From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
He was first elected Member of Parliament in 1757. In the Middlesex election dispute, he fought for the right of voters—rather than the House of Commons—to determine their representatives. In 1771 he was instrumental in obliging the government to concede the right of printers to publish verbatim accounts of parliamentary debates. In 1776 he introduced the first Bill for parliamentary reform in the British Parliament.
Wilkes' increasing conservatism as he grew older caused dissatisfaction among radicals and was instrumental in the loss of his Middlesex seat at the 1790 general election. At the age of 65, Wilkes retired from politics and took no part in the growth of radicalism in the 1790s.
Early life and character
Born in Clerkenwell in London, Wilkes was the second son of the distiller Israel Wilkes and his wife, who had six children. John Wilkes was educated initially at an academy in Hertford; this was followed by private tutoring and finally a stint at the University of Leiden in the Dutch Republic. There he met Andrew Baxter, a Presbyterian clergyman who greatly influenced Wilkes' views on religion. Although Wilkes would remain in the Church of England for the rest of his life, he had a deep sympathy for non-conformist Protestants, and was an advocate of religious tolerance from an early age. Wilkes was also beginning to develop a deep patriotism for his country. During the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 he rushed home to London to join a Loyal Association - and readied to defend the capital. Once the rebellion had ended after the Battle of Culloden, Wilkes returned to the Netherlands to complete his studies.
Marriage and family
In 1747 he married Mary Meade and came into possession of an estate and income in Buckinghamshire. They had one child Polly, to whom John was utterly devoted for the rest of his life. Wilkes and Mary, however, separated in 1756, a separation that became permanent. Wilkes never married again, but he gained a reputation as a rake. He was known to have fathered at least five other children.
He was a member of the Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe, also known as the Hellfire Club or the Medmenham Monks, and was the instigator of a prank that may have hastened its dissolution. The Club had many distinguished members, including the Earl of Sandwich and Sir Francis Dashwood. Wilkes reportedly brought a baboon dressed in a cape and horns into the rituals performed at the club, producing considerable mayhem among the inebriated initiates.
Wilkes was notoriously ugly, being called the ugliest man in England at the time. He possessed an unsightly squint and protruding jaw, but had a charm that carried all before it. He boasted that it "took him only half an hour to talk away his face", though the duration required changed on the several occasions Wilkes repeated the claim. He also declared that "a month's start of his rival on account of his face" would secure him the conquest in any love affair.
He was well known for his verbal wit and his snappy responses to insults. For instance, when told by a constituent that he would rather vote for the devil, Wilkes responded: "Naturally." He then added: "And if your friend decides against standing, can I count on your vote?"
The exchange between John Wilkes and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich ("Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox." "That depends, my lord, on whether I embrace your lordship's principles or your mistress.") is also attributed to Samuel Foote; the same story was told of Mirabeau, answering Cardinal Maury, during the French Revolution.
Wilkes was at first a follower of William Pitt the Elder and was an enthusiastic supporter of Britain's involvement in the Seven Years War. When the Scottish John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, came to head the government in 1762, Wilkes started a radical weekly publication, The North Briton, to attack him, using an anti-Scots tone. Typical of Wilkes, the title was a satirical take on the Earl's newspaper, The Briton, with North Briton referring to Scotland. He was particularly incensed by what he regarded as Bute's betrayal in agreeing to overly generous peace terms with France to end the war.
Wilkes was charged with seditious libel over attacks on George III's speech endorsing the Paris Peace Treaty of 1763 at the opening of Parliament on 23 April 1763. Wilkes was highly critical of the king's speech, which was recognized as having been written by Bute. He attacked it in an article of issue 45 of The North Briton. The issue number in which Wilkes published his critical editorial was appropriate because the number 45 was synonymous with the Jacobite uprising of 1745, commonly known as "The '45". Bute, Scottish and politically controversial as an adviser to the King, was associated popularly with Jacobitism, a perception which Wilkes played on.
The King felt personally insulted and ordered general warrants to be issued for the arrest of Wilkes and the publishers on 30 April 1763. Forty-nine people, including Wilkes, were arrested under the warrants. Wilkes, however, gained considerable popular support as he asserted the unconstitutionality of general warrants. He was soon restored to his seat, as he cited parliamentary privilege for his editorial. Wilkes sued his arresters for trespass. As a result of this episode, people were chanting, "Wilkes, Liberty and Number 45", referring to the newspaper.
Bute resigned not long afterwards, but Wilkes was equally opposed to his successor, George Grenville.
Wilkes and Thomas Potter wrote a pornographic poem entitled "An Essay on Woman". Wilkes's political enemies obtained this parody of Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man", and the John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, who was also a member of the Hellfire Club, among those introducing it in the House of Lords. Sandwich had a personal vendetta against Wilkes that stemmed in large part from embarrassment caused by a prank of Wilkes involving the Earl at one of the Hellfire Club's meetings; he was delighted at the chance for revenge. Sandwich read the poem to the House of Lords in an effort to denounce Wilkes's moral behavior, despite the hypocrisy of his action. The Lords declared the poem obscene and blasphemous, and it caused a great scandal. The House of Lords moved to expel Wilkes again; he fled to Paris before any expulsion or trial. He was tried and found guilty in absentia of obscene libel and seditious libel, and was declared an outlaw on 19 January 1764.
Wilkes hoped for a change in power to remove the charges, but this did not come to pass. As his French creditors began to pressure him, in 1768 he had little choice but to return to England. He returned intending to stand as a Member of Parliament on an anti-government ticket; the government did not issue warrants for his immediate arrest as it did not want to inflame popular support.
Wilkes stood in London and came in bottom of the poll of seven candidates, possibly due to his late entry into the race for the position. He was quickly elected MP for Middlesex, where most of his support was located. He surrendered to the King's Bench in April. On waiving his parliamentary privilege to immunity, he was sentenced to two years and fined £1,000. The charge of outlawry was overturned.
When Wilkes was imprisoned in the King's Bench Prison on 10 May 1768, his supporters appeared before King's Bench, London, chanting "No justice, no peace." Troops opened fire on the unarmed men, killing seven and wounding 15.
Middlesex election dispute
Wilkes was expelled from Parliament in February 1769, on the grounds that he was an outlaw when he was returned. He was re-elected by his Middlesex constituents in the same month, only to be expelled and re-elected in March. In April, after his expulsion and another re-election, Parliament declared his opponent, Henry Luttrell, to be the winner.
In defiance Wilkes was elected an alderman of London in 1769, using his supporters' group, the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights, for his campaign. Wilkes eventually succeeded in convincing Parliament to expunge the resolution barring him from sitting. While in parliament, he condemned the government's policy towards the American colonies during the American Revolution. In addition, he introduced one of the earliest radical Bills to parliament, although it failed to gain passage.
On his release from prison in March 1770, Wilkes was appointed a sheriff in London. In 1774 he became Lord Mayor; he was simultaneously Master of the Joiners' Company, where he changed the motto to "Join Loyalty and Liberty". That year Wilkes was re-elected to Parliament, representing Middlesex. He was one of those opposed to war with the American colonies. He was also a supporter of the Association Movement and of religious tolerance. His key success was to protect the freedom of the press by gaining passage of a bill to remove the power of general warrants and to end Parliament's ability to punish political reports of debates.
After 1780, his popularity declined as was popularly perceived as less radical. During the uprising known as the Gordon Riots, Wilkes was in charge of the soldiers defending the Bank of England from the attacking mobs. It was under his orders that troops fired into the crowds of rioters. The working classes who had previously seen Wilkes as a "man of the people", then criticized him as a hypocrite; his middle class support was scared off by the violent action. The Gordon Riots nearly extinguished his popularity.
While he was returned for the county seat of Middlesex in 1784, he found so little support that by 1790, he withdrew early in the election. The French Revolution of 1789 had proved extremely divisive in England, and Wilkes had been against it due to the violent murders in France. His position was different from that of many radicals of the time and was a view more associated with conservative figures such as Edmund Burke.
Wilkes worked in his final years as a magistrate campaigning for more moderate punishment for disobedient household servants.
British subjects in the American colonies closely followed Wilkes's career. His struggles convinced many colonists that the British constitution was being subverted by a corrupt ministry, an idea that contributed to the coming of the American Revolution. In reaction, after the Revolution, representatives included provisions in the new American constitution to prevent Congress from rejecting any legally elected member and to proscribe general warrants for arrest.
John Wilkes's brother was the grandfather of U.S. Naval Admiral Charles Wilkes.
- The city of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania was named for John Wilkes and Isaac Barré.
- Wilkes University, a four-year, independent, non-sectarian college in Wilkes-Barre is named for John Wilkes.
- Wilkes County, Georgia and Wilkes County, North Carolina were named in his honor.
- Wilkes Street in Alexandria, Virginia, USA, is named for John Wilkes.
- Fox & Wilkes Books, the publishing arm of Laissez Faire Books, is named for John Wilkes.
- American actor and assassin John Wilkes Booth, a distant relative, was named after John Wilkes.
- P. D. G. Thomas. John Wilkes: A Friend to Liberty (1996).
- Holdsworth, William (1938). A History of English Law Vol. 10, pp. 659–672, ISBN 0-421-05100-0.
- Rudé, George (1962). Wilkes and Liberty: A Social Study of 1763 to 1774, ISBN 0-19-881091-1.
- Williamson, Audrey (1974). Wilkes, A Friend of Liberty, ISBN 0-04-923064-6.
- Cash, Arthur (2006). John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty, ISBN 0-300-10871-0.