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Wilkes Book Reviews

Cash John WilkesCash, Arthur H., John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty. Yale University Press (2006)

This is your entry-level Wilkes biography: for anyone coming to the subject for the first time, it is the best available primer for Uncle Jack’s life, times and political career. To a greater degree than other comparable works, it is a narrative history whose tone has been described as ‘journalistic’, no doubt because the author relates events in the flowing style appropriate to a life lived at full speed and with a conscious disregard for political, social and, indeed, financial constraints.

Because it is not merely a political or intellectual biography, Cash goes into greater detail about Wilkes’ early life than other biographies. In doing so, Cash’s contribution inadvertently highlights something of great importance: the fact that Wilkes was born and raised in London at a time when it was at the forefront of changes to the social and economic structure – not least Clerkenwell, just north of the City boundary at Smithfield, where Wilkes was born. Large, growing cities, of course, allow for specialisation, and already in the early eighteenth century London’s burgeoning number of skilled artisans, lawyers, stockbrokers, small businessmen, publishers and so on was creating a self-conscious middle class whose identity was seeking political expression. For all his later pretentions to squiredom in Aylesbury, being a Londoner and middle class was central to the Weltanschauung of Wilkes and the other radicals of that time and place.

Right from this early part of the book, Cash takes care to explain those idiosyncrasies which may be new to the general reader – for example, the distinction between London and the City of London, or the significance and roles of key figures such as Walpole and Pitt. Readers with a more long-standing interest in Britain and its history, however, are just as likely to find these digressions irritating: they do not need a three paragraph discursus on Aldermen or the Court of Common Council in the middle of an otherwise compelling account of intrigue and skullduggery in an important electoral battle.

These supposedly helpful asides are at their most jarring when they are either not quite right or just plain weird. He explains that Whigs and Tories did not mean rebels and loyalists as they did in the colonies, but this is in a passage on 1750s politics, i.e., a full generation before they acquired that meaning even in America. He tries to make political divisions accessible to modern readers with the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’, but in reality the politics of the period simply can not sustain these labels or anything like them. He has great problems with British orders of nobility, and while this is fair enough in its way – after all, who hasn’t? And who cares? – good scholarship on the eighteenth century should not refer to a mythical ‘duke’ of Sandwich. Similarly, The North Briton should not be occasionally rendered as The North Britain, and if the spelling of British place names is to be Americanised (“St. Sepulcher Church”), it should be done consistently. English grammar also attaches some importance to the sequence of tenses.

Still, impressively thorough research allows him to describe the key events in meticulous detail, most notably the aftermath of the publication of Number 45. This is important, because for few other significant historical events is it so essential to know precisely what happened, in what order, who was involved and who did what at each stage, in order to understand them fully. Likewise, the Essay on Woman scandal which led to Wilkes’ five-year exile in France can not be understood, nor the furtive machinations of the establishment laid bare, without the almost minute-by-minute account which Cash can bring to his readers. Litigators in particular will appreciate the forensic treatment of the acts and statements of the main and peripheral actors – which, indeed, were later subject to high-profile litigation, some of which is still taught in law schools, in particular Entick v Carrington. In fact, it is partly because these events were so extensively litigated that it is possible to reconstruct in such detail, a quarter of a millennium later, such a complex and rapidly-moving situation.

In doing so, he perhaps unintentionally brings mid-eighteenth century London to life, since the story is impossible to tell properly without describing the extraordinary menagerie of sharps, pick-pockets, spies, drunkards, poets, freed slaves, merchant princes and the rest who trod its cobbled streets. Like a peculiar cross between Dorothy George and Patrick O’Brian, the narrative conveys a real sense of the period.

In another way, however, this is also the principal weakness of the book: it describes the politics and society of the period but does not enter significantly into the historiographical debates – it revisits rather than reevaluates. It is almost as if the author feels that the mere existence of a full, modern biography like this is a reevaluation, because it reasserts the importance of John Wilkes in the history of the English-speaking world, rescuing from relative obscurity his role in the development of modern ideas about civil liberties. He is not entirely wrong, of course, but it does mean that readers looking to improve an already solid understanding of Georgian political history should also consider the works below.

The book finishes with appropriately sized chapters on Wilkes’ later years, as he ran down the clock in relative peace and comfort, strolling daily from his house in Mayfair to the Guildhall to attend his duties as Chamberlain (effectively treasurer) of the City of London. Some accounts of his life neglect these years, but this is to their detriment, because this part of the story humanises Wilkes: his surprisingly healthy – one might almost say normal – character as a father, his uncorrupt administration of the City’s finances in an age in which embezzlement was considered a standard perk of public office. Even his reconciliation with the King, who in earlier times had nearly had apoplexy at the mere mention of his name, argues for the calmer, more moderate maturity which is familiar to most of us. Cash’s evident love for his subject means that these things are scrupulously included, much to the benefit of his readers.

                                                                                                            

 Thomas, P.D.G., John Wilkes: a Friend to Liberty. Clarendon Press, Oxford (1996)

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