John Wilkes became one of the most important figures in 18th century British political history, for many a symbol of liberty in a long constitutional struggle against executive tyranny, the center of a cause célèbre that was discussed in Europe and America as well as in England. In many ways, Wilkes appears as an unlikely character to play such an important role; as Shakespeare’s MacBeth noted: “Some men are born great, some men achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Wilkes accepted the challenge of history with gusto and, at times, recklessness, and many of his contemporaries as well as historians have passed a harsh judgment. “In the course of 170 years,” notes George Nobbe, “numerous abusive epithets have been coupled with the name of John Wilkes. His honesty has been questioned, his sincerity scorned. Any lie told of him has been unquestioningly believed. Men have called him a hypocritical demagogue . . . . Any testimony to his discredit has been eagerly accepted, all efforts to learn the truth about this man have been heavily discounted.” One fact is undisputed: John Wilkes became “the most pointed and virulent, persistent and audacious, the most sorely tried, and, in the end, the most successful” critic of the policy of George III and his ministers.
John Wilkes was born into a prosperous, middle class family in 1727, the son of a successful distiller and was raised in a Nonconformist tradition. Although not part of a political family, Wilkes decided to enter Parliament and pursue a political career. Already High Sheriff for the County of Bucks in 1754, he was defeated in his first attempt at a seat; finally in 1757, at a cost of 7,000 pounds he entered Parliament as a member for Aylesbury, and attempted to align himself with the great Whig leader, William Pitt. Wilkes found himself in the midst of a curious political situation that was becoming more and more volatile. The political situation that had developed in England under the first two Hanoverian kings ended abruptly with the accession of George III to the British throne in 1760. The change was obvious, being given forceful expression in the speech from the throne in which George III “glorified in the name of Britain.” The phrase was chosen carefully and had important symbolic meaning that was not lost on contemporaries. Although the Revolution of 1688 had placed certain limitations on the powers of the king, he still remained the strongest, most influential figure in the land. The House of Hanover found itself in a position where it had little choice but to cooperate with the Whigs, the nominal opponents of a strong executive. Ignorant of British politics, more than 50 years old, and unable to speak English, George I could place no personal trust in the Tories, whose sympathies and conviction were assumed to lie with the Stuarts. With the advantages that a free choice between two parties denied the King, he was forced to entrust the government to the Whigs, loyal to, but not the King’s natural allies. The King also gave over to the Whigs the dispensation of the royal patronage and influence through rotten boroughs (certain election districts), pensions, selections for office, and a careful distribution of peerages. The final step in the decline of royal power came when the King, unable to understand cabinet discussions and not particularly interested in them anyway, discontinued the royal practice and prerogative of attending cabinet meetings. Under these conditions, the development of Whig oligarchy was rapid and complete. As D. A. Winstanley observes, Parliament, “in former times had resisted the crown in the name of the people, now [it] prevailed against the King in the interests of the Whig aristocracy.”
Although George II insisted that he had a right to choose his ministers, he shared with his father the feeling that the Whigs were his sole protection from the menace which the Jacobites still presented to a king whose primary interest and concern lay in Hanover. In consequence, the Whigs were able to maintain their dominance unbroken throughout the reign. This victorious party, uniting against a common foe in these years, as it had in the days of Queen Anne, found that success created within its ranks a number of powerful factions which divided usually on personal grounds rather than on matters of principle. No settled policy governed the conduct of the opposition, and the motives of expediency that united the great Whig magnates were extraordinarily divergent. However, even though the Whigs were acting from personal gain and power as much as principle, the political issues of the time, including the Wilkes affair, were usually judged from the point of view of great constitutional issues.
O. A. Sherrard notes:
Political feelings ran high at the time because they
were based upon personal loyalties. Whigs and Tories
were nominally fighting a constitutional battle: the
former defending the right of the people to govern them-
selves and the latter upholding the divine right of kings.
By a fiction that was nonetheless strong because it was
false, the Glorious Revolution was supposed to have trans-
ferred power from the King to the people. Actually it had
achieved much less, merely substituting a close oligarchy
of magnates for a single despot. The people had no influ-
ence on the course of government, but they took their
choice between the Old Pretender and the reigning King,
and on that basis fiercely argued constitutional points
they did not understand and were in no position to support.
In general, the Tories had their stronghold in the country while the Whigs looked for their support to the commercial classes of the towns. This natural division between trade and agriculture, emphasized by a clash of personal loyalties, was still further enforced by a split over religion: the Tories, or at least most of them, belonged to the established Church, while the Whigs were Nonconformist. John Wilkes came from a Whig family and entered politics as a Whig partisan, but just as the Whig struggles of the 18th century against the Crown were as much over personal power as over great constitutional issues, the Wilkes affair concerned itself with the battle for power among Whig families vis-à-vis George III as much as it did the issue of liberty for which Wilkes gained lasting historical fame.
The incident that brought fame and controversy to Wilkes was the publication of the North Briton Number 45, one in a long series of political propaganda tracts in the war between George III and his Whig enemies. Wilkes had published violent and invective pieces for the Whigs before Number 45, and had gained a reputation as a reckless and malicious man who would say anything in print to further his own career and that of his supporters. “Such invective was not unparalleled in contemporary political life,” argues Peter Quennell, “–fifty years later, the great tradition of personal invective was still preserved as a regular feature of English parliamentary government; but Wilkes’ journalistic shafts were usually well-directed and had a cruelly cutting edge.”
George III decided to try to rule without the assistance, in other words, the domination, of the powerful Whig families, and devised a series of ministries which contained men more to his own liking; the great Whig solidarity was quickly coming apart under such tactics. The government decided to act with firmness and decisiveness. The Attorney and Solicitor General stated that the paper might be considered “an infamous and seditious libel, tending to inflame the minds and alienate the affections of the people from his Majesty, and excite them to traitorous insurrections against his government.” The administration issued a general warrant authorizing the apprehension of the writers, printers and publishers of the North Briton Number 45. Thus the stage was set for one of the great political issues of the late 18th century.
It is important to understand the psychology of the two principal characters in this political drama for, to a large extent, it is a drama made by the interaction of George III and John Wilkes, both complex and unstable personalities. George III came to the throne with certain fixed ideas concerning the rights and duties of a king of England, and he was determined to restore what he conceived to be vital and inalienable royal functions in the organization of the State. George’s ideas may have been unpopular but they were neither novel nor inconsistent. However, his capacity was not equal to the conceptions he had of himself or his role in the fate of his country. He was apt to be contemptuous and mistrustful of the people, misreading signals and trends. He appeared to bear open resentment and always maintained a stubborn insistence on his own opinions and prejudices, often sincerely confounding them with principles. “Potentially, at least,” observes Peter Quennell,
George III was the most dangerous type of autocrat,
one who combined an exalted sense of his royal
duty with an intense natural obstinacy, and who
had all the determination of an extremely well-
intentioned, with none of the flexibility of a
cultivated and intelligent, man. When conscience
spoke loudly, it was usually in his mother’s voice.
Her notorious admonition: “George, be a King!”
was the counsel of a woman, herself exceedingly
ambitious, whose husband during his lifetime had
been deprived of any real power by the hatred of
his parents and then cheated of the succession by
his early death.”
George III was a man who was determined to prove himself, and in this context, that meant asserting his power, his masculinity, against Whig domination, and especially against a character like John Wilkes, a man of humble origins who came out of nowhere to challenge the King of England. However mixed his motives, George III was standing on certain historic traditions in attempting to reestablish royal power, and in his struggle with Wilkes, he was dealing with someone who felt psychologically comfortable with recklessness.
As a number of scholars have pointed out,
John Wilkes seemed at the outset to have had few of
the virtues that are usually expected of a tribune
of the people. He was a frivolous character, neither
hard-working nor unselfish, the dissipated child of
wealthy parents, who had passed his youth with rich,
thoughtless and depraved companions in amusements
of the kind usually considered most enervating and
From the beginning of his political career, Wilkes displayed a flair, indeed a drive, to take a potential conflict and make it into a real one. His ability to write biting and often vicious satire fit this need perfectly. He appeared to thoroughly enjoy and in fact thrive on recklessness; as a child, too, and later as a young man, Wilkes, though good-natured, was wild and overly adventuresome. He demonstrated a willingness to say or be what he had to say or be to achieve his ends. Wilkes’ contemporaries did not spare him; Horace Walpole said:
”He had married a woman of fortune, used her ill, and
at last extorted from her the provision made for her
separate maintenance and was guilty of other frauds
and breaches of trust; yet the man, bitter as he was,
in his political writings was commonly not ill-natured
or acrimonious. Wantonness rather than ambition or
vengeance guided his hand and though he became the
martyr of the best cause there was nothing in his
principles or morals that led him to care under what
government he lived. To laugh and riot and scatter
firebrands with him was liberty. Despotism will ever
reproach Freedom with the profligacy of such a
George III and John Wilkes fit each other’s psychology perfectly; each could and did develop an inordinate dislike for the other. Throughout the struggle over the general warrants and then later in the Middlesex election dispute, Wilkes had an uncanny sense of how to take a situation and escalate it in such a way as to infuriate and frighten a King determined to exert his authority. As soon as the first general warrant was issued, Wilkes was quick to see how this incident could be transformed into a cause célèbre which would raise fundamental issues. The decision to publish the infamous Essay on Woman was an example of pure provocation for the sake of a sensational confrontation. Later, when Wilkes decided to return home and run for Parliament he did so in the most spectacular manner possible, encouraging all kinds of public demonstrations which constantly threatened to get out of hand. Although George III was insistent on keeping Wilkes out of the Commons, his ministers, most particularly the Duke of Grafton, made an offer to Lord Temple, Wilkes’ political guardian, that Wilkes and the Court party agree to leave each other alone. Wilkes would be allowed to take his seat if he would refrain from raising, as he had stated he would publicly, the question of the legality of the whole of his past treatment. Wilkes answered with an abrupt refusal, stating that he had already made a public pledge. Even his friends doubted his sincerity and his reply cost him the friendship of Lord Temple, his longtime political mentor. As R. W. Postgate concludes, Wilkes’ intention was “to provoke the House of Commons into intemperate action,” and he was remarkably successful in that endeavor.
In the Middlesex election dispute, where Wilkes was continually elected to Parliament and continually expelled, he found the perfect context and issue to exploit: the cry of “Wilkes and Liberty” went up. Wilkes was able to rally a solid group of supporters who had more than just the relatively narrow issue of liberty at stake. It was the smaller merchants and the working class of London and the London area who rallied to Wilkes’ support, even to the point of going out in the street at the drop of a hat. The borough of Southwark, the city of Westminster, and the county of Middlesex, all in the greater London voting area, had strong pro-Wilkes sympathies and all had franchise systems as democratic, if not more democratic than the City itself. The poor, the workers, were a potent political force in London, and thus in England. Meanwhile, the gradual emigration of wealthier merchants meant that the influence of the smaller shopkeepers and working freemen, and their politics were correspondingly democratic. This was the political context into which Wilkes decided to launch his great challenge to the government of George III. Even a cautious and prudent man would have some difficulty controlling a mass of people aroused by his cause; for Wilkes, it was a question of constantly standing on the verge of carrying the struggle too far. Horace Walpole believed that the economic conflicts of the period in the London area were “excited by the agents of Wilkes,” and R. W. Postgate finds it difficult to believe that the sudden outburst of strikes in 1768, in a year when the whole working class was deeply stirred by the case of Wilkes, was unrelated to political roots.
In his time and now, Wilkes manages to draw extreme views of himself; even those who defend his cause sometimes criticize his character and style. Wilkes did have an important effect in securing certain traditions, which had been part of reform movements for some time–he had virtually destroyed the use of general warrants, he helped to establish the independence of the press from governmental interference, and he vindicated the rights of the electors to return the person they wish over the views of Parliament itself. That Wilkes was a victim of arbitrary government action is generally accepted; that he acted in such a way to deserve some retaliation, and then, recklessly at times, exploited the developing political situation to the benefit of himself and his cause is accepted by most, if not all of the people who evaluate Wilkes’ life. Both John Wilkes and George III were small men cast in heroic historical roles, and each leaves a great deal to be desired in character.