MacKnight, Thomas (1829–99), newspaper editor and political writer, was born 15 February 1829 at Gainsford, Co. Durham, son of Thomas MacKnight and his wife Elizabeth. He was initially educated at the Rev. Dr Bowman's school at Gainsford. After his parents moved to London he studied medicine at King's College (1849–51), where he won several prizes and came under the influence of the Christian socialist F. D. Maurice who regarded him as a particularly talented protégé. He also acquired a knowledge of foreign languages, which proved useful in his subsequent editorial career, as it enabled him to consult continental news sources directly. An address to a student society on contemporary literature (1851) and a prize essay on Shakespeare (1852) were published as pamphlets. He also published two Burke-related articles in Frazer's Magazine in 1851.
Political and biographical writing; marriage and scandal In 1851 MacKnight left King's College 'to devote himself to literature'. On 26 July 1851 he married Florence Fanny Holland Smith. The marriage produced two children, a boy and a girl. MacKnight's insistence on living precariously off publishers' advances in order to concentrate on major works, rather than engaging in ephemeral but more profitable journalism, contributed to tensions within the marriage. (The first surviving MacKnight letter in the Gladstone papers, dated March 1854, was caused by Florence writing to Gladstone seeking financial assistance without telling MacKnight first; the letter suggests MacKnight saw this as both personally humiliating and politically compromising.)
MacKnight had just published, anonymously, The Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli M.P.: a literary and political biography (1854), which attacks Disraeli as an opportunistic adventurer who is corrupting English political life, cites numerous embarrassing passages from Disraeli's novels, criticises his view that the Jews are a superior race, and derides his claim to be a disciple of Edmund Burke (qv). The book went through two editions (Disraeli took it seriously enough to co-author an anonymous review in his own newspaper), and it served as a resource for later critics of Disraeli such as T. P. O'Connor (qv). MacKnight later pointed out that the book praised Gladstone (then a Peelite rather than a whig) as proof of the depth and sincerity of his own Gladstonianism. It was followed by Thirty years of foreign policy (1855), which argued that the foreign policies of lords Palmerston and Aberdeen, traditionally seen as rivals but now serving together in a Whig–Peelite coalition, had both been inspired by a common desire to defend British-style constitutional government against the absolutist principles upheld by tsarist Russia. MacKnight predicted that the Crimean war, which had just begun, would be an epoch-making showdown between the forces of freedom and despotism. The book was allegedly used as a textbook for trainee diplomats.
Meanwhile, MacKnight's marriage continued to deteriorate. After several disputes, which F. D. Maurice tried to mediate, the couple parted in 1856; Florence later alleged that MacKnight had deliberately deserted her and that verbal or physical violence had been involved. In 1859 MacKnight formed a new relationship with the actress Sarah Thorne (1836–99) and from February 1860 they lived together after telling friends that they had married. Thorne left the stage at this point, and they had a son and a daughter. Florence MacKnight claimed that her husband contributed nothing to the support of her and their children; his financial situation remained precarious, and he suffered health problems including depression.
MacKnight's History of the life and times of Edmund Burke, which he regarded as his magnum opus, was published (1858–60) (Gladstone assisted MacKnight to retain his copyright in Burke by lending him £100 to be repaid on the publication of the first volume, MacKnight having refused to take it as an outright gift; MacKnight felt lifelong personal gratitude towards Gladstone over this), and was followed in 1863 by The life of Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke (which, MacKnight told Gladstone, contained an anti-Disraeli subtext in its criticisms of Bolingbroke, Disraeli's political hero). Despite generous advances from his publishers, Chapman & Hall, MacKnight sank into debt and was obliged to apply for assistance from the Royal Literary Fund in July 1859 and June 1863, receiving payments of £35 on the first occasion and £50 on the second. He told one of his referees that while Gladstone would have been willing to help him, he wished to avoid being politically compromised.
One week after MacKnight received the second payment, Florence MacKnight sued for divorce on the grounds of his adultery with Thorne. She received a decree nisi on 17 June 1863, and the reports of her evidence which appeared in The Times and the Morning Post the next day led the Fund to write to MacKnight's referees demanding an explanation, and Chapman & Hall (who had acted as one of his referees) breaking off their business relations with him. In August 1863 Sarah Thorne returned to the stage, and this may be seen as the end of their relationship. It is not clear what contacts, if any, subsequently took place between MacKnight and his two families. MacKnight apparently survived this personal and financial catastrophe by becoming a leader writer on a 'great London daily' (Northern Whig, 20 November 1899).
Northern Whig editor; Belfast liberalism In February 1866 MacKnight moved from London to Belfast to take up the position of editor of the Belfast daily Northern Whig. The paper was regarded as the voice of presbyterian tenant farmer politics, and MacKnight liked to recall that, since its foundation in the 1820s, it had consistently opposed both Orangeism and repeal. When he arrived its fortunes were at a low ebb, owing to the suspicion that its proprietors favoured unitarianism (one Belfast conservative newspaper habitually called it ‘our infidel contemporary’) and its support for the northern side in the American civil war.
MacKnight's arrival in Belfast was soon followed by the final campaign for the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland; this, together with a renewed campaign for tenant-right legislation (partially answered by Gladstone's 1870 land act) and the enfranchisement of many tradesmen by the 1867 reform act, led to an upturn in the political fortunes of Ulster liberalism and the readership of the Northern Whig. MacKnight, in search of a congenial place of worship, experienced some difficulty in finding a Belfast Church of Ireland congregation whose services were not dominated by denunciations of disestablishment and of popery, and eventually settled on St Thomas's Church of Ireland in Eglantine Avenue in south Belfast. (Despite his marital misadventures, MacKnight remained a devout anglican; his obituarists noted that he read the New Testament daily in the original Greek.) While believing that Irish circumstances made disestablishment necessary, he was not opposed to established churches in principle; his mentor Maurice saw establishment as symbolising the moral bonds holding a nation together and MacKnight was probably influenced by this view. He hinted that he wished Irish disestablishment could have been averted by earlier catholic emancipation and concurrent endowment; in later life he opposed church disestablishment in Scotland and in England and Wales.
MacKnight played a significant role (as go-between and editorial advocate) in the informal electoral alliance between the independent Orangeman William Johnston (qv) (1829–1902) and the liberal Thomas McClure, which led to the defeat of the two conservative MPs for Belfast at the 1868 general election; after the election he was presented with a service of silver plate by Belfast liberals to commemorate his role in the victory. He rapidly came to be seen as a perceptive and knowledgeable analyst of Irish affairs. He resumed contact with Gladstone, who had apparently lost touch with him after the scandal, and occasionally wrote to him concerning Belfast political matters. At this period he regarded Gladstone as a Burkean hero, the embodiment of enlightened reform based on moral integrity and consistent adherence to principle; he remained fiercely hostile to Disraeli. With Gladstone's discreet approval, MacKnight vehemently opposed a proposal that the conservative prime minister should visit Ireland in 1874, and he tried to persuade Gladstone to include Ulster in his 1877 Irish visit. Gladstone's willingness to regard MacKnight as a personal friend and invite him to his own house despite his marital situation reflects the liberal leader's distinction between personal failings and public bad example, which later influenced his attitude towards Charles Stewart Parnell (qv). Macknight kept in touch with British high politics by paying annual visits to London in May or early June, staying at the Devonshire Club and mixing socially with liberal leaders. He was one of the few Irish liberals who regarded Gladstone as a personal friend, and he was annoyed that some Belfast liberals accused him of compromising on denominational education under Gladstone's influence. Except when absent from Belfast on these visits, MacKnight wrote two leading articles for the Northern Whig every day. He modelled his literary style on Macaulay, whom he admired as a stylist though not as a thinker (noting that Orangemen regularly quoted Macaulay's description of the siege of Derry while omitting the associated condemnation of Orange demonstrations), and his editorials made copious references to Edmund Burke.
From 1874 MacKnight associated with the circle of catholic liberals around Lord O'Hagan (qv), with whom he was on terms of close friendship; many of these, like O'Hagan himself, achieved official positions under Gladstone's first two administrations and were regarded as traitors by more radical nationalists. MacKnight later liked to recall their hostility to home rule, which was shared by some of their catholic episcopal friends. He emphasised that the belief of militant anti-catholics that the Irish bishops were the secret masters of the nationalist party was incorrect, and that in matters not specifically religious they were obliged to follow their flocks. While celebrating Gladstone's disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and the passage of the 1870 land act, MacKnight regretted that Gladstone had tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to solve the Irish university question, which was guaranteed to divide his Irish followers along sectarian lines. MacKnight strongly defended the view that education should be based on shared secular and separate religious instruction; he opposed the replacement of the Queen's University in Ireland by the Royal University of Ireland because it would endanger this principle, and denounced any suggestion that a catholic university should be recognised by the state.
MacKnight was dismayed by Gladstone's 1875 pamphlets against the declaration of papal infallibility, which he publicly denounced as exaggerated in their argument, as logically implying that catholic emancipation was a mistake, and as unnecessarily offensive to catholic liberal voters. He complained that even Ulster Orangemen seemed embarrassed at being outdone in ‘No popery’ rhetoric by their old political enemy.
Opposition to home rule and break with Gladstone MacKnight was a consistent opponent of home rule, which he believed would throw Ireland into the hands of classes who would not govern fairly or competently, and would therefore lead to economic ruin, sectarian civil war, and an eventual reconquest by Britain. His sympathy for Maurice's Christian socialism should not be confused with socialism in the modern sense of the term: MacKnight was essentially a whig, whose belief in social reform and responsiveness to the well-being of the poor coexisted with fear of ‘demagogues’. He supported household suffrage at the time of the third reform act of 1884, describing the political damage this inflicted on Irish liberalism as a necessary sacrifice to the liberal principle of equal laws, but declared that a government in which the propertyless majority ruled the propertied minority would prove disastrous to both, and described the house of lords as an inviolable ‘estate of the realm’. He strongly supported the British empire as (among other things) an invaluable outlet for the talents of such Irishmen as his friend Lord Dufferin (qv), and believed that home rule would inevitably lead to separation, followed by civil war in Ireland and the loss of imperial prestige (with particularly damaging consequences in India).
While MacKnight gave extensive coverage in the Northern Whig to Ulster tenant-right agitation and advised Gladstone on the 1881 land act, he declared boycotting ‘contrary to all laws, human or divine’, and was a strong supporter of the coercive measures undertaken by W. E. Forster (qv) and Earl Spencer (qv) in the early 1880s. His retrospective account of the growth of the home rule party emphasises the role of disgruntled tories in its creation and the willingness of home rulers to form cynical alliances with conservatives against Ulster liberal candidates.
In the run-up to the 1885 election, MacKnight prided himself on the Northern Whig's continued loyalty to Gladstonian liberalism, despite increasing Ulster liberal fears (which he privately shared) that Gladstone was unsound on home rule. After a last attempt to persuade Gladstone against home rule and a final despairing letter in which he told Gladstone that Ulster tenant farmers would always be grateful for his past services, MacKnight threw his support behind the liberal unionists led by Lord Hartington (qv), whom he praised as a model of Burkean statesmanship and consistency; thereafter his contact with Gladstone was intermittent and unfruitful. MacKnight lamented that Gladstone had fallen victim to delusion, and that most of his lieutenants had been misled by despair or opportunism. He excepted John Morley (qv), whom he acknowledged to have behaved consistently and sincerely. They shared a friendship based on their common interest in Burke; Morley's study of Burke draws heavily on MacKnight, though they differed on Burke's view of the French revolution. MacKnight's obituary for Gladstone (Northern Whig, 20 May 1898) generally eulogises his achievement while lamenting 'the disastrous change which clouded the closing years of a brilliant career'.
MacKnight's Ulster as it is, or, Twenty-eight years’ experience as an Irish editor (2 vols, 1896) written over the five years preceding its publication, may be compared (in terms of format, if not political sentiment) to New Ireland by A. M. Sullivan (qv) (1830–84) as a political autobiography written in the form of a narrative of recent Irish political events. The book is devoted to disproving Gladstone's claims that the liberal unionists of Ulster were renegade liberals who had turned into virtual Orangemen, and it remains the most accessible contemporary statement of the liberal unionist case that Gladstone had betrayed liberal principles by abruptly abandoning his faithful followers to pursue the reckless project of home rule; it is still consulted by historians as well as by latter-day liberal unionists seeking historical predecessors. It may profitably be contrasted with contemporary works by R. Barry O'Brien (qv), which argue that Gladstonian home rule was the logical extension of previous liberal reforms. Completed just after the unionist landslide victory of 1895, the book ends by applauding the continued economic growth of Belfast and predicting that the union will be cemented by the construction of an underwater tunnel between Ireland and Scotland.
In his later years MacKnight was a strong supporter of constructive unionism, hailing the land purchase legislation and infrastructural development pursued by A. J. Balfour (qv) and Gerald Balfour (qv) as important steps towards the solution of the Irish question. When he died of heart failure at his home at 28 Wellington Park, Belfast, on 19 November 1899, MacKnight was revising his Burke biography, preparing an annotated edition of Burke's works, and finishing a history of political progress in the nineteenth century for a Canadian publisher. This last was published as Political progress in the nineteenth century (1902), having been revised and completed by C. C. Osborne. Newspapers as politically distinct as the ultra-tory London Globe and the outspokenly liberal Westminster Gazette praised him as an honest and open defender of the union and of liberal principles; the conservative Belfast Newsletter remarked that even in the days before the struggle against home rule brought the two papers together it had always recognised the editor of the Northern Whig as a scrupulously fair-minded controversialist, while the nationalist Irish News called him a link with the old days when catholics and presbyterians had fought side by side against anglican privilege and for ‘fair land laws’.
MacKnight was a founder of the Irish district of the Institute of Journalists; when this was disrupted by the conflict over home rule, he organised the Ulster branch of the institute, becoming its first president. He was also an enthusiastic member of Royal Portrush golf club. MacKnight's letters to Gladstone are in the Gladstone papers in the British Library and his dealings with the Royal Literary Fund are recorded in its files at the British Library (Registered Case 1511).