Catharine Macaulay and the “equal eye” of compassion

Shane Greentree examines the significance of sympathy and emotions in the early modern historical writing of Catharine Macaulay.

Portrait of Catharine Macaulay (c. 1775), by Robert Edge Pine. Image via National Portrait Gallery.
Portrait of Catharine Macaulay (c. 1775), by Robert Edge Pine. Image via National Portrait Gallery.

After decades of neglect, the varied writings of Catharine Macaulay are the subject of increasing attention. Macaulay has been addressed as an important figure: a historian whose eight-volume History of England (1763-1783) is among the most ambitious works by an eighteenth-century woman writer; a radical pamphleteer admired by George Washington and John Adams; and an early feminist whose innovative ideas on gender greatly influenced the writing of Mary Wollstonecraft, who paid tribute to Macaulay as “the woman of the greatest abilities, undoubtedly, that this country has ever produced.”

Despite this change in reputation, a tendency remains amongst scholars to present Macaulay’s work as out of step with her era. This criticism applies in particular to the History of England, an unapologetically republican account of the seventeenth century driven by classical ideas of patriotism and virtue. As such, the work is read as able to be safely situated outside the broader transformations of historical writing in the eighteenth century.

This placement is, however, not universal. As feminist historians such as Karen Green argue, her work engages more closely with Enlightenment themes of societal progress and morality than is often recognised. It is my belief that this engagement is also visible in the History of England itself.

Perhaps the most important of these themes is the great emphasis Macaulay’s writing places upon sympathy and sentiment. These ideas are crucial in eighteenth-century history writing, most famously displayed in Scottish philosopher David Hume’s History of England (1754-1762.) Highly influential in its own right, Hume’s History is also an important text against which to read Macaulay’s historical interpretations, which fundamentally oppose his own in both politics and sentiment. Her ideas about sympathy are displayed most clearly in reading each historian’s account of the 1649 execution of Charles I, a contentious event which transformed England from a monarchy to the republican Commonwealth (1649-1660), and which later lingered like a spectre over eighteenth-century historical memory.

Hume famously describes his History as written with a “generous tear” for the king’s fate, and this tear is on display throughout. He writes of a sympathetic king who sheds no tears for his own unprecedented fate, but rather falls into “a flood of tears” after a Royalist commander’s death, and who cries “tears of joy and admiration” upon hearing his infant son’s brave words. Even these instances pale in comparison to the aftermath of his death on the scaffold, a moment when England is swept by a great wave of weeping, in which ardent republicans soon realise the error of their ways, pregnant women prematurely give birth, and some unlucky spectators die of murderous melancholy.

Five Eldest Children of Charles I (1637), by Anthony van Dyck. Image via the Royal Collection.
Five Eldest Children of Charles I (1637), by Anthony van Dyck. Image via the Royal Collection.

The 1768 fourth volume of Macaulay’s History makes no such gestures. Her portrait reveals a Charles I who maintains a dry eye throughout. Although his execution is a momentous event, it is one conducted with justice and routine. While arguing the king’s death should be pitied by the “liberal and humane,” she does not present us with tearful spectators (living or dead). Moreover, Macaulay excludes sentimental moments such as Charles I’s last meeting with his children from her narrative altogether. This depiction has seen her work considered as dangerously anti-sentimental. Indeed, her work displays emotion and evokes sympathy less obviously than Hume. Her representation of Charles I suggests however that this gesture is not simply intended to negate emotion, but rather to present a powerfully emotive argument of its own.

This argument is best read in Macaulay’s footnotes and demonstrated in the varied sources she cites. Her History displays her learning and innovatively uses archival material, both from the newly opened British Museum (Macaulay was one of the very few women who then used its Reading Room) and from her own rich collection of seventeenth-century pamphlets. The footnotes also express her forceful judgments in greater detail. A crucial footnote on Charles I’s character focuses sharply on his “hardness of heart,” and directly criticises his inappropriate response to the suffering of his subjects, including an anecdote with Charles learning an army officer had lost part of his cheek in an engagement. While we would expect the sentimental king of Hume’s History to weep, Macaulay’s Charles I simply laughs. The significance of this gesture is further visible when read against her later Letters on Education (1790), in which she argues the moral education of a prince should involve their learning to weep with compassion, and so enjoy the “luxury of sympathy.” Tellingly, this is a luxury which Charles I never enjoys. The apparent lack of emotion in Macaulay’s account is a product of her judgment of the king’s own failures of sympathy.

Macaulay writes on the king's "hardness of heart." Macaulay, History of England from the Accession of James the First, to that of the Brunswick Line, 8 vols. (London: 1763-1783), 4.394.
Macaulay writes on the king’s “hardness of heart.” Catharine Macaulay, History of England from the Accession of James the First, to that of the Brunswick Line, 8 vols. (London: 1763-1783), 4.394.

These themes come together in the 1781 preface to the sixth volume of Macaulay’s History, written after a decade in which she had authored political pamphlets, an epistolary history, and become the target of personal scandal following her marriage to a far younger man. In this preface, Macaulay writes again on Charles I’s death. Macaulay notes that, rather than remaining entirely stoic, she herself had shed “many tears” in writing of his catastrophe. This text has been read as a defensive retreat from criticism, or at best an awkward attempt to wear sentimental costume. Macaulay’s fuller text, however, reveals a bolder, more complex engagement with emotion and the place of the historian.

Much of this engagement appears in her criticism of Hume’s History, seen as wanting in solid information and marked by a dangerously selective sympathy, the kind of thinking which had led theorists such as Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) to consider Charles I’s death more worthy of indignation than any other of the English Civil War (1642-1651). Conversely, Macaulay argues, rather than only sympathising for the sufferings of the powerful, the proper historian is to be guided by an ‘equal eye” of compassion in depicting the sufferings of common people, and in this depiction display a more “generous and extensive sympathy.” This phrasing is itself intriguing in that it closely echoes Anna Letitia Barbauld’s recently published “The Mouse’s Petition” (1773), a choice of citation which further suggests Macaulay’s engagement with contemporary themes of suffering and sentiment.

Catherine Macaulay’s incorporation of this idea into her historical vision is highly significant, arguing further that rather than focusing upon the great as the only worthy subject of our tears, the powerful and their wrongs are to be treated as if on literary tribunal. In an age in which the lack of sympathy of many leaders is on strikingly overt display,  Macaulay’s ideal of the historian’s emotional perspective is well worth considering again.


SGShane Greentree
is a Casual Research Assistant at the University of Sydney and an Honorary Associate at Macquarie University. His research focuses upon eighteenth-century radical women writers such as Catharine Macaulay and Mary Hays, including both close textual reading and broader examination of authorial reputation over the long nineteenth century. He is currently working on a study of early posthumous writing on Mary Wollstonecraft.

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