Nothing without a Grievance

P.D.G. Thomas

  • Gentleman Radical: A Life of John Horne Tooke 1736-1812 by Christina Bewley and David Bewley
    Tauris, 297 pp, £42.00, June 1998, ISBN 1 86064 344 2

John Horne Tooke enjoyed two distinct political careers, under two different names: as John Horne in the age of the American Revolution, and as John Horne Tooke in that of the French Revolution. In both identities he attracted notoriety or fame, according to the prejudices of commentators. Extolled as a champion of liberty and mocked as a mischief-maker in countless cartoons and ballads, pamphlets and newspapers, Horne Tooke was a man who was well known in his own lifetime, but who made no permanent contribution to the cause of British liberty. After an initial flurry of attention in the early 19th century, he faded from historical consciousness.

John Horne entered politics under the aegis of John Wilkes, eleven years his senior, and after they began to quarrel, a common Wilkite taunt was that Horne owed such fame as he possessed to his mentor. The two men had much in common, in social origin as well as political attitudes. Horne’s father was a poulterer, the senior Wilkes a distiller, both prosperous London tradesmen with high aspirations for talented favourite sons. Horne was sent to Eton and Cambridge, and his parents were so ambitious for him to rise through a career in the Church of England that they refused him financial support to pursue his chosen profession as a barrister. In 1760, at the age of 24, he succumbed to family pressure and was ordained. The same year, his father bought for him the living of New Brentford, worth £200 or more. The long-term consequence of this was that Horne was debarred as a clergyman from the two careers at which he had the talent and inclination to excel, the law and Parliamentary politics, for he spoke well and wrote better. During the 1760s, he took every opportunity to escape from his parochial duties, twice going on Grand Tours as companion to rich men’s sons. On the second occasion he went with an introduction to Wilkes, who was in exile in Paris, avoiding trial. When Wilkes returned to fight the famous Middlesex election of 1768, Horne played a key role in his success, and not only through his zeal and organising ability. Brentford, ten miles west of the City of London, was the county town where the polling took place, and Horne’s local knowledge and influence put the best inns at Wilkes’s command. Several pubs in the London area were named ‘The Three Johns’ – Wilkes and Horne were assisted by a lawyer, John Glynn – and at least one, in Islington, still bears the name today.

Horne now became a full-time politician, though he accepted that his clerical status debarred him from elective office. He was a leading figure in the Bill of Rights Society, founded in February 1769, and drafted the Society’s first advertisement, announcing that its purpose was ‘to defend the legal and constitutional liberty of the subject. They mean to support Mr Wilkes and his cause, as far as it is a public cause.’ In truth, the Society’s main purpose was to pay off the debts of Wilkes, who was imprisoned from June 1768 to April 1770 for earlier libels, and was threatened on his release with further incarceration for bankruptcy, a fate the Society contrived to avert, even though his debts, Horne complained with pardonable exaggeration, seemed to grow faster than they could be paid off. Wilkes regarded the Bill of Rights Society solely as the means to his own personal solvency and political fame, but Horne, who dominated it during Wilkes’s enforced absence, voiced the opinion of those members who wished to make it a radical organisation. A quarrel between the two became inevitable after Wilkes’s release. Both were lively and witty in private life, but Wilkes carried this light-heartedness over into politics, which Horne by contrast took with deadly seriousness. Horne thought the selfish and frivolous Wilkes an unworthy champion of the cause of liberty. Wilkes constantly ridiculed Horne’s seriousness, claiming that he ‘cast a gloom’ whenever he appeared in company.

Ironically, just as this personal and political quarrel reached its climax early in 1771, there occurred the most spectacular radical triumph of these years, the establishment of the press reporting of Parliament. Wilkes carried out this coup, by deploying the City of London’s exclusive right of legal jurisdiction to protect printers from the wrath of Parliament. This new biography adopts Horne’s version of events, that it was his plan which Wilkes took over and implemented. But the balance of evidence, which the authors have failed to examine in detail, is against such an interpretation. This episode overlapped with the final dispute between Wilkes and Horne, in April 1771, when a motion by Horne to dissolve the Bill of Rights Society failed by only two votes. The Hornite faction seceded, to form the rival Constitutional Society. Public bloodletting followed, in the so-called ‘Controversial Letters’ episode, when for some two months Wilkes and Horne engaged in a press slanging match, as each accused the other of misconduct ranging from embezzlement to philandering. Early in July, Horne conceded that ‘the parson of Brentford is at length defeated.’ His attack on the popular hero had rendered him, in the words of his first biographer Alexander Stephens (1813), ‘one of the most odious men in the kingdom’.

The irony is that Horne, for all his blasphemy and immorality, compared favourably with Wilkes in political integrity. He sought no material benefit from politics, living frugally while he masterminded his Constitutional Society as it engaged in bitter rivalry with the Bill of Rights Society for the next few years. Each sought to outdo the other in radical propaganda – the Middlesex Journal was the Hornite newspaper – and London politics were dominated by their contests for City offices. But from 1774 this conflict was forgotten in the American crisis. Horne privately thought the colonists ‘in general ... of a very inferior cast’, but his zeal for liberty embraced their cause, and he was imprisoned for libel on their account, having, in June 1775, drafted a press notice announcing, in his customary provocative style, that the Constitutional Society had subscribed money ‘to the relief of the widows, orphans and aged parents, of our beloved American fellow-subjects, who, faithful to the character of Englishmen, preferring death to slavery, were ... inhumanely murdered by the King’s troops at or near Lexington and Concord’. At the time it was not apparent that this skirmishing marked the beginning of the War of American Independence. A year later, Horne’s conduct could be portrayed as offering encouragement to rebels, and a prosecution for seditious libel was initiated, which came to court in 1777. Horne pointed out that his notice should be seen in a peacetime context, but a spell in prison, 336 days by his reckoning, followed his conviction. According to this biography, he was the only man punished for opposition to the American War: how do the authors know?

In 1774, meanwhile, by a characteristic piece of cheek, John Horne had achieved a success that was to be of great moment for his future life. William Tooke, a Norfolk landowner who had been founder treasurer of the Bill of Rights Society, was being out-manoeuvred in a property dispute with a neighbour, Sir Thomas de Grey, who sought to arrange the passage of the Enclosure Bill through Parliament before Tooke could lodge a petition against it. Horne devised an outrageous ploy to block it: a libel on the Speaker, alleging partiality and implying bribery. Summoned to appear before an angry House of Commons, Horne astonished MPs by his respectful behaviour and respectable attire. According to Horace Walpole, he was ‘pale, but well made, and had a sensible countenance. He was neatly and decently dressed in grey. He spoke with affected respect, much deliberation and firmness.’ He was acquitted of contempt since there was no proof of his authorship, but the publicity aroused by the case meant, as he had foreseen, that the Enclosure Bill could not be quickly and quietly passed. This delighted Tooke, who became Horne’s patron and promised to make him his heir. It was Tooke who financed him in the legal studies he had resumed in 1773, when he formally left the Church by giving up his Brentford living. But Horne found his new career blocked when, in 1779, the Inner Temple refused to call him to the Bar on the grounds that he was a clergyman. He had to fall back on his role as political gadfly to the establishment, this time as John Horne Tooke – in 1782 he adopted the surname of his benefactor. Not that it did him much good. On his death in 1802, Tooke left him a mere £500.

Horne Tooke did not become more conservative with advancing years. During the last two decades of the 18th century he was a leading voice in the reformist Society for Constitutional Information, a supporter of radical change, but not of revolution. Such nuances were ignored by the Pitt ministry, which marked him out as a dangerous plotter. He was the most notable figure to be arrested for high treason in 1794 as the government sought to prevent the contagion of the French Revolution crossing the Channel. After 181 days in prison, making a total of 519 (by his calculation) for political offences, Tooke was acquitted. His friends paid his legal costs and bought him an annuity of £600, but he did not give up politics. At the general election of 1790, no longer a clergyman in his own eyes, he had fought Westminster, to frustrate its disenfranchisement by an expense-saving compromise between Pitt’s government and Fox’s opposition. He renewed this challenge to establishment politics at the 1796 election, failing by only two thousand votes, but by 1800 he considered the radical cause dead until the French Revolutionary War was over. Then, by an irony the veteran reformer savoured, Tooke entered the House of Commons at an 1801 by-election for the most notorious of the rotten boroughs, Old Sarum. It had no inhabitants at all, the franchise being vested in the nominal holders of 11 burgages – pieces of property owned by Lord Camelford and conveyed to trustworthy nominees. That eccentric young peer brought in his friend Tooke merely to vex the new Addington ministry. Described as ‘very old’, which, at 65, he was for a new MP, Tooke found his election challenged on the grounds, once again, that he was a clergyman. An examination of precedents went against him, and the House laughed when he claimed that he had been elected by ‘a respectable body of constituents’. Prime Minister Addington decided not to expel him, remembering the repeated returns of Wilkes for Middlesex in 1769, and bearing in mind Lord Camelford’s threat ‘that if the black coat was rejected, he would send a black man, referring to a negro servant of his, born in England, whom he would qualify to take a seat’. Instead, Tooke was permitted to sit until the next general election, in 1802, while an Act of 1801, still in force, converted the rule of precedent into statute law by formally debarring Anglican clergy from election to the Commons.

For the last ten years of his life, Horne Tooke’s participation in politics was largely vicarious, through the radical Sir Francis Burdett, whose election for Westminster in 1807 had been made possible by Tooke’s earlier endeavours. Burdett, whom Tooke treated almost like a son, became a neighbour of his in Wimbledon, where Tooke lived from 1792 with his two daughters, at a house now called Chester Lodge. These daughters were the children of one mistress, and he had a son by another: he shared with Wilkes the trait of personal libertinage as well as political radicalism. He never married, but lived openly with a succession of women, and when urged by a friend to take a wife, retorted: ‘Whose wife?’

During the last twenty years of Tooke’s life, his Wimbledon house was frequented by a large circle of friends, usually at regular Sunday dinners, for despite physical infirmities he remained good company to the end. His hostility to the British ruling class never faded. Out of admiration for the man, but also on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, he possessed a bust of Napoleon, at a time when most of his compatriots viewed ‘Boney’ as they did Hitler in the Second World War. That gesture epitomised his lack of perspective.

Tooke’s myopic approach to politics is well captured in this biography. ‘He behaved as if mankind’s fate depended on a Middlesex or a Westminster election.’ Too often, moreover, his spur to political action was personal enmity. An apt comment in the official History of Parliament, a work not cited here, is that Horne Tooke was ‘nothing without a grievance’. He sought martyr status, boasting that he was the only person to be accused both of sedition in the American War and of treason in the French War. The most favourable political verdict on him must be that he combined high principles with low motives.

Two careers are given for Tooke in the Dictionary of National Biography, of philologist as well as politician. The authors have dutifully included a chapter on ‘The Diversions of Purley’, the two-volume work of that title, published in 1786 and 1805, being Tooke’s claim to the secondary career. Easy to digest in its dialogue format, it is full of classical allusions and philosophical arguments, directed at a cultivated audience familiar with classical and modern languages and nicknamed the ‘Botheration Dictionary’. Many of its ideas were wrong-headed, absurd or fanciful, but it was a pioneer work of philology, notable for the attention to Anglo-Saxon roots. Apart from establishing his credentials as a scholar, Tooke had other motives for compiling this work: venting his spleen and making money. The commentary and examples are laced with his prejudices against the political system and men of his day, and it earned him nearly £5000 altogether, an important consideration to a man who was always short of money.

This biography avoids an adulatory approach, portraying the full range of Tooke’s personal faults as well as the firmness of his political principles; but inadequate knowledge of the political and social world in which he operated detracts from its value. The book also fails to address the fundamental question: John Horne Tooke was a man of ability and energy, who attracted attention throughout his life yet left no legacy of achievement. Why?