George Macartney was descended from an old Scottish family, the Macartneys of Auchinleck, who had settled in 1649 at Lissanoure, Antrim, Ireland, where he was born. After graduating at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1759, he became a student of the Temple, London. Through Stephen Fox, elder brother of C. J. Fox, he was taken up by Lord Holland.
Appointed envoy extraordinary to Russia in 1764, he succeeded in negotiating with Catherine II an alliance between England and that country. After occupying a seat in the English parliament, he was in 1769 returned for Antrim in the Irish parliament, in order to discharge the duties of chief secretary for Ireland. On resigning this office he was knighted.
In 1775 he became governor of the Caribbee Islands (being created an Irish baron in 1776), and in 1780 governor of Madras, but he declined the governorgeneralship of India, and returned to England in 1786.
After being created Earl Macartney in the Irish peerage (1792), he was appointed the first envoy of Britain to China. He arrived in Beijing in 1793 with a large British delegation on board of a 64-gun man-of-war. He met the Emperor Qianlong, but failed in negotiating the British requests:
On his return from a confidential mission to Italy (1795) he was raised to the English peerage as a baron in 1796, and in the end of the same year was appointed governor of the newly acquired territory of the Cape of Good Hope, where he remained till ill health compelled him to resign in November 1798.
He died at Chiswick, Middlesex, on May 31, 1806, the title becoming extinct, and his property, after the death of his widow (daughter of the 3rd earl of Bute), going to his niece, whose son took the name.
Two members of the embassy to China published detailed accounts: