John Wilkes

As a focus and spokesman of radical discontent, the English politician John Wilkes (1727-1797) made an important contribution to the movement for parlia mentary reform.

John Wilkes was born on Oct. 17, 1727, at Clerkenwell. He entered Lincoln's Inn in 1742 and studied for two years (1744-1746) at the University of Leiden. In 1747 he married the daughter of a Buckinghamshire squire, a connection which enabled him to become sheriff of the country in 1754-1755 and to enter Parliament as member for Aylesbury in 1757.

On meeting Wilkes in 1762, Edward Gibbon wrote: "I scarcely ever met with a better companion; he has inexhaustible spirits, infinite wit and humour, and a great deal of knowledge; but a thorough profligate in principle as in practice…. He told us himself that in this time of public dissension he was resolved to make his fortune. Upon this noble principle he has connected himself closely with Lord Temple and Mr. Pitt [and] commenced public adversity to Lord Bute, whom he abuses weekly in the North Briton."

Wilkes gained little from pursuit of his "principle." The resignation of his friends William Pitt the Elder and Lord Temple spoiled his chance of obtaining office; and a libel published in the North Briton resulted in his arrest on an illegal general warrant and imprisonment in the Tower. Released on a warrant of habeas corpus, he withdrew to France and in January 1764 was expelled from the Commons. His expulsion and the matter of general warrants were taken up by the opposition as political issues; but Wilkes himself they disowned.

In 1768, impoverished and frustrated, Wilkes decided to return to England. Defeated as parliamentary candidate for London, he was head of the poll for Middlesex. His imprisonment, expulsion from the Commons, and finally the seating of his defeated rival constituted a small price to pay for the popularity which Wilkes now assumed. His debts were settled by public subscription, and a party under his leadership was formed in the City of London. He became the martyr of the London radicals and the idol of the London mob. Yet he showed no sympathy with their economic grievances and took resolute action against them during the Gordon riots. But he did adopt the radical demands of the urban middle class: shorter Parliaments, exclusion of place-men and pensioners from the Commons, parliamentary reform, and pro-Americanism. However, Edmund Burke, James Boswell, and Gibbon all noted the lack of seriousness in Wilkes's political conduct.

In 1774 Wilkes finally secured admittance to the House as member for Middlesex and 5 years later was elected to the lucrative office of chamberlain of the City of London. He never formally discarded his radicalism, but his behavior during the last seven years of his parliamentary career reflected his new respectability. By the time of the 1790 election his popularity in Middlesex had sunk so low that he was forced to decline the poll. He thereupon retired from national politics. Wilkes died at Rouen, France, on Dec. 26, 1797.

Further Reading on John Wilkes

Modern biographies of Wilkes include R. W. Postgate, That Devil Wilkes (1929; rev. ed. 1956); O. A. Sherrard, A Life of John Wilkes (1930); and Charles Chenevix-Trench, Portrait of a Patriot: A Biography of John Wilkes (1962). Two important works set Wilkes in historical context: lan R. Christie, Wilkes, Wyvill and Reform: The Parliamentary Reform Movement in British Politics, 1760-1785 (1962), and George Rudé, Wilkes and Liberty: A Social Study of 1763 to 1774 (1962).

Additional Biography Sources

Kronenberger, Louis, The extraordinary Mr. Wilkes: his life and time, Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1974.

Thomas, Peter David Garner, John Wilkes, a friend of liberty, New York: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Williamson, Audrey, Wilkes, a friend to liberty, New York: Reader's Digest Press: distributed by Dutton, 1974.

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