Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thompson, Thomas Perronet
THOMPSON, THOMAS PERRONET (1783–1869), general and politician, born at Hull on 15 March 1783, was eldest of three sons of Thomas Thompson, a merchant and banker of Hull, who represented Midhurst in the House of Commons from July 1807 to June 1818. His mother, Philothea Perronet Briggs, was a granddaughter of the Rev. Vincent Perronet [q. v.], and daughter of Elizabeth Perronet, who married William Briggs, one of John Wesley's ‘book-stewards.’ Commencing his education at Hull grammar school, which was then under the headmastership of Joseph Milner [q. v.], the ecclesiastical historian, Thompson was sent in October 1798, at the early age of fifteen, to Queens' College, Cambridge. In his nineteenth year he graduated B.A., being placed seventh on the list of wranglers, and in 1803 he was appointed midshipman on board the Isis, of 50 guns, the flagship of Vice-admiral (afterwards Lord) Gambier, who was then in command on the Newfoundland station. On the voyage out several West Indiamen which had been taken by the French were recaptured at the mouth of the English Channel, and Thompson was placed in charge of one of them, and had the luck to take the vessel to Newfoundland in safety. In 1804 he was elected a fellow of Queens' College, ‘a sort of promotion,’ as he remarked, ‘which has not often gone along with the rank and dignity of a midshipman.’ After serving for the best part of four years in the navy, Thompson joined the sister service as a second lieutenant in the 95th rifles in 1806. His first experience of active military service was unlucky, as he was captured, with General Crawford, by the Spaniards in the attack made by General John Whitelocke [q. v.] on Buenos Ayres on 5 July 1807. After a short imprisonment he was set free, and on his return to England he was appointed, in July 1808, governor of the infant colony of Sierra Leone, through the influence of Wilberforce, who had been an early friend of Thompson's father. The colony, which had been founded in 1787 by the Sierra Leone Company, had been transferred to the crown in 1807, and Thompson was the first governor appointed by the British government, Thomas Ludlam, his predecessor, having been appointed by the company in 1803. The slave trade had been declared illegal in 1806; but Thompson's efforts to suppress the evils of the apprenticeship system were ill received, and the government deemed it well to recall him in the second year of his governorship. Soon afterwards he again sought active service by joining in Spain the 14th light dragoons as lieutenant. He took part in some of the severest fighting in the Pyrenees, eventually receiving the Peninsular medal with four clasps for the battle of Nivelle (November 1813), Nive (December 1813), Orthes (February 1814), and Toulouse (April 1814). On the conclusion of peace he exchanged into the 17th light dragoons, who were then serving in India, and arrived at Bombay in 1815. In 1818 his regiment took part in the campaign under Francis Rawdon Hastings, first marquis of Hastings [q. v.], and Sir John Malcolm [q. v.], which resulted in the destruction of the Pindaris of Central India. He next took part in the expedition against the Wahabees of the Persian Gulf, and, upon peace being made, he was left in charge of Râs al Khyma, with a force of a few hundred sepoys and a small body of European artillerymen. In November 1820, at the head of some three hundred sepoys and a force of friendly Arabs, Thompson was defeated near Soor, on the Arabian coast, by a body of Arabs whom he had been directed by the Bombay government to chastise for alleged piracy. As a result of the court-martial which was held, Thompson was ‘honourably acquitted’ on the charges affecting his personal conduct, but was reprimanded for ‘rashly undertaking the expedition with so small a detachment’ (cf. supplement to the London Gazette, 15 and 18 May 1821).
His regiment was ordered home in 1822, and Thompson saw no further active service; but in 1827 he obtained his majority in the 65th regiment, then quartered in Ireland, and in 1829 he became lieutenant-colonel of infantry, unattached. In 1846 he was gazetted colonel, major-general in 1854, and lieutenant-general in 1860, finally becoming general in 1868, the year before his death.
Almost immediately upon his return to England from India in 1822 Perronet Thompson devoted himself to literature and politics. He entered into familiar intercourse with the circle of ‘philosophical radicals’ surrounding Jeremy Bentham, who was then engaged in providing funds to start the ‘Westminster Review’ as the organ of the utilitarian philosophers. In 1824, then being forty years of age, Thompson commenced a literary career by contributing an article on the ‘Instrument of Exchange’ to the first number of the ‘Review.’ Being prompted by his sympathy with the Greeks, then struggling for independence, Thompson published in 1825 two pamphlets in modern Greek and French on ‘Outposts’ and on a system of telegraphing for service in the field. Coming back to economic subjects, in 1826 he published the ‘True Theory of Rent,’ in support of Adam Smith against Ricardo and others, and his views were approved by Jean-Baptiste Say. In 1827 appeared his most celebrated pamphlet, the ‘Catechism on the Corn Laws,’ which was written in a ‘strong, racy, Saxon style,’ abounding in humorous illustration. This ‘Catechism’—which was described by Sir John Bowring [q. v.] as ‘one of the most masterly and pungent exposures of fallacies’ ever published—purported to be written by a member of the university of Cambridge. It at once obtained wide popularity, no fewer than eighteen editions passing through the press by 1834. An immediate effect of the publication of the ‘Catechism’ was the election of Thompson as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1828. In 1829 he struck upon a new line of literary effort by writing ‘Instructions to my Daughter for playing on the Enharmonic Guitar; being an attempt to effect the execution of correct harmony on principles analogous to those of the ancient Enharmonic’ (his enharmonic organ, constructed in accordance with his theory, was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and ‘honourably mentioned’ in the reports of the juries. It is still to be seen in the South Kensington Museum). Slightly varying his literary work, he next published, in 1830, a mathematical treatise, ‘Geometry without Axioms,’ which he described as an endeavour to get rid of axioms, and particularly to establish the theory of parallel lines without recourse to any principle not founded on previous demonstration. The work went through many editions, but having been well translated by M. van Tenac, professor of mathematics at the royal establishment at Rochefort, received more recognition from students in France than at home.
Meanwhile, in 1829 Thompson became the proprietor of the ‘Westminster Review,’ and for the seven years that he owned it he was the most prolific contributor, writing upwards of a hundred articles. One of these, in support of catholic emancipation, was republished under the title of the ‘Catholic State Waggon,’ forty thousand copies passing into circulation. Thompson transferred the ‘Review’ to Sir William Molesworth [q. v.] in 1836. In 1829 Thompson published a political pamphlet on the ‘Adjustment of the House of Lords,’ of so radical a tendency that Cobbett republished it in his ‘Register.’ Thompson also wrote, at the invitation of Jeremy Bentham, the ‘Notes and Subsidiary Observations on the Tenth Chapter’ (on military establishments) of Bentham's ‘Constitutional Code.’
The reforming zeal of the House of Commons that came into existence in 1832 seems to have inspired Thompson with a desire to enter parliament, and in January 1835 he contested Preston, and received considerable support, although he was not returned. In the following June, however, he was elected for Hull (his native town), but owing to his majority numbering only five votes, he had to submit to a petition, by which, as he expressed it, ‘he was laid down and robbed at the door of the House of Commons’ to the amount of 4,000l. None of the charges preferred in the petition being proved, he took his seat in the house, and added his vote to those of the ‘philosophic radicals,’ chief among whom were Grote, Molesworth, and Warburton, who had already made themselves a name under the directing genius of Bentham. In 1837, however, Thompson was defeated at Maidstone, where he opposed Wyndham Lewis and Disraeli; and although he contested Marylebone, Manchester, and Sunderland as opportunity offered, he did not again win a seat until 1847, when he was elected for Bradford, Yorkshire. In 1852 he failed to keep his seat at Bradford, being beaten by only six votes. Finally, in 1857 he was returned for the same constituency without a contest, but closed his parliamentary career with the dissolution in 1859, not again seeking election. While in parliament he endeavoured to keep in touch with his constituents by writing short reports to the local newspapers, usually twice a week during the session. These literary exercises he republished under the titles of ‘Letters of a Representative’ and ‘Audi Alteram Partem,’ the latter series being mainly adverse criticisms of the measures adopted for suppressing the Indian mutiny.
Although not in parliament during the critical years preceding the repeal of the corn laws, Thompson exercised considerable influence in educating the popular mind by means of his pamphlets, articles, and letters to the press. In 1842 a collected edition of all his writings was published in six closely printed volumes, under the title of ‘Exercises, political and others,’ alike interesting and instructive from the variety of the literary, political, military, mathematical, and musical information therein gathered together. In the same year Richard Cobden, then at the head of the Anti-cornlaw League, made a selection and classification of the most telling extracts from Thompson's writings in favour of free trade, and their circulation by means of the league made their author's name familiar through the kingdom.
In 1848 Thompson published his ‘Catechism on the Currency,’ the object of which was to show the advantage of a paper currency, inconvertible but limited. His views were afterwards embodied in a series of twenty-one resolutions which he moved in the House of Commons on 17 June 1852, but they were negatived (see Hansard's Debates, 3rd ser. cxxii. 899). Having dealt with free trade, catholic emancipation, the House of Lords, the theory of rent, and the currency, Thompson in 1855 published his ‘Fallacies against the Ballot,’ which he afterwards (in 1864) republished in his favourite guise of a catechism. Even after his retirement from parliament (at the age of seventy-eight) he continued to write as ‘An old Reformer’ and ‘A Quondam M.P.’ on public matters, particularly concerning himself in defence of the threatened Irish church, which, however, he lived just long enough to see disestablished. The bill received the royal assent on 26 July, and Thompson died at Blackheath on 6 Sept. 1869. He married, in 1811, Anne Elizabeth, daughter of the Rev. T. Barker of York.
In person Thompson was somewhat short, but well made and active, and capable of enduring great fatigue. In Herbert's painting (1847) of the meeting of the council of the Anti-cornlaw League, he occupies a conspicuous position.
[A sketch of the Life of T. P. Thompson by his son, General C. W. Thompson, published in No. 116 of the Proceedings of the Royal Society, 1869; Prentice's History of the Anti-cornlaw League, 1853; Pall Mall Gazette, 8 Sept. 1869; Times, 9 Sept. 1869.]