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Francis Horner (1778-1817)

This article was written by George Fisher Russell Barker and was published in 1891

Francis HornerFrancis Horner, politician, was the eldest son of John Horner, a merchant of Edinburgh, and his wife Joanna, daughter of John Baillie, a writer of the signet. He was born at Edinburgh on 12 August 1778. Leonard Horner was his brother. In 1786 he was sent to the high school at Edinburgh, where he became dux of the rector's class. In November 1792 he matriculated at the university of Edinburgh, where he attracted the notice of Dugald Stewart, and became the intimate friend of Lord Henry Petty. He left the university at the end of the summer session of 1795, and having determined to go to the bar was placed under the care of the Rev. John Hewlett at Shacklewell, Middlesex, in order to rid himself of his broad Scottish accent.

Returning to Edinburgh in the autumn of 1797, he was shortly afterwards admitted with his friend Brougham to the Speculative Society, of which he became a leading member. In June 1800 he was called to the Scotch bar, but though he became ‘daily more attached to law as a study,’ he also became ‘daily more averse to the practice of the Scots court’. During a short visit to London in the spring of 1802 he finally determined to come to the English bar, and was admitted a student of Lincoln's Inn on 26 April of that year. Horner, Jeffrey, and Sydney Smith were the original founders of the Edinburgh Review. The first number appeared in November 1802, with four articles by Horner. In March 1803 Horner left Edinburgh, and in the following July established himself in Garden Court, Temple.

On 16 May 1804 he made his first appearance at the bar of the House of Lords; but owing to nervousness ‘scarcely could finish a sentence, and could find no variety of language to express distinct ideas ... my tongue in truth clove to the roof of my mouth’. In the following month, at the request of the chairman, Horner consented to undertake an exposition of the views of the East India Company with respect to the extension of their territory, and an examination of the governor-general's conduct in the Mahratta war. No trace, however, of this ‘exposition’ has been found either among Horner's papers or among the archives of the India House. In February 1806 he was appointed by Lord Minto to the seat vacated by Mr. Ryder at the board of commissioners entrusted with the duty of adjusting the claims of the creditors of the nabob of Arcot. Through the influence of Lord Henry Petty and Lord Kinnaird, Horner was returned for the borough of St. Ives at the general election in November 1806, in the whig interest. Writing to his friend J. A. Murray, Horner gives an account of his canvass, and relates how he ‘shook every individual voter by the hand, stinking with brine and pilchard juice, repeated the same smiles and cajoleries to every one of them, and kissed some women that were very pretty’. He made his maiden speech in the House of Commons on 27 January 1807, but did not take any part in the more important debates of that short-lived parliament.

Horner was called to the English bar on 13 June 1807, and chose the western circuit. As he had not obtained a seat at the general election in the previous May, he was returned, through the influence of Lord Carrington, for the borough of Wendover at a by-election in the following July. Towards the close of 1808 Horner removed from Garden Court to 7 New Square, Lincoln's Inn. Hitherto he had refrained from taking part in any great debate in the house, and Jeffrey, writing to him on 2 April 1809, asked: ‘Why do you not make speeches, if you will not write reviews? ... trample this fastidiousness under your feet; make yourself known for what you are, and at thirty-one, and in the crisis of Europe, do not still think of training yourself for futurity’. Finding his duties on the Arcot commission incompatible with his profession, Horner retired during the summer of this year.

On 1 February 1810 he moved for eight different returns respecting bullion and the issue of bank-notes and on the 19th a committee was appointed, upon his motion, ‘to inquire into the cause of the high price of gold bullion, and to take into consideration the state of the circulating medium and of the exchange between Great Britain and foreign parts’. Horner was chosen chairman of the committee, which consisted of twenty-two members, and sat for thirty-one days. Their report, styled by Horner ‘a motley composition by Huskisson, Thornton, and myself’, recommending the resumption of cash payments at the end of two years, on the ground that the mutual convertibility of notes and gold was an essential foundation of sound business, was presented to the house on 8 June. On 20 December, in a speech which made a great impression on the house, Horner supported Ponsonby in urging the adoption of an address, in opposition to the ministerial proposal that the regent should be appointed by bill. In January 1811 Lord Grenville, anticipating that the formation of a new ministry would be entrusted to him, offered Horner the post of financial secretary of the treasury. This offer Horner declined, on the ground that he had resolved on entering parliament not to take any political office until he was rich enough to live at ease out of office.

On 6 May the bullion report was considered in a committee of the whole house. Horner moved a series of sixteen resolutions, embodying the opinion of the select committee, in a speech occupying three hours in delivery. His resolutions, however, were defeated by the anti-bullionists, and a few days afterwards Vansittart's counter-resolutions were carried. Parliament was dissolved in September 1812, and as Lord Carrington had to provide for a nephew who had come of age since the last election, as well as for his son-in-law, Horner was once more without a seat. The Marquis of Buckingham, however, came to his assistance, and in April 1813 Horner was returned for the borough of St. Mawes. In the following June Horner deprecated any measure to prevent the importation of corn from foreign countries by a system of graduated duties, contending that it was only by ‘artificial prices that the poor were prevented from living without being burdensome on the community’. In the following year he again took part in the discussions on the corn trade, and on 28 June moved for the production of papers to show how far the ministers had endeavoured, in their negotiations for peace, to obtain the abolition of the African slave trade on the part of France. On 21 February 1815 he supported Lambton's motion on the Genoa question in an animated speech and two days afterwards opposed Robinson's corn law resolutions in a speech of considerable length.

Horner had now fairly established himself in the front rank of the parliamentary speakers of the day, and Mackintosh, while referring to these last-mentioned speeches, declared that ‘two such speeches had never been made in the House of Commons by the same person in one week, or at least not for a great many years.’ On 20 March a vote of thanks to Horner and Alexander Baring was passed by the common council of the city of London ‘for their able and indefatigable exertions in opposing the Corn Bill in the honourable House of Commons.’ In the same month Horner took part in the discussion of the Bank Restriction Bill, and insisted that the bank should resume cash payments as soon as possible. Siding with Lord Grey in his opinion that it was the duty of the allies to make use of every opportunity for maintaining the peace, Horner voted for Whitbread's amendment to the address on 7 April, and in a letter to the Marquis of Buckingham handsomely offered to resign his seat for St. Mawes, an offer which, to the credit of the marquis, was not accepted. On 13 February 1816 Horner strenuously urged the reduction of the peace establishment, and on the following day obtained leave to bring in a bill ‘to regulate proceedings of grand juries in Ireland upon bills of indictment’, which, in spite of the opposition of the Irish judges, was eventually passed into law (56 Geo. III, c. 87). On 26 February he condemned the terms of the treaties in a speech which Lord Colchester is said to have declared was ‘most powerful, argumentative, and profound, and altogether one of the most able speeches he had ever heard in that house.’ Horner denounced the Alien Bill as unconstitutional, and on 1 May moved for a select committee to inquire into the expediency of restoring the cash payments of the Bank of England, and the safest and most advantageous means of effecting it’, which was rejected by a majority of 73. On 25 June he spoke for the last time in the House of Commons, and expressed his hope of a speedy settlement of the catholic claims.

In the summer of this year (1816) Horner's health failed, and under the advice of his doctors he left England in October. He arrived towards the end of the following month at Pisa. There he died on 8 February 1817, aged 38, and was buried in the protestant cemetery at Leghorn, where a monument was erected to his memory, at one end of which a likeness of Horner was executed in relief by Sir Francis Chantrey. On moving for a new writ for St. Mawes on 3 March 1817, Lord Morpeth paid a generous tribute to Horner's merits, in which Canning, Sir Samuel Romilly, and others joined. The speeches made upon this occasion were afterwards translated into Italian by Ugo Foscolo.

Horner was a man of sound judgment and unassuming manners, of scrupulous integrity, and great amiability of character. He was a correct and forcible speaker, and though without the gift of eloquence or humour, exercised a remarkable influence in the House of Commons, owing to his personal character. Few men, with such small advantages at the outset of their career, ever acquired in such a short space of time so great a reputation among their contemporaries. As a political economist Horner ranks deservedly high, and though the bullion report, with which his name is identified, produced no immediate legislative result, its effect upon public opinion was so great that Peel was enabled to pass his bill for the gradual resumption of cash payments by the bank a few years afterwards (59 Geo. III, c. 49). Lord Cockburn, in Memorials of his Time, has recorded his conviction that ‘Horner was born to show what moderate powers, unaided by anything whatever except culture and goodness, may achieve, even when these powers are displayed amidst the competition and jealousy of public life’ (p. 313), while Scott declared that Horner always put him ‘in mind of Obadiah's bull’.

The original portrait of Horner by Sir Henry Raeburn is now in the National Portrait Gallery. From a note on the back of this portrait it appears that there were ‘three copies of this picture,’ one of which hangs in the hall of the Speculative Society, another belongs to the National Gallery of Scotland (where there is also a bust of Horner by Chantrey), and the third was lent by ‘the Raeburn family’ to the Raeburn Exhibition at Edinburgh in 1876 (Cat. No. 145). An engraving by S. W. Reynolds after Raeburn forms the frontispiece to the first volume of the ‘Memoirs and Correspondence.’ A statue of Horner by Chantrey was erected in the north transept of Westminster Abbey.

From Hewlett's preface to the third edition of the ‘Elements of Algebra by Leonard Euler, translated from the French,’ &c. (London, 1822, 8vo), it appears that Horner was both the translator of the book, the first edition of which was published anonymously in 1797 (London, 8vo, 2 vols.), as well as the author of the short biographical account of Euler contained in it. While at Edinburgh Horner, in conjunction with Dr. Thomas Brown and others, projected a translation of the political and philosophical writings of Turgot, but the scheme seems to have been abandoned. In 1807 Horner wrote ‘a threepenny pamphlet,’ entitled ‘A Short Account of a late Short Administration,’ a reprint of which will be found in the ‘Memoirs. He never published any of his parliamentary speeches, and on two occasions only was known to have corrected the reports.

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