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Tuesday, 22 March 2016

John Wilkes, 18th century politician



John Wilkes was an 18th-century radical British journalist and politician whose activities paved the way for reform of the political system. He also played a small part in the events that led to American independence.

He was born in London on 17th October 1725, the second son of a distiller. He soon showed academic promise and was sent to the University of Leiden (in the Netherlands) in 1744. However, he was called back in 1747 to undertake an arranged marriage with a woman who was ten years older but came with a substantial dowry, namely the manor of Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire.

The marriage was not a success, due to John Wilkes having picked up some bad habits in Leiden that were at odds with the strait-laced character of his wife, but it did produce a daughter, Polly, who was born in 1750 and to whom Wilkes was devoted throughout his life. However, when the marriage eventually broke up, in 1757, Wilkes was allowed to retain his estate and property in Buckinghamshire.

John Wilkes was clearly a man who enjoyed life to the full, despite being a local magistrate, and one product of this period was an obscene parody of Alexander Pope’s poem “An Essay on Man” entitled “An Essay on Woman”. This was either written by Wilkes or his friend Thomas Potter, or both, but it was to play an important role in Wilkes’s later life.

Being addicted to women and wine as he was, Wilkes needed little encouragement to behave badly, but Potter appears to have provided plenty. He also suggested that the two of them should stand for the parliamentary seats of Aylesbury at the 1754 general election, but Potter cheated Wilkes out of his seat and the latter had to wait until 1757 for his chance to enter the House of Commons.

When he did so, Wilkes made little impression as a speaker and failed to gain any advancement with a government post. Indeed, at the next election, in 1761, he only retained his seat by offering large bribes to a majority of the Aylesbury voters.

However, what he lacked as an orator he more than made up for as a writer. In May 1762 King George III appointed his former tutor, the Earl of Bute, as Prime Minister and promulgated policies that were far from Wilkes’s liking. Soon after the appointment, Wilkes founded a weekly newspaper, the “North Briton” as a vehicle to attack and satirise Lord Bute and his government. The title was itself satirical, Bute being the first Scot since the Act of Union of 1707 to lead the British government.

The government could find no way to stop Wilkes publishing his newspaper, and he continued to do so until Bute resigned in April 1763, to be replaced by George Grenville. Wilkes briefly suspended the North Briton until Grenville revealed his hand as supporting policies (concerning Britain’s relationship with France) that were little different from those of Lord Bute. Wilkes then published issue 45 that strongly condemned Grenville’s stance, and a charge of seditious libel was then made against him.

The government made a mistake by issuing an arrest warrant that was phrased in general terms against the “authors, printers and publishers” of the North Briton without specifying anyone by name. Wilkes was in any case able to avoid arrest by claiming parliamentary privilege, and when he walked free from Westminster Hall the crowd outside chanted “Wilkes and Liberty”, a cry that was to become familiar on London’s street in the years to follow.

However, Wilkes had also made a mistake by printing a few copies of his earlier “Essay on Woman”, one of which was read out in the House of Lords on 15th November. This turned many parliamentarians against him and did not help his cause on the matter of the seditious libel charge. The House of Commons ruled that the North Briton issue 45 was indeed a seditious libel, and moreover that parliamentary privilege did not apply in such cases.

To make matters worse for Wilkes, a member of parliament, Samuel Martin, challenged him to a duel in Hyde Park which resulted in Wilkes receiving a serious bullet wound. However, this did at least give him a good excuse for not attending court, and he was later able to slip out of the country and away from British jurisdiction. He lived in France for the next four years.

Meanwhile, back in London, Wilkes was “tried” in his absence by the House of Commons and expelled. He was also declared an outlaw by the Court of King’s Bench. However, he did win one significant victory in that the use of general warrants for searching buildings or arresting individuals was ruled to be illegal.
John Wilkes had quite a pleasant time in France and Italy until his money ran out and he sought a means of returning to England. His applications for a pardon got him nowhere, but he returned anyway in February 1768 and lived quietly for a time under an assumed name although no efforts were made to arrest him.

He now planned to return to Parliament. He stood for a Middlesex seat in March 1768 and won convincingly. He had strong backing from the “Wilkites”, these being ordinary Londoners who followed him everywhere and cheered his every move, including freeing him from prison when he tried to give himself up as part of the process of clearing his name. He then had to enter the prison in disguise, in a somewhat farcical episode.

Although his outlawry was set aside, in June 1768 John Wilkes was sentenced to two years in prison on the original charges, although he was not expelled from Parliament until 3rd February 1769. Despite this, and while still in prison, he was returned unopposed at a by-election on 16th February but again declared to be incapable of election. The process was repeated at two further by-elections, even when the government put up a rival candidate whom Wilkes defeated with ease but who was declared as having won.

On his release from prison in April 1770, Wilkes sought a new power base in the City of London, where he and his supporters became aldermen and he eventually became Lord Mayor (in 1774).

Wilkes fought a campaign to overturn the ban on parliamentary proceedings being reported by the press. To do this he made use of the ancient privilege of the City of London that meant that only city officials could make arrests within the City boundaries. When printers were accused of breaking the no-reporting rule they were encouraged to seek sanctuary within the City, and this policy eventually led to the government having to back down. The reporting of parliamentary debates has ever since been regarded as a fundamental freedom and an important democratic safeguard.

Soon after becoming Lord Mayor, Wilkes also returned to Parliament, this time with no bar to him taking his seat. His parliamentary performances were much stronger than his previous efforts had been, as he now knew that his speeches would be reported by an unfettered press. He therefore spoke in favour of radical reforms that would eventually come to pass, such as abolition of the rotten boroughs. His greatest triumph was to overturn the motion that had barred him from election in 1769, thus establishing the right of voters to elect whom they wish.

Wilkes is often regarded as having been a strong advocate of American independence, but this view is not entirely accurate. Although he supported the colonists over many of their grievances, and condemned the use of force to suppress them, he did not, at first, want them to leave the Empire. His hope was that, if their complaints dealt with in a sensible way, the Americans would not seek independence because they would realise that staying loyal was in their best interests.

However, as the crisis escalated Wilkes changed his mind and appreciated that independence was the only feasible outcome. He was essentially pragmatic in his attitude and knew that governments cannot keep people loyal at the point of a bayonet.

As he grew older, John Wilkes became less radical in his behaviour, and the constant cries of “Wilkes and Liberty” became tiresome to him. He became much less active as a politician and eventually lost his House of Commons seat at the 1790 general election. He died on 26th December 1797, aged 72.

John Wilkes remains a fascinating character from 18th century politics, being such a contrast to the aristocracy that ran things at the time. Further radical voices would be heard in later years, and fundamental changes would follow, but John Wilkes laid the foundations for what was to come.


© John Welford

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