Wilkes in America
Huge thanks to Joey Kemper and Jon Fann, who were kind enough to share with us their discovery of a genuine eighteenth century John Wilkes commemorative medallion found in an undisturbed road bed in Virginia, about 25 miles outside Richmond. Wilkes fans will know that Uncle Jack was tremendously popular in America, where his battles against arbitrary authority and unconstitutional government in the 1760s and ‘70s struck a chord at a time when the colonies were beginning to do the same, as they faced a series of measures by the same ministry which would ultimately lead to the Revolution and the Declaration of Independence.
Until the Revolution, however, the dispute was not seen as Britain vs America, since those were not yet separate ideas – rather, Patriots on both sides of the water saw themselves as citizens of an Empire who objected to the political direction which they perceived the Empire to be taking. Wilkes’ various victories over the establishment – in the courtroom, in parliament and on the streets – were celebrated by Patriot societies throughout Britain and the colonies, particularly after his release from prison in 1770, which marked his victory over the notion that parliament could vote down the electors’ choice of representative – a principle that was later encoded in the American constitution.
This commemorative medal was almost certainly distributed by one of the Patriot societies whose celebrations in Boston, New York and Charleston marked Wilkes’ victory. The independent Americans would go on to name streets, towns, counties and a university in his honour. It is only fitting that the very soil itself still marks the intimate connection between Wilkes, Liberty and America!