Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thornton, William Thomas
THORNTON, WILLIAM THOMAS (1813–1880), author, born at Burnham, Buckinghamshire, on 14 Feb. 1813, was the youngest son of Thomas Thornton (d. 1814) [q. v.], and of Sophie Zohrab, daughter of a Greek merchant. Having been educated at the Moravian settlement at Ockbrook in Derbyshire, he passed three years in Malta with his cousin, Sir William Henry Thornton, the auditor-general. From 1830 to 1835 he was at Constantinople with Consul-general Cartwright. In August 1836 he obtained a clerkship in the East India House. Twenty years later he was given charge of the public works department, and in 1858 became first secretary for public works to the India office. In 1873 he was created C.B. on the recommendation of the Duke of Argyll. In spite of weak health, he devoted the greater part of his leisure to literary work, and more especially to the study of economical questions. He was an intimate friend of John Stuart Mill, and one of the ablest adherents of his school of political economy. But he differed widely from him on other subjects, and the friendship was based largely on love of discussion (Bain, J. S. Mill, p. 174). Thornton contributed to the ‘Examiner’ of 17 May 1873 an account of Mill's work at the India House.
Thornton's first work on economics, which appeared in 1845, was ‘Over-population and its Remedy.’ The project for the colonisation of Irish wastes by Irish peasants, contained in it, was referred to in laudatory terms by Mill in his ‘Principles of Political Economy’ (1st edit., p. 392). Thornton attached little value to emigration, but strongly advocated the subdivision of the land and deprecated state interference. The work did much to confute the views of John Ramsay McCulloch [q. v.] as to the effect of a wide distribution of landed property on the increase of population, and challenged current notions as to the comparative prosperity of the labouring population in mediæval and modern times. On the latter point Thornton's work was adversely criticised in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ of January 1847.
Thornton developed his views in more detail in ‘A Plea for Peasant Proprietors, with the Outlines of a Plan for their Establishment in Ireland,’ published in 1848. Mill read the proofs, and the book appeared a few weeks before his ‘Political Economy,’ on which it had an important influence (Bain, J. S. Mill, p. 86 n.). Thornton's book, which had gone out of print, came into request again during the discussion which attended the passing of the Irish Land Act of 1870. It was republished in 1874 with two additional chapters, the one dealing with the ‘Social and Moral Effects of Peasant Proprietorship’ (ch. iv.), and the other with ‘Ireland: a Forecast from 1873’ (ch. vii.). Thornton looked to the nationalisation of the land as his ultimate ideal, but deemed the minimising of the evils of private proprietorship as alone practicable for the present (ch. vii.).
Meanwhile he issued, in 1869, a further economical treatise, entitled ‘On Labour, its Wrongful Claims and Rightful Dues; its Actual Present and Possible Future.’ A second edition appeared next year, containing some new matter. The work was sympathetically reviewed by Mill in two papers in the ‘Fortnightly Review,’ which were republished in vol. iv. of his ‘Dissertations and Discussions;’ but the chapter on the origin of trade unions was treated by Brentano in his essay ‘On Gilds and Trades Unions’ as unhistorical. In a supplementary chapter appended to the second edition Thornton described co-operation as ‘destined to beget, at however remote a date, a healthy socialism as superior to itself in all its best attributes as itself is to its parent,’ but added a warning that the period of gestation must not be violently shortened (On Labour, 2nd edit., p. 479). A German translation by Heinrich Schramm was published in 1870, and in 1894 appeared ‘Die Produktiv-Genossenschaft als Regenerationsmittel des Arbeiterstandes. Eine Kritik der Thornton-Lassalleschen Wirtschaftsreform,’ by Richard Burdinski.
Besides his works on economics, Thornton was author of ‘Old-fashioned Ethics and Common-sense Metaphysics,’ a volume of essays published in 1873, in which the ethical and teleological views of Hume, Huxley, and the utilitarians were adversely criticised; and of ‘Indian Public Works and Cognate Indian Topics,’ 1875, 8vo. In 1854 he published a poem, ‘The Siege of Silistria,’ and in 1857 a volume of verse entitled ‘Modern Manichæism, Labour's Utopia, and other Poems.’ In 1878 he produced ‘Word for Word from Horace,’ a literal verse translation of the Odes. The version showed a deficient ear and a want of metrical grasp, but had the merit of a species of seventeenth-century quaintness (see Academy, 29 June 1878, a criticism by Professor Robinson Ellis). Thornton's last publication was a paper read before the Society of Arts on 22 Feb. 1878, on ‘Irrigations regarded as a Preventive of Indian Famines.’ He died at his house in Cadogan Place on 17 June 1880.
[Men of the Time, 10th edit.; Illustrated London News, 26 June 1880; Athenæum and Academy, 26 June 1880; Thornton's Works; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit.; Men of the Reign.]