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John Wilkes

John Wilkes

As a focus and spokesman of radical discontent, the English politician John Wilkes (1727-1797) made an important contribution to the movement for parlia mentary reform.

John Wilkes was born on Oct. 17, 1727, at Clerkenwell. He entered Lincoln's Inn in 1742 and studied for two years (1744-1746) at the University of Leiden. In 1747 he married the daughter of a Buckinghamshire squire, a connection which enabled him to become sheriff of the country in 1754-1755 and to enter Parliament as member for Aylesbury in 1757.

On meeting Wilkes in 1762, Edward Gibbon wrote: "I scarcely ever met with a better companion; he has inexhaustible spirits, infinite wit and humour, and a great deal of knowledge; but a thorough profligate in principle as in practice…. He told us himself that in this time of public dissension he was resolved to make his fortune. Upon this noble principle he has connected himself closely with Lord Temple and Mr. Pitt [and] commenced public adversity to Lord Bute, whom he abuses weekly in the North Briton."

Wilkes gained little from pursuit of his "principle." The resignation of his friends William Pitt the Elder and Lord Temple spoiled his chance of obtaining office; and a libel published in the North Briton resulted in his arrest on an illegal general warrant and imprisonment in the Tower. Released on a warrant of habeas corpus, he withdrew to France and in January 1764 was expelled from the Commons. His expulsion and the matter of general warrants were taken up by the opposition as political issues; but Wilkes himself they disowned.

In 1768, impoverished and frustrated, Wilkes decided to return to England. Defeated as parliamentary candidate for London, he was head of the poll for Middlesex. His imprisonment, expulsion from the Commons, and finally the seating of his defeated rival constituted a small price to pay for the popularity which Wilkes now assumed. His debts were settled by public subscription, and a party under his leadership was formed in the City of London. He became the martyr of the London radicals and the idol of the London mob. Yet he showed no sympathy with their economic grievances and took resolute action against them during the Gordon riots. But he did adopt the radical demands of the urban middle class: shorter Parliaments, exclusion of place-men and pensioners from the Commons, parliamentary reform, and pro-Americanism. However, Edmund Burke, James Boswell, and Gibbon all noted the lack of seriousness in Wilkes's political conduct.

In 1774 Wilkes finally secured admittance to the House as member for Middlesex and 5 years later was elected to the lucrative office of chamberlain of the City of London. He never formally discarded his radicalism, but his behavior during the last seven years of his parliamentary career reflected his new respectability. By the time of the 1790 election his popularity in Middlesex had sunk so low that he was forced to decline the poll. He thereupon retired from national politics. Wilkes died at Rouen, France, on Dec. 26, 1797.

Further Reading

Modern biographies of Wilkes include R. W. Postgate, That Devil Wilkes (1929; rev. ed. 1956); O. A. Sherrard, A Life of John Wilkes (1930); and Charles Chenevix-Trench, Portrait of a Patriot: A Biography of John Wilkes (1962). Two important works set Wilkes in historical context: lan R. Christie, Wilkes, Wyvill and Reform: The Parliamentary Reform Movement in British Politics, 1760-1785 (1962), and George Rudé, Wilkes and Liberty: A Social Study of 1763 to 1774 (1962).

Additional Sources

Kronenberger, Louis, The extraordinary Mr. Wilkes: his life and time, Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1974.

Thomas, Peter David Garner, John Wilkes, a friend of liberty, New York: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Williamson, Audrey, Wilkes, a friend to liberty, New York: Reader's Digest Press: distributed by Dutton, 1974. □

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Wilkes, John

John Wilkes, 1727–97, English politician and journalist. He studied at the Univ. of Leiden, returned to England in 1746, and purchased (1757) a seat in Parliament. Backed by Earl Temple, Wilkes founded (1762) a periodical, the North Briton, in which he made outspoken attacks on George III and his ministers. In the famous issue No. 45 (1763), Wilkes went so far as to criticize the speech from the throne. He was immediately arrested on the basis of a general warrant (one that did not specify who was to be arrested), but his arrest was adjudged a breach of parliamentary privilege by Chief Justice Charles Pratt, who later ruled also that general warrants were illegal. The government then secured Wilkes's expulsion from Parliament on the grounds of seditious libel and obscenity (Wilkes was notoriously dissolute and the author of an obscene parody of Alexander Pope's Essay on Man, which was used against him).

Wilkes fled (1764) to Paris and was convicted of seditious libel in his absence. He returned in 1768 and was repeatedly elected to Parliament from Middlesex, but each time he was denied his seat by the king's party. The issue, in the eyes of the angry populace, became a case of royal manipulation of parliamentary privilege against Wilkes to restrain the people's right to elect their own representatives. Wilkes was supported by Edmund Burke and the unknown writer Junius, but he was not seated. After 22 months in prison for his libel conviction, he was elected sheriff of London (1771) and lord mayor (1774). In 1774 he was again elected and this time allowed to take his seat in Parliament, where he championed the liberties of the American colonies and fought for parliamentary reform. He lost popular favor for his vigorous action as chamberlain of London in suppressing the Gordon riots (1780). Although a demagogue, Wilkes was a champion of freedom of the press and the rights of the electorate.

See biographies by O. A. Sherrard (1930, repr. 1972), C. P. Chenevix Trench (1962), L. Kronenberger (1974), A. H. Cash (2006), and J. Sainsbury (2006); I. R. Christie, Wilkes, Wyvill and Reform (1962); G. F. E. Rudé, Wilkes and Liberty (1962).

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Wilkes, John

Wilkes, John (1725–97). Described on his coffin as ‘A Friend of Liberty’, Wilkes was the central figure in a number of constitutional disputes which extended the political rights of ordinary citizens. After a rakish and dissolute youth, he became MP for Aylesbury in 1757. A leading opponent of Lord Bute, Wilkes was arrested after the publication on 23 April 1763 of an article in No. 45 of his paper, the North Briton, and charged with seditious libel. He successfully challenged the use of general warrants which had been issued, but was condemned by Parliament for publishing a scandalous, obscene, and impious libel. Wilkes fled to the continent in 1764. On his return in 1768 he was treated as a popular hero and elected MP for Middlesex. However, he was imprisoned for libel and expelled from the Commons, despite repeated re-election for Middlesex. ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ became the slogan of the London crowds who demonstrated in his support from 1763 to 1774, when he became lord mayor of London and was able to assume his seat as MP for Middlesex. Wilkes advocated complete religious toleration and supported the American colonists. He was a champion of mass politics, henceforth one of the strands in popular radicalism.

John F. C. Harrison

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"Wilkes, John." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Wilkes, John

Wilkes, John (1727–97) British radical politician and journalist. He was expelled from Parliament for his savage criticism of George III and his government in the political journal North Briton (1763). His prosecution under a general warrant was condemned in the courts, a landmark in civil liberties. The refusal of Parliament to readmit him as member for Middlesex after he had been elected three times encouraged the movement towards parliamentary reform.

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