1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Wilkes, John
WILKES, JOHN (1727-1797), English politician, descended from a family long connected with Leighton-Buzzard in Bedfordshire, was born at Clerkenwell, London, on the 17th of October 1727, being the second son of Israel Wilkes, a rich distiller, and the owner, through his wife Sarah, daughter of John Heaton of Hoxton, of considerable house property in its north-eastern suburbs. After some training under private tuition John Wilkes was sent to the university of Leyden, matriculating there on the 8th of September 1744. Several young men of talent from Scotland and England were studying in this Dutch university at that period, and a lively picture of their life, in which Wilkes displays the gaiety of temper which remained faithful to him all his days, is presented to us by Alexander Carlyle (Autobiog., 1860, ed. J. H. Burton). With this training he acquired an intimate knowledge of classical literature, and he enlarged his mind by travelling through Holland, Flanders and part of Germany. At the close of 1748 he returned to his native land, and in a few months (October 1749) was drawn by his relations into marrying Mary, sole daughter and heiress of John Mead, citizen and grocer of London, who was ten years his senior. The ill-assorted pair—for she was grave and staid, while he rioted in exuberant spirits and love of society—lived together at Aylesbury for some months, when, to make matters worse, they returned to town to dwell with the wife's mother. One child, a daughter, was born to them (5th of August 1750), and then Wilkes left his wife and removed to Westminster, where he kept open house for many young men about town possessing more wit than morals. In 1754 he contested the constituency of Berwick-upon-Tweed, but failed to gain the seat.
Wilkes was now a well-known figure in the life of the west end, and among his associates were Thomas Potter, the son of the archbishop of Canterbury, Sir Francis Dashwood, afterwards Lord le Despencer, and Lord Sandwich, the last of whom in after years showed great animosity towards his old companion in revelry. In July 1757, by a triangular arrangement in which Potter and the first William Pitt played the other parts, Wilkes was elected for Aylesbury, and for this constituency he was again returned at the general election in March 1761. Pitt was his leader in politics; but to Pitt he applied in vain for a seat at the Board of Trade, nor was he successful in his application for the post of ambassador at Constantinople, or for that of governor of Quebec. As he attributed these failures to the opposition of Lord Bute, he established a paper called the North Briton (June 1762), in which he from the first attacked the Scotch prime minister with exceeding bitterness, and grew bolder as it proceeded in its course. One of its articles ridiculed Lord Talbot, the steward of the royal household, and a duel was the result. When Bute resigned, the issue of the journal was suspended; but, when the royal speech framed by George Grenville's ministry showed that the change was one of men only, not of measures, a supplementary number, No. 45, was published, 23rd of April 1763, containing a caustic criticism of the king's message to his parliament. Lord Halifax, the leading secretary of state, issued a general warrant “to search for authors, printers and publishers,” and to bring them before him for examination. Charles Churchill, the poet and a coadjutor in this newspaper enterprise, escaped through the good offices of Wilkes; but the chief offender was arrested and thrown into the Tower (30th of April 1763). A week later, however, he was released by order of the Court of Common Pleas on the ground that his privilege as a member of parliament afforded him immunity from arrest. General warrants were afterwards declared illegal, and Halifax himself, after a series of discreditable shifts, was cast in heavy sums, on actions brought against him by the persons whom he had injured—the total expenses incurred by the ministry in these lawless proceedings amounting to at least £100,000. So far Wilkes had triumphed over his enemies, but he gave them cause for rejoicing by an indiscreet reprint of the obnoxious No. 45, and by striking off at his private press thirteen copies of an obscene Essay on Woman, written by his friend Potter, in parody of Pope's Essay on Man, one of which got into the hands of Lord Sandwich. Immediately on the meeting of the House of Commons (15th of November 1763) proceedings were taken against him. Lord North moved that No. 45 was “a false, scandalous and seditious libel,” and the paper was publicly burnt in Cheapside on the 4th of December. The Essay on Woman was on the same day brought before the Upper House by Lord Sandwich, and, on account of the improper use which had been made of Bishop Warburton's name as the author of some coarse notes, the work was voted a breach of privilege, and Wilkes was ordered to be prosecuted in the Court of King's Bench for printing and publishing an impious libel. He was expelled from the House of Commons on the 19th of January 1764; and on the 21st of February he was found guilty in the King's Bench of reprinting No. 45 and of printing and publishing the Essay on Woman. Wilkes was on these dates absent from England. Some strong expressions applied to him by, Samuel Martin, an ex-secretary of the treasury; had provoked a duel (16th of November 1763), in which Wilkes was severely wounded in the stomach. He withdrew to Paris, and as he did not return to England to receive his sentence in the law courts was pronounced an outlaw.
For several years Wilkes remained abroad, receiving £1000 a year from the leading Whigs, and in the course of his travels he visited many parts of Italy. In February 1768 he returned to London and sued the king for pardon, but in vain. His next step was to offer himself as a candidate for the representation of the city of London, when he was the lowest at the poll. Undaunted by this defeat, he solicited the freeholders of Middlesex to return him as their champion, and they placed him at the head of all competitors (28th of March). He appeared before the King's Bench, and on a technical point procured a reversal of his outlawry; but the original verdict was maintained, and he was sentenced to imprisonment for twenty-two months as well as to a fine of £1000, and he was further ordered to produce securities for good behaviour for seven years after his liberation. His conduct was brought before the House of Commons, with the result that he was expelled from the House on the 3rd of February 1769, and with this proceeding there began a series of contests between the ministry and the electors of Middlesex without parallel in English history. They promptly re-elected him (16th of February), only to find him pronounced incapable of sitting and his election void. Again they returned him (16th of March) and again he was rejected. A fourth election then followed (13th of April), when Colonel Henry Lawes Luttrell, with all the influence of the court and the Fox family in his favour, obtained 296 votes, while 1143 were given for Wilkes, but two days later the House declared that Luttrell had been duly elected. Through these audacious proceedings a storm of fury broke out throughout the country. In the cause of “Wilkes and liberty” high and low enlisted themselves. His prison cell was thronged daily by the chief of the Whigs, and large sums of money were subscribed for his support. So great was the popular sympathy in his favour, that a keen judge of contemporary politics declared that, had George III. possessed a bad and Wilkes a good character, the king would have been an outcast from his dominions. At the height of the combat in January 1769 Wilkes was elected an alderman for the city of London; in 1771 he served as sheriff for London and Middlesex, and as alderman he took an active part in the struggle between the corporation and the House of Commons by which freedom of publication of the parliamentary debates was obtained. His admirers endeavoured in 1772 to procure his election as lord mayor of London, but he was set aside by the aldermen, some of whom were allied with the ministry of Lord North, while others, as Oliver and Townshend, leant to the Liberalism of Lord Shelburne. In 1774, however, he obtained that dignity, and he retained his seat for Middlesex from the dissolution in 1774 until 1790. He moved in 1776 for leave to bring in a bill “for a just and equal representation of the people of England in parliament”; but attempts at parliamentary reform were premature by at least half a century. After several failures better fortune attended his efforts in another direction, for on the 3rd of May 1782 all the declarations and orders against him for his elections in Middlesex were ordered to be expunged from the journals of the House. In 1779 Wilkes was elected chamberlain of the city by a large majority, and the office became his freehold for life. He died at his house in Grosvenor Square, London, on the 26th of December 1797. His daughter Mary, to whom he was tenderly attached, died on the 12th of March 1802.
Wilkes printed editions of Catullus (1788) and Theophrastus (1790), and at the time of his death had made considerable progress with a translation of Anacreon. His conversation was often sullied by obscenity and profanity; but he knew how to suit his conversation to his company, and his well-known assertion that, in spite of his squint and ugly as he was, with the start of a quarter of an hour he could get the better of any man, however good-looking, in the graces of any lady, shows his confidence in his powers of fascination. The king was obliged to own that he had never met so well-bred a lord mayor, and Dr Johnson, who made his acquaintance at the house of Dilly, the bookseller in the Poultry, confessed that “Jack has great variety of talk, Jack is a scholar, and Jack has the manners of a gentleman.” It is doubtful how far he himself believed in the justice of the principles which he espoused. To George III. he remarked of his devoted friend and legal adviser, Serjeant Glynn, “Ah, sir! he was a Wilkite, which I never was.” His writings were marked by great power of sarcasm. Two collections of his letters were published, one of Letters to his Daughter, in four volumes in 1804, the other Correspondence with his Friends, in which are introduced Memoirs of his Life, by John Almon, in five volumes, in 1805. A Life by Percy Fitzgerald was published in 1888. Essays on him are in Historical Gleanings, by J. E . Thorold Rogers, 2nd ser. (1870); Wilkes and Cobbett, by J. S. Watson (1870); and Wilkes, Sheridan and Fox, by W. F. Rae (1874). His connexion with Bath is set out in John Wilkes, by W. Gregory (1888), and that with the city of London in Modern History of the City, by Charles Welch (1896). A fragment of his autobiography (Br. Museum Addit. MSS. 30865), chiefly descriptive of his exile in France and Italy, was printed for W. F. Taylor of Harrow in 1888.
(W. P. C.)