John Wilkes was once asked by a French official how far the liberty of the press really went in Britain, and replied, “I can not tell, but I am trying to find out.”
The publication of issue 45 of his weekly paper The North Briton in 1763 and the subsequent prosecutions would both define and redefine the liberty of the press and of the citizen in the English-speaking world. In Arthur Cash’s summary, “Many legal precedents would be set as a result of these events. Following the public outcry…general warrants would be outlawed. Indignation over the seizure of papers would lead to suits that established the rights of privacy that have been treasured in American and English law – and in the past decade whittled away. The right to sue the government for false arrest would be made far stronger and clearer than it had been”. General warrants were “the last vestige of absolute monarchical power, the last loophole in the constitution wherein the will of the monarch constituted the law”.
Perhaps even more importantly – and why this site is dedicated to John Wilkes – his campaigns launched a new popular Radical movement which, more than any of its predecessors, drew its strength from ordinary people rather than a narrow elite. Long before the universal franchise, the Wilkites’ influence on government came not from the corrupt pseudo-elections of the times but from the rowdy streets, taverns and coffee houses of Georgian Britain and America. The battle between Wilkes and the Establishment was a fight for the hearts and minds of the people, between submission to and contempt for the established order and its third-rate, self-seeking leadership.
As such, when the first court case against him was dismissed by the Lord Chief Justice, cheering mobs filled the courtroom and vast multitudes celebrated in the streets with bonfires. When the public hangman was sent to burn No 45, he was forcibly prevented by the mob and the constables and sheriff beaten off, and symbols of the prime minister were burnt instead. The cry ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ was shouted at King George III in Drury Lane Theatre as well as by the infant Prince of Wales when angry with his father. In America, it was taken up from Boston to Charleston, and a city and two counties were named after him. In New York as well as London, ‘45’ became a short-hand and a symbol for liberty itself.
Even when he came last in a City of London election in March 1768, the crowd removed the horses from his carriage and pulled it themselves through the City. When he stood for Middlesex later the same month, London cabbies ferried people to the poll for free, and the mob forced pedestrians to wear blue Wilkite rosettes and chalked ‘45’ on every carriage and doorway, Ben Franklin observing the marks all the way from London to Winchester. The Austrian ambassador was held upside down by the mob and 45 painted on the soles of his shoes. Wilkes received congratulations on his victory from the great European philosophers D’Holbach, Crebillion, Diderot, Suard and Friedrich Grimm. David Hume said that the government was more fearful of Wilkes than of the Catholic powers of Europe, and indeed he worried the government so profoundly that he was once offered Canada to keep him quiet (he turned it down).
Remanded in custody during these election controversies, the mob stopped the coach taking him to prison on Westminster Bridge, chased off the guards, unhitched the horses and pulled him back to a pub in Spitalfields for a rowdy drinking session (he later sneaked out the back and presented himself at the prison). Outside, the people demolished parts of the wall and the lobby, and he had to plead from the window for them not to destroy the prison and rescue him. When it turned into a riot in which several people were killed by soldiery, London found itself in a state of virtual insurrection in which the King threatened to abdicate. As Franklin observed, “I believe that had the King a bad character and Wilkes a good one, the latter might have turned the former out of his kingdom”.
He was then expelled from Parliament but re-elected unanimously in the subsequent by-election while still in prison, and his fight for press freedom was therefore joined by a struggle against the ability of Parliament to choose who may not be elected (known as ‘incapacitation’) – an ultimately successful battle which was the basis for James Madison’s codification of this rule into the US Constitution. Such was the importance of this issue to ordinary people that a man who stood against him in Middlesex the third time was obliged to take out life insurance with Lloyds, and when Wilkes nominated a candidate for the Westminster constituency nobody dared stand against him.
Later in life, although sometimes accused of becoming a less radical and even Establishment figure as a City Alderman, Lord Mayor and Chamberlain, he was instrumental in ending the government’s prohibition of reporting the proceedings of the House of Commons – indeed, he used his position to do so, arranging for a government official who entered the Square Mile in March 1771 in order to arrest one of the reporters to be arrested himself on a charge of assault. In the power struggle between Parliament and the City of London which followed, Londoners took the Prime Minister Lord North out of his carriage, destroyed it, cut up his hat and sold the pieces – an opportunity which their fellow subjects in Massachusetts must have envied. By 1774, the government had given up, and Parliamentary proceedings have been regularly published ever since. In 1776, he introduced a Bill to Parliament for ‘a just and equal representation of the people’, anticipating the Great Reform Act by 56 years.
John Wilkes’ core message – that the government is accountable to the people and not vice versa – grows fainter with every passing year. Throughout the Anglosphere, our faith in the Benevolent State causes us to put ever more power in government’s hands, just as Alexis de Tocqueville predicted we would. While the spirit of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 may never again burn as brightly as it did in the eighteenth century, it is with the hope that it may not be extinguished entirely that the John Wilkes Club will plough its lonely furrow.
City of London, January 2013.