Tooke, John Horne

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Tooke, John Horne (1736 – 1812): English political reformer and philologist.

John Horne Tooke, born John Horne on June 25, 1736, emerged as one of the most ardent supporters of individual rights in late 18th century and early 19th century Britain. While loved by many prominent individuals for his beliefs, he was loafed by others as a thorn in the British national political system. A controversial stand in support of the Americans in the Revolutionary War against Britain, his backing of the French revolutionaries, and his aggressive actions on behalf of British political reform ensured that he would remain in the center of British political debate for half a century. Horne Tooke would eventually find himself at odds with other political reformers of the age including John Wilkes and Bentham, Jeremy. Tooke is also remembered as an influential philologist of the period.

Horne Tooke was born into the working class home of a poulterer in Newport Market. He completed a degree at Saint John’s College at Cambridge University in 1758 and was ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1760 at the insistence of his father. However, by 1765 he drifted from priestly duties to education and politics which proved to be more in line with his interests.

In 1765, Horne Tooke released his first pamphlet to reach national attention - “The Petition of an Englishman.” The political agitation of John Wilkes in Britain excited Horne Tooke who utilized his pamphlet to counter Lord Bute and Lord Mansfield who opposed Wilkes for his criticism of King George III and the British government. Tooke’s pamphlet, written in a satirical style, established him as a controversial political activist although his later publications would gain greater national as well as international attention.

Horne Tooke played a major role in the establishment of the Society of Supporters of the Bill of Rights by a small group of Wilkes’ backers in 1769. Horne Tooke’s influence proved a key in the growth of the Society and redirecting it from the personal causes of Wilkes to a broader spectrum of political reform. A budding friendship with Wilkes turned sour the next year as the two men disagreed on the direction of the Society as well as political reform in Britain. In 1771, Horne Tooke and others split the Society and formed the Constitutional Club to continue their work.

The growing agitation between the American colonists and the British government provided Horne Tooke with another cause. Although he was often critical of Americans as individuals, he joined those who opposed the imposition of the Stamp Act and Tea tax on the colonies. Following the outbreak of hostilities in 1775 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776, support for the American colonies waned leaving Horne Tooke one of the few vocal supporters of the cause. In 1777, Horne Tooke found himself under prosecution for criminal libel resulting from this backing for the Americans. The Constitutional Society raised a subscription to aid Bostonians affected by British policies implemented after the Boston Tea Party. After the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, the Society raised another subscription and Horne Tooke wrote articles for British newspapers noting that the fund would be directed to aid the widows and orphans of those killed by British troops at the two engagements. Prosecutors claimed that since the colonies were in armed rebellion, the writing and work of Horne Tooke involved criminal libel. Those who supported Horne Tooke countered that the Americans had not been declared “rebels” at the time of the subscription in 1775. The court found him guilty and ordered a fine as well as sentencing him to 12 months in prison. Some writers have viewed the harsh sentence resulting from Lord Mansfield’s desire for revenge following the 1765 publication of “The Petition of an Englishman.” Horne Tooke was the only political reformer jailed for support of the Americans during the Revolutionary War.

Following his release from prison, Horne Tooke continued his support for the American cause. In 1780, he published a pamphlet with others criticizing the British government’s economic policies as well as conduct in the war. Although written anonymously, the authorship was commonly known among readers. Growing public criticism of the government on these topics helped provide greater backing of Horne Tooke’s writing. During the same year, William Tooke, a wealthy backer of Horne Tooke, persuaded the latter to assume the name of “Tooke” and become one of his heirs. Throughout this period, Horne Tooke continued his attempts to rally others to the general cause of political reform. In particular, he called for parliamentary election reform although he opposed those who demanded universal suffrage in parliamentary elections. In 1786, Horne Tooke published the controversial book The Diversions of Purley (Part I) with Part II being released in 1805. The book’s style involved fictional conversations of the author with William Tooke and Richard Beadon where the latter men would pose questions to Horne Tooke. The book included Horne Tooke’s philosophical answers to the posed questions as well as satire, humor, mind puzzles, and personal jabs at others.

The early years of the French Revolution, which began in 1789, provided Horne Tooke with another cause to back. British political reformers believed the French Revolution would be similar to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which had ushered new guarantees of individual rights and the reduction of royal authority in their own country. It should be noted that Horne Tooke did not display the radical attitude of other reformers who backed the French Revolution and even declared that the British “constitution” did not need the radical changes sweeping through France. However, in 1793, France declared war on Britain and asked British political reformers to aid her in the struggle. This naturally increased government suspicion on all of the political reformers. 1794 proved to be a year of arrests for many British political reformers including Horne Tooke in May. In 1793, a group of political reformers had organized a conference in Edinburgh that resulted in their arrests and trials for sedition. In response, Horne Tooke and others called for a second conference on political reform resulting in their arrests. After being jailed in the Tower of London seven months, his trial began in November 1794 and lasted six days. The prosecutors claimed that Horne Took and others called for people to actively display disobedience to the King and Parliament. However, the prosecutors could not prove this during the trial. The jury needed only eight minutes to acquit Horne Tooke of the charges. Although acquitted, imprisonment and trial seems to have made an impact on Horne Tooke who tended to moderate his opposition to the government for the remainder of his life.

Horne Tooke continued to write and discuss politics with his friends during the opening of the 19th century. In 1801, he was selected to represent Old Sarum in Parliament but was denied his seat based on having taken order in the Church of England. William Tooke and Horne Tooke began disagreeing on issues resulting in Horne Tooke officially losing his inheritance when the former died in 1802. The publication of The Diversions of Purley (Part II), along with a settlement for a portion of William Tooke’s estate, provided Horne Tooke with an income in his latter years. He died at his home in Wimbledon on March 18, 1812.


Further Reading:

Beedell, A.V. and A.D. Harvey, eds., The Prison Diary (16 May-22 November 1794) of John Horne Tooke, 1995.

Bewley, Christina and David, Gentleman Radical: A Life of John Horne Tooke 1736-1812, 1998.

Cooper, Andrew R., “Monumental Inscriptions": Language, Rights, the Nation in Coleridge and Horne Tooke”, English Literary History, Vol. 66, No. 1 (Spring 1999), pp. 87-110.


Terry M. Mays

The Citadel

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