He was first elected Member of Parliament in 1757. In the Middlesex election dispute, he fought for the right of voters—rather than the House of Commons—to determine their representatives. In 1771 he was instrumental in obliging the government to concede the right of printers to publish verbatim accounts of parliamentary debates. In 1776 he introduced the first Bill for parliamentary reform in the British Parliament.
Wilkes' increasing conservatism as he grew older caused dissatisfaction among radicals and was instrumental in the loss of his Middlesex seat at the 1790 general election. At the age of 65, Wilkes retired from politics and took no part in the growth of radicalism in the 1790s following the French Revolution.
Born in Clerkenwell in London, Wilkes was the second son of the distiller Israel Wilkes and his wife, who had six children. John Wilkes was educated initially at an academy in Hertford; this was followed by private tutoring and finally a stint at the University of Leiden in the Dutch Republic. There he met Andrew Baxter, a Presbyterian clergyman who greatly influenced Wilkes' views on religion. Although Wilkes would remain in the Church of England for the rest of his life, he had a deep sympathy for non-conformist Protestants, and was an advocate of religious tolerance from an early age. Wilkes was also beginning to develop a deep patriotism for his country. During the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 he rushed home to London to join a Loyal Association - and readied to defend the capital. Once the rebellion had ended after the Battle of Culloden, Wilkes returned to the Netherlands to complete his studies.
In 1747 he married Mary Meade and came into possession of an estate and income in Buckinghamshire. They had one child Polly, to whom John was utterly devoted for the rest of his life. Wilkes and Mary, however, separated in 1756, a separation that became permanent. Wilkes never married again, but he gained a reputation as a rake. He was known to have fathered at least five other children.
He was a member of the Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe, also known as the Hellfire Club or the Medmenham Monks, and was the instigator of a prank that may have hastened its dissolution. The Club had many distinguished members, including the Earl of Sandwich and Sir Francis Dashwood. Wilkes reportedly brought a baboon dressed in a cape and horns into the rituals performed at the club, producing considerable mayhem among the inebriated initiates.
Wilkes was notoriously ugly, being called the ugliest man in England at the time. He possessed an unsightly squint and protruding jaw, but had a charm that carried all before it. He boasted that it "took him only half an hour to talk away his face", though the duration required changed on the several occasions Wilkes repeated the claim. He also declared that "a month's start of his rival on account of his face" would secure him the conquest in any love affair.
He was well known for his verbal wit and his snappy responses to insults. For instance, when told by a constituent that he would rather vote for the devil, Wilkes responded: "Naturally." He then added: "And if your friend decides against standing, can I count on your vote?"
The exchange between John Wilkes and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich ("Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox." "That depends, my lord, on whether I embrace your lordship's principles or your mistress.") is also attributed to Samuel Foote; the same story was told of Mirabeau, answering Cardinal Maury, during the French Revolution.
Wilkes was at first a follower of William Pitt the Elder and was an enthusiastic supporter of Britain's involvement in the Seven Years War. When the Scottish John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, came to head the government in 1762, Wilkes started a radical weekly publication, The North Briton, to attack him, using an anti-Scots tone. Typical of Wilkes, the title was a satirical take on the Earl's newspaper, The Briton, with North Briton referring to Scotland. He was particularly incensed by what he regarded as Bute's betrayal in agreeing to overly generous peace terms with France to end the war.
Wilkes was charged with seditious libel over attacks on George III's speech endorsing the Paris Peace Treaty of 1763 at the opening of Parliament on 23 April 1763. Wilkes was highly critical of the king's speech, which was recognized as having been written by Bute. He attacked it in an article of issue 45 of The North Briton. The issue number in which Wilkes published his critical editorial was appropriate because the number 45 was synonymous with the Jacobite uprising of 1745, commonly known as "The '45". Bute, Scottish and politically controversial as an adviser to the King, was associated popularly with Jacobitism, a perception which Wilkes played on.
The King felt personally insulted and ordered general warrants to be issued for the arrest of Wilkes and the publishers on 30 April 1763. Forty-nine people, including Wilkes, were arrested under the warrants. Wilkes, however, gained considerable popular support as he asserted the unconstitutionality of general warrants. He was soon restored to his seat, as he cited parliamentary privilege for his editorial. Wilkes sued his arresters for trespass. As a result of this episode, people were chanting, "Wilkes, Liberty and Number 45", referring to the newspaper.
Bute resigned not long afterwards, but Wilkes was equally opposed to his successor, George Grenville.
Wilkes and Thomas Potter wrote a pornographic poem entitled "An Essay on Woman". Wilkes's political enemies obtained this parody of Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man", and the John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, who was also a member of the Hellfire Club, among those introducing it in the House of Lords. Sandwich had a personal vendetta against Wilkes that stemmed in large part from embarrassment caused by a prank of Wilkes involving the Earl at one of the Hellfire Club's meetings; he was delighted at the chance for revenge. Sandwich read the poem to the House of Lords in an effort to denounce Wilkes's moral behavior, despite the hypocrisy of his action. The Lords declared the poem obscene and blasphemous, and it caused a great scandal. The House of Lords moved to expel Wilkes again; he fled to Paris before any expulsion or trial. He was tried and found guilty in absentia of obscene libel and seditious libel, and was declared an outlaw on 19 January 1764.
Wilkes hoped for a change in power to remove the charges, but this did not come to pass. As his French creditors began to pressure him, in 1768 he had little choice but to return to England. He returned intending to stand as a Member of Parliament on an anti-government ticket; the government did not issue warrants for his immediate arrest as it did not want to inflame popular support.
Wilkes stood in London and came in bottom of the poll of seven candidates, possibly due to his late entry into the race for the position. He was quickly elected MP for Middlesex, where most of his support was located. He surrendered to the King's Bench in April. On waiving his parliamentary privilege to immunity, he was sentenced to two years and fined £1,000. The charge of outlawry was overturned.
When Wilkes was imprisoned in the King's Bench Prison on 10 May 1768, his supporters appeared before King's Bench, London, chanting "No justice, no peace." Troops opened fire on the unarmed men, killing seven and wounding 15.
Wilkes was expelled from Parliament in February 1769, on the grounds that he was an outlaw when he was returned. He was re-elected by his Middlesex constituents in the same month, only to be expelled and re-elected in March. In April, after his expulsion and another re-election, Parliament declared his opponent, Henry Luttrell, to be the winner.
In defiance Wilkes was elected an alderman of London in 1769, using his supporters' group, the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights, for his campaign. Wilkes eventually succeeded in convincing Parliament to expunge the resolution barring him from sitting. While in parliament, he condemned the government's policy towards the American colonies during the American Revolution. In addition, he introduced one of the earliest radical Bills to parliament, although it failed to gain passage.
On his release from prison in March 1770, Wilkes was appointed a sheriff in London. In 1774 he became Lord Mayor; he was simultaneously Master of the Joiners' Company, where he changed the motto to "Join Loyalty and Liberty". That year Wilkes was re-elected to Parliament, representing Middlesex. He was one of those opposed to war with the American colonies. He was also a supporter of the Association Movement and of religious tolerance. His key success was to protect the freedom of the press by gaining passage of a bill to remove the power of general warrants and to end Parliament's ability to punish political reports of debates.
After 1780, his popularity declined as was popularly perceived as less radical. During the uprising known as the Gordon Riots, Wilkes was in charge of the soldiers defending the Bank of England from the attacking mobs. It was under his orders that troops fired into the crowds of rioters. The working classes who had previously seen Wilkes as a "man of the people", then criticized him as a hypocrite; his middle class support was scared off by the violent action. The Gordon Riots nearly extinguished his popularity.
While he was returned for the county seat of Middlesex in 1784, he found so little support that by 1790, he withdrew early in the election. The French Revolution of 1789 had proved extremely divisive in England, and Wilkes had been against it due to the violent murders in France. His position was different from that of many radicals of the time and was a view more associated with conservative figures such as Edmund Burke.
Wilkes worked in his final years as a magistrate campaigning for more moderate punishment for disobedient household servants.
British subjects in the American colonies closely followed Wilkes's career. His struggles convinced many colonists that the British constitution was being subverted by a corrupt ministry, an idea that contributed to the coming of the American Revolution. In reaction, after the Revolution, representatives included provisions in the new American constitution to prevent Congress from rejecting any legally elected member and to proscribe general warrants for arrest.
John Wilkes's brother was the grandfather of U.S. Naval Admiral Charles Wilkes.
|Parliament of Great Britain|
|Member of Parliament for Aylesbury
with John Willes 1757–1761
Welbore Ellis 1761–1764
Sir William Beauchamp-Proctor, Bt
|Member of Parliament for Middlesex
with George Cooke 1768
John Glynn 1768–1769
|Member of Parliament for Middlesex
with John Glynn 1774–1779
Thomas Wood 1779–1780
George Byng 1780–1784
William Mainwaring 1784–1790
JOHN WILKES (1727-1797), English politician, descended from a family long connected with Leighton-Buzzard in Bedfordshire, was born at Clerkenwell, London, on the 17th of October 1727, being the second son of Israel Wilkes, 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 the 8th of 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 Alexander Carlyle (Autobiog., 1860, ed. J. H. Burton). With this training he acquired an intimate knowledge 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 174 9) 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 at Aylesbury 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 (5th of August 1750), and then Wilkes left his wife and removed to Westminster, where he kept open house for many young men about town possessing more wit than morals. In 1754 he contested the constituency of Berwick-uponTweed, 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, afterwards 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 application for the post of ambassador at Constantinople, or for that of governor of Quebec. As he attributed these failures to the opposition of Lord Bute, he established a paper called the North Briton (June 1762), 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 supplementary number, No. 45, was published, 23rd of 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 (30th of April 1763). 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 discreditable shifts, was cast in heavy sums, on actions brought against him by the persons whom he had injured - the total expenses incurred by the ministry in these lawless proceedings amounting to at least Xroo,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 of November 1763) proceedings were taken against him. Lord North moved that No. 45 was "a false, scandalous and seditious libel," and the paper was publicly burnt in Cheapside on the 4th of December. The Essay on Woman was on the same day 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 Commons on the 19th of January 1764; and on the 21st of February he was 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-secretary of the treasury, had provoked a duel (16th of 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 February 1768 he returned to London and sued the king for pardon, but in vain. His next step was to offer himself as a candidate 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 competitors (28th of March). 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 the 3rd of 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 of February), only to find him pronounced incapable of sitting and his election void. Again they returned him (16th of March) and again he was rejected. A fourth election then followed (13th of April), when Colonel Henry Lawes Luttrell, with all the influence of the court and the Fox family in his favour, obtained 2 9 6 votes, while 1143 were given for Wilkes, but two days later the House declared that Luttrell had been duly elected. Through these audacious proceedings a storm of fury broke out throughout 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. possessed 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 alderman 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 representation 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 on the 3rd of May 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 the 26th of December 1797. His daughter Mary, to whom he was tenderly attached, died on the 12th of March 1802.
Wilkes printed editions of Catullus (1788) and Theophrastus (1790), and at the time of his death had made considerable progress with a translation of Anacreon. His conversation was often sullied by obscenity and profanity; but he knew how to suit his conversation to his company, and his well-known assertion that, in spite of his squint and 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 confidence 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 Wilkite, 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 1804, the other Correspondence with his Friends, in which are introduced Memoirs of his Life, by John Almon, in five volumes, in 1805. A Life by Percy Fitzgerald was published in 1888. Essays on him are in Historical Gleanings, by J. E. Thorold Rogers, 2nd ser. (1870); Wilkes and Cobbett, by J. S. Watson (1870); and Wilkes, Sheridan and Fox, by W. F. Rae (1874). His connexion with Bath is set out in John Wilkes, by W. Gregory (1888), and that with the city of London in Modern History of the City, by Charles Welch (1896). A fragment of his autobiography (Br. Museum Addit. MSS. 30865), chiefly descriptive of his exile in France and Italy, was printed for W. F. Taylor of Harrow in 1888. (W. P. C.)