Macintosh: “a man of mystery”

After five weeks of marking—and in the gaps left by my fits-and-starts writing on Travels into Print (it is coming along, albeit slowly)—I have returned briefly to Macintosh’s trail. In terms of his appearance in the scholarly record, it would be fair to say that Macintosh occupies interstitial space—more often to be found in footnotes than in the main body of the text.

It is, I suppose, Macintosh’s anonymity that I find so curious and compelling. Given that his book was read by British politicians, French revolutionaries, German humanists, and at least two U.S. Presidents, and that it helped to fundamentally alter the government of British India, his erasure from the historical record is both noteworthy and confounding. It is unsurprising, therefore, that one author described him as “a man of mystery”—a shadowy figure on the periphery of mainstream historiography (Fraser 1915, 18).

Macintosh’s most recent appearance in a scholarly footnote occurs in Emma Rothschild’s excellent The inner lives of empires: an eighteenth-century history (2011). Rothschild’s book is a prosopography, tracing the history of one generation of a Scottish family—the Johnstones—across and through Britain’s eighteenth-century empire. One of the Johnstones, William (1729–1805), owned and managed plantations in the Caribbean and did so (it seems) in partnership with Macintosh. According to one letter from William Johnstone, Macintosh “ran away to the island of Madeira” leaving “large debts ” (Rothschild 2011, 356).

The Inner Lives of Empire

The Inner Lives of Empire (2011).

Although only referred to in The inner life of empires as “a man called Macintosh”, I have had an email exchange with Rothschild and we are both fairly confident that her Macintosh is also my Macintosh (Rothschild 2011, 356). Johnstone’s papers at the Huntington Library and the West Indies papers at the University of Bristol’s Special Collections department should, at some stage, help to fill in the gaps surrounding Macintosh’s time in the Caribbean.

Fraser, Leon. “English opinion of the American constitution and government (1783–1798).” Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1915.

Rothschild, Emma. The inner life of empires: an eighteenth-century history. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

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  1. Pingback: Macintosh and the spymaster | On the archival trail of William Macintosh

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