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Men of the Revolution: 8. John Wilkes

May 2024
6min read

Crowds on both sides of the Atlantic shouted “Wilkes and Liberty!” after he was jailed and tossed out of Parliament for defending the rights of Colonists and the “middling and inferior sort of people who stand most in need of protection.”

Not many political martyrs are born to the part; more often they are cast in it by government officials who are stupid or self-righteous or both. Take John Wilkes: a reckless, ambitious parvenu who became involved in the cause of liberty quite accidentally and emerged the champion of London’s mobs and the darling of America’s rebels—thanks to King George in’s intolerance for dissent.

Born in 1727 to a prosperous distiller and his wife, Wilkes was intelligent, spoiled, and uncommonly ugly. Endowed with wild good humor, he spent his youth with rich, dissolute companions, became a profligate spender and womanizer, but despite it all was a creditable scholar. When he returned from the grand tour of the Continent then obligatory for sons of the well-to-do, he found that his parents had chosen a wife for him—a woman twelve years his senior, neither attractive nor amusing, but possessed of a comfortable fortune. Predictably, the marriage was a disaster (Wilkes claimed that he stumbled as he entered the temple of Hymen), but it enabled him to live for several years in the style he relished; and before he and his wife separated, she produced the one true love of his life—a daughter named Polly. Until he was thirty he steadfastly devoted himself to the pursuit of women (who were highly susceptible to his ugly charm and energy) and to other, more dubious company, such as the notorious Mad Monks of Medmenham—an unsavory band that celebrated rites resembling the black mass, held orgies, it was said, and once administered Communion to an ape.

Then he was introduced to William Pitt and his brother-in-law, Earl Temple, who led a political faction threatened by the accession of George m in 1760. Wilkes took to politics with the same passion he had shown for less conventional pleasures, spent £7,000 to be elected an M. P. from Aylesbury, and began seeking a lucrative appointment. When none was forthcoming, he became an opposition journalist, helped found a newspaper called The North Briton , and launched a series of scurrilous attacks on the administration. Through Temple and Pitt he obtained in 1763 an advance copy of the king’s opening speech to Parliament, and in issue No. 45 of The North Briton denounced it with venomous relish. The king’s ministers retaliated, damned the article as “infamous and seditious libel,” and issued a “general warrant” to apprehend without specifically naming them the paper’s writers, printers, and publishers. It was a serious mistake.

At the vortex of the maelstrom he had roused, Wilkes was in his element, revelling in the recklessness of his role. Refusing to cooperate with the secretaries of state who had him arrested, he was confined to the Tower of London while his quarters were ransacked by government agents who seized his papers and correspondence. When he appeared before the Court of Common Pleas, Wilkes spoke in his own defense, to say he hoped that the “liberty of an English subject is not to be sported away with impunity in this cruel and despotic manner.” Then he told the court that his case—which questioned the government’s right to seize him and forty-eight others implicated in publication of The North Briton —involved “the liberty of all peers and gentlemen, and (what touches me more sensibly) that of all the middling and inferior sort of people who stand most in need of protection.” The judge took the easy way out and acquitted him on the grounds that he was immune from arrest as a Member of Parliament, but Wilkes’s victory was viewed as a triumph for the freedom of the individual over arbitrary justice. It was an enormous personal victory, moreover, for in appealing to those “middling and inferior sort of people” Wilkes had struck exactly the right note. He was suddenly the idol of London’s discontented masses, who carried him home, shouting “Wilkes and Liberty!”

Hidden in the crowd at his trial was a political foe named William Hogarth, who produced a savage caricature matching the king’s description of him as “that devil Wilkes.” There were the crooked, jutting jaw, the squinting, close-set eyes, the high forehead and flattened nose, the cunning leer, and a wig with curls that looked like horns—Wilkes at the moment of triumph, with one eye calculatedly cocked at his audience.

But the government was not done with him. His parliamentary privilege was taken away, and agents unearthed an obscene and turgid poem he had written and published, “An Essay on Woman,” which was read to a scandalized House of Lords. Wilkes, censured by Parliament and wounded in a duel with a political adversary, repaired to France in 1764 to recuperate. Expelled from Commons and convicted in absentia for seditious libel and blasphemy, he prudently remained on the Continent for four years, wandering from one court to another and in and out of the arms of numerous courtesans.

Undaunted by chastisement but badly in need of money, Wilkes returned with a change of ministry, unsuccessfully sought the king’s pardon, and in 1768 brashly stood for election from Middlesex. He was supported by an army of tradesmen and workers who painted the symbolic number “45” on every house; Wilkite mobs roamed the streets, forced a duke to drink a public toast to “Wilkes and Liberty,” and elected their man handily. Then the government made another blunder: when Wilkes appeared in court to answer the charges outstanding against him, he was committed to prison, but en route a throng surrounded his coach, unhitched the horses, and carried him in triumph to an inn.

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 :


—Richard M. Ketchum


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