1902 Encyclopedia > John Horne Tooke

John Horne Tooke
English politician

JOHN HORNE TOOKE, (1736-1812), an ardent poli-tician and an erudite philologer, was the third son of John Home, a poulterer in Newport Market, whose business the son, when a pupil at Eton with other boys of a more aristocratic position, in early life happily veiled under the title of a "Turkey merchant." He was born in Newport Street, Long Acre, Westminster, on 25th June 1736. Some portion of his school days was passed, when he was about seven years old, in "an academy in Soho Square," and when three years older he went to a school in a Kentish village. For a time (1744-46) he was at Westminster School, but the greater part of his educa-tion was got at Eton, and then under private tuition, first at Sevenoaks in Kent (1753) and then at Raven-stone in Northamptonshire. In 1755 he was entered at St John's College, Cambridge, and took his degree of B.A. in 1758, as last but one of the senior optimes, Beadon, his life-long friend, afterwards bishop of Bath and Wells, being among the wranglers in the same year. Strange to say, the object of all this care and expense found himself doomed to the drudgery of ushership at a boarding school at Blackheath, and the pleasures of his lot were not enhanced by his father's strongly expressed desire that he should take orders in the Church of England. A strange vacillation marked his career at this period, a vacillation probably due to a constant struggle between his own inclination and the wishes of his father. He was admitted to the diaconate of the church, and almost at the same time was entered at the Inner Temple. He studied for the bar for some time, mostly in the company of Dunning and Kenyon, and then was ordained as a priest of the national church by the bishop of Salisbury. After this event his father obtained for him the next presentation to the small vicarage of New Brentford, to which Home was duly admitted, and he retained its scanty profits until 1773. During a part of this time he was absent on a tour in France, acting as the bear-leader of a son of the miser Elwes. To his credit be it said that while he resided at Brentford he discharged with exem-plary regularity all the duties of his profession, and that, reviving a practice of the previous century, he studied medicine for the benefit of his poorer parishioners. Under the excitement created by the actions of Wilkes and the blunders of his ministerial opponents, Home plunged into politics with consuming zeal. The newspapers abounded with his productions, but his chief effort was a scathing pamphlet on Lords Bute and Mansfield, setting out the "petition of an Englishman." In 1765 he again went abroad as tutor, and on this occasion he escorted to Italy the son of a Mr Taylor, who lived near his Middlesex parish, a young man subject to fits of insanity. It was while passing through Paris on this tour that he made the personal acquaintance of Wilkes, and it was while at Montpellier, in January 1766, that a letter addressed by Horne to Wilkes laid the seeds of that personal antipathy which afterwards grew so rapidly. In the summer of 1767 the travelled parson landed again on English soil, and, in spite of his latent distrust of the so-called "patriot," his exertions quickly obtained for Wilkes that seat for the county of Middlesex which ensured his fortune. Home was deeply concerned in all the proceedings of the corpo-ration of London in support of the popular cause, and he advised, if he did not actually draw up, the celebrated speech which Alderman Beckford addressed to his sovereign. As an incidental act in this struggle with the court and the majority of the House of Commons, Home involved himself in a dispute with George Onslow, the member for Surrey, which culminated in a civil action, ultimately decided in Home's favour, and in the loss by his oppo-nent of his seat in parliament. An influential association, called "the Society for Supporting the Bill of Rights," was founded, mainly through the exertions of Home, in 1769, but the members were soon divided into two opposite camps of the thick and thin partisans of Wilkes and of those who refused to be labelled by the name of any combatant, and in 1770 Horne and Wilkes broke out into open warfare. Into this controversy, carried on with that unflagging zeal which always springs from personal hatred, none will now care to enter; it benefited the fortunes of neither of the combatants, and it damaged the success of the cause for which they had both laboured energetically. In 1771 Home obtained at Cambridge, though not with-out some opposition from members of both the political parties, his degree of M.A., and in the same year he embarked on a more laborious and costly undertaking, that of vindicating the right of printing an account of the debates in parliament, in which, after a protracted struggle between the ministerial majority and the civic authorities, the right was definitely established. The energies of the indefatigable parson knew no bounds. In the same year (1771) he crossed swords with Junius, and ended in dis-arming his masked antagonist. It is a curious corollary to this controversy that more than one speculator has identified him with Junius. Home had now passed more than half the allotted span of life, and his only fixed income consisted of those scanty emoluments attached to a position which galled him daily. He resigned his bene-fice, and betook himself to the study of the law and to his studies in philology. An accidental circumstance, however, occurred at this moment which largely affected his future. His friend Mr William Tooke had purchased a consider-able estate south of the town of Croydon in Surrey, part of which seems to have consisted of Purley Lodge in Coulsdon. The possession of this property brought about frequent disputes with an adjoining landowner, and, after many actions in the law courts, the friends of Mr Tooke's opponent endeavoured to obtain, by a bill forced through the Houses of Parliament, the privileges which the law had not assigned to him. Home thereupon, by a bold libel on the Speaker, drew public attention to the case, and, although he himself was placed for a time in the custody of the sergeant-at-arms, the clauses which were injurious to the interests of Mr Tooke were eliminated from the bill through the publicity which his conduct had given to the matter. Mr Tooke's gratitude knew no bounds; he declared his intention of making his friend the heir to his fortune, and, if the design was never carried into effect, Home derived from the generous old man during his lifetime large gifts of money. No sooner had this matter been happily settled than Home found himself involved in a more serious trouble than any that had yet befallen him. For his conduct in signing the advertisement soli-citing subscriptions for the relief of the relatives of the Americans murdered by the king's troops at Lexington and Concord, he was tried at the Guildhall in July 1777 before Lord Mansfield, found guilty, and committed to the King's Bench prison in St George's Fields, from which he only emerged after a year's durance, and after a loss, in fine and costs, amounting to £1200. Soon after his deliverance, as he had thrown off, as he thought, his clerical gown, he applied to be called to the bar, but his application was negatived on the ground that his orders in the church were indelible. To return to the church was now impossible; and Home tried his fortune, but without success, in farming some land in Huntingdonshire. Two tracts which were penned by him, one before and the other after this failure in practical life, exercised great influence in the country. One of them, criticizing the measures of Lord North's ministry, passed through nume-rous editions; the other set out a scheme of reform which he afterwards withdrew in favour of that advocated by Fitt. On his return from his voluntary banishment in Huntingdonshire, he became once more a frequent guest at Mr Tooke's house of Burley, and in 1782 assumed the name of Home Tooke, which is now invariably assigned to him. In 1786 Home Tooke conferred perpetual fame upon his benefactor's country house by adopting as a second title of his elaborate philological treatise of "E^ea UrepocvTa, the more popular though misleading title of The Diversions of Purley. The treatise at once attracted attention in England and the Continent, was universally read by the vulgar as well as the learned, and, while its conclusions, if not always carrying conviction to the erudite, were deemed by them worthy of consideration as proceeding from a mind of extensive learning and singular acute-ness, the fame given to Purley by the choice of the title gratified its owner. The first part was published in 1786, the second in 1805. The best edition is that which was published in 1829, under the editorship of Bichard Taylor, with the additions written in the author's interleaved copy.
Between 1782 and 1790 Tooke gave his support to Bitt, and in the election for Westminster, a constituency in which Fox was vitally interested, he threw all his energies into the ministerial cause. With Fox he was never on terms of friendship, and Samuel Bogers, in his Table Talk, asserts that their antipathy was so pronounced that at a dinner party given by a prominent Whig not the slightest notice was taken by Fox of the presence of Home Tooke. It was after the election of Westminster in 1788 that Tooke depicted the two rival statesmen in his celebrated pamphlet of Two Pair of Portraits. At the general election of 1790 he came forward as a candidate for that distinguished constituency, in opposition to Fox and Lord Hood, but was defeated; and, though he again sought the suffrages of its voters in 1796, and his speeches at the hustings were never exceeded in ability, he was again at the bottom of the poll. Meantime the excesses of the French republicans had unhinged the minds of all sections of society in England, and the actions of the Tory min-istry faithfully represented the feelings of the country. Home Tooke was arrested early on the morning of 16th May 1794, and conveyed to the Tower. His trial for high treason lasted for six days (October 17-23) and ended in his acquittal, the jury only requiring the short space of eight minutes to settle their verdict. The evi-dence which the crown could adduce in support of the charge proved to be of the slightest description, and the demeanour of the accused throughout the proceedings furnished abundant proofs of the resolution of his mind and the force of his abilities. His public life after this event was only distinguished by one act of importance. Through the influence of Lord Camelford, the fighting peer, he was returned to parliament in 1801 for the pocket borough of Old Sarum. No sooner was he returned to the House of Commons than Lord Temple endeavoured to secure his exclusion on the ground that he had taken orders in the church, and one of Gillray's caricatures delineates the two politicans, Temple and Camelford, playing at battledore and shuttlecock, with Home Tooke as the shuttlecock. The ministry of Addington would not support this suggestion, but a bill was at once introduced by them and carried into law, which rendered all persons in holy orders ineligible to sit in the House of Commons. The parliamentary life of the member for Old Sarum was preserved through one parliament, but at its expiration he was excluded for ever.
The last years of Tooke's life were spent in retirement in a house on the west side of Wimbledon Common, and there he was visited by the leading members of the party of progress. The traditions of his Sunday parties have lasted unimpaired to this day, and the most pleasant pages penned by his biographer describe the politicians and the men of letters who gathered round his hospitable board. His conversational powers rivalled those of Dr Johnson; and, if more of his sayings have not been chronicled for the benefit of posterity, the defect is due to the absence of a Boswell. Through the liberality of his friends, his last days were freed from the pressure of poverty, and he was enabled to place his illegitimate son in a position which soon brought him wealth, and to leave a competency to his two illegitimate daughters. Illness seized him early in 1810, and for the next two years his sufferings were acute. He died in his house at Wimbledon on 18th March 1812, and his body was buried with that of his mother at Ealing, the tomb which he had prepared in the garden attached to his house at Wimbledon being found unsuitable for the interment. An altar-tomb still stands to his memory in Ealing church-yard. A catalogue of his library was printed in 1813.
The Life of Home Tooke, by Alexander Stephens, is written in an
nnattractive style, and was the work of an admirer only admitted
to his acquaintance at the close of his days. Its main facts are
reproduced with more brightness in an essay by Mr J. E. Thorold
Rogers in the second series of his Historical Gleanings. Many of
Horne Tooke's wittiest sayings are preserved in the Table Talk of
Samuel Rogers and S. T. Coleridge. (W. P. C.)

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