1902 Encyclopedia > John Wilkes

John Wilkes
English radical, journalist and politician
(1727-97)




JOHN WILKES (1727-1797), the champion of the right of free representation by British constituencies, was de-scended from a family long connected with Leighton-Buzzard in Bedfordshire, but he himself was born at Clerkenwell, London, on 17th October 1727. His father, Israel Wilkes, was a rich distiller, and the owner, through his wife Sarah, daughter of John Heaton of Hoxton, of considerable house property in its north-eastern suburbs. After some training under private tuition John Wilkes was sent to the university of Leyden, matriculating there on 8th September 1744. Several young men of talent from Scotland and England were studying in this Dutch university at that period, and a lively picture of their life, in which Wilkes displays the gaiety of temper which remained faithful to him all his days, is presented to us by " Jupiter " Carlyle. With this training he acquired an intimate know-ledge of classical literature, and he enlarged his mind by travelling through Holland, Flanders, and part of Germany. At the close of 1748 he returned to his native land, and in a few months (October 1749) was drawn by his relations into marrying Mary, sole daughter and heiress of John Mead, citizen and grocer of London, who was ten years his senior. The ill-assorted pair,—for she was grave and staid, while he rioted in exuberant spirits and love of society,—_ lived together in the country for some months, when, to make matters worse, they returned to town to dwell with the wife's mother. One child, a daughter, was born to them, when Wilkes left his wife and removed to West-minster, where he kept open house for many young men about town possessing more wit than morals. To this un-fortunate marriage should in justice be attributed some of his errors in life. In 1754 he contested the constituency of Berwick-upon-Tweed, but failed to gain the seat. Wilkes was now a well-known figure in the life of the West End, and among his associates were Thomas Potter, the son of the archbishop of Canterbury, Sir Francis Dashwood, after wards Lord le Despencer, and Lord Sandwich, the last of

whom in after years showed great animosity towards his old companion in revelry. In July 1757, by a triangular arrangement in which Potter and the first William Pitt played the other parts, Wilkes was elected for Aylesbury, and for this constituency he was again returned at the general election in March 1761. Pitt was his leader in politics; but to Pitt he applied in vain for a seat at the board of trade; nor was he successful in his other applica-tions for office. Stung by these disappointments, Wilkes threw himself into bitter opposition to Bute, and to make his antagonism more effective established a paper called The North Briton, in which he from the first attacked the Scotch prime minister with exceeding bitterness, and grew bolder as it proceeded in its course. One of its articles ridiculed Lord Talbot, the steward of the royal household, and a duel was the result. When Bute resigned, the issue of the journal was suspended ; but, when the royal speech framed by George Grenville's ministry showed that the change was one of men only, not of measures, a supple-mentary number, No. 45, was published, 23d April 1763, containing a caustic criticism of the king's message to his parliament. Lord Halifax, the leading secretary of state, issued a general warrant " to search for authors, printers, and publishers," and to bring them before him for examination. Charles Churchill, the poet and a coadjutor in this newspaper enterprise, escaped through the good offices of Wilkes; but the chief offender was arrested and thrown into the Tower. A week later, however, he was released by order of the Court of Common Pleas on the ground that his privilege as a member of parliament afforded him immunity from arrest. General warrants were afterwards declared illegal, and Halifax himself after a series of dis-creditable shifts was cast in heavy sums, on actions brought against him by the j)ersons -whom he had injured,—the total expenses incurred by the ministry in these lawless pro-ceedings amounting to at least £100,000. So far Wilkes had triumphed over his enemies, but he gave them cause for rejoicing by an indiscreet reprint of the obnoxious No. 45, and by striking off at his private press thirteen copies of an obscene Essay on Woman, written by his friend Potter, in parody of Pope's Essay on Man, one of which got into the hands of Lord Sandwich. Immediately on the meeting of the House of Commons (15th November 1763) proceedings were taken against him. Lord North moved that No. 45 was " a false, scandalous, and seditious libel," and, as the motion was of course carried, the paper was publicly burnt in Cheapside on 4th December. The Essay on Woman was brought before the Upper House by Lord Sandwich, and, on account of the improper use which had been made of Bishop Warburton's name as the author of some coarse notes, the work was voted a breach of privilege, and Wilkes was ordered to be prosecuted in the Court of King's Bench for printing and publishing an impious libel. He was expelled from the House of Com-mons on 19th January 1764 ; and on 21st February he wras found guilty in the King's Bench of reprinting No. 45 and of printing and publishing the Essay on Woman. Wilkes was on these dates absent from England. Some strong expressions applied to him by Samuel Martin, an ex-secre-tary of the treasury, had provoked a duel (16th November 1763), in which Wilkes was severely wounded in the stomach. He withdrew to Paris, and as he did not return to England to receive his sentence in the law courts was pronounced an outlaw.
For several years Wilkes remained abroad, receiving £1000 a year from the leading Whigs, and in the course of his travels he visited many parts of Italy. In March 1768 he returned to London and sued the king for pardon, but in vain. His next step was to offer himself as a candi-date for the representation of the City of London, when he was the lowest at the poll. Undaunted by this defeat, he solicited the freeholders of Middlesex to return him as their champion, and they placed him at the head of all com-petitors. He appeared before the King's Bench, and on a technical point procured a reversal of his outlawry; but the original verdict was maintained, and he was sentenced to imprisonment for twenty-two months as well as to a fine of £1000, and he was further ordered to produce securities for good behaviour for seven years after his liberation. His conduct was brought before the House of Commons, with the result that he was expelled from the House on 3d February 1769, and with this proceeding there began a series of contests between the ministry and the electors of Middlesex without parallel in English history. They promptly re-elected him (16th February), only to find him pronounced incapable of sitting and his election void. Again they returned him (16th March) and again he was rejected. A fourth election then followed, when Colonel Henry Lawes Luttrell, with all the influence of the court and the Fox family in his favour, obtained but 296 votes to 1143 given for Wilkes, whereupon the House declared that Luttrell had been duly elected. Through these audacious proceedings a storm of fury broke out through-out the country. In the cause of " Wilkes and liberty " high and low enlisted themselves. His prison cell was thronged daily by the chief of the Whigs, and large sums of money were subscribed for his support. So great was the popular sympathy in his favour that a keen judge of contemporary politics declared that, had George III. pos-sessed a bad and Wilkes a good character, the king would have been an outcast from his dominions. At the height of the combat in January 1769 Wilkes was elected an alder-man for the City of London ; in 1771 he served as sheriff for London and Middlesex, and as alderman he took an active part in the struggle between the corporation and the House of Commons by which freedom of publication of the parliamentary debates was obtained. His admirers endeavoured in 1772 to procure his election as lord mayor of London, but he was set aside by the aldermen, some of whom were allied with the ministry of Lord North, while others, as Oliver and Townshend, leant to the Liberalism of Lord Shelburne. In 1774, however, he obtained that dignity, and he retained his seat for Middlesex from the dissolution in 1774 until 1790. He moved in 1776 for leave to bring in a bill "for a just and equal representa-tion of the people of England in parliament" ; but attempts at parliamentary reform were premature by at least half a century. After several failures better fortune attended his efforts in another direction, for in 1782 all the declarations and orders against him for his elections in Middlesex were ordered to be expunged from the journals of the House. In 1779 Wilkes was elected chamberlain of the city by a large majority, and the office became his freehold for life. He died at his house in Grosvenor Square, London, on 20th December 1797.
Wilkes printed editions of Catullus and Theophrastus, and at the time of his death had made considerable progress with a translation of Anaereon. His conversation was often sullied by obscenity and profanity ; but he knew how to suit his conversation to his com-pany, and his well-known assertion that, ugly as he was, with the start of a quarter of an hour he could get the better of any man, however good-looking, in the graces of any lady, shows his confi-dence in his powers of fascination. The king was obliged to own that he had never met so well-bred a lord mayor, and Dr Johnson, who made his acquaintance at the house of Dilly, the bookseller in the Poultry, confessed that "Jack has great variety of talk, Jack is a scholar, and Jack has the manners of a gentleman." It is doubtful how far he himself believed in the justice of the principles which he espoused. To George III. he remarked of his devoted friend and legal adviser, Serjeant Glynn, '' Ah sir! he was a AVilkite, which I never was." His writings were marked by great power of sarcasm. Two collections of his letters were published, one of Letters to his Daughter, in four volumes in 1801, the other Corre-

svondence with his Friends, in five volumes in 1805. A Life by Fitz-
gerald has quite recently been published. (W. P. C.)








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