, champion of liberty
, scourge of King George III
and his ministers, and whose repeated re-election by the people of Middlesex
and repeated expulsion from the House of Commons
were a turning point in establishing the right of the British people to choose their government. He campaigned for fairer suffrage
and religious tolerance
. He was witty and learned, and mingled in polite society, though many of them regarded him as a monster.
He first entered politics as member for Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire in 1757. He became sheriff of that county and colonel of its militia. One of his political enemies was the Earl of Bute, who was appointed prime minister by George III in 1762. Bute had rejected Wilkes's applications for positions as ambassador to Constantinople and governor of Quebec.
Wilkes went on the attack publicly, founding a weekly newspaper The North Briton. In 1763 his attacks on the king and government led to his arrest for seditious libel. The Lord Chief Justice ruled that parliamentary privilege as an MP made him immune from prosecution for libel. Later that year Parliament declared that published writings by an MP could be libellous. The writings in question were not only the seditious issue number 45 of The North Briton, but a privately printed poem An Essay on Woman, which Parliament declared an obscene libel. Wilkes, who had just been injured in a duel, possibly instigated by government agents, escaped to Paris. Number 45 was ordered to be burned in public by the common hangman.
He returned in 1768 and was elected MP for Middlesex. The House of Commons refused to have him as a member, and expelled him. He was re-elected in 1769, in three successive months. The Commons threw him out again, three more times in short succession. Eventually the House of Commons declared him ineligible, in order to stop his attempts, and installed his defeated rival as MP. A Bill of Rights Society was formed to support Wilkes's right to be member for Middlesex. He was extremely popular with the common people, and the government was even more despised after huge rallies against Wilkes's imprisonment were dispersed by troops, killing seven people: this was known as the St George's Fields Massacre. Medals and engravings (particularly a famous one by Hogarth) depicted him with Phrygian cap as genius of liberty.
Wilkes was in prison from 1768 to 1770, having been re-arrested after his return from exile, convicted, and fined £1000. His third major attack on the privileges of the government was to challenge their secret debates. It was not yet an established principle that parliamentary proceedings could be reported: Hansard was long in the future. Some newspapers had begun printing them, and Wilkes was one of those challenging their secrecy. The government arrested two of his printers, but gave way after angry mobs surrounded Parliament.
In 1771 he was elected sheriff for London and Middlesex, then in 1774 he was elected Lord Mayor of London, and was re-elected to the parliamentary seat of Middlesex. This time he was allowed to stay. He worked for abolition of rotten boroughs and enfranchisement of the new industrial towns, introducing in 1776 the first reform bill. He was a critic of government policy in the rebelling American colonies; and spoke out against the severe laws known as the Bloody Code. He retired from politics in 1790 after his defeat by forces more radical than he now was.
Born at Clerkenwell in London on 17th October 1725, son of a distiller, John Wilkes at first lived a dissipated life, in 1748 marrying a rich doctor's daughter ten years his senior and preferring to spend his time with the neo-pagan Hell Fire Club, or the "Monks of Medmenham". He and his wife separated after having one daughter.
Boswell records that Wilkes and Dr Samuel Johnson, "who though widely different, had so many things in common--classical learning, modern literature, wit, and humour, and ready repartee". Johnson was strongly conservative, had published a 1770 pamphlet The False Alarm defending the government's right to overturn the Middlesex election, and might have attacked like a bear this corrupter of the nation. But Boswell was fortunate to be present to record their first meeting, at Mr Dilly's on 15th May 1776. Johnson was distant at first, but having already blustered to Boswell that he was not so ungracious as to object to Mr Dilly's inviting anyone else, even if it be Jack Wilkes, he thawed and became sociable, and Wilkes was careful to be polite and helpful to him: so in the end they got on very well. Their second meeting was on 8th May 1781, and was equally friendly and respectful.
In later life it was recognised fairly universally that he had been in the right: in 1782 the Commons retroactively expunged their earlier resolution expelling him. He died on 29th December 1797 at his daughter's house in London, and is buried in the Grosvenor Chapel in South Audley Street. The memorial tablet names him John Wilkes: a friend to liberty. There is a statue of him, by James Butler, in New Fetter Lane in London.
Chambers Biographical Dictionary
Boswell, Life of Johnson
anti-Wilkes diatribe in the Newgate Calendar: http://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng314.htm
resolution expelling him: http://www.bopcris.ac.uk/bop1700/ref14644.html