In Praise of John Wilkes

How a filthy, philandering deadbeat helped secure British and American liberty


John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty, by Arthur H. Cash, New Haven: Yale University Press, 482 pages, $37.50

The libertarian journalist Albert Jay Nock once told the story of a friend who visited St. Petersburg in early 1917, when the Kerensky republic was in power and liberalization rather than Bolshevism still seemed possible for Russia. The proletariat was eager to hear any speaker who climbed a soapbox—even agents of the German government, with whom Russia was at war. Nock's friend asked one group of workers whether this was their idea of free speech, and whether they understood the difference between "liberty" and "license."

The workers didn't know these English words, so Nock's friend explained: Liberty is "when some perfectly respectable person gets up and says something everybody agrees to," while "license is when some infernal scoundrel, who ought to be hanged anyway, gets up and says something that is true." After conferring for a moment, the Russians decided they were not for liberty. They were for license.

So was John Wilkes—radical journalist, member of Parliament, outlaw, prisoner, lord mayor of London, and self-described libertine—some 150 years earlier. His life and career go a long way toward dispelling the superstition that liberty must advance hand in glove with order, guided by men of sterling moral character. Probably born in 1726 (the exact year is uncertain), Wilkes was a near contemporary of our Founding Fathers, and his clashes with George III and his ministers set an example for the rebellious colonists. But Wilkes, rake that he was, is in no danger of becoming an object of veneration for Americans today. In John Wilkes, his new biography, Arthur H. Cash shows us why that's so—and why lovers of liberty, at least, should celebrate this colorful Englishman. Cash tells his readers from the outset, "If you think the police have the right to arrest forty-nine people when they are looking for three, shut [this book] now."

Cash, a professor emeritus of English at SUNY New Paltz, argues convincingly that Wilkes helped lay the foundation for some of the most basic rights taken for granted in the United States and Great Britain: freedom of the press, the right to privacy, religious liberty. Most often Wilkes did this—at considerable risk to himself—by goading the government into overreaction and then suing the king's ministers and agents. Along the way, he conducted innumerable adulterous affairs, dabbled in dueling, accumulated debts he had no intention of paying—"I take the liberty to inform you that at present it is not my interest to pay the principal, neither is it my principle to pay the interest," he told one creditor—and published what some have considered the filthiest poem in the English language. (One sample couplet: "…life can little more supply/than just a few good Fucks and then we die.")

Cross-eyed and with a prognathous jaw that would put Jay Leno to shame, Wilkes entered Parliament in 1757 at the age of 31. He was the protégé of Thomas Potter, wealthy son of the late archbishop of Canterbury, who introduced the younger man to politics while encouraging him in his already pronounced womanizing. The two occasionally traded mistresses, and Potter brought Wilkes into "the Order of the Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe," also known as the "Hellfire Club" because of its supposed black masses, though on Cash's account it seems more like a cross between a bawdy dinner club and a by-the-hour hotel. Wilkes was married but had separated from his wife—their union was loveless, though it produced a daughter, Polly, whom Wilkes cherished above all else.

Once elected to Parliament from Aylesbury—his only opponent in the race withdrew after Wilkes bribed uncommitted voters, a common practice at the time—Wilkes aligned with the Whig faction of Pitt the Elder and Lord Temple, which soon found itself in opposition to the ministry (that is, government) of Lord Bute, a Whig of a very different sort. With the Whig Party ascendant, its internal divisions were as significant as its differences with the other great party, the Tories. Pitt's wing, sometimes called "Patriots," was nationalistic and (relatively) populist; Bute, on the other hand, sued for peace with England's enemies and was perceived as a staunch royalist.

Wilkes served his faction as one of its ablest propagandists, anonymously publishing a newspaper, the North Briton, that lampooned Bute as a friend of royal absolutism and enemy of English liberty. Wilkes especially damned the ministry's excise tax—not simply because it was a tax but because, as Cash argues, collecting it "would legitimate forced entries and searches of houses and barns, putting into the hands of politicians the means to harass and even destroy their opponents." This, says Cash, "was Wilkes" first expression of the right to privacy that he would later champion in the courts."

With the publication of North Briton No. 45 in 1763, the ministry—even with Bute himself now fallen from power—could tolerate no more and issued a "general warrant" for the arrest of anyone connected with the paper. Wilkes' authorship was an open secret, but the ministry needed firm proof to prosecute him for "seditious libel." The general warrant named a crime but no suspect, empowering the king's messengers, as the royal police were called, to round up anyone they pleased and seize anything that might be useful as evidence. Wilkes was arrested, along with 48 printers and other people involved with publishing issue 45, and his papers were confiscated.

The ministry's scheme backfired. The North Briton had won Wilkes a popular following. His arrest made him a martyr for civil liberties—an image he burnished by speaking out for the rights of all English subjects while defending himself in court. The Court of Common Appeals freed Wilkes on grounds of parliamentary privilege, but that would not satisfy him. He wanted a precedent that would shore up the liberties of ordinary Englishmen. So Wilkes sued the officials who had authorized the general warrant and seized his papers for trespass and property damage, and sued the king's messengers for false arrest.

He also encouraged the working-class printers who had been arrested to do likewise. "With his keen sense of public desires," Cash argues, "Wilkes understood that his power lay ultimately in offering purpose to the unorganized masses of people." But he was no mere opportunist; as Cash demonstrates at length, Wilkes came to see himself as fighting for a cause that was "transcendent."

Though it would take years, Wilkes' side won most of its legal battles. By the time he was through, the courts had declared general warrants illegal and limited the power of government to search and seize papers and other effects, establishing in law the principle that a man's home is his castle. Through all this, George III and his ministers feared Wilkes even more than they despised him; to retaliate against him would risk a popular uprising. Every setback Wilkes encountered, and almost every victory, was cause for his supporters to riot. (Just how integral rioting was to English and colonial American politics in this era is all too easily forgotten now, when street violence is commonly taken to be a feature only of backward Middle Eastern countries and immigrant communities in Western Europe.)

Before long, though, Wilkes handed his enemies an opportunity they could not pass up. This involved a ribald poem written by Potter—Wilkes' mentor, now deceased—and left in Wilkes' possession. Wilkes had added to and annotated Potter's Essay on Woman, an X-rated satire of Pope?s Essay on Man, which at first he had no intention of publishing. But he thought a small private edition might entertain his fellow Knights of St. Francis, so Wilkes began preparing one on his home press. A few pages of proofs came to the attention of the ministry, which seized on them as a pretext for prosecuting Wilkes anew. The charges of obscenity and libel that came of this, and of Wilkes' republication of the North Briton (this time his authorship could be proven), would see him expelled from Parliament, driven into exile—a fate mitigated by the company of his daughter and an 18-year-old Italian mistress—and imprisoned for two years upon his return to England.

From prison he again stood for Parliament, first in London, where he lost, then in Middlesex, where he won. This led to a farce in the House of Commons, which refused to seat Wilkes and called a special election for his seat—which Wilkes also won. The House called another special election, then another; each time the voters of Middlesex chose Wilkes. After three rounds of this, the House simply seated his opponent. Wilkes and his allies, including Edmund Burke, argued that this move amounted to allowing the legislature to select its own members. When Wilkes finally did return to Parliament after his release from prison, he succeeded in purging from the records of the House all trace of his incapacitation, overturning this baleful precedent. According to Cash, the Wilkes controversy informed James Madison's desire to set uniform requirements for holding office in the U.S. Constitution. Later still, in 1969, Chief Justice Earl Warren would cite the Wilkes case in ruling that the House of Representatives had acted unconstitutionally by excluding Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.) while he was under investigation for misuse of congressional funds.

Cash ably relates many other contributions Wilkes made to the liberty of Englishmen, and not just Englishmen, in his day and beyond. As an alderman of London, Wilkes barred press gangs—naval recruiters who filled their quotas by kidnapping men and forcing them to enlist—from the city and protected journalists who reported on Parliament's proceedings, a crime at the time. He was so successful in the second regard that before long Parliament changed the law. As London's lord mayor, Wilkes intrigued with rebellious Americans and French diplomats to supply arms to the colonists. And in Parliament, though a sincere Anglican himself, he fought for the religious liberties of Catholics and of Protestants outside of the Church of England.

Endorsing one bill for religious tolerance, he declared, "I wish to see rising in the neighborhood of a Christian cathedral, near its Gothic towers, the minaret of a Turkish mosque, a Chinese pagoda, and a Jewish synagogue, with a temple of the sun, if any Persians could be found to inhabit this island and worship in this gloomy climate the God of their idolatry." At the time, as Cash writes, "Jews had no religious rights at all" and "it was specifically against the law to hold a Roman Catholic mass, and a Catholic who took in pupils or opened a school could be imprisoned for life."

Wilkes' stand for religious liberty led to an interesting role reversal: When anti-Catholic riots erupted in London and throughout the country, Wilkes was on the side of the militia called out to quell the unrest. As a city official, he even led some of them against the rioters. To the disappointment of some of his followers, he also decried the French Revolution late in his life: He thought monarchy a more humane form of government than republicanism.

Benjamin Franklin, who disliked Wilkes, believed that "had the King had a bad character and Wilkes a good one, the latter might have turned the former out of his kingdom." Wilkes, with his squinty eyes and protruding jaw, was hardly a pleasing sight, and the whiff of blasphemy and scandal that always accompanied him did not sit well with all of his supporters. But his commitment to liberty, especially for the lower classes, earned him a place of honor in the hearts of many of his countrymen. Even George III came to appreciate Wilkes, if not exactly to approve of his politics. Arthur Cash's appealing prose and mordant humor—along with his painstaking scholarship—do justice to his subject, which is about as high a commendation as anyone might ask.