John Wilkes

John Wilkes, 1727–97, English politician and journalist. He studied at the Univ. of Leiden, returned to England in 1746, and purchased (1757) a seat in Parliament. Backed by Earl Temple, Wilkes founded (1762) a periodical, the North Briton, in which he made outspoken attacks on George III and his ministers. In the famous issue No. 45 (1763), Wilkes went so far as to criticize the speech from the throne. He was immediately arrested on the basis of a general warrant (one that did not specify who was to be arrested), but his arrest was adjudged a breach of parliamentary privilege by Chief Justice Charles Pratt, who later ruled also that general warrants were illegal. The government then secured Wilkes's expulsion from Parliament on the grounds of seditious libel and obscenity (Wilkes was notoriously dissolute and the author of an obscene parody of Alexander Pope's Essay on Man, which was used against him).

Wilkes fled (1764) to Paris and was convicted of seditious libel in his absence. He returned in 1768 and was repeatedly elected to Parliament from Middlesex, but each time he was denied his seat by the king's party. The issue, in the eyes of the angry populace, became a case of royal manipulation of parliamentary privilege against Wilkes to restrain the people's right to elect their own representatives. Wilkes was supported by Edmund Burke and the unknown writer Junius, but he was not seated. After 22 months in prison for his libel conviction, he was elected sheriff of London (1771) and lord mayor (1774). In 1774 he was again elected and this time allowed to take his seat in Parliament, where he championed the liberties of the American colonies and fought for parliamentary reform. He lost popular favor for his vigorous action as chamberlain of London in suppressing the Gordon riots (1780). Although a demagogue, Wilkes was a champion of freedom of the press and the rights of the electorate.

See biographies by O. A. Sherrard (1930, repr. 1972), C. P. Chenevix Trench (1962), L. Kronenberger (1974), A. H. Cash (2006), and J. Sainsbury (2006); I. R. Christie, Wilkes, Wyvill and Reform (1962); G. F. E. Rudé, Wilkes and Liberty (1962).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

John Wilkes: Selected full-text books and articles

John Wilkes: A Friend to Liberty By Peter D. G. Thomas Clarendon Press, 1996
English Radicals and the American Revolution By Colin Bonwick University of North Carolina Press, 1977
British Friends of the American Revolution By Jerome R. Reich M.E Sharpe, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Birds of a Feather: John Wilkes and John Horne Tooke"
George III: A Personal History By Christopher Hibbert Basic Books, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 14 "John Wilkes" and Chap. 16 "John Wilkes Returns"
Lord Chatham and America By O. A. Sherrard Bodley Head, 1958
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "The Wilkes Affair"
Pitt Versus Fox: Father & Son, 1735-1806 By Erich Eyck; Eric Northcott George Bell & Sons, 1950
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "Grenville, Wilkes And The Stamp Act"
The Second Tory Party, 1714-1832 By Keith Grahame Feiling MacMillan, 1938
The Gazetteer, 1735-1797: A Study in the Eighteenth-Century English Newspaper By Robert L. Haig Southern Illinois University Press, 1960
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "The Printer Proclaimed: February-March 1771"
Eighteenth Century England By Dorothy Marshall D. McKay Co., 1962
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