J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Friday, March 03, 2023


At the History of Parliament blog, Dr. Robin Eagles just discussed a development I’d been curious about: the rift between John Wilkes and his fellow radical English Whigs in the 1770s.

Eagles focuses on the dispute between Wilkes and the Rev. John Horne (later John Horne Tooke). When Wilkes became the bane of the royal government in the late 1760s, Horne helped to found the Society of Gentlemen Supporters of the Bill of Rights. (The painting above shows, from right, Horne, Wilkes, and Wilkes’s lawyer, John Glynn.)

Horne viewed that organization as devoted to protecting citizens’ rights, with Wilkes happening to be the most prominent man being oppressed at the time. Wilkes seems to have seen it as his personal fan club. Eagles writes:
By the spring of 1770, the Society had managed to secure the funds necessary to keep Wilkes out of debtors’ prison, allowing him to walk free on 17 April without fear of being rearrested. With its original object now satisfied, the Society turned to campaigning on other reforming issues and helping to co-ordinate the nationwide petitioning movement. Here, though, lay the beginnings of its downfall. . . .

as Alexander Stephens, author of a memoir of Horne suggested, Wilkes and Horne were fundamentally incompatible:
It was almost impossible, from the nature of human affairs, that two such men as Mr Wilkes and Mr Horne could agree during any long period; for their characters, dispositions, and ultimate aims, were entirely dissimilar. [Memoirs, i. 176]
Horne thought Wilkes feckless. Wilkes found Horne overly serious and complained he ‘cast a gloom’ wherever he went. By December 1770 the two had fallen out dramatically. Horne wanted the Society to publish the details of all Wilkes’s debts, so they might be settled once and for all. He also pushed for other deserving causes to be underwritten by the Society. Wilkes counter-attacked, securing an agreement that nothing more would be done until his own finances had been straightened out.
Then came the Printers’ Case of 1771, which I discussed back here. At a meeting that Wilkes didn’t attend, Horne convinced the Bill of Rights Society to give those printers some money. At the next meeting, there was a blow-up.

Horne and some supporters left that group and founded the rival Constitutional Society. He and Wilkes started to snipe at each other in the press. Horne trumpeted Wilkes’s personal failings, but, as Eagles writes, those were already public knowledge; “Most of Wilkes’s supporters and admirers did so in full knowledge that their hero was a very fallible character.”

No comments: