HORNE TOOKE, John (1736-1812), of Wimbledon, Surr.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



14 Feb. 1801 - 1802

Family and Education

b. 25 June 1736, 3rd s. of John Horne, poulterer, of Newport Street, Soho, Mdx. by w. Elizabeth. educ. Soho Square acad. 1743; Westminster 1744; Eton 1746-53; by Rev. Holmes at Sevenoaks 1753; St. John’s, Camb. 1754-8; I. Temple 1756. Took holy orders and ordained priest 23 Nov. 1760. unm. 1s. 2da. Took additional name of Tooke 1782, in honour of his benefactor William Tooke of Purley (who left him only £500, 1802).

Offices Held


On 16 Feb. 1801 a ‘very old’ and ‘lame’ man took his seat in the House and was observed ‘walking about the House from bench to bench ... followed by Sir Francis Burdett’, both his pupil and his sponsor. This political dinosaur was John Horne Tooke, returned for Old Sarum by the crazed radical 2nd Baron Camelford, allegedly because his return was ‘what ... would annoy government most’. It certainly proved ‘one of the first thorns in the side of the new Minister’.1 Earl Temple at once gave notice of a motion for a new writ for Old Sarum, on the grounds that Horne Tooke was disqualified from sitting by his having taken holy orders. He had indeed done so in 1760 to please his father, an unsatisfied tradesman creditor of Frederick Prince of Wales. His father bought him the chapelry of New Brentford. A sermon of his ‘On the disappointments of friendship’ survives. But he soon gave up his clerical duties to act as a travelling tutor and in 1765 was drawn into anti-ministerial politics. He joined the metropolitan radical movement led by John Wilkes, promoting the Society of Supporters of the Bill of Rights (1769). After they had quarrelled, he founded the Constitutional Society (1771). In 1773 he resigned his living to study law, his own preference, but the Inner Temple, where he had kept terms, refused to call him to the bar because of his priestly orders in 1779: nor did subsequent applications of 1782 and 1794 succeed. In 1777 he had been sentenced to seven months’ imprisonment for raising a fund to support the American rebels. From 1778 to 1784 he was agent to (Sir) Robert Bernard in his election adventures in Bedford and Huntingdonshire.2 He was prepared to be ‘the Ishmael of literature and politics’, devoting himself to Anglo-Saxon philological and grammatical studies subversive of the unmeaning vocabulary of his time. Yet Brougham later asserted that ‘no man out of office all his life and out of Parliament all but a few months of its later period, ever acted so conspicuous a part in the political warfare of his times as Horne Tooke’.3

Horne Tooke disdained political compromise, was ‘nothing without a grievance’ and was activated chiefly by ‘vanity and personal animosity’. He despised the Fox-North coalition in 1783; espoused Mrs Fitzherbert’s case against Fox; and like John Wilkes, was prepared to give public preference to Pitt over Fox during the Westminster by-election of 1788, when he further objected to the Foxite championship of a regency. At the same time, he remained a patron of the Society for Constitutional Information; a supporter of parliamentary reform, but not of the remodelling of the constitution; of a mixed monarchy and not of mere democracy. He was no rabble rouser: he was ‘a friend of the monarchical part of the constitution, but an enemy to the aristocratic power which has grown to so great a height in this county, as to control both King and People’. He also doubted the efficacy of the French revolution as a model for English reformers and had no time for the Rights of Man. In 1790 he contested Westminster, at his own expense, to expose the compromise foisted on the electors with Fox’s concurrence, and the corruption of Westminster elections by ‘the prevailing and destructive spirit of personal party’. He agreed to advocate triennial parliaments. He polled nearly 1,700 votes and made his petition against the return, 9 Dec. 1790, a bold manifesto for reform.4 It provoked a heated debate, which was adjourned until February following, when the petition was rejected as frivolous and vexatious. In April 1792 he secured further publicity for it when Fox successfully sued him for nearly £200 costs. In June he was ‘hooted down’ when he attempted to oppose the royal proclamation against sedition at the Surrey county meeting.5 He subsequently entertained kindred spirits at his Wimbledon retreat. His correspondence was meanwhile under official scrutiny.

Horne Tooke’s zeal for parliamentary reform provided him with the occasion for the notoriety he had always sought when he was arrested on 16 May 1794, imprisoned and charged with high treason. Defended by Thomas Erskine and Vicary Gibbs, and not least by himself, he was acquitted in November. Canning observed that

it is not easy to see him to more advantage than he appears, in point of talents, on his trial. His mode of examining witnesses, his objections in law, and his whole manner of conducting the part in his cause, which he takes upon himself is the most masterly that I can conceive—infinitely beyond any professional counsel that I remember to have seen. But then he is insolent, and does and says things so unlike the usual conduct allowed in a court of justice.6

His jubilant friends purchased him an annuity of £600, but he would not retire from politics. In 1796 he again contested Westminster. Wilkes spoke on his behalf and an admirer, probably Burdett, paid his expenses. The London Corresponding Society provided him with a committee. He was now in substantial agreement with Fox and admitted it, but refused a plea by Sheridan to withdraw. Fox, in turn, declined an alliance and Horne Tooke was defeated. He served as a mediator at the contentious meeting of the Friends of Parliamentary Reform in the Strand, 18 May 1797. Had Fox then retired, he was to have been a strong contender for his seat for Westminster. He insisted on his complete reconciliation with Fox. Introduced by Burdett to Lord Camelford, he was said by his biographer to have ‘sat up three days and three nights’ with him, when offered the vacant seat for Old Sarum, a rotten borough of which he must disapprove on principle. But by 1800 he regarded the cause of reform as ‘dead and buried’, at least until ‘this despotic war’ was ended.7

Horne Tooke’s career in the House was brief and stormy. In his maiden speech, 19 Feb. 1801, he alleged, apropos of the Ferrol expedition:

If the House refuse to go into a committee of inquiry, with what propriety can they enter into the merits of the borough of Old Sarum and its Member? How can they plunge themselves into inquiries and discussions about what is, or what is not a priest, and whether a thirty years’ quarantine is not sufficient to guard against the infection of his original character?

Pitt informed the King that the speech ‘seemed to aim only at quaintness and singularity in its turn, and deserves very little remark’.8 On 2 Mar., with reference to the ‘political animosity’ of which he believed himself the predestined victim, Horne Tooke issued a challenge to the House:

let any man examine what have been the sentiments that upon every occasion have fallen from me (and I have neither been sparing of writing nor speaking), and he will find that I have uniformly been against innovation.

On 6 Mar. he challenged Temple’s intended procedure of first proving his holy orders and then unseating him: he admitted that he had taken holy orders and thought the House should first state the general principle and then come to his particular case. On 10 Mar. he returned to the fray, lecturing the House on the rules of inference, to remind it that ‘the profession of the law was his original destination’. Fox supported him, but failed to secure an adjournment and his clerical past was proved.

While a select committee examined precedents for his case, he went on speaking and voting with opposition, notably against the Irish martial law bill, 12 and 18 Mar. 1801, and on 20 Mar. pleaded (as the Speaker should have anticipated) for ‘peaceable and decorous proceeding’ in a heated debate. On 14 Apr. he opposed the continued suspension of habeas corpus until he was ruled out of order. On 4 May the report of the select committee (which patently ignored the case of John Foster in the Tudor era) went against him and the House laughed when he claimed that ‘an unanimous resolution’ of ‘a respectable body of constituents’ was being set aside. It was at this point that the prime minister Addington stepped in and, to Lord Temple’s chagrin, proposed a declaratory bill to exclude priests in place of a particular expulsion, which was carried by 94 votes to 53.9 The bill was opposed by Horne Tooke, who ridiculed the supposed indelible nature of holy orders and argued that a clergyman should cease to be one if he took his seat in the House. He further maintained that no reason was given for the bill in its preamble and suggested an anti-clerical one. The bill, disqualifying clergy of the established church and kirk, passed the House on 19 May. Addington had insisted on exempting Horne Tooke from it—perhaps because Lord Camelford meant to replace him with a negro. So he was permitted (against his will, he alleged, as he would have been content to see Old Sarum disfranchised) to remain a Member until the dissolution. He subsequently drew attention to himself only a few times: notably as an opponent of the indemnity bill, 5, 8 June, and on behalf of Burdett’s frustrated motion against Pitt’s conduct as a war minister, 26 Nov. 1801.

Horne Tooke took his leave of the electors of Westminster, 26 June 1802, with a promise to ‘continue, during the short remainder of my life, most steadily attached to the ancient freedom of my country, as it was practically enjoyed under those honest old gentlemen, George the First and Second’. He remained in the wings, as Burdett’s prompter.10 In 1807 he published A warning to the electors of Westminster, on behalf of Burdett. When Burdett achieved notoriety in collision with the House in 1810, Sir James Mackintosh* claimed:11 ‘Horne Tooke laid a trap for the House of Commons, baited with a baronet, and ... the House have bit’.

Horne Tooke died 18 Mar. 1812. William Cobbett had written two years before, ‘His is a history of the damned hypocritical tyrannies of this jubilee reign’. He had shown ‘no appearance of being a formidable antagonist in the House of Commons’, which he was alleged to have left with a higher opinion of its aggregate ability than when he entered it. Despite physical handicaps—he ‘laboured under a local affliction from early youth, which proved extremely inconvenient’, losing the use of the right eye in a schoolboy fight—he was a sturdy figure with the manners of ‘a remarkably high-bred, old-fashioned man of quality’. He was ‘gay, lively and full of pleasantry in general conversation: on politics alone he was bitter, vituperative and inflexible’. His outmoded intransigence was dismissed by younger contemporaries as ‘a radical want of taste’. Sir James Mackintosh referred to ‘his character corrupted by philology and disappointed ambition’. The third part of his philological treatise The diversions of Purley, an analysis of ‘the structure of language’ never appeared, for he burnt the manuscript together with his correspondence. The whole project was dubbed by the satirists the ‘new Botheration Dictionary’. His desire to be buried in his own garden was disregarded. He left an illegitimate family. Advised to take a wife, he replied ‘With all my heart, whose wife shall it be?’12

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


A. Stephens, Mems. of John Horne Tooke (1813); Public Characters (1801-2), 62.

  • 1. Glenbervie Diaries, i. 171; Minto, iii. 201; Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 9.
  • 2. Hunts. RO, Manchester mss ddM bdle. 2, passim.
  • 3. DNB; Quarterly Review (1812), i. 316; Hazlitt, Works, iv. 236; Brougham, Hist. Sketches, i. 134.
  • 4. Chatsworth mss, Duchess of Devonshire jnl. 5 Mar. 1801; Cartwright Corresp. i. 154, 215, 223; Parkes and Merivale, Mems. P. Francis, ii. 451; Two Pairs of Portraits (1788); Morning Chron. 18 Nov. 1788 (Horne Tooke’s letter signed ‘M. B. Amicus’); Stephen, ii. 324, 421, 459; Losh Diaries (Surtees Soc. clxxi), 11; Farington, i. 136; Minto, ii. 20; T. Green, Diary of a Lover of Literature, 123; Public Advertiser, 16, 24 June, 5, 16 July 1790; CJ, xlvi. 45; Add. 27849, ff. 120-64.
  • 5. Minto, ii. 42.
  • 6. Howell, State Trials, xxv. 1-749; Twiss, Eldon, i. 273-85; Cartwright Corresp. i. 203-4; Harewood mss, Canning jnl. 19 Nov. 1794.
  • 7. Oracle, 27 Oct. 1795; True Briton, 25, 30 May; Morning Chron. 28 May 1796; Farington Diary (Yale ed.), ii. 551; The Times, 19 May 1797; Alnwick mss 58, f. 215; W. L. Clements Lib. Pitt letters, Pitt to Mornington, 26 Jan. 1798; Stephens, ii. 229; Cartwright Corresp. i. 240, 262.
  • 8. Geo. III Corresp. iii. 2367.
  • 9. CJ, i. 29; Add. 48247, ff. 48, 49.
  • 10. Grey mss, Lauderdale to Grey, 7 May 1809.
  • 11. Mackintosh Mems. ii. 36.
  • 12. Melville, Cobbett, ii. 38; Leveson Gower, i. 300; Moore, Byron Letters (1875), 308; Holland, Mems. Whig Party, i. 178-81; Stephens, ii. 421, 459; Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 146; Green, 67; Farington, i. 148; vii. 79; Mackintosh Mems. ii. 235; M. D. George, Cat. Pol. and Personal Satires, viii. 9893; Broughton, Recollections, i. 38.