Friday, January 26, 2007

John Wilkes

John Wilkes (1725-97) was born in Clerkenwell, the second of three sons of Israel, a wealthy and pious malt distiller. Because his family were Presbyterians, he was educated (from 1734) at Hertford Academy, where he had mastered Latin and Greek by the age of 14, and (from 1744) the University of Leiden. In 1747 at his parents’ insistence he married Mary Meade, who brought him the manor of Aylesbury. Israel Wilkes settled £300 p a on him. John became a magistrate and a supporter of the local church. The marriage turned out unhappy, but Wilkes greatly loved his daughter Polly.

Wilkes spent the 1750s leading a double life of debauchery and political ambition in Buckinghamshire, where he played the role of country squire, and London. From 1752 he was associated with Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hell Fire Club and he was enrolled by Dashwood as one of the twelve ‘Franciscans’ or ‘Medmenham Monks’; one of the others was Lord Sandwich. In 1754 he wrote Essay on Woman, an obscene parody of Pope’s Essay on Man.

He also acquired the patronage of the Grenville family, who were centred round Lord Temple’s seat of Stowe in Buckinghamshire. Temple’s brother was George Grenville, his brother-in-law was William Pitt. In 1754 he stood unsuccessfully for Berwick and was made High Sheriff of Buckingham. In 1757 he separated from his wife (Polly lived with her father) and in July be became the (Pittite) MP for Aylesbury in a by-election that cost him £7,000, and became an officer in the Bucks Militia. The colonel was Sir Francis Dashwood.

In 1761 Wilkes was re-elected, avoiding a contest by bribery – offering 300 of the 500 voters £5 each. Before the new parliament met, Pitt resigned and Wilkes went into opposition with him, making his maiden speech in his favour in November 1761. On 5 June 1762 he published the first edition of the North Briton. The title was chosen to counter a pro-government paper, the True Briton, edited by Tobias Smollett (a Scotsman). The paper soon achieved a circulation of nearly 2000 and between June 1762 and April 1763 there were 45 numbers. In doing so, Wilkes made many enemies, the most formidable of whom was Hogarth, who depicted him with a leering squint. Early in 1763, the governor of Calais asked Wilkes how far the liberty of the press extended in Britain. Wilkes: ‘I don’t know, but I’m trying to find out.’

No 45 North Briton
On 19 April 1763 the king opened Parliament. His speech described the peace as ‘honourable to my crown and beneficial to my people’. On 23 April Wilkes printed no. 45 of the North Briton. This did not attack the king personally but it did attack the Princess Dowager, and the government ministers, who were described as ‘tools of despotism and corruption’ and denounced the ‘ministerial effrontery’ of obliging George III ‘to give the sanction of his sacred name’ to such ‘odious’ measures.

The government consulted the law officers of the Crown as to whether it would be possible to proceed against the publishers and printers of the North Briton for seditious libel by way of a general warrant. When the answer was in the affirmative, the warrant was issued. On 29 April the publisher and printer were brought before the Secretaries of State. They acknowledged that Wilkes was the editor. The government then sought further advice from its law officers. Wilkes was an MP. Did this mean he was immune from arrest? The law officers replied that
‘the publication of a libel, being a breach of the peace, is not a case of privilege, and that Mr Wilkes might be committed to prison for the same’.
At 6 am on 30 April Wilkes left his house, removed no 46 of the North Briton, and tore up the original MS of no 45. When he was brought before ministers he refused to answer questions. He was sent to the Tower while his house was searched for incriminating evidence. On 2 May he was granted a writ of habeas corpus. On 3 May he was brought by coach from the Tower to the Court of Common Pleas at Westminster Hall. A large and sympathetic audience heard him address the judges on the liberty of an Englishman. The proceedings were then adjourned until 6 May, and he was remanded back to the Tower, while Westminster Hall echoed to the cries of ‘Liberty!’

On 6 May the Chief Justice of Common Pleas, Charles Pratt, later Lord Camden, ruled that
‘the person of a member ought to be sacred, even if he should commit a misdemeanour. … We are all of the opinion that Mr Wilkes is entitled to the privilege of Parliament, and therefore he must be discharged.’
This verdict was a great shock to the ministry. Thousands escorted Wilkes home and the new slogan of militant radicalism was ‘Wilkes and Liberty!’ In July Wilkes successfully sued for damages for wrongful arrest and the seizure of papers. The jury ruled in his favour because of their doubts about the legality of general warrants.

But in October the foreman of Wilkes’s journeymen printers handed over to the Solicitor to the Treasury a proof copy of the first 94 lines of Essay on Woman. It was the best weapon the government could have had. On 15 November Parliament reassembled. Wilkes’s old companion in debauchery, Sandwich, read out the printed text of the Essay. Sandwich was for the rest of his life nicknamed 'Jeremy Twitcher' after the thief in the Beggars' Opera who betrays his old comrades. Meanwhile in the Commons no 45 was voted a seditious libel and ordered to be burned by the common hangman. This led to a pistol duel between Wilbes and the MP, Samuel Martin who had denounced him as a ‘cowardly rascal’. Wilkes was so badly wounded (in the stomach) that many thought there had been a plot against his life. On 25 December he crossed to France and took up residence in Paris. In January 1764 he was expelled from parliament, though the debates showed wide concern over the legality of general warrants. On 1 November the Court of Kings Bench formally pronounced him an outlaw because of his refusal to return to England to answer the charges.

But Wilkes had already won a victory. On 6 December 1763 Chief Justice Pratt had ruled in the court of Common Pleas that general warrants could not be used as search warrants of unspecified buildings. This verdict was reinforced by judgements of Chief Justice Mansfield in the Court of King’s Bench on 18 June 1764 and 8 November 1764 that ended the use of general warrants.

Meanwhile, Wilkes was enjoying his exile. He took an Italian mistress, journeyed to Naples and then Geneva, and spent two months in the company of Voltaire. However in the light of his increasingly severe money troubles he began to plan a return to England.