Authors: Thomas Day

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English abolitionist, reformer, and writer.

June 22, 1748

London, England

September 28, 1789

Wargrave, Berkshire, England


Thomas Day is a minor English author who is chiefly remembered for a single work. Born in London on June 22, 1748, into the family of a customs collector, he was educated at Charterhouse School and at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. While at the university, he read Jean-Jacques Rousseau and became an enthusiastic supporter of that author’s philosophy. After leaving the university, Day went back to London, read law, and was admitted to the bar in 1775. He did not practice law but devoted his energy and time to carrying out his ideas of social and educational reform. Early evidence of his interest in reform is found in The Dying Negro, a narrative poem taking to task the American patriots for seeking independence from Great Britain while supporting slavery at home.

Having both money and inclination, Day took on the education of two orphan girls, one of whom he thought he would marry, making his choice on philosophical principles. Both young women proved unsuitable as prospective spouses, however, and after considerable search Day finally found what seemed to him to be the ideal woman, an heiress and reformer named Esther Milnes. Both were interested in many kinds of reform; they experimented in agriculture and politics.

Although he wrote several volumes, Day is remembered primarily for The History of Sandford and Merton, a novel that compares, through the experiences of two boys, the effects of a conventional education with those of an education close to nature. Sandford is the child of convention, and Merton is the child of nature. A good example of the novel of propaganda, the work is almost completely lacking in humor, and its simplistic ideas on educational reform seem now to be absurd. Yet the author, who lived by his principles, died by them; in an effort to prove that gentle handling could control any animal, he was thrown from a horse and killed at Wargrave on September 28, 1789.

Author Works Long Fiction: The History of Sandford and Merton, 1783-1789 (3 volumes; volume 1, 1783; volume 2, 1787; volume 3, 1789) The History of Little Jack, 1787 Poetry: The Dying Negro, 1773 The Devoted Legions, 1776 Nonfiction: The Desolation of America, 1777 Reflections on the Present State of England and the Independence of America, 1782 Letters of Marius, 1784 Dialogue Between a Justice of the Peace and a Farmer, 1785 Bibliography Gignilliat, G. W. The Author of "Sandford and Merton": A Life of Thomas Day, Esq. New York: Colombia University Press, 1932. Provides an overview of Day's life and work. Gregory, Allene. The French Revolution and the English Novel. 1915. Reprint. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1965. Includes discussion of Day, focusing on the influence of contemporary politics on his writing. Keir, James. Account of the Life and Writings of Thomas Day. 1791. Reprint. New York: Garland, 1970. A standard biography of Day. Moore, Wendy. How to Create the Perfect Wife. Basic Books, 2013. Describes Day's quest to raise an orphan girl to be the perfect bride. Pritchett, V. S. "The Crank." In The Living Novel and Later Appreciations. Rev. and expanded ed. New York: Random House, 1964. Provides critical commentary on Day. Rowland, Peter. The Life and Times of Thomas Day, 1748-1789: English Philanthropist and Author, Virtue Almost Personified. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996. A comprehensive biography of Day. Sadler, Michael. Thomas Day, an English Disciple of Rousseau. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1928. Provides a biographical overview of Day, particularly in light of Rousseau's influence. Scott, S. H. The Exemplary Mr. Day, 1748-1789: Author of "Sandford and Merton," a Philosopher in Search of the Life of Virtue and of a Paragon Among Women. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1935. A full biography of Day. Swinnerton, Frank A. "Philosopher Day." In A Galaxy of Fathers. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966. Discusses Day's life and times as a philosopher.

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