Thomas Hollis and his Library of Liberty



Dr Adam Budd

‘Thomas Hollis and his Library of Liberty’: a talk to be given by Dr Adam Budd, Lecturer in Cultural History in the School of History, Classics & Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, to the Friends of Glasgow University Library (FGUL) at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, 22nd November, 2016, in the Talk Lab on Level 3 of the University of Glasgow Library, followed by discussion and refreshments. All welcome!


A Londoner by birth though first raised in Wolverhampton and educated at Adams’ Grammar School in Shropshire, the English publisher, political philosopher and Whig propagandist Thomas Hollis (1720-1774) was the only child of a cultured family of Yorkshire whitesmiths and cutlers with a history of philanthropy. His namesake great-uncle, who died in 1731, was a wealthy London merchant with interests in New England, where he funded the creation of two named Harvard University chairs in 1721 and 1727 in addition to donating the first town bible to Holliston, Massachusetts, renamed in his honour in 1724. Having continued his studies at St Albans between the ages of ten to fifteen, his grand-nephew appears to have been likewise initially intended for a mercantile career upon the death of his father in 1735 and under the guardianship of a certain John Hollister supplemented by the tutelage of John Ward, an eminent academic at Gresham College, London, and Fellow of the Royal Society. For around this time young Thomas Hollis travelled to Amsterdam to learn Accountancy as well as Dutch and French for fifteen months. Yet by the age of twenty and without ever reading law, as the wealthy beneficiary of estates inherited from his father, grandfather and uncle, he was taking chambers at Lincoln’s Inn, London, where he remained until 1748.


Bust of Thomas Hollis by Joseph Wilton, National Portrait Gallery London. 

It was then that, in the manner of the affluent classes of the day, this gentle giant first embarked on the Grand Tour of Europe in the company of one Thomas Brand (1719-1804), a radical politician and dissenter who would in time become his inseparable friend and would eventually in 1774 restyle himself ‘Thomas Brand-Hollis’ in accordance with the will of the unmarried Hollis, his legator. The 1748-49 tour was followed by another, longer one in 1750-1753, largely undertaken by Hollis travelling alone and in the course of which he met many leading French philosophers and several Italian painters.

Back in England and well-connected, he busied himself in three main directions: the fine arts, philanthropy and the protection and advancement of English liberty in what was originally intended to be just a ten-year publishing campaign but which ran for sixteen. He became an active member of the Royal Academy of Arts, commissioning six paintings from his good friend Canaletto (aka Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697-1768), including the view of Old Walton Bridge (1754) in which Hollis, Brand and Hollis’s manservant were somewhat distantly depicted.


Canaletto’s Old Walton Bridge (1754)

He also proposed the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) for membership of the Society of Antiquaries and ordered numerous works from the English-based Italian painter and engraver Giovanni Battista Cipriani (1727-1785), whose portraits would feature in Hollis’s posthumously published memoirs (1780). In 1757 Hollis himself was, like his tutor before him, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

On the charitable front, as a believer in public-spirited citizenship Hollis was a governor of Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospitals and a guardian of the asylum and Magdalen Hospital. In the tradition of his great-uncle, in later life he also made considerable donations to American colleges, especially Harvard, endowing them with funds and especially with eye-catching, elegantly bound books decorated with libertarian symbols such as the owl, the Phrygian or liberty cap, and a dagger (alluding to Brutus’s part in the assassination of the tyrant, Caesar), having from 1754 onwards reprinted and distributed throughout the UK and continental Europe such seventeenth-century Republican works as The Life of John Milton (1698) by the Irish rationalist freethinker John Toland, John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689), the posthumously published Discourses Concerning Government (1698) by the Republican member of the Long Parliament Algernon Sidney, tracts by the turncoat (ultimately Puritan) Civil War propagandist Marchamont Needham, and satirical pamphlets and broadsides by the politician Henry Neville, who was viewed askance by both Cromwell and Charles II.  The scale and eclecticism of the Hollis and subsequent Brand-Hollis book donations across two continents was unprecedented for the time, amounting to well over 4,000 volumes, of which the Special Collections department of Glasgow University Library still holds seventeen with bindings by (among others) Richard Montagu and a certain Matthewman.

Hollis’s influence was also exerted through his extensive circle of American and English friends. Chief among the former were two noted Bostonian ministers, Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1766) ─ who in 1750 coined the phrase ‘No taxation without representation’ ─ and later Andrew Eliot (1718-1788), the future vociferous objector to the presence of a standing English redcoat army. The latter included William Pitt the Elder (1708-1778), the Unitarian theologian and clergyman Theophilus Lindsey (1723-1808), Francis Blackburne (1705–1787), the liberal Anglican archdeacon of Cleveland who shared Hollis’s ancestral Yorkshire background, and significantly the radical journalist and politician John Wilkes (1725-1797).

As a radical dissenter and like many of his contemporaries, Hollis was rabidly anti-Catholic and a vigorous campaigner against Popery, even believing himself to be the target of a Papist plot. He saw legitimate government as contractual and asserted the right of the people to replace tyranny by a revolutionary government. He was nevertheless so disgusted at the bribery and corruption that characterized eighteenth-century British politics that he eschewed his normal inclination towards direct personal engagement and refused to stand as a parliamentary candidate for Dorchester in 1761, confining himself to the writing of political newspaper articles and pamphlets. Paradoxically perhaps, as a proud English patriot he supported Hanoverian rule and must have felt divided loyalties as he followed the worsening Anglo-American relations in the 1760s, printing and funding the circulation of colonial tracts in Britain even though he denied inciting the colonies to independence.

In particular, Hollis contributed to the successful campaign against the appointment of an American bishop by reprinting sermons by Mayhew and others. He also compiled The True Sentiments of America in 1768, incorporating John Adams’s Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law (1756), which he greatly admired.

In 1770, exhausted by a pro-libertarian publishing campaign that had overrun by six years, Hollis retired in 1770 to Urles Farm, in Corscombe, Dorset, where he owned about 3,000 acres. He died there suddenly on 1 January 1774, and was buried in one of his fields, the grave being later ploughed over.  But his library of liberty remains as a legacy down the ages.

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Slideshow images from St Andrews University blog post 

Don’t forget to pick up a copy of Friends of Glasgow University Library’s Friendly Shelves  – the perfect Christmas gift!

Posted on behalf of Dr Peter Davies, Friends of Glasgow University Library.

Categories: Library

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