John Wilkes was well known for treading a fine line in his outspoken comments against the government, but in 1763 Parliament decided he had gone too far. Here Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our House of Lords 1715-1790 project, reflects on the case Parliament built against him and how they finally expelled Wilkes from the Chamber…
On 19 November 1763 Colonel Bate, reporting affairs in Parliament to the earl of Moira, observed John Wilkes to be ‘in a fine pickle’. He had both Lords and Commons on his back ‘and a shot in his belly’ following his ill-advised duel with fellow MP Samuel Martin three days before. [PRONI, D2924] The opening of the new parliamentary session on the 15th had seen Wilkes under fire in the Commons for North Briton number 45. The Lords, meanwhile, had been subjected to a lengthy address by the earl of Sandwich over Wilkes’s printing of the pornographic Essay on Woman. Wilkes’s foolish decision to attribute the lengthy, pompous annotations to William Warburton, bishop of Gloucester, had provided the ministry with an opportunity to prosecute him for breach of privilege against a member of the Lords. The pincer movement had taken Wilkes by surprise: his allies had struggled to contain their own annoyance with him, and by the close of proceedings on the 15th (truly early on the morning of the 16th) he had been in such desperate straits that Bishop Warburton assessed his challenge to Martin to be tantamount to a suicide attempt.
The events of autumn 1763 to the opening of 1764 had been long in gestation. Ever since Wilkes had launched the North Briton as an outspoken organ of the opposition, he had trod a fine line. He finally overstepped this in April 1763 with his publication of Number 45, which had resulted in his imprisonment in the Tower. Released on the orders of Lord Chief Justice Pratt, Wilkes had continued to make a nuisance of himself, leading the ministry to seek to silence him once and for all. By the end of October, William Strahan, a clerk in the Commons, was able to advise Ralph Allen of Bath that ‘the audacious Wilkes, it is thought, will be forthwith expelled’.
Wilkes spent over a month recovering from his injury before heading to France for further recuperation and to spend the Christmas period with his daughter, Polly. While he lay on his sickbed, Parliament had resolved that authors of seditious libels were not entitled to privilege, thereby disabling the argument employed by Pratt. Even Pitt the Elder, one of his allies, had decried him as:
a Blasphemer of his God, a Reviler of his King, and one who had endeavoured to subvert the Constitution of his CountryPeach, 194
John Brooke characterized Wilkes’s decision to travel abroad at this point as a ‘tactical mistake’ as it removed Wilkes from London at precisely the moment when he ought to have been marshalling his defence. Wilkes’s physicians had counselled similarly on the grounds that he would not be well enough to return from Paris. [Thomas, 49] Consequently, he was still out of the country when he was sent a summons to be present in the Commons on 19 January when the case against him would come on.
There is every suggestion that Wilkes had intended to return in time to face the music, but that his condition worsened in early January forcing him to change his plans. On 9 January he was still writing to assure his ally, George Onslow, that everything was in place for his return journey:
I have ordered my post-chaise for Friday morning at four, and hope to embark on SundayThomas, 48
Within days, though, the case had altered, prompting him to write to the Speaker (Sir John Cust) pleading his ongoing health issues as an excuse for his failure to attend. On Thursday the 19th, the Commons Journal recorded the Speaker informing the House that he had received a letter from Wilkes dated the 11th ‘inclosing a Paper in the French Language, purporting to be a Certificate of One of the French King’s Physicians, and of a Surgeon of the said King’s Army.’ Wilkes’s letter and the doctors’ account were both read out and then Wilkes’s English doctors heard at the bar. A motion was then put for the business to be adjourned to the next day, which was rejected 102 votes to 239, after which the House resolved by 275 to just 70 to proceed with the case against him. [CJ xxix. 721-2]
It was thus, in Wilkes’s absence that the House of Commons went on to consider the charges against him of seditious libel as author and publisher of the North Briton. Witnesses were heard at the bar, including one of Wilkes’s former employees, Michael Curry. Curry had been key to the ministry’s prosecution in providing copies of the Essay on Woman for the Lords. Now, for the Commons, he provided critical information about Wilkes’s involvement in the authorship and reprinting of the North Briton. Once all the evidence had been heard, Lord North (the future prime minister) proposed two motions. One, that Wilkes was the author and publisher of a ‘false, scandalous and seditious libel’; two, that Wilkes should be expelled from being a Member of Parliament. Early in the morning of 20 January the Commons voted in favour of both motions, thereby ejecting Wilkes from Parliament.
Wilkes had been badly served by those on his side of the question in the debates. Some of his closest former associates, notably Pitt, had chosen not to appear to defend him. Pitt had been disgusted by the revelations about the Essay on Woman, and the two men never truly reconciled. As for Wilkes, himself, he did not take his expulsion lying down. In October he published A Letter to the Worthy Electors of the Borough of Aylesbury in the County of Buckinghamshire, responding to the allegations against him. After all, one of the lesser noticed consequences of his removal from Parliament was the need for the people of Aylesbury to find themselves a new MP.
The Letter opened with an offer of thanks to his former constituents for:
The very honourable, unanimous, and repeated marks of esteem, you conferred on me, by committing to my trust your liberty, safety, property, and all those glorious privileges which are your birthright as Englishmen…Letter to the Worthy Electors of Aylesbury
Referring to himself as ‘your deputy to the great council of the nation’, Wilkes then proceeded to address, point by point, the case against him, both over the North Briton and the Essay on Woman. He was unable to resist, towards the end, falling into invective against those he considered his chief foes. William Murray, Lord Mansfield was dubbed his ‘personal enemy’, while particular opprobrium reserved for the earl of Bute:
A Stuart only could make the refinement in tyranny, of ransacking and robbing the recesses of closets and studies, in order to convert private amusements into state crimes…Letter to the Worthy Electors of Aylesbury
Of course, all of this was to little purpose. On 25 January, just five days after his expulsion, Wilkes had been replaced at Aylesbury by Anthony Bacon. For all Wilkes’s hyperbole about the electors of Aylesbury, their new MP could not have been more different to the ‘friend of liberty’. Bacon was an American by birth, a government contractor and a dealer in slaves. Having paid heavily to secure the place, Bacon would remain one of the borough’s MPs for the next 20 years.
REM Peach, The Life and Times of Ralph Allen of Prior Park (1895)
PDG Thomas, John Wilkes: A Friend to Liberty (Oxford, 1996)
PRONI, Rawdon Papers, D2924
John Wilkes, A Letter to the Worthy Electors of the Borough of Aylesbury in the County of Buckinghamshire (1764)