Continuing with our new blog series on ‘Factions‘, Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our House of Lords 1715-1790 project looks at the dramatic fallout between John Wilkes and John Horne that led to the splitting of the Bill of Rights Society.
Few political rifts were played out in public more dramatically than the falling out between John Wilkes and John Horne (later Horne Tooke). The two had met while Wilkes was living in exile in France. Horne was a reluctant parson, who wanted to be a politician and revelled in donning the latest fashions while he was overseas eschewing his clerical ‘uniform’. Wilkes was a libertine former MP and newspaper proprietor, who had become the face of a new movement thanks to his arrest for libel in 1763. He had fled the country following a duel with a government minister, which had left him seriously injured. In his absence, he was convicted and expelled from his seat in Parliament. He spent the next four years living between France and Italy.
In 1768 Wilkes chose to stage a return so that he could stand for Parliament in the general election. He failed in the City of London but was successful in Middlesex. He then handed himself over to the authorities for sentencing and was subsequently expelled from his seat once more, on the grounds that he was ineligible to be admitted as an MP. There followed a famous series of by-elections, all won by Wilkes (from his prison cell), before Parliament finally brought the matter to a conclusion by seating Wilkes’s defeated competitor, Henry Lawes Luttrell.
Horne had played a prominent role in securing Wilkes’s election. As perpetual curate of St Lawrence’s Brentford, he was well placed to manage affairs in the county town where the Middlesex poll was held. He was crucial in ensuring that accommodation and entertainment was laid on for Wilkes’s supporters and in organizing transport to and from the hustings. Following Wilkes’s imprisonment in King’s Bench, Horne remained a close contact and in February 1769 he was instrumental in the formation of the Society of Gentlemen Supporters of the Bill of Rights (known as the Bill of Rights Society or SSBR for short). The group was established at a meeting held at the London Tavern on 20 February, presided over by Wilkes’s defence counsel and fellow MP for Middlesex, John Glynn, and formally promulgated on 25 February. The principal aim of the society was to oversee a subscription for paying off Wilkes’s debts, so that he would not be rearrested on his release in the spring of 1770. At its height, there may have been as many as 150 members of the SSBR, many of them prominent MPs and merchants. Founder members included John Sawbridge, brother of the republican writer, Catharine Macaulay, Sir Joseph Mawbey, an eccentric landowner, distiller and pig-breeder, and Brass Crosby, who was to precede Wilkes as Lord Mayor of London. Wilkes himself was elected a member after his release from prison.
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. Wilkes saw the Society fundamentally as a vehicle for his own aggrandisement. Horne wished to see it champion a more diverse range of causes. Besides, 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.
The final severing of the rival factions came over the Printers’ Case of 1771. While Wilkes is frequently credited for securing the right to publish parliamentary debates, Horne and other members of the SSBR also played important roles over the issue. In March Horne had persuaded the Society to pay out rewards to three printers who had been fined by Parliament for contravening their orders. At a meeting held the following month, Wilkes made it clear he was unhappy that the decision had been made when neither he, nor his supporters had been present. Tempers frayed and Horne moved that the Society should be dissolved. The vote went against him, but Horne and his faction promptly resigned their memberships and established a new rival group called the Constitutional Society.
The very personal falling out between Horne and Wilkes then made its way into the public domain by means of a series of angry letters exchanged between them in the press. Horne sought to portray Wilkes as an untrustworthy showman. He set out Wilkes’s casual attitude to settling his accounts in minute detail, even down to an incident relating to ‘a little Welch horse’ Wilkes had asked Horne’s brother-in-law to have sent to a friend in France. Horne’s problem in painting Wilkes as a libertine spendthrift, was that all of this was well known. Most of Wilkes’s supporters and admirers did so in full knowledge that their hero was a very fallible character. All that Horne succeeded in doing was portraying himself as embittered and hypocritical, given his own weakness for dressing up.
In spite of the split between the SSBR and the Constitutional Society, between them they succeeded in getting a number of key reform demands onto the agenda. In the 1774 election, SSBR members stood on a programme of shorter parliaments, greater accountability in government and reform of the electoral system. Wilkes himself proposed a bill for reform of the franchise in 1776. However, the original society, headed by two characters ‘equally avaricious of fame’ [Stephens] was never likely to survive for long. Theirs was ‘the rivalship of Pompey and Caesar’. It was just fortunate that their very public spat resulted only in a civil war ‘during which, happily, ink, rather than blood, was profusely shed on both sides’. [Stephens]
Nicola Jones, ‘Society of Gentlemen Supporters of the Bill of Rights’, Oxford DNB
Alexander Stephens, Memoirs of John Horne Tooke, 2 vols. (1813)
Peter D.G. Thomas, John Wilkes: A Friend to Liberty (Oxford 1996), ch. 7