On 23 April 1763, John Wilkes published his famous ‘North Briton No.45’, attacking George III and his Prime Minister, the Earl of Bute. Dr Robin Eagles tells us more…
George III came to the throne in 1760 determined to bring to fruition plans for a fundamental change in the political balance of power within Britain. Emulating the programme of his father’s opposition court based at Leicester House, the new king wished to bring to an end what he perceived to be the corruption and divisiveness of factional politics centred on the various Whig groupings. To this end he turned to John Stuart, 3rd earl of Bute (pronounced Boot): a member of his household who had become close to his mother, Princess Augusta. Under Bute’s guidance George sought an end to the popular if expensive war then being waged against an alliance including France and Spain, and which had dominated affairs since 1756. Early in 1763 the war was brought to a conclusion with the treaty of Paris.
Although many welcomed the cessation of hostilities, there was much about the peace that was resented. The Seven Years’ War had been a successful one for Britain. It had seen the overturning of a number of the reverses of the War of the Austrian Succession (1739-48) and reached its peak in 1759 “the Year of Victories”. British commanders such as James Wolfe and Robert Clive went on to become household names while imperial gains in America and India attracted the support of the mercantile community. Ending the war, thus, unsurprisingly attracted quite as much criticism as it did celebration.
One of the most forthright critics of George’s administrations was the colourful Whig politician, John Wilkes. Wilkes had come into politics initially as an adherent of the Temple faction and a friend of Thomas Potter, a member of the household of the dowager Princess of Wales. Disappointed in his ambitions to secure colonial office, Wilkes had turned to journalism to make his mark. In 1762 in partnership with Charles Churchill he launched an anti-ministerial paper entitled the North Briton – a none-too subtle jibe at Bute’s Scottishness and obvious counterfoil to the pro-ministry paper The Briton, edited by the novelist, Tobias Smollett. For Wilkes, Bute was an easy target. Scots peers were frequently teased for their relative poverty and were often regarded as stooges of the administration. Bute’s surname, Stuart, also conjured up the spectre of Jacobitism.
The catalyst for Wilkes’ dramatic fall from grace was the king’s speech at the close of Parliament in April 1763, in which he lauded the new peace treaty. On 23 April, Wilkes published his response in Number 45 of the North Briton. He lambasted Bute as usual, but then went a step further by obliquely casting aspersions on George himself.
The result was a dramatic brouhaha with Wilkes and his associates arrested for the publication of a seditious libel. Wilkes responded by claiming parliamentary privilege and secured his release on the order of Lord Chief Justice Pratt. Pratt and his fellow judges ruled that as libel did not constitute a breach of the peace, Wilkes’ privilege could not be laid aside. In reaching their verdict, the judges made reference to the infamous case of the Seven Bishops in 1688. [For more, see The Eighteenth Century Constitution: documents and commentary, ed. E.N. Williams, p. 233]
The immediate consequence of Wilkes’s release was a noisy demonstration in his favour amid cries of Wilkes and Liberty: a slogan that would remain a popular rallying call for years to come. Unsurprisingly, the administration did not let the matter rest. On 15 November, the Commons took the case into consideration and eventually resolved that North Briton No. 45 should be condemned as a ‘false, scandalous, and seditious libel’ to be burnt by the common hangman. On 24 November, it was resolved in the Commons 258 to 133 that parliamentary privilege did not extend to the publication of seditious libels and five days later the Lords voted to concur with the Commons’ decision, though 17 peers registered a written protest.[i] On 19 January 1764 Wilkes was expelled from the Commons. Stripped of all his available defences, Wilkes was tried both for his role in publishing the North Briton and for blasphemy and pornography over his hand in the composition of An Essay on Woman: an obscene parody of Pope’s poem, An Essay on Man, the majority of which was probably the work of Thomas Potter (by then safely dead).
By then, though, Wilkes had taken advantage of the delays in his case to abscond to France. He remained there for the next four years. He was condemned in his absence and it was not until the spring of 1768 that he finally presented himself to the authorities to serve out his sentence. The next chapter of Wilkes and Liberty, his campaign to be returned for Parliament once more, and his efforts to secure freedom of the press are subjects for future posts.
[i] Lords Journal xxx. 429: Temple; Bolton; Grafton; Cornwallis; Portland; Bristol; Devonshire; Scarbrough; Dacre; Abergavenny; Frederick Cornwallis, Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry; Ashburnham; Fortescue; Grantham; Walpole; Ponsonby; Folkestone