John Wilkes: A friend to liberty?

John Wilkes medal by unknown artist, 1768. (C) National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 1702
John Wilkes medal by unknown artist, 1768. (C) National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 1702

Last week Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow on the Lords 1660-1832 project gave a lecture in Parliament on ‘John Wilkes: A friend to liberty?’. Dr Eagles’s lecture is part of a programme to mark the 250th anniversary of Wilkes’ expulsion from the House of Commons for seditious libel, and was accompanied by an exhibition on Wilkes using materials from the Parliamentary Collections.

Dr Eagles’s lecture was both entertaining (with many wonderful stories about a man often described as a ‘rake’), but also an informative journey through Wilkes’ life and ambiguous legacy. Running throughout the lecture was an assessment of Wilkes’ relationship to the cause he was most associated with: liberty. He has been portrayed as its champion, but also as a dangerous rabble-rouser, or simply a hypocrite whose actions rarely followed his lofty words.

Dr Eagles turned to Wilkes’ life to try to make sense of these contradictions. A charming, witty son of a merchant, Wilkes’ mother spotted his flair and established him as a gentleman. He soon gained some ‘gentlemanly’ habits – at least those that featured drinking, women, fashion and profligate spending. Having decided on a career as an MP it took him two expensive contests (running into huge debts despite standing on ‘anti-corruption’ platforms) before he was elected for Aylesbury in 1757.

Soon Wilkes was frustrated and deeply in debt. He turned to journalism for the sake of his finances and politics. The paper he helped establish, the ‘North Briton’ was extremely critical of the Earl of Bute’s government and policies. The infamous ‘Number 45’, in which he directly attacked George III for the Treaty of Paris (see our blog ‘The Treaty of Paris…’), as well as the (misleading) suggestion that he penned the pornographic Essay on a Woman, led to his expulsion from the Commons and exile in France.

The period 1768-77, Dr Eagles argued, demonstrated Wilkes’ greatest claim to stand for the cause of liberty. On his return home (this time he had to escape French debtors), Wilkes again stood for Parliament. Despite winning several contests for Middlesex, the Commons continually refused to acknowledge his election. During this period he faced his charges for seditious libel; he was sentenced to 22 months in prison. It then proved difficult to imprison him: his sentencing led to riots (and unfortunately the ‘Massacre of St George’s Fields’), Wilkes eventually had to smuggle himself in to prison. By this time he was a national celebrity, and when he left prison in 1770 he did so at the head of a movement. Wilkes was eventually able to return to Parliament. Prior to that, he entered politics in the City of London, becoming an Alderman and later Lord Mayor. He used this position to make his greatest impact on the cause of liberty. By using the privileges of the city to protect those who published parliamentary debates from arrest, his actions paved the way for the publication of parliamentary proceedings by the likes of Cobbett and (ultimately) of Hansard.

In later life Wilkes’ became considerably less radical. He even led a detachment of militia to defend the Bank of England during the Gordon Riots. Yet Dr Eagles argued that despite his contradictions, he consistently pushed the cause of reform. In Parliament in 1776 he called for a wider electorate and an end to rotten boroughs. His actions may have been ambiguous but he did inspire a movement. Perhaps his life is best expressed by his comment about John Glynn, his fellow MP for Middlesex: ‘In fact, Sir, he was a Wilkite, which I never was’.


For more on Wilkes, see our biography.

And for more from the Parliamentary collections on Wilkes, see their website.

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