Harry Toulmin was born on April 7, 1766, in Taunton, Somersetshire, England. He was the son of the Reverend Joshua Toulmin (1740-1815) & Jane Smith Toulmin. He attended Hoxton Academy. Like his father, he was a Unitarian minister. He began his preaching ministry in 1786 serving two congregations of Protestant Dissenters in Lancashire, near Manchester.
Circa 1787 Toulmin married Ann Tremlett. They had nine children, four of whom died young. In 1812, after Ann’s death, he married Martha Johnson, by whom he had one child.
During the French Revolution, many of Toulmin’s mentors and colleagues supported the French Revolution. Their views attracted the attention of anti-dissenting forces in England. In one instance, a mob surrounded Toulmin’s home while he was away. When he heard of his family’s peril, he raced home and used diplomacy to disperse the crowd.
In 1792 Toulmin anonymously published his “Thoughts on Emigration”, with sections titled “reasons for thinking of a removal, the discouragements attending it, the most eligible country for removing to, and the steps to be taken by those who have it in contemplation.” Shortly thereafter Toulmin’s congregation had collected enough money to send him and his family to America to find land where members of the congregation might settle.
Traveling with his wife and children, Toulmin carried letters of introduction from Joseph Priestley to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In letters back to England for publication in the “Monthly Magazine”, he explained everything an emigrant to America might need to know, including foods to take on the voyage and what to leave in England.
In 1792, he wrote a pamphlet entitled “A Description of Kentucky” which invited emigrants to settle in Kentucky. He discussed the advantages of soil, climate, and river navigation offered by the state to prospective settlers.
Toulmin was named President of the Transylvania Seminary in February 1794. His beliefs, however, offended a number of the orthodox Presbyterian board members, and this led to his resignation in April 1796.
He served as Secretary of State during the two terms of Governor James Garrard from 1796 to 1804. (Garrard, a Baptist minister, had served on the Transylvania Board during Toulmin’s tenure as seminary president.)
He was the author of several law books, including “The Magistrate’s Assistant” (1801), “The Public Acts of the General Assembly” (1802), and a three-volume “Review of the Criminal Law of Kentucky” (1806).
In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson named him to a federal judgeship in the Tombigee district of the Mississippi Territory, a region which later became part of the state of Alabama. In 1807 he arrested Aaron Burr for his alleged involvement in creating a new independent state in the southwest, free from Spanish control. Toulmin's actions were interpreted as support for the Spanish, however, impeachment proceedings against Judge Toulmin were unsuccessful. The state of Alabama was created following the American annexation of West Florida. In 1819 Toulmin attended the constitutional convention which drafted the new Alabama constitution; he was elected to the Alabama legislature. He was the first to codify the laws of Mississippi and Alabama.
He died at his plantation near Fort Stoddard, Washington County, Alabama, on November 11, 1823.
For his service as the "first U.S. Judge on Alabama soil" and his compilation of the first Alabama Law Digest in 1823, Judge Toulmin was recently inducted into the Alabama Lawyers' Hall of Fame.
“Biographical Encyclopedia,” (1878), pg. 233;
Collins, “History of Kentucky,” (1874), Vol. 2, pg. 249;
Levin, ed., “Lawyers and Lawmakers,” (1897), pg. 770;
Alabama Census, 1810-1890, resided in Mississippi Territory, Baldwin County, Alabama in 1816;
Introduction by Thomas D. Clark to Toulmin’s “A Description of Kentucky in North America,” (1945), pgs. ix-xiii;
Introduction by Willard R. Jillson to “A Transylvanian Trilogy: The Story of the Writing of Harry Toulmin’s 1792 ‘History of Kentucky’” combined with a brief sketch of his life and a new bibliography (1932);
John D. Wright, “Transylvania: Tutor to the West,” (1975);
Obituary, "Argus of Western America," Frankfort, Ky., January 7, 1824, pg. 3.
Researcher's Note: We gratefully acknowledge the permission granted to us by the Universalist Historical Society to use portions of an article by Clara Keyes entitled “Harry Toulmin,” copyright 1999-2006, included on the Unitarian Universalist Association website: http://www.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/harrytoulmin.html