The success of her History of England series brought Macaulay both celebrity and notoriety. As a woman asserting herself in the male worlds of politics and publications, she was a novelty, a curiosity, and often an object of scorn. Among republicans, radicals and reformers, however, she was a well-respected leader. Many sought her counsel and encouraged the publication of her arguments and analyses on contemporary political questions. Printed as a pamphlet, her “Address to the People of England, Scotland, and Ireland” was widely circulated among reformers in London. Her publishers also included it with the book orders they sent to the American colonies. Across the Atlantic, it was republished in New York and reprinted in a newspaper in Boston, where its arguments were embraced by both radicals and moderates.
Macaulay’s intent in circulating her address was to foster support among the English, Scottish, and Irish people for broad reform of Parliament. Toward that goal, she uses the American case to define the problems facing subjects within the empire. Two recent parliamentary measures, the Intolerable Acts and the Quebec Act, are critiqued. Enacted in 1774 after the Boston Tea Party, the Intolerable Acts forced the closure of Boston’s harbor, revoked Massachusetts Bay Colony’s charter, and indemnified British soldiers or officials accused of crimes. After a decade of tensions with Parliament, the acts proved the final straw that brought Massachusetts and other North American colonies to the brink of war. However, reaching the point where they would no longer tolerate “innovations . . . continually made on their liberty” had, from Macaulay’s historical perspective, taken too long. She notes that colonists have been deprived of their constitutional liberties for generations and that they have until recently demonstrated “an almost blameable patience” with their government. Cheering the Americans’ change of attitude and approach, she makes clear to the people of England, Scotland, and Ireland that they should learn from the American example. Republican governance requires an active citizenry to jealously safeguard its liberties, she argues; patience in the face of challenges to liberty constitutes “guilty acquiescence” to tyranny.
Significantly, Macaulay also reacts to the Quebec Act, which Parliament had enacted at the same time. Canada had been ceded to Britain at the conclusion of the French and Indian War, and the act was designed to facilitate better administration of that colony. Attempting to neutralize resistance among the large French Catholic majority, Parliament took a pragmatic approach: It recognized the rights of Catholics and allowed French civil laws to continue. In contrast to elsewhere in the empire, Catholics in Canada were now allowed to hold elected office at the local level. Still, the colony was denied a legislature, and its governor was appointed by the British king. In addition, the act extended the boundaries of Canada to the south and west, and in doing so, it ignored the western land claims of the New England and mid-Atlantic colonies.
As she communicates in her essay, Macaulay is particularly incensed by the Quebec Act. As a republican, she objects to the lack of legislature and the absolute power vested in the appointed governor; she rails that “Canadians are deprived of the right to an assembly, and of trial by jury.” She sees the fact that “English laws in civil cases [have been] abolished, the French laws established” as a realistic concession, but most republicans loudly rejected the approach. In the 1770s, France remained under rule of an absolute monarch, and Macaulay claims that this absolute model is being replicated by the British Crown in Canada. Indeed, she believes that extending the borders of the colony has the “purpose of enlarging the bounds where despotism is to have its full sway.”
Macaulay reacts most strongly to official tolerance of Catholicism in Canada. Following the schism between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, Catholics in Britain and its colonies faced varying levels of persecution and civil restrictions. Through the early nineteenth century, it was illegal for most Catholics to hold elected office, and this had a tremendous impact on governance in Catholic Ireland. The Quebec Act made an exception for Canada and reversed long-standing tradition. Though Macaulay adamantly supports the extension of voting rights to all males, she remains opposed to extending elected office to Catholics. The Roman Catholic Church is, after all, headed by an absolute monarch, the pope. In her view, Catholic culture cultivates obedient monarchists who block republican progress.
The bulk of the address is a reprimand of English, Scottish, and Irish subjects’ indifference to the plight of their American countrymen, and it is coupled with a defense of the parliamentary reforms advocated by republicans. Macaulay is blunt in her criticism; as she sees it, these subjects have allowed free reign for tyranny in distant corners of the empire. Many who might have been influential in reforming governance have shown little concern for liberty and constitutional guarantees in the colonies. Blinded by the benefits of colonial trade, generations have overlooked the failed promises of the Glorious Revolution and accepted the actions of Parliament uncritically. As a result, Macaulay argues, these subjects are willfully ignorant of issues that are their “business to be acquainted with.”
Macaulay suggests that during recent periods of economic growth, opportunities to limit the monarchy and build a representative assembly have been squandered by general indifference to politics. Now the economy has shifted, she notes. With the end of the French and Indian War, “commerce has been declining with hasty steps for these last ten years” and conditions will only worsen with the loss of American colonies. Thus, to bolster her republican appeals, Macaulay targets her audience’s sense of economic vulnerability. She notes that incomes are “yearly sinking from bare sufficiency to poverty.” None were immune from the negative effects of the economic crisis of the time, not the “once-opulent trader,” the “starving mechanic,” the “numerous half-famished poor,” nor the “needy gentry.” The loss of the American colonies will bring new focus on inhabitants of England, Scotland, and Ireland as alternative sources of tax revenues. In warning tones, she predicts that once officials “pick the pockets of your American brethren,” they will come after the British people. Connecting politics and economics, she made clear that only a proactive approach to parliamentary reforms could prevent such an outcome.
Though American grievances against Parliament and the Crown were many, both radicals and moderates in the colonies eventually coalesced in opposition to “taxation without representation.” No single written document encapsulated all the rights granted to the British people, and thus, the right of Parliament to levy taxes in the American colonies was heavily debated. Interpretations varied, but republicans in London were among the most vocal advocates for representation as the condition of taxation. In her address, Macaulay echoes others in republican circles in asserting that the Americans cannot be taxed because they are “neither adequately or inadequately represented.”
As the “Address to the People” demonstrates, the looming crisis with America gave republicans in Britain a relevant context in which to frame a radical campaign for reform. Their efforts, however, were not limited to questions of taxation. To make Parliament truly representative of the people, Macaulay and others advocated a variety of measures designed to eliminate corruption and to elevate concern for the public good over private interest. Among their initiatives were the redistribution of seats in Parliament to reflect population shifts, more frequent elections to increase turnover, and restrictions on leadership to break monopolies on power. More controversially, Macaulay championed the efforts of radicals in and around London who proposed new measures of accountability for elected officials. To ensure that parliamentarians were “obeying the mandates of their constituents,” republicans proposed a variety of “tests” to ensure greater transparency in electoral and legislative politics. These proposals were met with heavy criticism, but in her address, Macaulay dismisses critics who considered constituents “too ignorant to be adequate judges of your own business.” Demands for accountability challenged the opposition who suggested that constituents should extend “unlimited obedience” in exchange for protection by Parliament and the Crown. Such submission seems preposterous to Macaulay, who argues that it subjects constituents to a form of “unlimited slavery.”
While a war with their mother country would be regrettable, Macaulay sees no other option for the American colonies. Fighting for republican principles and parliamentary reforms at home, she understands that peaceful resolution between the two sides is most improbable. Her writings were well known in the colonies, and her celebrity gave her access to America’s leading republicans and rebels; regular letters she received from Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia informed her conviction that “an extensive empire of freemen” was already forming and that American tolerance for a corrupt Parliament—as for monarchy in general—had already passed. Though disappointed by the impending loss of the empire, Macaulay readily embraces the thought of American independence as a victory for republicanism. By their example, she hopes Americans will inspire their former countrymen to reform governance in what then remained of the British Empire.
To Macaulay, America represents something new. It is a laboratory in which republican principles, theories of natural rights, and guarantees of liberties can be put into action, tested, and refined. Less restrained by tradition, it is free of the shackles of monarchist history. Macaulay remains ultimately committed to reforming the British system at home, however. Challenging the indifference of the electorate on the “foggy islands” off the European continent is her priority, along with the cultivation of an active and informed citizenry.
While Macaulay’s influence over reform and revolutionary campaigns from the 1760s to the 1780s was significant, her success in surmounting the gender restrictions of her generation was remarkable. At the height of her influence, Macaulay asserted herself in worlds of politics and publication that were then almost exclusively reserved for men. Though derided in sexualized language throughout her life, she refused to be constrained by the gender systems her critics upheld. Among her friends, followers, and supporters, the novelty of her gender was less important than the arguments, analyses, and advice she offered. Considered a woman of extraordinary talents, she stood out as a lone female amidst male peers. Still, she shared something in common with the talented men around her: a high level of education. Self-educated though she was, Macaulay was as capable as the university men in her republican circles. As her “Letters on Education” (1790) articulated and her own experiences demonstrated, equal education was the key to greater equality among the sexes.
Before the end of the twentieth century, historians paid little attention to the life and writings of Macaulay. Her “Address to the People of England, Scotland, and Ireland” and other writings were all but forgotten. She had once enjoyed tremendous influence over radicals and rebels on both sides of the Atlantic, yet for almost two centuries after her death, she was largely absent from historical narratives. That her popularity had drastically diminished before the end of her life accounts, in part, for this absence. In the wake of American independence, her critics at home considered her a traitor to the British Crown. As support for the political rights of Catholics increased in the empire, her adamant, anti-Catholic views fell out of favor. When the bloody French Revolution entered its less republican phase shortly after Macaulay died, her earlier and passionate defense of the movement tarnished her legacy. Public criticism and press coverage of her marriage to a much younger husband took a toll as well. As demand for her books and pamphlets decreased, so, too, did her historical persona.
New scholarly interest in Macaulay and renewed attention for her “Address to the People” has highlighted complex transatlantic relationships that defined America’s Revolutionary era. On both sides of the Atlantic, subjects of the British Empire demanded reforms that would protect liberties, end corruption, and prevent tyranny. While the American Revolution is often narrowly framed as a conflict between colony and mother country, some see it as part of a larger struggle for government reform that was based in Britain. Communicating via letters and sharing their published works, republicans, reformers, and radicals in Britain and North America coordinated their efforts in common cause. Macaulay, the leading spokesperson for republican reforms at home, was thus in regular communication with the emerging leadership of the American Revolution.
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