Academic journal article Journalism History

John Wilkes, the Wilkite Movement and a Free Press in America

Academic journal article Journalism History

John Wilkes, the Wilkite Movement and a Free Press in America

Article excerpt

Do the citizens of the United States owe a debt of gratitude to John Wilkes for the specific protection afforded to the press found in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution?1 Very recently, in the pages of this journal, Roger P. Mellen made that precise claim, arguing that "Wilkes was critically important to the development of freedom of the press as a constitutional right in the United States."2 Mellen finds a "direct connection" between Wilkes and the First Amendment right to a free press and contends that historians have failed to appreciate Wilkes's role in the development of the ideal of liberty of the press in the United States.3 Wilkes is well known to historians as a public figure in mid-eighteenth century English politics. As a member of Parliament, rake, licentious scalawag, and one of the most effective political writers of his time, his influence on the understanding of the Framers concerning the role of a free press in a democratic society is nevertheless open to question.

Wilkes's political and legal travails in England, arising from his anonymous publication of the forty-fifth number of his antigovernment weekly The North Briton, catapulted him to instant stardom in England as the defender of "English liberties." For some time historians have acknowledged that Wilkes's treatment at the hands of King George III s ministers in England made him a popular and influential figure in the colonies, where Wilkes's every move was catalogued in the colonial press.4 According to Pauline Maier, Wilkes was the quintessential "son of liberty" viewed by the colonists as the proponent of various constitutional principles they already held dear.5 To many in America it seemed that Wilkes's battles against King George's ministers in England, particularly regarding the Middlesex election of 1768, raised some of the same issues being contested in the American colonies.6

Professor Mellen characterizes Wilkes's legal difficulties as an "important battle over freedom of the press."7 Central to this contention is his claim that Wilkes's legal battles amounted to an assault on the substantive law of seditious libel as it existed in England at the time. Mellen asserts that Wilkes was so successful in attacking the validity of that law that his efforts "convinced the British government that enforcing criminal libel laws was too difficult."8 However, there is a good deal of recent scholarship that suggests otherwise.9

Furthermore, Wilkes never chose the law of seditious libel as the battleground for his various challenges to the policies of George's ministers. Instead, Wilkes challenged the government's actions against him on more traditional legal grounds including the well-established right to be free from arbitrary arrest and the equally well-settled principle that members of Parliament were generally privileged from criminal prosecutions. His attorneys, most notably Serjeant John Glynn and John Dunning (later Solicitor General and Baron Ashburton), enlarged those claims to include legal arguments that: (1) individuals enjoyed the right to be free from intrusive searches by government officials; and (2) individuals should be protected from government attempts to seize a suspect's private papers in the hopes of obtaining incriminating evidence against that person.10 These associates of Wilkes (hereinafter "the Wilkites"), and others, eventually did challenge various aspects of the law of seditious libel but these men were more concerned with the way in which the law, as applied in the crown courts, acted to diminish the power of grand and petit juries. Wilkes, however, did not publicly join in that crusade. Thus, while Wilkes's prosecution by King George Ill's ministers certainly created the opportunity for an extended dialogue concerning the law of seditious libel in England, Wilkes himself contributed little of substance to that dialogue. It is important, therefore, to distinguish between John Wilkes individually and those who were animated in their opposition to government by Wilkes's example. …

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