British Friends of the American Revolution

By Jerome R. Reich | Go to book overview

4
"Birds of a Feather": John Wilkes and John Horne Tooke

As mentioned in the introductory chapter, the London radicals were prominent among the friends of America. Two of the most conspicuous of them were John Wilkes1 and John Horne Tooke (born John Home, he added Tooke to his name in 1782 at the request of his wealthy benefactor, William Tooke). 2 Both London-born ( Wilkes in 1725, Tooke in 1736), Wilkes was the son of a wealthy distiller, Tooke of a prosperous poultry dealer. Tooke attended Westminster and then Eton. At Eton, embarrassed by his father's lack of title, he claimed to be the son of "an eminent Turkey merchant." At Eton, he suffered more than embarrassment, he lost the sight of his right eye in a scuffle with one of his classmates but this injury never seemed to have handicapped him. After leaving Eton, Tooke studied with private tutors and then earned his Bachelor of Arts with honors from Cambridge University. His family wished him to become an Anglican clergyman but Tooke preferred the legal profession. After a brief career as a schoolmaster, he was ordained a deacon in 1759. Within a few months he became ill and, using this as an excuse, he resigned his position and entered the Inner Temple to study law. However, parental pressure and financial persuasion won out and, in 1760, he was ordained a clergyman of the Church of England.

Wilkes's life took a very different direction. Wilkes attended, but did not graduate from, the University of Leiden, a favorite school for Dissenters who were barred from Oxford and Cambridge (though, later, Wilkes joined the Church of England). Married at twenty-one to a wealthy woman ten years his senior (and from whom he was soon separated), he spent much of his time at the infamous Hell Fire Club, best known for its members' profligacy and licentiousness. He also had a more serious side and, after several unsuccessful attempts, won a seat in Parliament ( 1757) where he

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