Portrait of Macaulay from The History of England from the accession of James I to the elevation of the House of Hanover. London: Dilly, 1769. King Library DA435 .M1 1769. New-York Historical Society

For an institution that’s been growing since 1804, the odd outlier is hardly a surprise. A rather remarkable one is a set of original manuscripts and fair copies of the work of eighteenth century British historian, Catharine Macaulay. Not only did Macaulay never did live here but the work that minted her status as England’s first major woman historian, was an eight-volume History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line. Still, she, and her books, were known to many of America’s founding generation. She corresponded directly with a number of them, and even visited George Washington at Mount Vernon on a trip to the United States between 1784 and 1785.

Macaulay was born Catharine Sawbridge in Wye, Kent in 1731. Making up for a middling formal education characteristic of a young woman in that era, she honed her intellect by reading extensively from her father’s library. In 1760, age 29, she married George Macaulay, a Scottish physician fifteen years her senior, and subsequently published the first installment of her History three years later. On George’s death, in 1766, it’s believed Catharine lost an important source of encouragement in her work.

Macaulay ended up producing the first five volumes roughly every two years until a hiatus between 1771 and 1781. In this period she wrote The History of England from the Revolution to the Present Time, in a series of letters to the Reverend Doctor Wilson (1778), a manuscript of which is included among the volumes at N-YHS. She then published the last of the final three volumes by 1783. Her renewed productivity came on the heels of her second marriage to William Graham, the brother of Scottish quack physician James Graham, whose remedies Macaulay had tried for an ongoing illness. She references this in a letter to the Earl of Buchan, in February 1778, just months before the marriage in which she also mentions her recent publication.

Catharine Macaulay to the Earl of Buchan, February 23, 1778. MS 2958.6134, The New-York Historical Society.

All of this probably sounds pretty unremarkable but for a couple of details. Macaulay’s publications were radical, and so were her political affiliations. In her work, Macaulay traced England’s political history marinated in her republican ideals. Initially, this perspective gained Whig approval but this faded as their tastes changed, and hers did not. (For example, she remained steadfast in her anti-Catholicism despite relaxing Whig views.) In keeping with her republicanism leanings, she supported the plight of the colonies against George III from England. This helped connect her with several of their influential figures such as John and Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush. For a time many even anticipated that Macaulay would produce a history of America’s revolution reminiscent of her existing works.

Details from Catharine Macaulay’s manuscript History of England from the accession of James I to that of the Brunswick line, MS 1768. New-York Historical Society

Her private life is of note too; William Graham, at 21, was 26 years her junior. He was also a ship’s steward, a profession which others regarded as beneath her station. So while theirs appeared a happy marriage, externally, it raised more conventional eyebrows. Unfortunately, the scandal of her marriage, coupled with diminishing interest in her histories, made Macaulay something of a forgotten figure in the latter years of her life.

An address to the people of England, Ireland, and Scotland, : on the present important crisis of affairs. New York: John Holt, 1775.  Y1775.Macaul Address. New-York Historical Society

This may, in part, explain the inevitable question: how did these manuscripts escape the UK to end up at the New-York Historical Society? Although Macaulay had found fame in England, and her influence spread to the shores of America in her lifetime, by the late 19th century, when her manuscripts became available, interest must have been well below what she enjoyed at the height of her career.

Whatever the exact reasons, the story of what happened to the volumes when Macaulay died in 1791, age 60, is an ongoing mystery. We do know that they arrived at the New-York Historical Society via Daniel Parish, Jr., through whom a staggering quantity of books, papers and other library materials made their way to N-YHS in the late nineteenth century. 

A penciled date of “Feb. 25/96” in the first volume points to N-YHS accession ledgers where Macaulay’s manuscripts are nearly lost in a typically large crowd of Parish donations. Although the librarian’s report for the year makes special mention of the Macaulay manuscript, its characterization as a “curious relic of the past” might confirm why their arrival elicited little fanfare.

So what then of the volumes’ earlier history? Unfortunately, the trail quickly thins out. The report does mention that the volumes were purchased at a London auction while the volumes themselves bear bookplates of “Edward Leith.” A bookplate is often a promising clue, but very quickly it began to seem like a dead end until Edward Tyrrell Leith finally emerged in internet searches. 

Leith is a fairly obscure collector who was a professor of law in Bombay, India where he was born in 1842, and where his Scottish lawyer and politician father, John Farley Leith, practiced and taught. The younger Leith died prematurely in Germany, in 1888, and a January 1890 issue of The Athenaeum advertises his collection in a Sotheby’s auction, in London. It all seems to line up but for the auction catalog, held at Yale’s Haas Arts Library, which makes no apparent mention of the Macaulay manuscripts. If this is the correct Leith, we can only reason that the auction was not comprehensive. Either way, it leaves a substantial question mark.

McDonough’s label from Macaulay’s manuscript. MS 1768, History of England from the accession of James I to that of the Brunswick line

There is also the matter of an eight year gap between the sale and Parish delivering the volumes to N-YHS. Puzzling is a small stamp glued into at least one of the volumes for Joseph McDonough, an Albany bookseller. Although one might assume from the librarian’s report that Parish purchased the volumes directly, the label seems to throw that into question. Perhaps instead Parish purchased it from, or through, McDonough. This is, after all, one of a number of items at N-YHS with links to McDonough.

Spine showing thistle ornamentation, MS 1768

All of this still leaves the significant period of time, from McCaulay’s death until the late nineteenth century, during which the volumes’ whereabouts remain unknown. Frustratingly, that doesn’t appear likely to change, although closer examination, and some deeper research may yet unearth the full story.

One clue may be the manuscripts’ bindings themselves, the spines of which carry alternating depictions of Liberty and thistles. The former would align with Macaulay’s republican affinities while the latter might link to one of Macaulay’s two Scottish husbands, or Leith, who was also of Scottish descent. Whether these hold any important clues though is hard to say. One thing is for sure, whatever revelations are to be discovered, the relative obscurity of these volumes now contrasts sharply with the importance of their once famous author.

This post is by Ted O’Reilly, Curator of Manuscripts