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John Horne Tooke (1736-1812): Revolutionary & libeller

Brotherson, Gregory W. (1999) John Horne Tooke (1736-1812): Revolutionary & libeller. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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The purpose of this thesis is to examine the social and political thought of John Horne Tooke (1736 — 1812). It is a study of the effect of personalities on politics during a period of violent social and political upheaval.

This thesis is important for several reasons. First it will show Horne Tooke at the centre of the ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ campaign of the 1760s, the gadfly Wilkes only a figurehead. From this slanderous, libellous world of political intrigue came Junius who, it will be argued, was the brainchild of Horne Tooke, contrived in conjunction with his patron the Earl of Shelburne.

Second, this thesis will show how the power of the press was used by Horne Tooke to move people for political ends, and how he used his libellous pen to sensationalise a number of otherwise lost causes. While in prison for libel, Horne Tooke wrote the outline for his major work on the politics of language, publishing the first part in 1786 while soured by gaol, and the second in 1805 while embittered by the Pitt administration, which he detested. It will be argued that Horne Tooke was offering a complete critique of the ruling classes in both cases, but instead found limited fame as an etymologist, such being the nature of the politics of language.

Third, this thesis is significant because it shows the impact which the French Revolution had on the evolutionary process of inclusive politics in England. Through the agency of Horne Tooke, it will be argued that Pitt did not extinguish radical politics in 1794 following the Treason Trials and the introduction of the ‘Gagging Act’, as argued by some historians. Rather, political opposition to the entrenched power elite actually increased during this period as Horne Tooke went about the task of sowing the seeds for democratic elections at Westminster, resulting in the Burdett phenomenon.

Finally, this thesis is important because it shows the revolutionary nature of English politics throughout this period. It will be argued that if an English Revolution did not occur between 1793 and 1804 it was not the fault of Horne Tooke, who remained throughout his life a serious revolutionary with the ability to markedly influence the flow of events. He remains perhaps the greatest libeller of his time. Horne Tooke died at home with friends, well satisfied that although he had escaped martyrdom, he had still managed to have set the ‘century a roar’, as was his custom to ‘set the table a roar’ at his notorious Wimbledon Sunday dinner parties.

Horne Tooke destroyed all his personal papers shortly before he died, thus assuring that no comprehensive biography of his life is likely ever to be written. Fortunately, however, sufficient personal memoirs and manuscripts in various research collections remain, which have been used as the basis of this thesis. I confirm that this thesis is the product of my own research and writing.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Division of Social Sciences, Humanities and Education
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Durey, Michael
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