John Wilkes was born in St John’s Square, Clerkenwell, in 1725 or 1727, the middle-class son of a prosperous Clerkenwell distiller. He was privately educated by Presbyterian tutors and then from 1744 at the University of Leyden in Europe, where what he mostly seems to have acquired is a determination to be the complete Augustan gent: a scholar and a sophisticated man of the world.
On his return, though, in 1747, he was married off to an older and totally incompatible woman called Mary Mead – as in Miss Marple’s village – and decamped to her house in Aylesbury where he devoted most the next ten years to being a gentleman of leisure, which largely involved being led astray by the local MP, one Thomas Potter, the debauched son of the archbishop of Canterbury who is principally remembered for an act of public bestiality.
No doubt it was Potter who introduced Wilkes to Sir Francis Dashwood and his notorious Hell Fire Club, where they famously played at paganism at his nearby estate. Inevitably, this involved a fair amount of lewd behaviour: for some reason, faux-paganism always does, presumably on the vague and somewhat optimistic idea that orgies lead to new mental and spiritual discoveries.
Be that as it may, those connections got him introduced to some politically powerful people, especially William Pitt and his brother-in-law Earl Temple, the great liberal aristocrat who would be Wilkes’ patron for many years. After unsuccessfully standing for Berwick in 1754, he was eventually elected MP for Aylesbury in 1757, having by this time formally separated from his wife.
Shortly afterwards, George III succeeded to the throne in 1760 – a year which might serve as the apogee of Whig Britain, as the country digested a series of stunning military victories all around the world which established it as the predominant global power – almost a vindication for the cabal of Whig magnates who had run the country as an oligarchy since 1714. The new King, however, shared the ambition of his late father, Frederick, who had died before he could become king but been a keen pupil of the ex-Jacobite Lord Bolingbroke, and absorbed his tiresome ideas about the Patriot King transcending party limitations and so forth.
In addition, he had that inflexibility that we often find in the mediocre but well intentioned, which was made worse by his mother and her friend and adviser, the Scottish aristocrat Lord Bute, urging him to re-assert the proper authority of the Crown which they thought had been usurped by the Whig families. In turn, those families saw themselves as the guardians of the great liberal Revolution of 1689. Thus the stage was set for one of the great clashes of British political history.
After his election, Wilkes had started looking around for a well-paid appointment – badly needed after electioneering and years of high living. Also, he was far from unambitious: he suggested that maybe Ambassador to the Ottoman Sultan or Governor of Canada might be appropriate. As it happened, he did not get a job, and so in 1761 when he followed Pitt and Temple into opposition – they resigned over a dovish policy on Spain – he found himself setting up as a kind of official journalist of the Opposition. Since Bute’s – and hence the government’s – propagandist was a man called Smollett, whose paper was called The Briton, Wilkes called his paper The North Briton, in mocking reference to Bute and his entourage of salaried Scots. Of course, in the eighteenth century, Tyrant meant Tory, Tory meant Jacobite and Jacobite meant Scot, so the name North Briton was an early example of dog-whistle politics – all the more unfortunate for Bute, whose family name happened to be Stuart.
The first issue of The North Briton appeared in June 1762, and concerned the freedom of the press. Wilkes quickly found that he had a remarkable talent for political invective, so much so that he was almost immediately challenged to a duel by Lord Talbot, the Lord High Steward – both men survived, and repaired to the nearest pub to share a bottle of claret.
Soon enough, the North Briton helped stir up such a public outcry against Bute that he resigned, and in April 1763 was replaced by George Grenville. Wilkes decided to write the next issue of the North Briton about the King’s Speech, which opened the new Parliament under the new prime minister. Fortuitously, the next issue was due to be the forty-fifth, the number 45 being another anti-Tory dog-whistle, as it referenced the recent Jacobite rebellion of 1745.
Number 45 criticised the King as well as his ministers: “Every friend of his country must lament that a prince of so many great and amiable qualities…can be brought to give the sanction of his sacred name to the most odious measures…” The King in particular was furious, and his creatures sought to show that it was a seditious libel, intended to incite insurrection.
Throughout history, of course, whenever a weak and untalented government decides that it must send a message and act decisively, it is invariably a complete disaster. In keeping with that tradition, on April 29th 1763 they sent off some heavies with a warrant to arrest anyone involved with the Number 45, but did not name them – what was called a general warrant.
Unfortunately for the Home Secretary, a man called Dunk who sensibly preferred to be known as Lord Halifax, it turned out that Wilkes had a natural sense for strategy and public opinion: he figured that the general warrant would be hard to justify in court, and that threats to individuals’ liberty and security from arbitrary arrest was a pitch-perfect issue for inflaming public opinion against the government.
There followed a day of almost comic-opera absurdity on April 29th 1763, when the King’s Messengers tried to arrest him. He lived only a few doors down from the Home Secretary on Great George Street, and the whole day was spent in ridiculous comings and goings between the two houses while Wilkes declined to be arrested, until they threatened to summon the militia. He then hired a sedan chair to be carried in style less than a hundred yards to Halifax’s house, where they had set up a kind of Star Chamber to intimidate him, only to realise that he was thoroughly enjoying himself, complimenting the paintings and so on, till they took him off to the Tower of London.
He appeared in the Court of Common Pleas on May 6th, playing to the gallery, declaring that the issue involved “the liberties of all peers and gentlemen, and (what touches me most sensibly) that of all the middling and inferior sort of people who stand most in need of protection.” The judgment itself was a bit of a damp squib – the judge, more honest than most members of the judiciary in that he was actually called Pratt – released him on the grounds that he was protected by Parliamentary privilege.
Nevertheless, he left the court a popular hero, accompanied back to his house by a cheering crowd of thousands, and the slogan “Wilkes and Liberty” was born. The trial also produced Hogarth’s famous caricature of Wilkes – one of the most recognisable political cartoons of the eighteenth century. When he got home, he tried to have the Secretaries of State arraigned for theft because of the removal of various things from his house when he was arrested, and sent them a sarcastic letter accusing them of burglary.
Most importantly, though, was that he supported all forty-eight other people arrested under the general warrant in suing the government agents for wrongful arrest. One after another they were awarded substantial damages, and eventually Pratt pronounced general warrants to be illegal, which established at common law that public bodies must have a specific legal basis for interfering with a particular individual, which is why these cases are still taught at law schools 250 years later.
Meanwhile, his colourful private life came back to bite him, in the form of our old friend Bestiality Potter. His hobby when he was not after the livestock was the young wife of a Dr William Warburton, who owned the rights to Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, and Potter began an obscene parody, An Essay on Woman, which is probably the lewdest poem in the English language. While Wilkes’ printers were hanging around with nothing to do in the aftermath of Number 45, Wilkes got them to run up a few copies of the Essay for his friends in the Hellfire Club.
Through a serpentine and bizarre series of events, including being used to wrap somebody’s lunch, part of the print-run fell into the hands of an anti-Wilkite publisher called McFaden and from him to the Secretaries of State. They immediately set about prosecuting Wilkes for blasphemy and libel: because it was now printed, and not merely the manuscript, they argued that Wilkes had ‘published’ the work, so it was no longer a perfectly legal private document but a libellous public one.
They bullied a printer called Michael Curry into handing over the proofs and testifying against Wilkes, and Lord Sandwich tried to use the issue to blackmail him into giving up his civil rights litigation against the government, offering to drop any actions over the Essay if he desisted, which he refused. They also inserted a forged line into the final stanza of a particularly obscene section, adding a reference to the Holy Trinity which changed it from merely smutty into blasphemous. Finally, they ordered McFaden to print two more copies to give a fake impression of wider publication.
Then they attacked on two fronts: they tried him in the House of Commons for libelling the King in Number 45, and ruled his Parliamentary privilege inapplicable; and they tried him in the House of Lords for libelling Warburton (who was now Bishop of Gloucester) in the Essay on Woman.
On November 15th 1763, therefore, Lord Sandwich proceeded to read out the poem in the House of Lords, causing a sensation in which one peer nearly fainted. The sight of Lord Sandwich, one of the most prominent whoremongers and vulgarians of the period, denouncing obscenity was so absurd that Dashwood famously said he’d “never before heard the devil preach a sermon against sin”.
In vain, Wilkes could only argue that, “No man has the right to inquire into my private amusements if they are not prejudicial to society.” Nevertheless, his friends like Pitt decided that the Essay scandal was discrediting their faction, and promptly abandoned him. So, in December, he slipped past the constables outside his house and fled to France, still injured from a bullet in the groin received during yet another duel. Parliament declared him an outlaw in absentia, and he spent the next five years in exile mooching around Europe with an Italian mistress.
By 1767, though, he had decided to come back, returning early in 1768. He was still an outlaw, but decided the best means of defence was an all-out assault on the establishment, and instead of relying on wealthy patrons with their own agenda, he went straight to the only two almost fully democratic constituencies, with close to universal male suffrage.
First, he stood for the City of London, but the rich merchants were not quite ready yet to take a chance on a notorious radical and outlaw; and then the county of Middlesex, which had more urban artisans, tradesmen, sailors and so on. This was when Wilkes really became One Man and His Mob, with Wilkes topping the poll and being carried back to Town by cheering crowds, 45 chalked on every door from London to Oxford, and the Austrian ambassador held upside-down and 45 chalked on his feet.
It was at this point that we can see Wilkes for the fundamentally sane man that he was, because the government had totally lost control and he could easily have led a kind of futile uprising, but instead went off on a short holiday to Bath. Likewise, when he came back to London in May, the government finally whisked him off to King’s Bench Prison as an outlaw, and the mob stopped the coach taking him to the nick, chased off the guards, unhitched the horses and pulled him back to a pub in Spitalfields for a rowdy drinking session, but later he sneaked out the back and presented himself at the prison. Then, the people started actually demolishing the building to get him out, and he had to plead from the window for them to stop.
Finally, with government’s never-failing flair for the spectacularly inopportune, it declared his election invalid and put a load of Scottish troops round the prison. It immediately caused a riot, in which the soldiers killed several people – the notorious Massacre of St George’s Fields on May 10th 1768. London found itself in a state of virtual insurrection in which the King threatened to abdicate. By accepting his twenty-two month sentence, however, Wilkes certainly saved the country from the dangerous consequences of the state’s stupidity.
Nevertheless, they remained determined to do their best to cause a crisis. They kept expelling him from Parliament and he kept getting re-elected, until all over Britain and America there were John Wilkes Clubs drinking forty-five toasts and electing forty-five members and so on. The Wilkite position that Parliament must not allowed to choose its own members had a mass following – and, indeed, inspired James Madison to put the rule in the American constitution a few years later.
When he finally left prison in 1770, he was the most celebrated man in the Empire. It was celebrated with mass rejoicings as far away as Boston and New York, with people setting off 45 fireworks and doing 45 dances and so on.
While still in prison in 1769, Wilkes had been elected an Alderman of the City of London, and began a parallel career in City politics which allowed him to go on causing trouble for the politicians at Westminster during the quieter decades that followed.
Then as now, the City was semi-independent jurisdiction, with its own magistracy and so on. One of his first actions as a City magistrate was to rule that press gangs were illegal in the City, saving thousands of people from being abducted by the state and forced into military service. But the most famous issue related to freedom of the press
The egregiously useless Lord North, who had become PM in January 1770, was trying to stop London newspapers reporting Parliamentary proceedings. Wilkes and his allies in the City came up with a plan to trap the government by enticing them to arrest one of the reporters within the boundaries of the Square Mile. The City authorities then had the government agents arrested for assault, on the grounds that they had no legal power whatever to seize reporters within the City, whatever politicians in Westminster might say.
There followed a power struggle between the Cities of London and Westminster, in which the Lord Mayor was sent to the Tower of London by the government and the Prime Minister was taken out of his carriage by the City mob, the carriage destroyed and his hat cut up and the pieces sold as souvenirs. By 1774, the government had given up, and Parliamentary proceedings have been published ever since.
Wilkes was elected Lord Mayor of the City of London in 1774 and was returned as the City’s MP the following year. With an established power-base in the City of London, reliant on neither the patronage of great noblemen nor the almighty mob, his career became much quieter. Nevertheless, for a time it can be said that he was not so much less a radical but a domesticated one. He advocated for things like prison reform, religious toleration, the rights of the American colonists, and in 1776 introduced a Bill in Parliament for “a just and equal representation of the people,” two generations before the Great Reform Act.
Indeed, acquiring a position in the establishment meant that he was able to oppose the mob when its riots were illiberal, most famously in the Gordon Riots of 1780, which nicely blended anti-Papist bigotry with the general destruction of property, and during which Wilkes was primarily responsible for organising the guards and protecting the Bank of England.
Wilkes was never quite the popular hero he once had been after the Gordon Riots – although he was re-elected for Middlesex in 1784, he prudently withdrew his candidacy at the next election 1790, which effectively marked his retirement. He enjoyed a few peaceful years of domesticity, and died in December 1797 at his house in Grosvenor Square, and is buried in the Grosvenor Chapel on South Audley Street.