John Wilkes

John Wilkes

John Wilkes, the son of Israel Wilkes, a malt distiller, was born on 17th October 1725. In 1747 he married Mary Meade, an heiress who owned a large estate at Aylesbury. It was a marriage of convenience and Wilkes spent most of his time with his friends at the Hell Fire Club. After ten years he permanently separated from his wife. Bored by his life of pleasure, Wilkes decided to become involved in politics and in 1757 he was elected MP for Aylesbury.

In 1762, the new king, George III, arranged for his close friend, the Earl of Bute, to become prime minister. This decision upset a large number of MPs who considered Bute to be incompetent. John Wilkes became Bute's leading critic in the House of Commons. In June 1762 Wilkes established The North Briton, a newspaper that severely attacked the king and his Prime Minister.

After one article that appeared on 23rd April 1763, George III and his ministers decided to prosecute Wilkes for seditious libel. He was arrested but at a court hearing the Lord Chief Justice ruled that as an MP, Wilkes was protected by privilege from arrest on a charge of libel. His discharge was greeted with great popular acclaim and Wilkes left the court as a champion of liberty.

Wilkes returned to attacking the king and his government. Samuel Martin, a supporter of George III, challenged Wilkes to a duel. Martin had been busy at target practice that summer and some suspected it was part of a government plot to kill Wilkes. On 16th November, 1763, Wilkes was seriously wounded by Martin by a shot in the stomach. A week later, Parliament voted that a member's privilege from arrest did not extend to the writing and publishing of seditious libels. Before Wilkes could be detained by the authorities, a group of his friends arranged for him to be taken to Paris.

John Wilkes returned to England in 1768 and stood as Radical candidate for Middlesex. After being elected Wilkes was arrested and taken to King's Bench Prison. For the next fortnight a large crowd assembled at St. George's Field, a large open space by the prison. On 10th May, 1768 a crowd of around 15,000 arrived outside the prison. The crowd chanted 'Wilkes and Liberty', 'No Liberty, No King', and 'Damn the King! Damn the Government! Damn the Justices!'. Fearing that the crowd would attempt to rescue Wilkes, the troops opened fire killing seven people. Anger at the Massacre of St. George's Fields led to disturbances all over London.

On 8th June Wilkes was found guilty of libel and sentenced to 22 months imprisonment and fined £1,000. Wilkes was also expelled from the House of Commons but in February, March and April, 1769, he was three times re-elected for Middlesex, but on all three occasions the decision was overturned by Parliament. In May the House of Commons voted that Colonel Henry Luttrell, the defeated candidate at Middlesex, should be accepted as the MP. John Horne Tooke and other supporters of Wilkes formed the Bill of Rights Society. At first the society concentrated on forcing Parliament to accept the will of the Middlesex electorate, however, the organisation eventually adopted a radical programme of parliamentary reform.

John Wilkes by William Hogarth (1763)
John Wilkes by William Hogarth (1763)

John Wilkes was released from prison in April 1770. Still banned from the House of Commons, Wilkes joined the campaign for the freedom of the press. In February, 1771, the House of Commons attempted to prevent several London newspapers from publishing reports of its debates. Wilkes decided to challenge this decision and the government reacted by ordering the arrest of two of his printers. A large crowd soon surrounded the House of Commons and afraid of what would happen, the government ordered the release of the two men and abandoned attempts to prevent the publication of reports of its debates.

In 1774 John Wilkes was elected Lord Mayor of London. He was also elected to represent Middlesex in the House of Commons. Wilkes campaigned for religious toleration and on 21st March, 1776, he introduced the first motion for parliamentary reform. Wilkes called for the redistribution of seats from the small corrupt boroughs to the fast growing industrial areas such as Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield. Although not a supporter of universal suffrage, Wilkes argued that working men should have a share in the power to make laws.

During the American War of Independence Wilkes condemned the Government's policy towards America. Wilkes was also a passionate opponent of the harsh criminal code. As Wilkes grew older he became more conservative. Radicals grew dissatisfied with Wilkes and in the 1790 general election he was defeated at Middlesex. Wilkes now retired from politics and took no part in the growth of radicalism in the 1790s.

John Wilkes died on 29th December 1797.

Primary Sources

(1) John Wilkes, The North Briton (25th April 1763)

The government have sent the spirit of discord through the land, and I will prophesy, that it will never be extinguished, but by the extinction of their power. A nation as sensible as the English, will see that a spirit of concord, when they are oppressed, means a tame submission to injury, and that a spirit of liberty ought then to arise, and I am sure ever will, in proportion to the weight of the grievance they feel.

(2) John Wilkes, speech in the House of Commons (23rd March 1775)

That every free agent in this kingdom should, in my wish, be represented in Parliament. That the metropolis, which contains in itself a ninth part of the people, and the counties of Middlesex, York, and others, which so greatly abound with inhabitants, should receive an increase in their representation. That the mean and insignificant boroughs, so emphatically stiled the rotten part of our constitution, should be lopped off, and the electors in them thrown into the counties; and the rich, populous trading towns, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and others, be permitted to send deputies to the great council of the nation.