Thomas Day is a minor English author who is 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 only 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.