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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

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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Wilkes, John

John Wilkes

Born October 17, 1725
London, England
Died December 26, 1797
London, England

Political leader, writer, publisher

John Wilkes was a London radical who favored revolutionary changes in England's political structure. His newspaper articles irritated King George III see entry and British lawmakers (Parliament) so much that he was several times expelled from his seat in Parliament. The public was outraged over this treatment, and the important question was raised—whether Parliament could ignore the will of voters. Wilkes became known as a champion of the common people and a crusader for freedom of the press and the reform of Parliament. American colonists made a hero out of him because of his support for the American Revolution (1775–83).

John Wilkes was the second son and one of five children born to Israel Wilkes, a London malt distiller (a maker of alcoholic beverages), and Sarah Heaton Wilkes. The distillery provided a good income, and Israel Wilkes was rich enough to afford his own coach, six horses, and a fine London home. He supported the official Church of England, but his wife was a dissenter, one who did not like the form of worship used by the official church and who opposed government-controlled religion. Israel Wilkes was a tolerant man who respected his wife's dissenting views. The couple frequently entertained educated people in their home.

Israel Wilkes had planned that his son John would get only a basic education in reading and writing, but he changed his mind when he saw how bright the boy was. John was then sent to be educated in the classics by a Presbyterian minister (the classics are the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome). London had a large number of well-educated churchmen, and being tutored by one was a common first step before going on to a university. Wilkes's teacher emphasized the importance of expressing oneself freely, a lesson Wilkes took to heart.

In 1744 Wilkes went to Leyden University in Holland, where he met Charles Townshend see entry and other rich young Englishmen. During his two years abroad, Wilkes did not study very hard, but he took advantage of every opportunity to travel throughout Europe. He returned home with the reputation of an educated man. In 1749 Wilkes was elected a member of the Royal Society, an exclusive group of rich, educated men who met to discuss scientific and other topics; members also wrote and published papers.

Early marriage; unsavory habits

In 1749, at his father's urging, Wilkes married Mary Mead, heiress of a wealthy grocer; she was ten years older than he was. In 1750, Mary Wilkes gave birth to a daughter, Mary (called Polly). The couple separated soon after the child's birth, and Wilkes kept custody of the child (it was common in those days for fathers to control their children). It was arranged that Wilkes would receive enough of his wife's property to allow him to live comfortably without working. In 1758, Mary Wilkes had to go to court to stop her husband from pestering her for more money.

For several years after his separation from his wife, Wilkes associated with a rich crowd of lazy young men. He did little that was useful, instead indulging in frequent affairs with women, gambling, and playing mean tricks on both his friends and his enemies. Wilkes belonged to a secret organization called the Hell-Fire Club, whose members met occasionally in the ruins of an old church to perform Black Masses (they celebrated the devil in a mockery of the Roman Catholic mass). At one such mass, Wilkes terrified his companions by suddenly releasing a baboon disguised as the devil.

Wilkes is described by biographers as extremely unattractive, with an odd squint that gave him an evil appearance. However, he could be charming and witty, and he had a talent for writing. By 1757, he seemed to have grown bored with his life. He embarked on a path that embraced both journalism and politics. However, he did not do it in a quiet way.

Enters public life

In 1757 Wilkes was elected to Parliament from the district of Aylesbury where, thanks to his wife, he had possession of a large estate. In Parliament, he was a strong supporter of the politician William Pitt see entry. He hoped that Pitt would use his influence to get him a position as ambassador to Constantinople (Turkey) or governor of Quebec (Canada). When neither position was forthcoming, Wilkes blamed Lord Bute (pronounced BOOT), another politician and the special favorite of King George III. He was so angry that he began to attack both Bute and King George in print.

Wilkes's nasty articles greatly offended the king and his advisers, but the public was delighted. In 1762 Wilkes and a friend founded their own newspaper, The North Briton (a Briton is a native of Great Britain). Wilkes now had a whole newspaper in which to attack and poke fun at King George and Lord Bute; he didn't stop with them, but made targets of old friends, other politicians, and even children he knew.

With the edition of the paper printed on April 23, 1763, Wilkes went too far. In an anonymous article, the king's advisers were attacked as "tools of despotism and corruption." (Despotism is rule by absolute power, not by law.) The article hinted that a peace treaty recently signed with France was dishonorable and dishonest, and the king knew it. As a result of Wilkes's article, the king became very angry.

Tossed into Tower of London

King George's secretary of state issued a warrant (a legal document) commanding that the authors, printers, and publishers of The North Briton, issue number 45, be arrested. As a result, nearly fifty people were arrested and jailed, including John Wilkes. Wilkes protested that the warrant was illegal, because it did not mention any names. He also claimed that he had special privileges against being arrested, because he was a Member of Parliament. In spite of his protests, Wilkes was imprisoned in the Tower of London and charged with seditious libel. This was a very serious charge; libel is any written, printed, or pictorial statement that damages a person by attacking his good name or exposing him to ridicule, and sedition is conduct or language intended to incite rebellion against the authority of the state.

In prison, Wilkes was not allowed to speak to anyone. His house was thoroughly and messily searched, and even his personal papers were seized. At a court hearing, the judge ruled that as a Member of Parliament, Wilkes could not be arrested for libel and was let go. Wilkes was hailed as the hero of the common people of London. Some time later, Wilkes's success led to reforms that protected other people from similar treatment by the government.

Wilkes went back to attacking the king and his advisers in print. On November 16, 1763, Wilkes was shot in the stomach by a supporter of King George. The man had challenged Wilkes to a duel, a move that many people believed was a government plot to get rid of Wilkes. The following week, Parliament voted that a member could indeed be arrested for publishing seditious libel. Wilkes fled to Paris, France, rather than be arrested. While he was away, Parliament expelled him for having previously published an "obscene libel" entitled Essay on Woman, and Wilkes was declared an outlaw.

Exiled; returns to fight for free press

Wilkes had a fine time in Europe. After he recovered from his wound, he took a mistress and traveled through Italy. He began work on a book, History of England, which he never finished. His mistress deserted him and he returned to Paris, but he felt uncomfortable there. His lifestyle was costly, his daughter's education was expensive, his writing earned little money, and he was running out of funds.

In early 1768, Wilkes returned to London, hoping to restore his good name and his government position. He wrote to ask for the king's pardon but was ignored. Londoners had not forgotten him, however, and in March 1768, a huge majority elected him a Member of Parliament for the district of Middlesex. Wilkes was still considered an outlaw; after his election he surrendered and was imprisoned. A mob tried to rescue him as he went from court to jail, but he escaped the mob and returned to jail. From his cell he wrote a passionate letter to his supporters, who continued to surround the jail. By May 10, 1768, a crowd of 15,000 had gathered outside the prison, shouting "Wilkes and Liberty," "No Liberty, No King," and "Damn the King! Damn the Government! Damn the Justices!" ("Justice" is another word for judge). British soldiers tried to break up the mob, and seven people were killed.

Wilkes was sentenced to a jail term and a fine, and he was again expelled from Parliament. Elections for his Middlesex seat were held in February, March, and April 1769; each time Wilkes was re-elected, and each time, Parliament over-turned the elections. Wilkes declared war on the government, publishing letters attacking the government for its unfair and illegal treatment of him and blaming them for what he called the "massacre" outside the jail.

In April 1770 Wilkes was released from prison. He was banned from Parliament, but he could still write articles for the newspapers. He continued to attack what he believed to be a corrupt government. (Benjamin Franklin see entry, who was living in London as a representative of the American colonies, agreed with Wilkes that Parliament was corrupt). When Parliament tried to prevent London newspapers from publishing reports of government debates, Wilkes challenged the decision. Faced with the opposition of Wilkes and a huge crowd outside their doors, Parliament gave up their attempt to suppress the news. Wilkes had struck a blow for freedom of the press.

Darling of London mobs, American revolutionaries

In 1771 Wilkes was elected sheriff of London and Middlesex. In a time when Great Britain operated under a harsh system of treating prisoners, Wilkes courted popularity by stopping the practice of holding a prisoner in chains during the prisoner's trial. He passed a measure that forbade soldiers to attend executions. Witnessing executions was a form of entertainment in those days, and soldiers were stationed to keep the crowds in order. Without crowd control, the common people loved him; however, people high up in Parliament dismissed him as the darling of the mobs.

In 1774 Wilkes was elected Lord Mayor of London and a Member of Parliament from Middlesex. He was obviously a very popular man, and this time, no one opposed his taking his seat in Parliament. Wilkes was just in time to voice his opinion on the Intolerable Acts, the measures adopted by Parliament to punish the city of Boston, Massachusetts, for the Boston Tea Party.

For more than ten years, anger had been building in the American colonies over taxes and other measures imposed on them by Parliament. The matter reached a head with the dumping of 342 chests of British tea in Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773. Relations between England and America went downhill from there, and the first shots of the American Revolution rang out at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775. Just nine days before, John Wilkes had presented to King George a protest over British treatment of the colonies.

Throughout the American Revolution, Wilkes continued to speak out against his government's conduct, in the process becoming the man King George most disliked. At the same time, he pressed for "just and equal representation of the people of England in parliament." His protests came at a time when industrial cities in England were growing quickly but had fewer representatives in Parliament than older, smaller districts, whose representatives jealously guarded their power. It would be another fifty years before Wilkes's ideal of fair representation was realized. Wilkes's phrase "the rights of Englishmen" was adopted by American rebels as they pleaded their cause to King George and Parliament. To American patriots, Wilkes became a hero.

Gordon Riots

Wilkes was involved in another ugly mob incident in 1780 called the Gordon riots. English Catholics had been persecuted for hundreds of years, and beginning in 1778, some of the punishing laws against them were lifted. In 1780, Catholic-hating mobs reacted angrily to these changes in the laws. Wilkes played a courageous role in the event, reminding the mob of the authority of the law.

Wilkes kept his seat in Parliament until 1790. Wilkes was more interested in French and Italian literature and painting than in politics. He continued writing essays, translated some ancient poems from Latin, and wrote some of his own poetry, which he dedicated to his beloved daughter.

Last days

Wilkes divided his time during the last seven years of his life among his three homes, one on the Isle of Wight and two in London. He died nearly penniless in one of his London homes on the day after Christmas, 1797. He was buried in a London chapel with only a wall tablet to mark the burial spot. It read: "The Remains of John Wilkes, a friend to liberty." He left behind his daughter Mary, who died unmarried in 1802. He also had a son and a daughter by someone other than his wife.

Wilkes is summed up in The Dictionary of National Biography this way: "Wilkes had fine manners and an inexhaustible fund of wit and humour which made his society acceptable even to those who … thoroughly distrusted him. In his vices he was by no means [unusual]; and his tender affection for his daughter and the constancy of his friendship … are redeeming traits in his character."

For More Information

Boatner, Mark M., III. "Wilkes, John." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 1203-05.

Churchhill, Winston S. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Volume 3: The Age of Revolution. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1983, pp. 163-99.

Web Sites

"Wilkes, John." [Online] Available http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/PRwilkes.htm (accessed on October 13, 1999).

The John Wilkes Connection

Some interesting people are connected in one way or another to John Wilkes. Another British politician who lived at the same time as Wilkes, a man named Isaac Barré, also became famous in America as a champion of freedom. It was Barré who coined the term "sons of liberty" to describe the American rebels; the name was taken up by a radical group formed by Samuel Adams see entry. Today, the town of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, pays homage to Wilkes and Barré.

John Wilkes's older brother Israel had a son, Charles Wilkes, who discovered Antarctica in 1840 and later became a hero during the American Civil War (1861–65). A distant relative of John Wilkes, John Wilkes Booth, will always be remembered as the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

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Wilkes, John

Wilkes, John

WILKES, JOHN. (1725–1797). British politician. Wilkes was born in Clerkenwell, London, on 17 October 1725, the second son of a malt distiller. Educated at a Hertford school from 1734, in 1744 he entered the University of Leiden. Here he rebelled against his mother's Presbyterianism with endless bouts of womanizing and drinking. His arranged marriage in 1747 to Mary Mead, puritanical and ten years his senior, had no effect on his behavior. However, her dowry, the manor of Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, secured Wilkes's status as a landed gentleman. He joined Sir Francis Dashwood's "Monks of Medmenham," a secret society that met at the ruins of Medmenham Abbey to engage in obscene parodies of Roman Catholic ritual. In 1754 he composed an obscene Essay on Woman, a satire on Alexander Pope's Essay on Man; fatefully, he had thirteen copies printed for private circulation. Meanwhile his life as a witty and generous man about town, combined with his first attempts to enter politics, proved enormously expensive. In 1758 he was permanently separated from his wife, to whom he paid £200 a year in return for possession of the manor.

In 1757, with the support of his neighbors the Grenvilles—Richard Grenville, first Earl Temple, and his brother, George Grenville (who was the brother-in-law of William Pitt)—he was elected member of Parliament for Aylesbury. However, Wilkes was a poor and infrequent speaker and of little use to the ministry. Consequently his ambitious requests to be appointed to the Board of Trade, ambassador to Constantinople, and governor of Quebec fell on deaf ears. Under Temple's patronage, Wilkes spoke up for Pitt after the latter's resignation in October 1761 but made little impression. He had finally to accept that he was no orator and could not hope to make his way in the House of Commons.

Wilkes, funded by Temple, now turned to journalism. The new Lord Bute ministry was negotiating peace on terms unacceptable to Pitt and his allies, and badly needed a pen to counter Bute's journal The Briton, edited by the Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett. After writing a few articles for existing journals, on 6 June 1762 Wilkes founded TheNorth Briton, the title being an ironic reference to the Scot Bute's supposed takeover of English politics. Wilkes reminded readers of the ancient FrancoScots alliance against England and falsely hinted that Bute owed his position to a liaison with the king's mother. The claim rightly angered George III, but it went down very well with the London crowds: a gibbet bearing a top boot and a petticoat became a familiar symbol in popular demonstrations. Although this gutter journalism soon alarmed Pitt and Temple, they were not inclined to stop it, and Wilkes cleverly avoided giving grounds for prosecution. Private victims were less restrained: in 1763 the artist William Hogarth published a savage caricature which has ever since perpetuated an image of Wilkes as surpassingly ugly.

Bute, wearied and distressed by such attacks, resigned on 8 April 1763 to be succeeded by George Grenville, who had fallen out with Temple and Pitt in 1761. Grenville ended the parliamentary session with a king's speech praising the peace settlement, and on 23 April Wilkes struck. Number 45 of The North Briton attacked the treaties and suggested that the king had lied on his prime minister's instructions. This was enough to goad ministers into bringing a charge of seditious libel. The problem was that the articles in number 45 were anonymous, and, although everyone knew Wilkes had written them, there was no legal proof of authorship. Lord Halifax, secretary of state for the north, therefore issued a general warrant for the arrest of the unnamed authors, printers, and publishers. Most of those arrested were quickly released, but crucially they provided firm evidence that Wilkes had wielded the offending pen. Halifax could then have issued a warrant naming Wilkes. Instead, he took legal advice as to whether Wilkes could be arrested on the existing general warrant. The reply was that Wilkes's parliamentary privilege protected him from arrest except on charges of treason, felony, or actual breach of the king's peace; number 45 tended to a breach of the peace and for that the general warrant would suffice. Reassured, on 30 April Halifax and his colleagues had Wilkes arrested and his papers seized.

This was a disaster. Although there were plenty of precedents for ministers using general warrants, their legality was uncertain and had already been questioned. Moreover, the view that Wilkes was guilty of a breach of the peace was open to question. Temple at once obtained a writ of habeas corpus, and on 6 May Chief Justice Sir Charles Pratt, a supporter of Pitt, heard the case in the Court of Common Pleas. In his defense Wilkes claimed that he was acting for those who had no political voice-and at least some spectators thought he meant it. When he was freed on grounds of parliamentary privilege the crowd in Westminster Hall, thinking he had been acquitted, raised the cry "Wilkes and liberty!"

Wilkes and his friends now counterattacked, bringing a series of prosecutions for wrongful arrest and seizure against the ministers, their undersecretaries, and king's messengers who had executed the warrant. Their cause was assisted by the now widespread concern about the principle of general warrants, even among those who despised Wilkes as a man. On 3 December Pratt ruled that general warrants could not be used to authorize searches of unspecified buildings and awarded Wilkes £4,000 in damages against the government. In January 1764 the Commons expelled Wilkes without a vote; but on 17 February the government survived a motion condemning general warrants only by begging to await the courts' decisions. On 18 June 1764 and 8 November 1765, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield ruled that general warrants could not be used against persons. Finally, Pratt (now Lord Camden) found that, except in cases of treason, secretaries of state could not issue warrants for even named persons. In this way Wilkes's scurrilous opportunism produced landmark protection for the liberty of the subject, the freedom of the press, and private property. Wilkes, however, was not there to see the fullness of his triumph: by then he was an exiled outlaw in France.

Shortly after the case against Wilkes collapsed, the ministry's agents had obtained one of the printed copies of Essay on Woman, which (the print claimed) had been edited by a bishop. Ribald mirth greeted the earl of Sandwich, secretary of state for the northern department, when he read it to the Lords on 15 November 1763. Nevertheless, the peers promptly declared it blasphemous. On the same day the Commons resolved that number 45 was a seditious libel and that seditious libels were not protected by parliamentary privilege. During this debate Samuel Atkins, the secretary to the treasury, called Wilkes a coward, and in the ensuing pistol duel Wilkes was severely wounded in the stomach. He still had the crowd on his side: when, on 3 December, number 45 was to be ceremonially burned in Cheapside, the crowd attacked the sheriffs, rescued the papers, and burned a top boot in its place. However, it could do him little good. Too ill to attend Parliament or court, and unwilling to face the inevitable prosecutions, Wilkes decamped to France on 25 December 1763. When he repeatedly failed to appear in King's Bench, he was outlawed in November 1764. He remained abroad for four years, writing, traveling in France and Italy, getting robbed by a teenage mistress and by his English agent, and failing to live within his precarious means. In the end his French debts forced him to flee to Leiden, where he enrolled in his old university as a precaution against prosecution.

He returned to Britain in 1768, hoping for a pardon and, lacking a patron, for popular election to a seat in Parliament. Promising to surrender when the court of King's Bench next met, he was triumphantly returned as member for Middlesex, where he had attracted hordes of skilled workers pressed by high prices and lack of work. In spite of almost nightly demonstrations in his favor, Wilkes took care not to use the crowd as a weapon. He surrendered to the court and—his outlawry being quashed on a technicality—accepted two years' imprisonment for seditious libel and blasphemy. Now a political martyr, Wilkes lived comfortably in prison and continued his political activity. On 3 February 1769 the Commons voted to expel him, but at the ensuing Middlesex election he was returned unopposed. Once again he was expelled, the House declaring him incapable of election: and once again he was re-elected without a contest. Yet again he was expelled. This time the ministry put up its own candidate, Colonel Luttrell, who, though defeated by a landslide vote, was nevertheless declared elected. This blatant attack on the principle of representation, even though aimed at an obnoxious individual, united the opposition leaders in January 1770. The prime minister, the duke of Grafton, was forced to resign. But Wilkes and the opposition had not triumphed: Lord North's new ministry declined to unseat Luttrell in favor of Wilkes.

Wilkes now turned to building up a power base in the City of London, where he had been elected alderman in January 1769. In 1771 he orchestrated a successful City challenge to the ban on parliamentary reporting, advocated annual parliamentary elections, and was elected sheriff. In 1774 he became lord mayor, and Middlesex re-elected him to Parliament. In the House he advocated the parliamentary reform and full civil rights for Dissenters and Catholics.

From the beginning of the colonial troubles, Wilkes was opposed to American independence. In 1765 he thought the Stamp Act riots little short of rebellion. However, public adulation in America, he was persuaded, sincerely or otherwise, to exploit the idea of a trans-Atlantic plot to subvert English liberties. By 1767 he was praising the resistance to the Townshend duties, and in 1768 he denounced the deployment of troops against civilians in Boston. From then until 1774 Wilkes had little use for American issues as his Middlesex election and City politics provided plentiful antigovernment ammunition. Although he organized petitions against the Coercive Acts and denounced parliamentary taxation of the colonies, he did not oppose parliamentary supremacy until October 1775. By 1777 he was arguing that the war was bloody and futile and recommended conciliation. On 10 December, after news of Saratoga, he moved for the repeal of the Declaratory Act only as a last-ditch means of persuading the rebels to forgo independence. Not until the failure of the 1778 Carlisle Peace Commission was Wilkes induced to speak for independence, and then only as an expedient to end an unwinnable war. Even this position was so unpopular that his radical power base in City politics wasted away. It was further weakened by his part in suppressing the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780. By the end of the war the once terrible Wilkes had become respectable, and in1790 he abandoned his Middlesex seat without a contest. He died in London on 26 December 1797.

Whatever popular legend might say, his espousal of American causes was at best lukewarm and always subservient to his domestic and personal agenda. However, at first for his own ends, later also from reasons of principle, Wilkes had campaigned for traditional liberties for over two decades. His career had seen the demise of general warrants, the establishment of the supremacy of electors over parliamentary privilege, and vindication of the right to report debates. Politics was no longer a closed world, and the way was paved for reform, which followed in the nineteenth century. Above all he had shown how an unsavory personality might be a powerful vehicle for lofty causes.

SEE ALSO Bute, John Stuart, Third Earl of; Chatham, William Pitt, First Earl of; Gordon Riots; Grafton, Augustus Henry Fitzroy; Grenville, George; Intolerable (or Coercive) Acts; Sandwich, John Montagu, fourth earl of; Stamp Act; Townshend Acts.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Christie, I. R. Wars and Revolutions: Britain 1760–1815. London: Edward Arnold, 1982.

Thomas, Peter D. G. John Wilkes: A Friend to Liberty. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Williamson, A. Wilkes. London: Allen and Unwin, 1974.

                                   revised by John Oliphant

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