Monday, 20 June 2016

Wilkes and Liberty!

John Wilkes (1725-1797) is an enigmatic figure. At various times radical defender of liberty, rake, xenophobe, and conservative politician, he eludes easy categorization.



During the early 1760s, while an MP, Wilkes published a journal called the North Briton, which specialized in attacking the government led by George III's Scots tutor, John Stuart, Lord Bute, and Scots in general.



The North Briton (itself a reference to Scotland) claimed that Bute and other Scots were taking over the government with the goal of establishing a "Stuart" tyranny. The idea resonated with many Englishmen, who feared that Scots immigrants into England and its colonies threatened their livelihoods and liberties. 

In issue No. 45 of the North Briton, Wilkes attacked the King's Speech on the Treaty of Paris (1763) that ended the Seven Years War. Wilkes was incensed by what he saw as the treaty's overly generous treatment of France and blamed Bute. The government prosecuted Wilkes and other involved in the publication for seditious libel. In the end the Court of Kings Bench sided with Wilkes. Radical Whigs cheered the verdict as a major victory for liberty.



During the battle over No. 45 William Hogarth, who disliked Wilkes, immortalized him in a famous engraving.



Wilkes soon overreached himself, helping to write and print an obscene poem, a parody of Alexander Pope's poem, An Essay on Man. The parody, An Essay on Womanis perhaps best known for the line "Life can little else supply, but a few good fucks and then we die."

Wilkes was a member of the Hellfire Club, AKA Medmenham Monks, a notorious gang of rakes and libertines, who included Lord Sandwich. Unfortunately for Wilkes, he had offended Sandwich, who in revenge read the poem to the House of Lords. Wilkes fled to -- of all places -- France to avoid arrest and prosecution but was found guilty of obscenity and blasphemy in absentia and declared an outlaw. 

Wilkes fell into debt in France, and in 1768 he returned to England. He submitted himself to jail but also put himself up for election to Parliament for the constituency of Middlesex County. The voters elected him by a wide margin, but the House of Commons declared him ineligible due to his conviction. He ran two more times and won each time before the House, bowing to the popular will, finally seated him.

During the campaigns Wilkes' supporters incited riots on his behalf, in one of which several people were killed by government troops. Radicals hailed Wilkes' eventual seating as a victory for the idea that the electorate, not the House of Commons, should determine the fitness of their representatives. 

In Parliament during the 1770's, Wilkes defended the cause of the American colonies, and became a hero to the future Patriots.

In 1780, London's mostly radical voters elected Wilkes Lord Mayor Ironically, he soon ended up cooperating with the government of George III in suppressing the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots (1780). During this episode he led a militia regiment that shot many rioters.



Wilkes' stance during the Gordon Riots cost him much of his popular following, and he gradually became more conservative.

Wilkes was famous for witty repartee. On one occasion, when running for Parliament, he asked a voter for his support. The voter replied, "I'd rather vote for the Devil." Wilkes shot back, "Naturally. But if your friend decides not to run, may I hope for your support?"

Another comeback often attributed to Wilkes may or not be apocryphal. On one occasion Sandwich said to Wilkes, "Sir, I fear you are destined to die on the gallows, or of the pox." (syphilis) Wilkes replied, "That depends my lord, on whether I embrace your lordship's principles or your mistress."

Today, Wilkes is memorialized by the names of several towns and counties in the USA and a statue in Fetter Lane in London.


  
Further Reading: 

George Rude, Wilkes and Liberty (1962)
Peter D. G. Thomas, John Wilkes, Friend to Liberty (1996)






2 comments:

  1. You did not mention that he was a devoted and loving father to his daughter Mary.

    ReplyDelete