John Wilkes

John Wilkes
Portrait of John Wilkes after Richard Houston, 1769

John Wilkes (17 October 1725 – 26 December 1797) was an English radical, journalist and politician.

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. During the American War of Independence he was a supporter of the American rebels adding further to his popularity with American Whigs. In 1780, however, he commanded militia forces which helped put down the Gordon Riots damaging his popularity with many radicals.

Wilkes's 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. During his life he earned a reputation as a libertine.


Early life and character

Born in Clerkenwell in London, Wilkes was the second son of the distiller Israel Wilkes and his wife Sarah (born Heaton), 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.[1][2] 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.[3][4] 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.[1] They had one child Mary (known as 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 elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1749 and appointed High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire in 1754. He was an unsuccessful candidate for Berwick in the 1754 parliamentary elections but was elected for Aylesbury in 1757 and again in 1761.[5]

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.[6]

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?"[7]

In a famous exchange with John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, where the latter exclaimed: "Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox"; Wilkes is reported to have replied: "That depends, my lord, on whether I embrace your lordship's principles or your mistress". Fred R. Shapiro, in The Yale Book of Quotations (2006), disputes the attribution based on a claim that it first appeared in a book published in 1935,[8] but it is ascribed to Wilkes in Henry Brougham's Historical Sketches (1844), related from Bernard Howard, 12th Duke of Norfolk, who claims to have been present,[9] as well as in Charles Marsh's Clubs of London (1828).[10] Brougham notes the exchange had in France previously been ascribed to Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau and Cardinal Jean-Sifrein Maury.[9]

Radical journalism

Lord Bute the Prime Minister between 1762 and 1763 was a major target for Wilkes' paper The North Briton. Wilkes was angry that Bute had displaced Pitt the Elder from power and he attacked the terms of the 1763 Treaty of Paris.
A satirical engraving of Wilkes by William Hogarth, who shows him with a demonic-looking wig, crossed eyes, and two editions of his The North Briton: Numbers 17 (in which he attacked, amongst others, Hogarth) and the famous 45.

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.[6]

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 Rising 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. At his court hearing the Lord Chief Justice ruled that as an MP, Wilkes was protected by privilege from arrest on a charge of libel. 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 had by now resigned, but Wilkes was equally opposed to his successor, George Grenville. Wilkes resumed attacking the King when on 16 November 1763, Samuel Martin, a supporter of George III, challenged Wilkes to a duel. Wilkes was shot and wounded in the stomach. Parliament was quick to vote on a measure that did not protect MP's from arrest for the writing and publishing of seditious libel.


John Wilkes Esq; before the Court of King's Bench, engraving from The Gentleman's Magazine for May 1768

Wilkes and Thomas Potter wrote a pornographic poem entitled "An Essay on Woman" as a parody of Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man". Wilkes's political enemies obtained this, foremost among them John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, who was also a member of the Hellfire Club, who introduced 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.[11]

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.[12]

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 sentence of outlawry was overturned.[13]

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, an incident that came to be known as the St George's Fields Massacre. The Irish playwright Hugh Kelly a prominent supporter of the government, defended the right of the army to use force against riotors. This drew the anger of Wilkes' supporters against Kelly and they began a riot at the Drury Lane Theatre during the performance of Kelly's new play A Word to the Wise forcing it to be abandoned.[14]

Middlesex election dispute

The Brentford Sweepstakes, drawing from Town and Country Magazine (13 April 1769) satirizing the election. Wilkes' riderless horse labelled "1143" indicating he got a majority of the vote, while his opponents founder.

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.

Later life

Wilkes' popularity with radicals declined after he led milita to protect the Bank of England during the Gordon Riots in 1780. Wilkes became a supporter of William Pitt the Younger who became Prime Minister in 1783, and severed most of his former radical connections.

In 1774 he became Lord Mayor; he was simultaneously Master of the Joiners' Company, where he changed the motto from "GOD GRANNTE US TO USE JUSTICE WITHE MERCYE" to "JOIN LOYALTY AND LIBERTY", a political slogan associated with Wilkes.[15] 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.[6]

After 1780, his popularity declined as he 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. Edmund Burke, who had also supported American Independence, made a similar switch.

Wilkes worked in his final years as a magistrate campaigning for more moderate punishment for disobedient household servants.

Between 1788-1797 he occupied a property named "Villakin" in Sandown, Isle of Wight. The site is marked by a blue plaque.[16]

He was a member of the Oddfellows.[17]


Statue of John Wilkes (Fetter Lane, London)

A radical contempary Irish politician Charles Lucas, who sat for Dublin City in the Irish Parliament, was known as the "Irish Wilkes".[18] The Dutch politician Joan van der Capellen tot den Pol (1741–1784), who advocated American independence and criticized the Stadtholder regime, was inspired by Wilkes.

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.




  1. ^ a b Simkin 2011.
  2. ^ Cash 2006, pp. 13–16.
  3. ^ McCarthy 2006.
  4. ^ Cash 2006, p. 9.
  5. ^ Bloy 2011.
  6. ^ a b c Lynch 2003.
  7. ^ Cash 2006, p. 211.
  8. ^ Shapiro 2006, pp. 281–2.
  9. ^ a b Brougham 1844, p. 146.
  10. ^ Marsh 1828, p. 17.
  11. ^ Cash 2006, pp. 151–79.
  12. ^ Cash 2006, pp. 179–208.
  13. ^ Cash 2006, pp. 204–26.
  14. ^ Cash 2006, pp. 216–26.
  15. ^ Joiners 2008.
  16. ^ Allan 2011.
  17. ^ Dennis 2008, p. 90.
  18. ^ Thomas 2002, p. 111.


Further reading

  • Trench, Charles Chenevix (1962). Portrait of a Patriot. Edinburgh: Blackwood. 
  • Holdsworth, William (1938). A History of English Law. 10. London: Methuen. pp. 659–72. ISBN 0-421-05100-0. 
  • Rudé, George (1962). Wilkes and Liberty: a social study of 1763 to 1774. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-881091-1. 
  • Thomas, Peter D.G. (1996). John Wilkes: a friend to liberty. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0198205449. 
  • Williamson, Audrey (1974). Wilkes, a friend to liberty. London: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 0-04-923064-6. 
  • Trials at law with council pleadings : for John Wilkes vs. George Montagu Dunk, Earl of Halifax : manuscript, 1769 Nov. 10. Digital facsimile, Houghton Library, Harvard University. 
Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
Thomas Potter
John Willes
Member of Parliament for Aylesbury
With: John Willes 1757–1761
Welbore Ellis 1761–1764
Succeeded by
Welbore Ellis
Anthony Bacon
Preceded by
Sir William Beauchamp-Proctor, Bt
George Cooke
Member of Parliament for Middlesex
With: George Cooke 1768
John Glynn 1768–1769
Succeeded by
John Glynn
Henry Luttrell
Preceded by
John Glynn
Henry Luttrell
Member of Parliament for Middlesex
With: John Glynn 1774–1779
Thomas Wood 1779–1780
George Byng 1780–1784
William Mainwaring 1784–1790
Succeeded by
William Mainwaring
George Byng

External Links

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