In 1777 John Horne Tooke was sentenced to seven months’ imprisonment for raising a fund to support the American rebels.
John Horne (later Horne Tooke), originally a clergyman, resigned from his clerical position in 1773 and began the study of the law and philology. He had become a pro-reform activist of sorts; having been associated with reforming demagogue John Wilkes, who had already been jailed for libeling king George III, exiled, elected MP and refused entry to parliament, and had various mobs riot in his support and more. Wilkes and Horne had, though, become somewhat estranged. Wilkes’ vague anti-establishment credentials and repeated expulsions from the House of Commons despite being re-elected several times, had made him a hero to both the political reformers and sections of the London artisan classes and the mob… But Horne Tooke grew disillusioned with Wilkes’ character. His attempts to broaden the political aims of the Wilkite Society for supporting the Bill of Rights led to a split in its ranks: Horne Tooke and a minority left to form the Constitutional Society in 1771. (As a result Horne was for a while very unpopular with the unruly London crowds, and was burnt in effigy…)
The Wilkes agitation, which had convulsed London with riots, demonstrations and contested elections, was dying out, but the Constitutional Society soon found itself embroiled in a new cause. The growing tension between the American colonies and the British government was gearing up towards rebellion and war. Before the war of independence began, support for the colonists’ demands for autonomy and representation and opposition to punitive taxes was fairly widespread among British political reformers, and Horne Tooke joined his voice to this… however, following the outbreak of hostilities in 1775 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776, support in Britain for the American colonies rapidly fell off.
Horne Tooke however remained one of the few vocal supporters of the cause. The Constitutional Society started a fundraising drive to raise money to help residents of Boston affected economically by British policies implemented after the Boston Tea Party. After the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, the Society had another whipround to aid the widows and orphans of those killed by British troops at the two engagements. On 7 June 1775 some of the members passed a resolution which was published in the newspapers. It directed that a subscription should be raised on behalf of ‘our beloved American fellow subjects’ who had ‘preferred death to slavery,’ and ‘were for that reason only inhumanly murdered by the king’s troops.
This obviously enraged the patriotic sentiment aroused in Britain over the war. Horne Tooke’s articles, published in British newspapers, supporting this subscription, were viewed by prosecutors as ‘criminal libel’, since the colonies were in armed rebellion.
In 1776 some of the printers of the newspapers who published the appeal or articles in favour of it were fined, and in the next year Horne was himself tried before Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, on 4 July 1777. Horne Tooke and his supporters contested that the Americans had not been declared “rebels” at the time of the first subscription in 1775; Horne defended himself, disputing points of law, but the court found him guilty, and sentenced him to be fined £200 and to do12 months in prison. Horne Tooke was the only political reformer jailed for support of the Americans during the Revolutionary War. In 1778 he brought a writ of error in parliament, but the judgment was finally affirmed. Many thought Mansfield was taking revenge on him for a 1771 case Horne Tooke had won in the court of common pleas, or for Horne’s blatant escape from prosecution for the pro-Wilkes 1765 publication of “The Petition of an Englishman.”
Horne was imprisoned in the King’s Bench Prison. He was allowed to occupy a house ‘within the rules,’ meaning he was allowed a fair amount of liberty and privilege rather than being locked in a cell. Imprisonment was very different then if you were well off or connected. He was visited by his political friends, and had a weekly dinner with them at the Dog and Duck.
Tooke attributed the gout, from which he suffered ever afterwards, to the claret which he drank in the prison; it on the other hand, cured him of the ‘jail-distemper.’
He would go on to take a part in the reform agitation in the 1790s, be arrested – and cleared – of treason, and briefly serve as an MP… He was however a half-hearted radical at best: “His politics were those of the old-fashioned city patriots, who disliked the whig aristocracy, but would have been the first to shrink from a violent revolution. Major Cartwright quoted at the trial Horne’s familiar remark that he might accompany Thomas Paine and his followers for part of their journey. They might go on to Windsor, but he would get out at Hounslow. He always disliked Paine and ridiculed his theories. He enjoyed taking the chair at the Crown and Anchor and elsewhere to denounce the aristocracy and approve vigorous manifestoes, but he was always cautious and struck out dangerous phrases.”
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online