Catharine Macaulay supported the French Revolution because there were sound "public choice" reasons for not vesting supreme power in the hands of one’s social or economic "betters" (1790)

Catharine Macaulay

Found in Reflections on the Revolution in France

Catharine Macaulay, the English republican historian, was one of the first to criticize Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution. She argued that there were sound “public choice” reasons for not vesting supreme power in the hands of one’s social or economic “betters”:

To this very ingenious reasoning, and these refined distinctions between natural and social rights, the people may possibly object, that in delivering themselves passively over to the unrestrained rule of others on the plea of controling their inordinate inclinations and passions, they deliver themselves over to men, who, as men, and partaking of the same nature as themselves, are as liable to be governed by the same principles and errors; and to men who, by the great superiority of their station, having no common interest with themselves which might lead them to preserve a salutary check over their vices, must be inclined to abuse in the grossest manner their trust.

The outbreak of the French Revolution stimulated a huge “pamphlet war” on its merits and dangers. The OLL website has a “Debate” page which lists the works of the major participants in this debate: Richard Price, Edmund Burke, Joseph Priestley, James Mackintosh, Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, and Catharine Macaulay. Macaulay’s contribution is noteworthy for being by a women (along with Wollstonecraft) and for raising one of the perennial questions of political philosophy “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (how is one to be defended against the very guardians who have been appointed to guard us?). The irony here is that this is the very question Burke posed in 1756 in an early work but which he seems to have forgotten in 1790. There is also more than a hint of public choice theory in the way she refers to the private interests of those in power.