Thelwall, John (1764-1834): English Political Theorist and Poet.
John Thelwall was the foremost English Jacobin of the 1790s. Widely vilified and persecuted by the political establishment of his time, he was nonetheless a seminal forerunner of nineteenth-century working class radicalism in England.
Thelwall’s father, a merchant in the silk trade, died when John was nine. Largely self-educated, Thelwall served as a clerk in the family business, was then apprenticed as a tailor, and finally worked in a law office, all without success. In 1787, he began his writing career with the publication of two volumes of poetry. He followed this by editing and writing for The Biographical and Imperial Magazine. During this time, his politics were fairly conservative, though all of this changed with the advent of the French Revolution.
Radicalized by developments in France, Thelwall threw himself into political activities in England through memberships in the Society for Free Debate, Society of Friends of the People, and, most importantly, the London Corresponding Society. Though he continued to write poetry and romance in order to earn a living, in 1793 he published the political work The Peripatetic, a complex blend of poetry and narrative in which Thelwall used the travels and comments of his protagonist as a vehicle of social commentary. During this period, he developed close friendships with Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, William Wordsworth, and Godwin, William.
As a result of his political activities, Thelwall, along with other members of the London Corresponding Society, was arrested and charged with the capital crime of high treason in May, 1794. Acquitted by a jury in December, his written defense, which he never actually read in court, was published as The Natural and Constitutional Rights of Britons. After his acquittal, he began giving a series of public lectures from 1794-96, which he also published in The Tribune. Here he defended universal suffrage, annual punishments, freedom of thought and association, and economic security for the poor as well as attacking unfair taxation.
In 1796, he published The Rights of Nature Against the Usurpations of Establishment, which marked a shift from the political issues that characterized eighteenth century radicalism to the economic concerns that prove to be so prominent in the nineteenth century. Deeply influenced by Smith, Adam’s depiction of the development of commerce and its consequences, Thelwall moved beyond advocating for the security and protection of the poor to a demand for greater equality through redistributive measures. He argued that the government had an obligation not just to protect private persons and their property, but also to improve the lot of all of those in society. He maintained that property was a social right grounded on social labor and consequently that labor was a full partner with capital, entitled to a proportionate share of increasing wealth.
Increasingly vilified in print and persecuted in person, Thelwall was forced to his political activities in 1797, though he continued to publish volumes of poetry and romance. Thelwall had long nursed an interest in scientific matters, and in 1801, his interests in rhetoric and medicine merged when he became in effect England’s first speech pathologist. In 1818, he returned to politics with the newspaper The Champion, where he continued to espouse the cause of reform, though more moderately than before. He eventually lived to see the passage of the Reform Bill in 1832. Further Reading:
Gregory Claeys, The Politics of English Jacobinism: Writings of John Thelwall, 1995.
Iain Hampsher-Monk, “John Thelwall and the Eighteenth Century Response to Political Economy,” Historical Journal, 1991.
Kevin E. Dodson