Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Brown, John (1715-1766)

BROWN, JOHN (1715–1766), author of the 'Estimate,' was born at Rothbury, Northumberland, where his father was curate, 5 Nov. 1715. His father, John Brown, a member of the Haddington family, had been ordained by a Scotch bishop, and at the end of 1715 became vicar of Wigton. The son was sent to the Wigton grammar school. On 18 June 1732 he matriculated at St. John's College, Cambridge, and took his B. A. degree with distinction in 1735. He took orders, and was appointed minor canon and lecturer by the dean and chapter of Carlisle. He showed his loyalty by serving as a volunteer in 1745 at the siege of Carlisle, and his sound whig principles in two sermons afterwards published. He thus obtained the notice of Dr. Osbaldiston, dean of York, who in 1747 became bishop of Carlisle, and who appointed Brown one of his chaplains. An accidental omission of the Athanasian Creed at the appointed time brought a censure; and Brown, after reading the creed out of due course, to show his orthodoxy, resigned his canonry. A poem upon 'Honour' (first published in 1743), and an 'Essay upon Satire,' appeared in the third volume of Dodsley's collection. The last was 'occasioned by the death of Mr. Pope,' and contains a high compliment to Pope's literary executor, Warburton. Warburton saw it 'by accident' some time after its publication (Nichols, Anecdotes, v. 587), and asked Dodsley to let him know the author's name. He published it in the collected edition of Pope's works before the 'Essay on Man.' One line survives—

And coxcombs vanquish Berkeley by a grin.

A poem on 'Liberty,' occasioned by the peace, appeared in 1749. Warburton introduced Brown to his father-in-law, the munificent Ralph Allen. Whilst staying at Allen's Brown preached a sermon at Bath against gambling (22 April 1750). It was published with a statement that the public tables were suppressed soon after the sermon was preached. Warburton now advised Brown to carry out Pope's design of an epic poem, 'Brute;' and when this was begun suggested an essay upon Shaftesbury's 'Characteristics.' The essay, completed under Warburton's eye, appeared in 1751. The second part of this essay is a remarkably clear statement of the utilitarian theory as afterwards expounded by Paley, and is highly praised in J. S. Mill's essay upon 'Bentham.' The book provoked answers from C. Bulkley, a dissenting minister, and an anonymous author, and it reached a fifth edition in 1754. Brown helped Avison in the composition of his essay upon 'Musical Expression,' published in the same year (1751). He showed his versatility by writing two tragedies, 'Barbarossa' (produced at Drury Lane 17 Dec. 1754) and 'Athelstane' (produced 27 Feb. 1756) (Genest, iv. 406, 453). The first obtained a considerable success. Garrick acted in both, and wrote the prologue and epilogue of the first and the epilogue to the second. A line in the first epilogue, 'Let the poor devil eat,' &c., gave great offence to Brown. Neither has much literary value, though 'Athelstane' was preferred by the critics to its more successful rival. Warburton, Allen, and Hurd lamented that a clergyman should compromise his dignity by 'making connections with players.' Warburton, however, had introduced Brown to his friend Charles Yorke, and through Yorke's influence his brother. Lord Hardwicke, presented Brown in 1756 to the living of Great Horkesley, near Colchester, worth 270l. a year or 200l. clear (Nichols, Anecdotes, v. 286).

In 1757 appeared Brown's most popular work, 'An Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times.' A seventh edition appeared in 1758, a 'very large impression' of a second volume, and an 'explanatory defence' in the same year. From the identity of the first and seventh editions of the 'Estimate' Hill Burton seems to doubt whether the success was genuine (Life of Hume, ii. 23). There is no doubt, however, of the impression made at the time. 'The inestimable estimate of Brown,' says Cowper (Table-Talk), 'rose like a paper kite and charmed the town.' It is a well-written version of the ordinary complaints of luxury and effeminacy which gained popularity from the contemporary fit of national depression. Macaulay refers to it in this respect in his essay on 'Chatham.' In his first volume Brown describes Warburton as a Colossus who 'bestrides the world.' A coolness, however, seems to have arisen at this time between the two. Walpole ascribes it to Warburton's jealousy of his friend's success in a letter (to Montagu, 4 May 1578 ), from which it also appears that Brown was supposed to have been mad. Walpole says that he had only seen Brown once, and then 'singing the Stabat Mater with the Mingotti behind a harpsichord at a great concert, at my Lady Carlisle's' in 'last Passion week,' a performance which Walpole regards as inconsistent with Brown's denunciations of the opera. He also asserts that Brown was a profane curser and swearer, that he tried to bully Sir Charles Williams, who had answered the 'Estimate,' and was supposed to be about to divulge the swearing story, and that he insulted Dodsley, who acted as go-between.

Brown was clearly an impracticable person. He had complimented Pitt and the first Lord Hardwicke in his 'Estimate,' and the failure to obtain patronage induced him, it is said, to resign the living received from Hardwicke's son. In 1760 Warburton says that Brown is 'rarely without a gloom and sullen insolence on his countenance,' symptomatic perhaps of mental disorder (Letters of an Eminent Prelate, pp. 300, 381). Bishop Osbaldiston, however, presented him to the living of St. Nicholas in Newcastle in 1761. Brown published several other works, which had little success: an 'Additional Dialogue of the Dead, between Pericles and Cosmo, being a sequel to a dialogue of Lord Lyttelton's between Pericles and Cosmo,' 1760 (intended to defend Pitt against the supposed insinuations of Lyttelton, who is said to have affronted Brown in society) (Nichols, Anecdotes, ii. 339); the 'Curse of Saul, a sacred ode' (set to music and performed as an oratorio), first prefixed to a 'Dissertation on the Rise, Union, and Power ... of Poetry and Music,' 1763; 'History of the Rise and Progress of Poetry,' &c., 1764 (the substance of the last, omitting music); 'Twelve Sermons on various Subjects,' 1764 (including those at Carlisle and Bath already noticed); 'Thoughts on Civil Liberty, Licentiousness, and Fashion,' 1765, a pamphlet with some remarks on education noticed by Priestley in his essay on 'The Course of a Liberal Education; 'a sermon' On the Female Character and Education,' preached 16 May 1765, with an appendix upon education; and 'A Letter to the Rev. Dr. Lowth,' &c., 1766, an answer to an imputation made by Lowth in his controversy with Warburton upon Brown's sycophancy to Warburton. Brown advertised 'Principles of Christian Legislation,' in eight books, the manuscript of which was left to some friends in his will for publication. It never appeared. In 1765 Brown engaged in a curious correspondence, from which long extracts are given in the 'Biographia Britannica.' Dr. Dumaresq had been consulted about the provision of a school system in Russia. A lady mentioned Brown to him as an authority upon such questions. Dumaresq wrote to Brown, and received in reply a paper proposing vague and magnificent plans for the civilisation of Russia. The paper was laid before the empress, who immediately proposed that Brown should visit St. Petersburg, and upon his consent forwarded 1,000l. to the Russian ambassador for the expenses of the journey. Brown made preparations to start,bought a post-chaise and other necessaries, and obtained leave of absence as one of the king's chaplains. His health had been shattered by gout and rheumatism, and the remonstrances of his friends and physicians induced him to abandon the plan of exposing himself to a Russian climate. He accounted for his expenses to the Russian minister, and wrote a long letter (28 Aug. 1700) to the empress, suggesting a scheme for sending young Russians to be educated abroad. He was apparently disappointed and vexed by the failure of the scheme. On 23 Sept. 1766 he committed suicide by cutting his throat. A letter from a Mr. Gilpin of Carlisle says that he had been subject to fits of 'frenzy' for above thirty years, and would have killed himself long before but for the care of friends. Walpole's remark, given above, seems to imply that his partial derangement was generally known.

[Davies's Life of Garrick, i. 206-16; Life by Kippis, with original materials in Biog. Brit.; Letters of an Eminent Prelate; Taylor's Records of my Life, i. 85; T. S. Watson's Life of Warburton.]

L. S.