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John Wilkes

John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty

Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 496
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    John Wilkes
    Book Description:

    One of the most colorful figures in English political history, John Wilkes (1726-97) is remembered as the father of the British free press, defender of civil and political liberties, and hero to American colonists, who attended closely to his outspoken endorsements of liberty. Wilkes's political career was rancorous, involving duels, imprisonments in the Tower of London, and the Massacre of St. George's Fields in which seven of his supporters were shot to death by government troops. He was equally famous for his "private" life-a confessed libertine, a member of the notorious Hellfire Club, and the author of what has been called the dirtiest poem in the English language.

    This lively biography draws a full portrait of John Wilkes from his childhood days through his heyday as a journalist and agitator, his defiance of government prosecutions for libel and obscenity, his fight against exclusion from Parliament, and his service as lord mayor of London on the eve of the American Revolution. Told here with the force and immediacy of a firsthand newspaper account, Wilkes's own remarkable story is inseparable from the larger story of modern civil liberties and how they came to fruition.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13309-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. A Preemptive Glossary
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. 1-4)

    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. In his writing, he excoriated the ministers of King George III, and he fought duels to defend what he was doing. He had a strong, lithe body, but a distorted face. Of his eyes, brown and therefore particularly noticeable in that society,...

  5. 1 The Making of a Gentleman
    (pp. 5-16)

    Jack, as his family and friends called him, must have been an appealing child despite the severe inward cast of his right eye and his forward-jutting jaw. There is a sketch portrait of him at about the age of twenty (illustration 1) that makes it easy to imagine the child with a twisted face smoothed over by a healthy skin, surprising, ironic in its forecast, cute. He was touching to older folk, the favorite of his father and his schoolmaster, and in his teens of the Scottish philosopher Andrew Baxter.

    Jack came from a wealthy family that, to use our...

  6. 2 The Squire of Aylesbury
    (pp. 17-36)

    “Jack, have you got a purse?” Israel Wilkes asked his son when the boy was yet a small child. “No, sir.” “I am sorry for that, Jack. If you had, I should have given you some money to put in it.” Some days later, “Jack,” asked his father, “have you got a purse?” “Yes, sir.” “I am glad of it. If you had not had a purse I would have given you one.”¹ In those days fathers paid so little attention to small children, I am sure Jack took it as a compliment that his father teased him. Still, the...

  7. 3 Into Parliament
    (pp. 37-64)

    As the general election of 1754 approached, “Mr. Wilkes’s friends strongly urged him to come into parliament,” wrote John Almon; “Potter pressed him very much: it was the only place, he said, in which a young man of Mr. Wilkes’s talents could commence the world with éclat.”¹ Member of Parliament. For a gentleman of modest fortune, the title was the ultimate status symbol. Members were not paid for their services, but Wilkes had, or thought he had, enough money to afford the honor. He wanted to represent Aylesbury. The town had been without a squire for years, and here came...

  8. 4 The North Briton
    (pp. 65-95)

    We turn now to the story of John Wilkes’s daring attacks upon Lord Bute and his ministers in the weekly paper Wilkes began while still stationed at Winchester, theNorth Briton.About Lord Bute and the effect of these polemical essays on his ministry, Horace Walpole had this to say:

    The tide of power swelled the weak bladder of the Favorite’s [Bute’s] mind to the highest pitch. His own style was haughty and distant; that of his creatures insolent. Many persons who had absented themselves from his levée were threatened with the loss of their own, or the places of...

  9. 5 Number 45
    (pp. 96-120)

    Wilkes and Polly arrived in Paris, and Polly was soon settled in the house of Madame Carpentier and her husband. Seeing that Polly had no need of her own servant at the Carpentier house, Wilkes decided to take Mrs. Shepherd and his man Brown back with him. They set off on 7 April 1763, traveling by post chaise, one carriage for the entire trip, but changing horses every ten or twelve miles at a post, as the stations were called. Wilkes was restless and left the carriage to the servants, who were sweet on each other, and rode on one...

  10. 6 The Great George Street Printing Shop
    (pp. 121-142)

    When Wilkes examined his house to see what the messengers had taken, he realized that the manuscript of An Essay on Woman was missing. He was not worried that the ministry would see it, for they already knew of its existence. When the messengers had raided George Kearsley’s shop, they had seized three or four of Wilkes’s letters that mentioned the satire, and they had taken one of the proofs of the indecent title page with the erect penis next to a ten-inch scale and the damning uses of the names of two prelates. But there was no law against...

  11. 7 Trials and a Trial of Honor
    (pp. 143-164)

    Sandwich, now the newly appointed secretary of state for the north, called on Wilkes the day after he returned and explicitly offered what Yorke had implied: the ministry would drop all legal action against him if Wilkes would drop his actions against the ministers and messengers. Wilkes said no. Two days after Wilkes returned to London, George Onslow contacted him; Wilkes told him about Sandwich’s attempt to bribe him and asked Onslow to spread a word to the opposition: “He desires to be understood as being devoted to the service of the opposition, in any plan or writing that may...

  12. 8 Exile
    (pp. 165-203)

    John Wilkes, his open wound acerbated by a jostling carriage, arrived at the Hôtel de Saxe in Paris on the night of 28 December 1763. His servant, Matthew Brown, helped him into the ground-floor apartment waiting for him and into bed, exhausted. Up early the next morning, ignoring his pain, he went to the Hôtel de la Force to see his beloved daughter. Polly had been living there with a motherly servant, La Vallerie, since the argument with Madame Carpentier. Pierre Goy, who had initially looked after them, was no longer in Paris, having fled to England to escape his...

  13. 9 The Middlesex Election Controversy
    (pp. 204-236)

    On 8 February 1768, John Wilkes, an outlaw, penniless and in debt over head and ears, surreptitiously entered the City of London and went to the house of his sister, Mary Hayley, to embrace his daughter, his mother, his brother Heaton, and others of the family. A few days later, assuming the name of Osborn, he moved to the house of a Mr. Thompson in Masham Street near Dean’s Yard. For reasons unknown, Matthew Brown, the faithful servant, had disappeared from Wilkes’s life, but he had a new man, Samuel Dyer, hired for him by John Lee, a zealous follower....

  14. 10 Incapacitation
    (pp. 237-266)

    A few days before Wilkes’s birthday, in October of 1768, Lord Chatham, crippled with gout and immobilized with depression, resigned as privy seal, leaving the government of Great Britain in the hands of Lord Grafton, who was totally unsuited to run it. Grafton now had the problem of his old acquaintance, Jack Wilkes, a man elected to Parliament but not sworn in, freed of his outlawry but a prisoner. He felt as though he had been tossed a hot potato but could not find anyone else to toss it to. If he mishandled the situation, the mob, he feared, would...

  15. 11 The City of London
    (pp. 267-311)

    A saying went around London that “if Jack Wilkes were stripped naked and thrown over Westminster Bridge on one day, you would meet him the next day in Pall Mall, dressed in the height of fashion, and with money in his pocket.” By the time he walked out of the King’s Bench Prison, the Bill of Rights Society had cleared his debts. The next day, on 14 April 1770, the aldermen and other City officers gathered at the Guildhall to invest him as the alderman of the Ward of Farringdon Without. He arrived in a carriage with cheering people running...

  16. 12 My Lord Mayor
    (pp. 312-327)

    Wilkes was now a celebrity, and he did not hesitate to act the part, giving dinner after dinner in the Mansion House, ball after ball. The honorary title of lady mayoress, heretofore given to wives, was now bestowed upon Polly. One newspaper described the opening ritual of the “brilliant Lady Mayoress’s Rout.”

    Yesterday the Lord Mayor, aldermen, etc, went from the Mansion House to St. Bride’s Church in the following order. 1. The Head Marshal. 2. The Bridewell boys. 3. The surgeons and apothecaries. 5. The governors. 6. The deputy city marshal, the under marshal, and six footmen in rich...

  17. 13 Poverty, Paternity, and Parliamentary Reform
    (pp. 328-350)

    Wilkes was now broke and enormously in debt. The collapse of the Bill of Rights Society had left him with no income but the rents from his small estates and the modest income from fees and allotments due him as alderman of Farringdon Without. For sitting in the Old Bailey and in Parliament, he was paid nothing. His mayoral expenses, including those lavish entertainments, had come to £8,226, which was £3,337 above his allowance. He was not arrested because members of Parliament could not be seized for debt, yet creditors were knocking at his door. A certain Thomas Skinner, determined...

  18. 14 Chamberlain
    (pp. 351-374)

    Benjamin Hopkins, the city chamberlain who had thrice defeated Wilkes in elections, died in November 1779, and Wilkes at once announced his candidacy for the office. There was a nomination meeting, and on the hustings Wilkes promised to devote half the profits of the office to paying off the debts he had run up as lord mayor. Yes, his intention was to hold the office, if he could, for the rest of his life. Two other candidates withdrew, but William James, a court candidate, stayed in. All the old radical group, including those with whom he had been quarreling, came...

  19. Epilogue
    (pp. 375-394)

    The last fifteen years of Wilkes’s life passed pleasantly. He was to die in 1797 at what was then the great age of seventy-one, but until his final illness, he continued to walk the two and a half miles to the chamberlain’s house. As a servant to the City that had so long served him, he had repaid the debts he had so rashly accrued as her chief magistrate. Polly was wealthy, the entire Mead-Sherbrooke fortune having fallen to her when her mother died in April of 1784. (For six months Wilkes dutifully wore the black suits required of mourning...

  20. An Afterword
    (pp. 395-396)

    I have written this book for a general audience of well-read, intelligent people. I hope scholars will approve of it, but I did not have them in mind as I wrote. I seldom say “it seems” or “the evidence suggests,” and I seldom call attention to the quality of the evidence. On the other hand, the notes, which will be of little help to the general reader, are made for the scholar. My view of Wilkes is so different from that usually held by historians, it will certainly be challenged. I want the challengers to have no doubt of the...

  21. Notes
    (pp. 397-450)
  22. Sources
    (pp. 451-464)
  23. Index
    (pp. 465-482)