- Historic Sites
Viii Men Of The Revolution
April 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 3
In fact, the rescue mortified Wilkes, who was basically an advocate of order and had a fundamentally conservative view of the word liberty. But the government botched things yet again: totally misjudging the mood of the people, it sent troops to quell the mob, and the soldiers fired on the Wilkites, killing six.
Wilkes was sentenced to twenty-two months in prison and a £1,000 fine, but neither proved much of a hardship: admirers sent game, salmon, and wine to his comfortable cell ; a committee raised £20,000 to pay off his debts; and he received a steady stream of visitors, many of them female admirers. Again the government played into his hands by ousting him from Parliament and calling for another election, thereby raising the question of whether voters could be deprived of the right to be represented by a man they had elected. To make the farce complete, Wilkes was re-elected and expelled again—not once but thrice—and on the final occasion the House of Commons seated his defeated opponent, stating piously that the latter “ought to have been” elected. By now men who had little fondness for Wilkes personally found themselves viewing the proceedings with grave misgivings. The result of the battle, which took place while Wilkes luxuriated in jail, was a new awareness of Parliament’s unrepresentative character, its prejudice and corruption, its domination by the Crown, and the inherent danger all this represented to personal liberty. For the first time, organized public opinion became a factor to be reckoned with in British politics.
Across the Atlantic Wilkes became a heroic figure to colonists who perceived in his trials a mirror image of their own. They saw him as a leader of opposition to government and to its hated Stamp Act and Townshend duties, as a victim of general warrants (which they equated with the writs of assistance imposed upon them), and as a champion of private property against government confiscation. His cause, it appeared, was theirs, and his return from exile and re-elections to Parliament were hailed as blows for freedom and justice. “Wilkes and Liberty!” was the fashionable toast at gatherings along the Atlantic seaboard; live turtles and forty-five hogsheads of tobacco were sent to relieve his misery in prison. A group of Bostonians wrote him in 1768, “… your perseverance in the good old cause may still prevent the great system from dashing to pieces,” and the following year an American correspondent informed him categorically that “the fate of Wilkes and America must stand or fall together.” When he was denied his seat in Parliament again and again, America could only look on aghast, convinced that the king and his ministers were stamping out representative government in England as ruthlessly as in the colonies.
Wilkes and the authorities were spared further confrontation by his election (while still incarcerated) as an alderman from the City of London, and before long his weary enemies began accepting him as part of the scheme of things. In 1774 he became lord mayor of London and the following year was returned to Parliament (the king had decided to let a sleeping devil lie). From then on he was on relatively good behavior, advocating liberal causes such as prison reform, religious toleration, and support for the American colonists, and maintaining a dignity and integrity that outlasted the causes for which he had fought.
As the world passed him by, Wilkes forgot the encouragement his example had given Americans in their struggle for independence, and at the time the French Revolution began he saw no connection between his own earlier activities and events across the Channel. There had been, all along, a curious reluctance about his rebelliousness. Lacking the constancy and purposefulness of the true revolutionary, he was like the general who fights his battles one by one with no eye to the war. It was little wonder that most Londoners, before his death in 1797, knew him only as an aged but sprightly figure from the past, dressed in white-powdered wig and a splendid scarlet coat.
What he had accomplished may have been accidental, but there it was, after all, and at his own request these words were inscribed on his coffin :
T HE R EMAINS OF J OHN W ILKES, A F RIEND TO L IBERTY .