Leigh Hunt (1784)
It was on this date, October 19, 1784, that English writer James Leigh Hunt was born in Southgate, Middlesex. His father was a clergyman, but got into financial difficulties and ended up in a debtor's prison, leaving Leigh Hunt in the care of his mother. Early on, Hunt developed a twin passion for poetry and politics and befriended other young poets who favored political reform, including Thomas Barnes, Henry Brougham, Lord Byron, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
In 1808, with his brother John, Hunt started a political journal called The Examiner that supported radicals in Parliament such as Brougham and Francis Burdett, as well as the political ideas of reformer Robert Owen and jurist Jeremy Bentham, both Atheists.
The journal got Hunt into trouble: he was prosecuted three times for attacking egregious official abuses in its pages. After criticizing the Prince Regent, Hunt was jailed for libel, but continued to edit The Examiner from prison. In 1822, Hunt traveled to Italy with Byron and Shelley and created a radical political journal called The Liberal, but without the danger of arrest in England. There were only four editions, but the first included writings from William Hazlitt and Mary Shelley. The project was abandoned and Hunt returned to England in 1823. Five years later he published Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries (1828).
He died at age 74 on 28 August 1859. Leigh Hunt was a Deist, and strongly opposed Christianity, as evidenced in his Religion of the Heart. It has been suggested that Leigh Hunt was the model for Harold Skimpole in Charles Dickens' Bleak House, but Dickens denied this. Indeed, he described Hunt as "the very soul of honour and truth."*
* Dictionary of National Biography.
Originally published October 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.
Like John Ruskin and Tennyson, he was a Rationalist, but he did not go out of his way to criticize religion.