Taylor, William Cooke (1800–49), historian and economist, was born 16 April 1800 at Youghal, Co. Cork, son of Richard Taylor, manufacturer, and his wife, Mary (née Cooke). Both his parents’ families had lived at Youghal since Cromwellian times; Mary was descended from the regicide John Cook (qv). Taylor was educated at a local school and entered TCD on 13 January 1817. He withdrew in 1820, but returned after a brief period as a teacher in Youghal and graduated BA in 1825. Despite political differences with his alma mater, Taylor was proud of Trinity; the college recognised his achievements with an LLD honoris causa (7 July 1835).
After publishing several textbooks, Taylor moved to London in 1829. His intellectual appetite, talent for hard work, and extensive knowledge of ancient and modern languages made him a successful and prolific author on history, sociology, religion, and science. (His translations included Gustave de Beaumont's (qv) account of Ireland.) He became a leading contributor to the reforming whig weekly the Athenaeum. In 1831 he published his two-volume History of the civil wars in Ireland, attributing Ireland's misfortunes to religious bigotry and aristocratic elites, whose political and economic oppression had stifled the development of an Irish middle class. This is history as black comedy, mixing anger and flippancy; Taylor finally hailed catholic emancipation as the fulfilment of the union and predicted that the two societies would assimilate as English capitalists discovered Irish resources.
Daniel O'Connell (qv) cited the History as a protestant historian's acknowledgement that Irish catholics had never persecuted protestants, while Henry Cooke (qv) declared it as fictitious as ‘the memoirs of Captain Rock [by Thomas Moore] or the speeches of Daniel O'Connell’. Taylor's attitude to O'Connell, expressed in Reminiscences of Daniel O'Connell by a Munster farmer (1847), combined personal sympathy with political distrust; he thought O'Connell's opposition to the proposed government veto on the appointment of bishops and his venomous rhetoric retarded catholic emancipation as much as his reorganisation of the Catholic Association advanced it.
Taylor's outspoken defence of the national schools made him the friend and protégé of Archbishop Richard Whately (qv). Taylor shared Whately's view that education was the key to civilisation, that the Bible laid down a rational broad-church religion obscured by the human tendency to read metaphors literally, and that political and social progress could be guaranteed by educating both aristocracy and plebeians in the principles of political economy. Taylor's magnum opus, The natural history of civilisation (1840) argued that mankind was created by God to be civilised, and that savagery is not a natural or desirable state, but the product of ignorance.
A strong free trader, Taylor denounced agricultural protectionism as aristocratic extortion. In 1842 he published Notes of a tour in the manufacturing districts of Lancashire as a series of letters addressed to Whately. Surreptitiously commissioned by the Anti-Corn Law League, this was presented as the work of an independent expert; it attributed industrial depression and chartism to the corn laws, denounced trade unionism as ‘tyranny’, and defended the factory system (including child labour) against tory agrarian criticism. The book is a significant eyewitness account of industrial Lancashire (it was republished in 1968). From 1843 Taylor edited the league's newspaper, the League, as the organisation's ‘tame historian’ (McCord). He attributed Rome's decline to corn laws, and advocated the ‘Norman yoke’ theory of ongoing conflict between Norman feudalism and Saxon freedom.
Taylor also participated in the negotiations leading to the establishment of the queen's colleges; he unsuccessfully advocated university status for St Patrick's College, Maynooth, and the Belfast Academical Institution, and corresponded with Thomas Davis (qv), whom he always admired, in an effort to encourage Young Ireland support for the colleges. Taylor was considered a possible president for QCC. In 1846 he visited France to compile an official report on French technical education. After the repeal of the corn laws Taylor was recommended by the Benthamite free trade MP C. P. Villiers to his brother the whig cabinet minister Lord Clarendon (qv), president of the Board of Trade. When Clarendon became lord lieutenant of Ireland in 1847, Taylor accompanied him as government statistician and publicist.
Taylor's response to the famine reflected his view of political economy; his 1847 Athenaeum review of The black prophet: a tale of Irish famine by William Carleton (qv) defended provision dealers who raised prices during scarcity. His duties under Clarendon included defending government policy in the officially sponsored Dublin Evening Post. His attacks on the surviving Young Irelanders as anarchists and anti-clericals decisively undermined their catholic clerical support; Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) bitterly recalled Taylor as a clever man paid to ridicule the idea that his country should govern itself. In 1847 Taylor was a founder and council member of the Dublin Society for Statistical and Social Inquiry.
Taylor died of cholera 12 September 1849 at 20 Herbert Street, Dublin, and was buried at Mount Jerome cemetery. In September 1836 he married Marianne Taylor of Youghal; they had four surviving children – three daughters and a son, Robert Whately Cooke Taylor, who wrote for The Athenaeum on Irish land questions in the 1870s and 1880s. Taylor's sudden death left his family in straitened circumstances; his associates solicited a government pension for them. Some of Taylor's correspondence is in the British Library, Lansdowne collection (MSS 46613, 46614, 46615, 46650, 46651, 40364, 40595).
Taylor's liberalism reflected local memories of loyalist atrocities in 1798 and resentment at the exclusion of solid citizens from local governance by a narrow corporate elite and aristocratic patrons. He symbolises the achievements and limitations of the whig reform agenda for Ireland in the first half of the nineteenth century. He raged against bigotry and injustice, and worked fervently in the hope that technological advance, broad-church theology, and political economy could establish millennial peace and prosperity. His providentialism shaded into patronising complacency, the besetting sin of whiggery; his patriotism led him to advocate a famine policy that harmed the populace whom he sincerely sought to benefit, and retrospectively discredited many causes which he died defending. As a historian, Taylor's ironic condemnations were scattered on historical figures whom others might consider tragic; this was his own fate.