We read in Gibbon’s Journal under September 23, 1762:
Colonel Wilkes dined with us.... I scarcely ever met with a better companion. He has inexhaustible spirits, infinite wit and humor, and a great deal of knowledge, but is a thorough profligate in principle as in practice. His character is infamous, his life strained with every vice, and his conversation full of blasphemy and bawdy. These morals he glories in—for shame is a weakness he has long since surmounted. He told us himself that in this time of public dissension he was resolved to make his fortune.69
This was the view of a conservative who voted with the government in all his eight years as a member of the House of Commons, and who could not readily sympathize with a confessed and colorful enemy of Parliament and the King. Wilkes, however, would have admitted most of the indictment. He had discarded the ethics as well as the theology of Christianity, and enjoyed flaunting his hedonism in the face of M.P.s who shared his morals but were alarmed by his candor.
John Wilkes was the son of a malt distiller in Clerkenwell, north London. He received a good education at Oxford and Leiden, enough to surprise Johnson with his knowledge of the classics and his “manners of a gentleman.”70 At twenty he married “a lady half as old again as myself,” but “of a large fortune.”71 She was a Dissenter given to a solemn piety; he took to drink and mistresses. About 1757 he joined Sir Francis Dashwood, Bubb Dodington, George Selwyn, the poet Charles Churchill, and the fourth Earl of Sandwich in a “Hell-Fire Club” that met in the old Cistercian Abbey of Medmenham on the banks of the Thames near Marlow. There, as “the Mad Monks of Medmenham,” they caricatured Roman Catholic rites by celebrating a “Black Mass” to Satan, and indulging their profane and Priapean bent.72
Through the influence of his associates, and by the expenditure of £ 7,000, Wilkes was elected M.P. for Aylesbury (1757). He attached himself at first to the elder Pitt, and, after 1760, to the foes of Bute. As Bute was subsidizing Smollett’s journal The Briton,Wilkes, aided by Churchill, began in June, 1762, a counter weekly, The North Briton, which gained a wide readership through the verve and wit of its style, and the virulence of its attacks upon the ministry. In one number he denied at length—i.e., he spread—the rumor that Bute had made a mistress of the King’s mother. In No. 45 (April 23, 1763) he inveighed against Bute for violating England’s agreement with Prussia by concluding a separate peace with France, and for pretending, in a “speech from the throne” presented by the minister in the name of the King, that this treaty had the sanction of Frederick the Great.
This week has given the public the most abandoned instance of ministerial effrontery ever attempted … on mankind. The minister’s speech of last Tuesday is not to be paralleled in the annals of this country. I am in doubt whether the imposition is greater on the sovereign or on the nation. Every friend of his country must lament that a prince of so many great and amiable qualities … can be brought to give the sanction of his sacred name to the most odious measures, and to the most unjustifiable public declarations.... I am sure all foreigners, especially the King of Prussia, will hold the minister in contempt and abhorrence. He had made our sovereign declare: “My expectations have been fully answered by the happy effects which the several allies of my crown have derived from the Definitive Treaty. The powers at war with my good brother the King of Prussia have been induced to agree to such terms of accommodation as that great prince has approved.” The infamous fallacy of this whole sentence is apparent to all mankind, for it is known that the King of Prussia … was basely deserted by the Scottish prime minister of England.... As to the “entire approbation” of Parliament which is so vainly boasted of, the world knows how that was obtained. The large debt on the Civil List … shows pretty clearly the transactions of the winter.73
Though Wilkes had interpreted the “King’s speech” as really Bute’s, George III took the article as a personal affront, and ordered Lords Halifax and Egremont, then secretaries of state, to arrest all persons involved in the publication of The North Briton’s No. 45. They issued a general warrant—i.e., one not naming the persons to be apprehended; and on its vague terms forty-nine persons were imprisoned, including Wilkes (April 30, 1763), despite his claim of immunity as a member of Parliament. Williams, printer of the journal, was put in the pillory, but a crowd cheered him as a martyr and raised £ 200 for his relief. Wilkes applied to the Court of Common Pleas for a writ of habeas corpus, obtained it, argued his case, and won from Chief Justice Charles Pratt (a friend of Pitt) an order for his release on the ground that his arrest violated parliamentary privilege. Wilkes sued Halifax and others for illegal arrest and property injury, and obtained £ 5,000 in damages. Pratt’s condemnation of general warrants ended an abuse almost as obnoxious to Britons as lettres de cachet to the French.
Tempting fate, Wilkes collaborated with Thomas Potter (son of the Archbishop of Canterbury) in composing an Essay on Woman as a poetic parody of Pope’s Essay on Man. It was a medley of obscenity and blasphemy, equipped with learned notes in the same key, ascribed to Bishop William Warburton, who had added notes to Pope’s poem. The little piece was printed by Wilkes’s press in his own home; it was not published, but thirteen copies were struck off for a few friends. The King’s ministers secured the proof sheets, and persuaded the Earl of Sandwich to read them to the House of Lords. The Earl did (November 15), to the amusement of the peers, who knew his reputation for profligacy. Walpole tells us that they “could not keep their countenance”74 as Sandwich proceeded, but they agreed that the poem was “a scandalous, obscene, and impious libel,” and asked the King to prosecute Wilkes for blasphemy. When Sandwich told Wilkes that he would die either on the gallows or from venereal disease, Wilkes answered, “That depends, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”75
On that same November 15 Wilkes rose in the Commons to enter a complaint of breach of privilege in his arrest. He was voted down, and Parliament ordered the hangman to publicly burn No. 45 of The North Briton. On the seventeenth Samuel Martin, who had been abused in that issue, challenged Wilkes to a duel. They met in Hyde Park; Wilkes was seriously wounded, and was bedded for a month. The people of London condemned Martin as a hired assassin; they rioted when the hangman tried to burn No. 45; “Wilkes and liberty!” and “Number Forty-five” became watchwords of a rising popular rebellion against both King and Parliament.76 After a frenzied Scot tried to kill him, Wilkes left for France (December 26). On January 19, 1764, he was formally expelled from Parliament. On February 21 he was judged guilty, in the Court of King’s Bench, for reprinting No. 45 and for printing the Essay on Woman; he was summoned to appear for sentencing; he did not come, and on November 1 he was declared an outlaw.
For four years Wilkes wandered in France and Italy, fearing life imprisonment if he returned to England. In Rome he saw much of Winckelmann; in Naples he met Boswell, who found him interesting company. “His lively and energetic sallies on moral questions gave to my spirits a not unpleasant agitation.”77 On the way back to Paris Wilkes visited Voltaire at Ferney, and charmed the wittiest man in Europe with his wit.
The return of the liberals to power under Rockingham and Grafton led Wilkes to hope for a pardon. He received private assurances that he would not be molested if he remained quiet. He returned to England (1768), and announced his candidacy for Parliament from London. Losing that contest, he sought election from Middlesex, and received a substantial plurality after a riotous campaign; that county, largely urbanized (it now includes northwest London), was known for its radical leanings and its hostility to the rising capitalism. On April 20 Wilkes submitted to the court, expecting to have his sentence of outlawry annulled; it was, but he was condemned to a fine of £ 1,000 and imprisonment for twenty-two months. An angry crowd rescued him from the officers and bore him in triumph through the streets of London. Having escaped from his admirers, he gave himself up to jail in St. George’s Fields. A mob assembled there on May 10 and proposed to free him again. Soldiers fired upon the rioters; five were killed, fifteen wounded.
On February 4, 1769, the House of Commons again expelled him; Middlesex again elected him (February 16); he was again expelled; Middlesex again elected him (April 13), this time by a vote of 1,143 to 296 for Henry Luttrell; Parliament gave the seat to Luttrell on the ground that Wilkes, having been expelled from Parliament, was legally disqualified during the tenure of that Parliament. Luttrell was attacked as he left the House; he did not dare appear on the streets.78 Seventeen counties and many boroughs sent up addresses to the throne, complaining that the rights of freeholders to choose their representatives in the House of Commons had been flagrantly violated. The King, who had vigorously supported the expulsions, ignored the petitions, whereupon one member, Colonel Isaac Barré, said in Parliament that disregard of petitions “might teach the people to think of assassination.”79* John Home Tooke, a young parson who had surrendered his faith to the charm of Voltaire, unfrocked himself and declared, after the repeated disbarments of Wilkes, that he would dye his (ministerial) black coat red.
Tooke led in organizing the Society of Supporters of the Bill of Rights (1769), whose immediate purpose was to free Wilkes from jail, pay his debts, and restore him to Parliament. In public meetings it agitated for the dissolution of the current Parliament as irreclaimably corrupt, and as unresponsive to the general will; it called for annual Parliaments elected by universal adult male suffrage, and for the responsibility of ministries to Parliament in their policies and expenditures.80 Every candidate for Parliament should take oath never to accept any form of bribe, nor any post or pension or other emolument from the Crown; and every member must defend the views of his constituents even if contrary to his own. The grievances of Ireland should be redressed, and the American colonies should alone have the right to tax their people.81
In July, 1769, William Beckford, as lord mayor of London, and the city’s “livery,” or uniformed officials, presented to the King an address censuring the conduct of his ministers as subverting the constitution on which the house of Hanover had been given the throne of England. On March 14, 1770, they sent up to the King a remonstrance that used the language of revolution: “Under the secret and malign influence which, through each successive administration, has defeated every good and suggested every bad intention, the majority of the House of Commons have deprived your people of their dearest rights. They have done a deed more ruinous in its consequences than the levying of ship money by Charles I, or the pensioning power assumed by James II.”82 It appealed to the King to restore “constitutional government, … remove those evil ministers forever from your councils,”83 and dissolve the present Parliament. The infuriated monarch, laying his hand on his sword, exclaimed, “Sooner than yield to a dissolution, I will have recourse to this.”84 London, rather than Paris, seemed near to revolution in 1770.
Into this fiery vortex of politics “Junius” dropped the most incendiary letters in the history of England. He kept his identity so secret, even from his publishers, that to this day no one knows who he was, though most guesses name Sir Philip Francis, whom we shall meet as the unrelenting foe of Warren Hastings. The author had already signed some letters “Lucius,” some “Brutus”; now he took the middle name of that Lucius Junius Brutus who, according to Livy, had deposed a king (c. 510 B.C.) and founded the Roman Republic. The virile command of English in these letters indicates that “Junius“ had the education, if not the manners, of a gentleman. He was probably a man of means, for he took no money for the letters, whose force and sting profitably enlarged the circulation ofThe Public Advertiser, in which they appeared from November 21, 1768, to January 21, 1772.
In a “Dedication to the English Nation,” which he prefixed to the collected Letters of Junius (1772), the author proclaimed his purpose to “assert the freedom of election, and vindicate your exclusive right to choose your representatives.” He took as his starting point the repeated disbarment of Wilkes, and the arrest, by a general warrant, of everybody connected with The North Briton’s No. 45. “The liberty of the press is the Palladium of all the civil, political, and religious rights of an Englishman; and the right of juries … is an essential part of our constitution.” From this standpoint the author reviewed the foundations of the British government. “The power of the King, Lords, and Commons is not an arbitrary power. They are the trustees, not the owners, of the estate. The fee simple is in us.… I am persuaded you will not leave it to the choice of seven hundred persons, notoriously corrupted by the Crown, whether seven million of their equals shall be freemen or slaves.”85
Junius proceeded to charge the administration of Grafton (1768-70) with selling offices and corrupting Parliament by favors and bribes. Here the attack became direct, and rose to such heat as to suggest a resolve to avenge some personal injury or affront.
Come forward, thou virtuous minister, and tell the world by what interest Mr. Hine has been recommended to so extraordinary a mark of his Majesty’s favor; what was the price of the patent he has bought? … You are basely setting up the royal patronage to auction. … Do you think it possible such enormities should escape without impeachment? It is indeed highly your interest to maintain the present House of Commons. Having sold the nation in gross, they will undoubtedly protect you in the detail, for while they patronize your crimes, they feel for their own.86
The attack continued long after Grafton had resigned, as in the letter of June 22, 1771:
I cannot, with any decent appearance of propriety, call you the meanest and the basest fellow in the Kingdom. I protest, my Lord, I do not think you so. You will have a dangerous rival in that kind of fame … as long as there is one man living who thinks you worthy of his confidence, and fit to be trusted with any share in his government.
This seemed to name George III himself as “the basest fellow in the Kingdom.” Already, in Letter xxxv, Junius had proposed to attack the King “with dignity and firmness, but not with respect”: “Sir, it is the misfortune of your life … that you should never have been acquainted with the language of truth until you heard it in the complaints of your people. It is not, however, too late to correct the error of your education.” Junius advised George to dismiss his Tory ministers, and to allow Wilkes to hold the seat to which he had been elected. “The Prince, while he plumes himself upon the security of his title to the crown, should remember that as it was acquired by one revolution, it may be lost by another.”87
Henry Woodfall, who published this letter in The Public Advertiser, was arrested on a charge of seditious libel. The jury, reflecting the feelings of the middle class, refused to convict him, and he was released on payment of costs. Junius had now reached the apex of his temerity and power. But the King stood his ground, and strengthened his position by giving the chief ministry to the amiable and immovable Lord North. Junius continued his letters till 1772, and then left the field. We note that in 1772 Sir Philip Francis left the War Office (of whose affairs Junius had shown intimate knowledge), and departed for India.
The letters belong to the literary as well as the political history of England, for they are a living example of the style to which many British statesmen could rise, or stoop, when passion inflamed—and anonymity protected—them. Here is sterling English alloyed with abuse, but the abuse itself is often a masterpiece of subtle thrust or piercing epigram. There is no mercy here, no generosity, no thought that the accuser’s own party shared in sin and guilt with the accused. We sympathize with Sir William Draper, who, answering Junius’ letter of January 21, 1769, wrote: “The kingdom swarms with such numbers of felonious robbers of private character and virtue that no honest man is safe, especially as these cowardly base assassins stab in the dark, without having the courage to sign their real names to their malevolent, wicked productions.”88
The passage of the British press to ever greater freedom and influence was marked by another conflict in these years. Toward 1768 some newspapers began to print reports of the major speeches delivered in Parliament. Most of these reports were partisan and inaccurate, some were imaginary, some were scurrilous. In February, 1771, Colonel George Onslow complained to the House of Commons that a journal had referred to him as “the little scoundrel” and “that paltry insignificant insect.” On March 12 the House ordered the arrest of the printers. They resisted, arrested their would-be captors, and brought them before two aldermen (one of whom was Wilkes) and the Lord Mayor, Brass Crosby. The latter voided the attempted apprehension of the printers on the ground that the charters of the city forbade the arrest of a Londoner except on warrant issued by a city magistrate. The Lord Mayor was committed to the Tower by order of Parliament, but the populace rose in his support, attacked the carriages of M.P.s, threatened the ministers, hissed the King, and invaded the House of Commons. The Lord Mayor was released, and was acclaimed by an immense crowd. Newspapers resumed their reports of parliamentary debates; Parliament ceased to prosecute the printers. In 1774 Luke Hansard, with the consent of Parliament, began to publish with promptness and accuracy the Journals of the House of Commons, and he continued these till his death in 1828.
This historic victory of the British press affected the character of parliamentary debates, and contributed to make the second half of the eighteenth century the golden age of English eloquence. Orators became more cautious, perhaps more dramatic, when they felt that they were being heard throughout the British Isles. Some advance toward democracy was inevitable now that political information and intelligence were more widely spread. The business class, the intellectual community, and the rising radicals found in the press a voice that became increasingly bold and effective, until it subdued monarchy itself. Electors could know now how well their representatives had defended them and their interests in the making and unmaking of laws. Corruption continued, but diminished, for it could be more openly exposed. The press became a third force that could sometimes hold the balance between classes in the nation or parties in Parliament. Men who could buy or control newspapers became as powerful as ministers.
The new freedom, like most liberties, was frequently abused. Sometimes it became the instrument of aims more selfish and partisan, of opposition coarser and more violent, than any that had appeared in Parliament; then it deserved the name that Chatham gave it—“a chartered libertine.”89 In its turn it had to be chastened by a fourth voice, public opinion, of which, however, the press was partly the source, often the seducer, sometimes the voice. Armed with broader knowledge, untitled men and women began to speak out on the policies and methods of the government; they gathered in public meetings, and their debates occasionally rivaled those of Parliament in influence on history. Now money as well as birth could claim the right to rule; and occasionally, between the combatants, the people would be heard.
Wilkes was released from jail on April 17, 1770. Many houses were illuminated as for a festival, and the Lord Mayor displayed before his Mansion House a sign bearing the word LIBERTY in letters three feet high.90 Soon Wilkes was elected alderman, then lord mayor, and in 1774 he was again sent to Parliament by Middlesex. Now the Commons did not dare refuse him his seat, and he kept it through all elections till 1790. He led a small group of “radicals” in Parliament, who urged parliamentary reform and the enfranchisement of the “lower orders.”
Every free agent in this kingdom should, in my wish, be represented in Parliament. The mean and insignificant boroughs, so emphatically styled the rotten part of our constitution, should be lopped off, and the rich, populous trading towns—Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, and others—be permitted to send deputies to the great council of the nation.... I wish, Sir, an English Parliament to speak the free, unbiased sense of the body’of the English people.91
Parliament waited fifty-six years to accept these reforms.
Wilkes refused to stand for re-election in 1790, and retired into private life. He died in 1797, aged seventy, as poor as he was born, for he had been scrupulously honest in all his offices.92