Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Middlesex elections

The Rockingham ministry (1765-66)
At the beginning of 1765 the king was ill with pains in the chest and a feverish cold – possibly an early onset of the porphyria that was later interpreted as insanity. He continued unwell until the spring, by which time his relations with the Grenville ministry had broken down almost completely - particularly when they accused him of continuing to allow Bute to interfere. Lord Chesterfield:
‘He shows his Ministers all the public dislike possible, and at his Levée hardly speaks to any of them, but speaks by the hour to anybody else.’
The king wrote of his government being composed of ‘insolent’ men and said that the world might well suppose that England was at such a low ebb that ‘no administration [could] be formed without the Grenville family.’

In May George resolved to dismiss Grenville from office and turn to his uncle the duke of Cumberland. Cumberland tried to bring Pitt in, but he refused. In July the man chosen to replace Grenville was Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquis of Rockingham, a great Yorkshire landowner and political patron, and now head of the former Newcastle party. In effect, the great Whig families were back in office. The great (though temporary) achievement of Rockingham’s ministry was the temporary solution of the American crisis with the repeal of Grenville’s Stamp Act (of which more later), though in the teeth of much parliamentary opposition. His relationship with the king deteriorated and he resigned (with some relief) in July 1766.

The Chatham Ministry (1766-68)
The new government was nominally headed by Pitt the Elder now ennobled as earl of Chatham. But he accepted only the position of Lord Privy Seal, which did not carry executive responsibilities and the First Lord of the Treasury was Augustus Fitzroy, 3rd duke of Grafton. Chatham’s decision to take a peerage seriously undermined his repuration as the 'great commoner', and created a sensation. It had the added disadvantage of leaving the ministry without a strong voice in the Commons, apart from the rising star Lord North, who became Chancellor of the Exchequer in September 1767. By this time Chatham was ill with nervous exhaustion and was in Bath for much of the time. On the great issues of his ministry, America and India, he had little to contribute.

Lord Rockingham became (in effect) Leader of the Opposition. He gathered round him a group of discontented Whigs and his private secretary was the Irish writer Edmund Burke (1729-97), who became MP for Wendover in 1766 and quickly established himself as a dominating speaker in the Commons. The Rockinghamites formed ‘the core of a revived Whig party’ out of the old Newcastle connection.

In the summer of 1768 Chatham retired and was replaced by Grafton (who had long been in effective charge of the administration).

The Middlesex Elections
Grafton’s premiership was dominated by America – and by John Wilkes.

1768 was a general election year. On 6 February Wilkes was back in London where he enrolled as member of the Joiners’ Guild and waited for the dissolution of Parliament. On 11 March Parliament was dissolved. Wilkes then issued his election address, basing his campaign on the issues of ‘general warrants and the seizure of papers’. On 16 March he presented himself as a candidate for the City of London. The polling took a week, but in spite of many enthusiastic demonstrations, he came bottom of the poll.

But this humiliation was promptly forgotten in the excitement caused by his declaration that he would stand for Middlesex, where the election was due in only five days. This was a serious challenge to the two sitting members, George Cooke (a Chathamite) and Sir William Beauchamp Proctor (‘country’ - usually voted for the opposition), who had expected to be returned unopposed. The two men promptly sank their political differences to form a joint interest and to arrange the transport of voters to the poll.

Although most of the electorate, which comprised c, 2,500 freeholders, lived in and around London, polling would take place in the county town of Brentford, ten miles to the west of the City. From 24 March Brentford was festooned in blue (Wilkes’s colour). Wilkes himself arrived in the town. The campaign was masterminded by an Election Committee that met regularly at the Kings Arms Tavern and the Mile End Assembly Rooms. In Brentford, Wilkes promptly secured most of the public houses for his friends, helped by the local influence of John Horne, who was parson of New Brentford. 12,000 handbills were distributed, advertising where supporters of Wilkes could find 247 carriages provided for their transport to the poll.

The election took place on Monday 28 March. Coaches were sent off singly as soon as they were full; then blue cockades were distributed and cards printed ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ were handed out. The returning officers were the two sheriffs elected for the City, Richard Peeres and William Nash. They prepared 15 poll books, one for each division of the county and set up booths at Brentford Butts. On the journey to the polls, coaches from London conveying voters for Wilkes’s opponents often had their windows smashed and the slogan ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ painted on them. Later it was to be claimed that hundreds of voters had been intimidated from polling. However, there was little violence at the poll itself in spite of the provocation of banners being displayed with ‘No Blasphemer’ and ‘no French Renegade’. Voting took place for several hours during the afternoon. When the votes were counted next morning, the result was Wilkes, 1,292, Cooke 827 and Proctor 807.

Success was achieved by a cocktail of superb organization and popular enthusiasm. The majority of Wilkes's votes came from outside the City: Westminster and the rural parishes to the north and west. In this highly urbanized county the bulk of the electorate were shopkeepers and artisans. The gentry, clergy, office-holders and merchants voted overwhelmingly for Wilkes’s opponents.

‘Since the fall of Lord Chatham, there has been no hero of the mob but Wilkes’.
Though he refused even to be chaired, the victory was accompanied by much disorder. Brentford was illuminated on Monday evening. The French ambassador’s coach was stopped and he was made to drink to ‘Wilkes and Liberty’. Inhabitants of the Strand and Fleet Street were forced to light up. The duke of Gloucester and Lord Bute had their windows broken. The Austrian ambassador, who refused to drink to Wilkes, was taken out of his coach and had ‘No. 45’ chalked on his shoes. The lawyer Alexander Wedderburn wrote,
‘The mob has been made sensible of its own importance. ... A Jack Straw or a John Wilkes are but the instruments of those whom they seem to lead’.
But the return of Wilkes had only added a political dimension to an already tense situation. The winter had been harsh (the Thames had frozen over) and economic recession had produced social distress and unrest. During the Middlesex election, soldiers stationed at the three London barracks of the Tower, the Savoy and the War Office were put on alert, and contingency plans were made to call on all troops within 60 miles.

The disturbances died down but the next threatening day was 20 April when Wilkes was due to attend court at King’s Bench.

On 19 April the cabinet met and the decision was taken to expel Wilkes as soon as Parliament should meet on 10 May; this was in the expectation that the Court of King’s Bench would decide against him.

On 20 April, Wilkes attended court before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield who freed him on a technicality. That evening the coal-heavers in Shadwell rioted: ‘Wilkes and Liberty and coal-heavers for ever!’

On 21 April the warrant was made out for Wilkes’s arrest. But it only applied to Middlesex and Wilkes had gone to visit a friend in Surrey!

On 27 April, Wilkes delivered himself into custody. Lord Mansfield rejected his application for bail and he was committed to the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark. However, his coach was intercepted by a mob when crossing Westminster Bridge. The crowd turned it round, moved the horses, and pulled it into the City, taking Wilkes to the Three Tuns in Spitalfields. Wilkes had to escape in disguise and make his own way to prison. He was to remain there for two years, a visible martyr to the cause of liberty.

The St George's Fields Massacre
The immediate result was an increase in disorder. 10 May, a crowd of at least 15,000 assembled at St George’s Fields. Troops of horse and of soldiers from the 3rd (Scottish) regiment of Foot Guards were dispatched to the scene. When one of the Surrey magistrates ordered the removal from the prison wall of a ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ poem, the hostile reaction led another JP to read the Riot Act. He was felled by a piece of brick. He gave the order to fire, Ensign Murray and three grenadiers pursued the assailant. They shot dead William Allen in his father’s cow-shed, mistaking him for the rioter. The Riot Act was read a second time. Foot soldiers were now reinforced by horse guards. They were ordered to fire into the crowd and killed six, including a woman orange-seller and a man on a passing haycart. The next day a coroner’s inquest returned a verdict of murder against the ensign and soldiers. They were held in prison for a week and then released on bail; because of conflict of evidence, none was found guilty at the subsequent trial in August. The massacre led to widespread riots; 500 sawyers in Limehouse demolished a windmill designed to saw timber.

Wilkes re-elected
On 12 May the Lords voted an Address of Thanks to the King; the Commons did the same, 13 May. Fear of disorder temporarily united them.

On 18 May, the ministerialist MP Colonel Henry Luttrell moved,
‘that the proper officer of the Crown do inform the House why the laws were not immediately put in force against John Wilkes, an outlaw, when he returned to the Kingdom’.
The government’s dilemma was encapsulated in a letter from Newcastle to Rockingham:
‘We must be either governed by a mad, lawless Mob, or the peace be preserved only by a military force; both of which are unknown to our constitution’.
But Rockinghamite MPs, including Burke, were among those visiting Wilkes in prison.

On 8 June, Wilkes’s outlawry was reversed on a technicality. On 9 June, a jury granted him damages against Lord Halifax, the Secretary of State who had issued the general warrant.

On 18 June Wilkes sentenced to ten months in prison for the North Briton and twelve months for the Essay on Woman, the sentences to run consecutively. For a while interest in him dropped, as Parliament was preoccupied with the growing American crisis.

On 5 June the Middlesex MP George Cooke had died. On 7 June, the Wilkite John Glynn announced his candidature. On 8 December, the poll was disrupted by violence. When the poll was resumed on 14 December, Glynn defeated Proctor. This showed that the Wilkites now had a hold on the seat.,

By the Christmas recess no final decision had been taken on whether to expel Wilkes from Parliament. The cabinet was divided, with some unwilling to make him a martyr.

On 3 February 1769 the Commons voted 219/137 to expel Wilkes.

On 4 Feb: Wilkes announced that he would stand again for Middlesex.

On 16 February, he was returned unopposed.

On 17 Feb the Commons moved 228/89 that since Wilkes had been expelled earlier he was ‘incapable of being elected a member to serve in this present Parliament’.

On 16 March, Wilkes re-elected; on 17 March he was again disqualified by the Commons.

On 20 March, he was readopted. On 24 March, Colonel Luttrell resigned his seat (Bosinney) in order to stand for Middlesex.

On 13 April, Wilkes defeated Luttrell by 1143 votes to 296.

On 15 April (Saturday) a very noisy House of Commons resolved 197/143 that Luttrell was the MP for Middlesex. From the disquiet at this overturning of the wishes of the electorate stemmed the beginnings of the parliamentary reform movement.

Wilkes’s Later Career
Wilkes was released early in 1770, to considerable rejoicing. His career now assumed new directions. In America he became a heroic symbol of liberty. In 1771 he was elected Sheriff of the City of London and began a campaign to secure the reporting of parliamentary debates. Fearful of a stand-off with the printers and the powerful interests in the City of London, the North government tacitly conceded defeat and after this newspaper reporting of parliamentary debates was established.

Wilkes was elected Lord Mayor in 1774. In the same year he was elected to Parliament for Middlesex, where he supported the American colonists and defended the principle of ‘no taxation without representation’, championed the reform of Parliament and advocated greater toleration for Catholics and Dissenter. On 21 March 1776 he made the first ever motion for parliamentary reform, urging the transfer of seats from rotten boroughs to London, the more populous counties and the new industrial towns. The motion was defeated without a vote.

Later in life he became a pillar of the establishment! He helped put down the Gordon Riots in 1780 and in 1782 when Rockingham became Prime Minister, the record of his expulsion was expunged from the records of the House. He left Parliament in 1790.

The Pressure for Reform
Wilkes was not an orator or a major political thinker. He played to the gallery, used mockery and satire and identified himself with English rights and liberties. His support extended far beyond London and Middlesex to the port towns, and a number of industrial regions. Membership of ‘Wilkite’ clubs seems to have been drawn mainly from the middle ranks of urban society: small merchants and manufacturers, wholesalers, innkeepers, retailers, and craftsmen. In the metropolis they included the Spitalfields weavers, the coal-heavers and day-labourers from the east end.

Wilkes was not really a radical, but radicalism arouse from the ranks of his supporters. In February 1769 a number of London merchants, lawyers and other professional groups formed the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights. (Its first task was to settle Wilkes’s massive debts.) During the Parliamentary summer recess, opposition politicians the Society organised an extensive petitioning campaign, involving abut 20 of the 40 counties and some boroughs. The common theme was the implicit threat of the Middlesex Elections case on the rights of electors. But the movement also developed a broader agenda: shorter parliaments and a redistribution of seats. Some of the members of the Society came to adopt a radical view of the Glorious Revolution, emphasizing the right of resistance and placing Wilkes in the long line of Whig heroes, including Hampden, Sydney, and Russell.

In January, 1770, Grafton resigned, having lost the support of the Chathamites, and Lord North became premier. He was faced with two considerable problems: the growing movement for parliamentary reform and the crisis in America.

Edmund Burke
In May 1770, Burke published his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, though this was badly timed as the Wilkes agitation appeared to be subsiding. The Thoughts were seen as transcending immediate concerns. They were penned self-consciously as the manifesto of the Rockingham Whigs. In contrast to the prevailing view that party was ‘faction’, Burke saw it as the means of restoring integrity to public life because it would allow policy to be moulded by convictions and ideals:
‘Party is a body of men united for promoting by their joining endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle on which they are all agreed.’
He also declared, in a now frequently misquoted statement:
‘When bad men combine, the good men must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.’
For the 18th century these were a bold and controversial statements. Burke displayed no personal animus against George III or even against Lord Bute. What was at stake for him was not the personality of monarch or politician, but the whole system of secret influence that had subverted the integrity of successive ministries. He thus developed a conspiracy theory that passed into the mainstream of Whig thought and provided them with a doctrine that sustained them in a long and hard fought war against executive power. (Conspiracy theories also became an ingrained habit of Burke’s mind – he was to develop still more when the French Revolution broke out.)

In 1774 Burke was elected MP for Bristol, though he was to fall out with his constituents over his support for the Americans. His Address to the Electors of Bristol expounded the now widely quoted principle of representative government:
‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’
This doctrine was to have a long life – but it showed that fundamentally Burke was no Wilkite or radical. He had little in common with genuine radicals such as the historian Catharine Macaulay, sister of the Wilkite Alderman Sawbridge.

By 1774 the reform movement was petering out. However it was revitalized by the crisis in America.