Wilkes And Liberty!

On this day in 1764, the notoriously ugly and immensely fascinating British politician and journalist John Wilkes was expelled from the House of Commons of the British Parliament for seditious libel and obscenity. The previous year, Wilkes had published a vitriolic criticism of George Grenville, King George III’s Prime Minister and later promoter of the Stamp Act for the colonies. In response, The Crown issued a vague and broadly applicable “general warrant” against Wilkes and his publication, The North Briton. More than forty people were arrested under this open warrant; papers and effects were seized, including personal, private papers from Wilkes’ home.

At first, The Crown attempted to prosecute Wilkes for seditious libel, but a court ruled that his position as a Member of Parliament protected him from prosecution. Not to be thwarted, The Crown dug deeper into the papers and effects seized under the general warrant. Unfortunately for Wilkes, among these private papers was a diary in which he recorded his various amorous encounters. This diary may have been intended for private circulation among Wilkes’ circle, but was not published in any sense of the word. On the basis of this manuscript, Wilkes was charged with obscenity and pornography, although it was simply his private journal and had not been intended for publication. Though a court would later overturn this charge as being completely unfounded even under the broad powers of a general warrant, Wilkes was expelled from Parliament and forced to flee to France for almost four years.

We Americans should be familiar with the history of the 1760s and 1770s in the colonies: Parliamentary overreach led to widespread discontent and unrest, ultimately fomenting the American Revolution and Independence. Less well-known is that there was great unrest in Britain itself during this period, and there was much chafing at Parliament’s dismissal of England’s traditional civil rights. Britons prided themselves on being the freest subjects in Europe, yet Parliament was ignoring their traditional liberties.

When Wilkes returned to England in 1768, he was again overwhelmingly elected to Parliament. He was also arrested almost immediately thereafter. The crowds which gathered outside the prison where Wilkes was being held grew so large that The Crown feared rebellion, and troops opened fire on the Londoners, killing several. Widespread rioting followed. An American who was in London at this time was greatly disturbed at the unrest and the mob violence, and comforted himself with the thought that America would never fall into riot and rebellion. Ironically, this American was in London to argue in support of American complaints against Parliament: Benjamin Franklin!

Wilkes remained in prison until 1770; upon his release he again strained the limits of Parliament’s patience by publishing accounts of Parliamentary debates in his newspaper. His printing staff was arrested in early 1771. Later that same day, an immense and angry crowd surrounded Commons, chanting “Wilkes and Liberty!” “No Liberty, No King!!!” and similar slogans. The government released the prisoners to avoid riot and rebellion. No further attempts to prevent the publication of Parliamentary debates were made.

Wilkes was elected Lord Mayor of London in 1774, and he was an outspoken critic of The Crown’s handling of the colonies and the American Revolution. Wilkes was in regular correspondence with Boston’s Sons of Liberty, and with key figures of the American Revolution such as John Adams and John Hancock. Wilkes advocated fair and rational responses to the legitimate grievances of the colonists, and he predicted that Britain would lose the colonies if matters were not addressed sensibly. But his words fell on deaf ears in Parliament.

Wilkes was truly a radical reformer in his day. He championed and pioneered Freedom of the Press. He also advocated broad electoral reform and campaigned against “rotten boroughs,” Parliamentary seats held by men who had never even visited the district they were to represent. Unusually for his time, Wilkes also advocated religious tolerance and the removal of legal debilities on minority religions. Later in his career he moderated his “radical” politics and fell from favor with the electorate.

Wilkes’ legacy was partly legal: The courts ruled that The Crown could not use general warrants as unlimited power to find any possible misbehavior. For example, in seeking evidence of Wilkes’ sedition, his personal journal of romantic adventures was irrelevant, despite it having been seized under the warrant. British Courts circumscribed the power of The Crown and defined a standard of personal expectation of privacy which even the government must not impinge upon. Additionally, precedents set in various cases concerning Wilkes have been repeatedly cited in decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, including the famous 1969 decision which prevented Congress from barring Adam Clayton Powell.

Wilkes’ legacy was partly pragmatic: Though Parliament did not soon repeal its prohibition against publishing its debates, in practice it yielded the matter so that by late 1771, the publication of Parlimentary debates was an assumed right of the press. It is no accident that the major British newspapers were founded in the years following (eg: The Times, 1785.)

And Wilkes’ legacy was partly architectural: When the Houses of Parliament had to be rebuilt in the late 1830s after a fire, the new structure was abutted right onto the bank of the River Thames. This was done, as the Duke of Wellington insisted, to prevent “the people” from exacting their demands by simply surrounding Parliament!

Wilkes’ stand on civil liberty struck a particularly resonant chord among the discontent colonists of British North America. But on both sides of the Atlantic Wilkes was seen as a champion of civil liberties. In Pennsylvania, the townsfolk of a new settlement in the Wyoming Valley named their town Wilkes-Barre, in honor of John Wilkes and Isaac Barre who supported the American colonists in Parliament. The name John Wilkes became synonymous with Liberty. In the colonies, many children were christened “John Wilkes Smith” or the like. Sadly, John Wilkes’ most famous namesake did much to halt the advance of civil liberty in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Sadder still, too few Americans know of John Wilkes and his legacy of influence on the liberties of an independent United States.

Jamie Rawson
Flower mound, Texas

The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man
is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break,
servitude is at once the consequence of his crime,
and the punishment of his guilt.

— John Philpot Curran, 1790


John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty, Arthur H. Cash; Yale University Press, 2006; ISBN: 030010870

This wonderful book was the first full biography of Wilkes to appear in more than a generation, and it was long over due. Cash treats Wilkes “warts and all,” never hesitating to make note of Wilkes’ less admirable character traits. Cash places Wilkes in the larger historical context of mid-18th Century Britain, a time of social turmoil, economic upheaval, and political unrest. Wilkes’ story is told in a consistently engaging manner which makes for a highly informative work that is also extremely entertaining. Cash captures the reader from the very first sentence of the book’s prologue: “This book is about an audacious journalist and politician who was born in the City of London in 1726 and died in the City of Westminster in 1797, his life spanning a time that included the American Revolution, which he admired, the French Revolution, which he hated, and the industrial revolution, which he did not know was happening.” A must-read!