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Significant Scots
Thomas Gordon

GORDON, THOMAS, an eminent party writer, and translator of Tacitus, is supposed to have been born in the parish of Kells, in the stewartry of Kirkcudbright, about the end of the seventeenth century. His father, the representative of an ancient family, descended from the Gordons of Kenmuir, was proprietor of Gairloch in that parish. Thomas Gordon is said to have received a university education in his own country, and then to have gone to London as a literary adventurer: joining these circumstances with his avowed infidelity, it is probable that he was a renegade student of divinity, or licentiate—almost always an unprincipled and odious character. In London, he supported himself at first as a teacher of languages, and gradually became an author by profession. He is said to have been employed as a political writer by the earl of Oxford, in the support of the tory ministry of which that nobleman was the head; but this hardly corresponds with the other dates of his literary exertions, for Mr Gordon appears to have written nothing of which the title has been commemorated, till he formed an intimacy with Mr Trenchard; and, on the 20th of January, 1720, commenced in conjunction with that individual, a weekly political sheet called "the Independent Whig." If Gordon wrote in the reign of queen Anne, what was he doing in the course of the six intervening years? Nor is it of small importance to his reputation that this point should be settled, as he became a distinguished patriot, and a supporter of Sir Robert Walpole—the very reverse, in every respect, of what he is said to have been in the days of queen Anne’s tory ministry. It is our own opinion that the latter allegation is not well founded; it does not appear in the original memoir of Gordon in the Biographia Britannica, 1766, an article evidently written by a person that must have known himself or at least his surviving family; that sketch represents him in the more probable character of a young man taken into employment by Mr Trenchard as an amanuensis, and subsequently so much improved by the conversation and instructions of his employer, as to be fitted to enter into a literary partnership with him as an independent patriotic writer. Thus we see much cause to relieve the memory of this clever person from no small share of the odium which has been cast upon it by subsequent biographical writers.

Trenchard, the partner of Gordon, was a political writer of some standing, and no small influence. It was in consequence of a pamphlet from his pen, that the parliament obliged king William to send home his Dutch guards; a proceeding which is said to have moved that grave monarch to tears, and almost induced him to go back to Holland himself. Mr Trenchard was the author of a work which appeared in 1709, under the title of "the Natural History of Superstition," and held the office of commissioner of the forfeited estates in Ireland. His acquaintance with Gordon appears to have been commenced without the formality of an introduction. "From a perfect stranger to him," says the latter, "and without any other recommendation than a casual coffee-house acquaintance, and his own good opinion, he took me into his favour and care, and into as high a degree of intimacy as ever was shown by one man to another. This was the more remarkable," continues Gordon, "and did me the greater honour, as he was naturally as shy in making friendships, as he was eminently constant to those which he had already made." The Independent Whig, which seems to have been their first joint production, was continued for a year, stopping in January, 1721. Before its conclusion, namely in November, 1720, the two writers had begun a series of letters signed Cato, in the London, and, afterwards in the British Journal, which was continued almost to the death of Mr Trenchard, an event that happened in December, 1723. A new edition of the Independent Whig, including a renewed series published by Gordon, after Mr Trenchard’s death, appeared in two volumes, 12mo. A similar collection of Cato’s Letters, appeared in four volumes, and went into a fourth edition in 1737.

Of the Independent Whig, Dr Murray thus speaks in his Literary History of Galloway. "It is a fortunate circumstance, that this work is known only by name; for it is disfigured by sentiments which are deserving of great reprobation. It was more immediately directed against the hierarchy of the church of England; but it was also meant, or at least has a direct tendency to undermine the very foundation of a national religion, under any circumstances, and to bring the sacred profession, if not religion itself, into contempt. The sacerdotal office, according to this book, is not only not recommended in scripture, but is unnecessary and dangerous; ministers of the gospel have ever been the promoters of corruption and ignorance, and distinguished by a degree of arrogance, immorality, and a thirst after secular power, that have rendered them destructive of the public and private welfare of a nation. ‘One drop of priestcraft,’ say they, ‘is enough to contaminate the ocean.’

"The object of Cato’s Letters," continues Dr Murray, "is nearly the same with that of the Independent Whig—with this difference, that its theological and ecclesiastical discussions are much blended with political disquisitions. It was, indeed, directed particularly against the South Sea scheme; the knavery and absurdity of which our authors had the merit of exposing, at a time when almost the whole nation was intoxicated with dreams of wealth and independence, which it artfully cherished, and by which so many were ruined and betrayed.

"Notwithstanding the insuperable objections we have stated to the most of the principles of these works, they are characterized, we must confess, by no mean portion of talents and learning. The authors seem always masters of the subjects of which they treat, and their discussions are clear, close, and vigorous.

"Like every person who, in any way, attempts to undermine the welfare and interests of society, Gordon and Trenchard laid claim to great purity of intention. According to their own statement, they formed the only two wise, patriotic, and independent men of the age in which they lived. ‘As these letters,’ says Gordon, in his preface, ‘were the work of no faction or cabal, nor calculated for any lucrative or ambitious ends, or to serve the purposes of any party whatsoever; but attacked falsehood and dishonesty, in all shapes and parties, without temporizing with any, but doing justice to all, even to the weakest and most unfashionable, and maintaining the principles of liberty against the practices of most parties: so they were dropped without any sordid composition, and without any consideration, save that it was judged that the public, after its terrible convulsions, was again become calm and safe.’"

After the death of Mr Trenchard, his widow, after the manner of ladies in a more expressly commercial rank of life, became the second wife of her husband’s journeyman and partner, Mr Gordon,—apparently induced to take this step by the usefulness of Gordon in managing her affairs. By this lady, who survived him, and was living in 1766, he had several children. His circumstances were now very easy and agreeable, and he appears to have contemplated tasks which required leisure, and promised to give him a permanent fame. A translation of Tacitus executed by him, (the third printed in the English language,) with discourses taken from foreign commentators and translators of that historian, appeared in 1728, two volumes folio; and the subscription being patronized by Sir Robert Walpole, it proved a very lucrative speculation. Of this work, one writer speaks as follows:—"No classic was ever perhaps so miserably mangled. His (Gordon’s) style is extremely vulgar, yet affected, and abounds with abrupt and inharmonious periods, totally destitute of any resemblance to the original; while the translator fancied he was giving a correct imitation." Another writer, adverts to it in very different terms. "Though it is now," says Dr Murray, [Chalmer’s General Biographical Dictionary, xvi. 107.] "in a great degree superseded by the elegant translation of Mr Murphy, it is nevertheless a work of no inconsiderable degree of merit. Mr Gordon probably understood his author better than any who have presented him to the world in an English dress; and the only objection that has been made to the work, even by Murphy himself, is, that he foolishly attempted to accommodate the English language to the elliptical and epigrammatic style of the Roman historian." Gordon afterwards published a translation of Sallust in the same style as his version of Tacitus.

During the long period of Walpole’s administration, the subject of this memoir acted as his literary supporter, enjoying in return either a regular pay, or the office of first commissioner of wine licenses. After his death, which happened on the 28th of July, 1750, two collections of his fugitive writings appeared under the respective titles of "A Cordial for Low Spirits," and "The Pillars of Priestcraft and Orthodoxy Shaken;" works which had better, both for his own fame and the welfare of society, been suppressed. Finally, a volume entitled "Sermons on Practical Subjects, addressed to different characters," appeared in 1788.

Thomas Gordon
by J. M. Bulloch (1918) (pdf}

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