Wilkes, John

, a very singular political character in the early part of the present reign, was born Oct 17. 1727, O. S. in St. John’s street, Clerkenwell, where his father, Nathaniel, carried on in a very extensive way the trade of a distiller, and lived in the true style of ancient English hospitality, to which both he and his lady were always particularly attentive. Their house was consequently much frequented, particularly by many characters of distinguished rank in the commercial and literary world. It was in such society that their son John imbibed that taste for letters which he continued to cultivate through life. His education, therefore, though liberal, was domestic; and, though not severe, yet sufficiently sober. His philosophy (thai uf enjoying the world, and passing laughingly through it) was all his own, and adopted in compliance with his view of human nature. And this he was himseJf very willing to have believed. His parents (one of them at least) were not of the church of England; and Mr. Wilkes having passed his school years partly at Hertford, and partly in Buckinghamshire, was sent, not to either of our English universities, but with a private tutor, to the university of Leyden, where his talents attracted much notice.

In 1749 he married Miss Mead, heiress of the Meads of Buckinghamshire, from which marriage probably originated his connection with that county. This lady was about ten years older than himself, that is, about thirtytwo. Their dispositions, we are told, were perfectly dissimilar, yet he treated her for a time with decent respect. Afterwards he became quite alienated from her, and a final separation took place in 1757. So depraved were his morals, and so destitute was he of a sense of honour, that amidst the distresses which his loose pleasures brought upon him, he endeavoured to defraud this lady of the annuity stipulated in the articles of separation; but this was prevented by a law-suit. In April 1754-, he offered himself as a candidate to represent in parliament the borough of Berwick, and addressed the electors in terms not ill according with that political spirit which afterwards marked his public conduct. He was not, however, successful, but | in July 1757, was elected burgess for Aylesbury, and was again chosen at the general election in 1761 for the same place. Before this period he had formed connections with various inen of rank, but not of the purest character for morals, who seem to have admitted him into their society as a companion who was not likely to lay them under any restraint. He had, however, formed some connections of a better stamp. It appears that as early as 1754 he was known to lord Temple, and to Mr. Pitt, afterwards lord Chatham.

In 1762 he began to engage in political discussion. In March of that year he published “Observations on the papers relative to the rupture with Spain, laid before both houses of parliament on Friday, Jan. 29, 1762.” As much of his information on this subject was supplied by lord Temple (who, with Mr. Pitt, had retired from the cabinet in consequence of a negative being put upon their proposition for an immediate war with Spain) the success of this pamphlet is little to be wondered at. As he did not put his name to it, it was ascribed to Dr. Douglas, or Mr. Manduit, by the sly suggestions of the real author. In the beginning of June following he commenced his celebrated paper called “The North Briton.” The purpose of this was ostensibly to expose the errors of the then ministry, and hold them up to public contempt, but really, to give the author that sort of consequence that might lead to advantages which his extravagant mode of living had by this time rendered necessary. We have his own word that he had determined to take advantage of the times and to make his fortune, and that he soon formed an idea of what would silence and satisfy him. “If government,” says he, “means peace or friendship with me, I then breathe no longer hostility. And, between ourselves, if they would send me ambassador to Constantinople, it is all I should wish.” Again, “It depends on them (the ministry) whether Mr. Wilkes is their friend or their enemy It he starts as the latter, he will lash them with scorpions, and they <ire already prepared; I wih, however, we may be friends; and I had rattier follow the plan I had marked out in my letter from Geneva/‘ alluding to the embassy to Constantinople. In a subsequent letter he says,” If the ministers do not find employment for me, I am disposed 10 find employment for them." In these extracts we have anticipated the order of time, for they were written in 1764, when he was | an exile, but they are necessarily introduced here to unfold the real character of Mr. Wilkes, and to determine to what species of patriots he belonged. We see nt the same time here how very near the most popular character of the age was to dropping into comparative obscurity, and at what a cheap rate the ministry might have averted the hostility of Wilkes, and all its consequences, which we have always considered as more hurtful than beneficial to his country.

In the mean time he went on publishing his “North Britons,” which, although written in an acute and popular style, and unquestionablv very galling to ministers, had not produced any great commotion, nor seemed likely to answer the authors purpose. Ministerial writers were employed to write against him, and in this way a literary warfare might have gone on for years, without any of the consequences he expected. One duel, indeed, he had with lord Talbot, but neither party was hurt, and Wiikes was not benefited. At length, therefore, he began to think he had been too tame, or that ministers were become too callous, and with a view to a provocation, which could not fail to irritate, he made a rude attack on his majesty in No. 45 of the “North Briton,” which appeared on the 23d of April 1763, and on the morning of the 30th Mr. Wilkes was served by a king’s messenger with a general warrant, in consequence of which he was on the same morning conveyed to the Tower. That “a warrant to apprehend and seize, together, with their papers, the authors, printers, and publishers of a work,” without naming who those authors, printers, and publishers were even suspected to be, has an appearance of illegality, cannot be denied. But in justice to the secretaries of state who signed it, it should be remembered, that for a hundred years the practice of their office had been to issue such; and that in so doing they did no more than what precedents seemed to justify. That they did not, however, in this case, act wisely the event shewed. Upon his commitment to the Tower, an application was instantly made to the court of common pleas for his habeas corpus, and he was brought up on the 3d of May. On the 4th he was dismissed from his situation as colonel of the Buckinghamshire militia. On the 6th the validity of his warrant of commitment was argued, his plea of privilege was allowed, and he was in consequence discharged. He immediately erected a printing-press in his house in George-street, published a narrative of the | transactions in which he’ had been engaged, and renewed the publication of the “North Briton.” He visited Paris a few months after, and was there challenged, in the month of August, by a captain Forbes, who, standing forth as the champion of Scotland, asked satisfaction of him, as the editor and conductor of the ``North Briton,‘’ for the calumnies heaped upon his native country. Mr. Wilkes behaved on this occasion with much moderation, and declared himself no prize-fighter. Being again urged, however, though in terms of politeness, he half complied, but being in the mean while put under an arrest, he pledged his honour not to fight on French ground. When set at liberty he proceeded to Menin, and there awaited his challenger, but no meeting took place.

The winter now advancing, Mr. Wilkes returned to England, previous to the opening of parliament, and resumed his labours in the “North Briton,” which soon after involved him in another duel with Mr. Martin, member for Camelford, and late secretary to the treasury. In this Wilkes received a dangerous wound in the groin; but appeared in parliament on the first day of the session, and had risen to address the chair of the speaker on the subject of his privilege, as a member of that house, having been violated. It had usually been considered as the established custom of parliament to enter upon the discussion of breaches of privileges before all other matters, In this instance the custom was overruled, and a message from the sovereign was conveyed to the commons, informing them, that J. Wilkes, esq. was the author of a most seditious and dangerous paper, and acquainting them with the measures which had been resorted to by the servants of the crown. The house, the proofs of the libel being entered upon, proceeded to vote, that No. 45 of the “North Britain” was, as it had been represented to be, a false, scandalous, and malicious libel, &c: and it was ordered to be burnt by the common hangman. A day having been appointed for the hearing of Mr. Wilkes’s defence against the charge of being the author of the libel, he thought it proper to acquaint the hoase of the incapacity occasioned by his wound, and further time was in consequence allowed him. The house, however, suspecting some unnecessary delay, appointed Dr. Heberden and Mr. Hawkins to attend him, in addition to his own physician and surgeon; and further, ordered them to report the state of his health. Mr. Wilkes | politely rejected the offer of their visit. The house, he said, had desired them to visit him, but had forgotten to desire him to receive them, which he most certainly should not. At the same time, in vindication of the professional gentlemen whom he himself had employed, he sent for Dr. Duncan, one of his majesty’s physicians in ordinary, and Mr. Myddleton, one of his majesty’s serjeant-surgeons, humorously telling them, that as the House of Commons thought it fit that he should be watched, he himself thought two Scotchmen most proper for his spies. About a week after he suddenly withdrew to France; a retreat which prudence rendered very necessary, his circumstances being very much involved.

From Paris, where he sought an asylum, he certified to the speaker of the House of Commons, by the signatures of the physician of the king of France, and other gentlemen, his confinement to his room, and the impossibility, from his state of health, of his venturing to undertake the journey back to England. In the mean time, although the House of Commons had neglected his complaint of privilege, he derived his first considerable triumph from the verdict found for him in the court of common pleas. He had early brought his action against Robert Wood, esq. the under secretary of state, for the seizure of his papers, as the supposed author of the “North Briton.” It was tried before a special jury on the 6th of December, and 1000l. danlages were given. The charge to the jury, delivered by lord chief justice Pratt, concluded thus: “This warrant is unconstitutional, illegal, and absolutely void; it is a general warrant, directed to four messengers, to take up any persons, without naming or describing them with any certainty, and to apprehend them together with their papers. If it be good, a secretary of state can delegate and depute any of the messengers, or any even from the lowest of the people, to take examinations, to commit, or to release, and do every act which the highest judicial officers the law knows, can do or order. There is no order in our law-books that mentions these kinds of warrants, but several that in express words condemn them. Upon the maturest consideration, I am bold to say, that this warrant is illegal; but I am far from wishing a matter of this consequence to rest solely on my opinion; I am only one of twelve, whose opinions I am desirous should be taken in this matter, and I am very willing to allow myself | to be the meanest of the twelve. There is also a still higher court, before which this matter may be canvassed, and whose determination is final; and here I cannot help observing the happiness of our constitution in adiiiitting these appeals, in consequence of which, material points are determined on the most mature consideration, and with the greatest solemnity. To this admirable delay or the law (for in this case the law’s delay may be styled admirable) I believe it is chiefly owing that we possess the best digested, and most excellent body of law which any nation on the face of the globe, whether ancient or modern, could ever boast. If these higher jurisdictions should declare my op-nion erroneous, I submit, as will become me, and kiss the rod; but I must say, I shall always consider it as a rod of iron for the chastisement of the people of Great Britain.

We have already mentioned in our account of lord Camden how very popular this decision made him throughout the kingdom, and the same enthusiasm made it be considered as a complete triumph on the part of Mr. Wilkes, who, however, perhaps, thought differently of it, conscious that he had other battles to fight in which he might not be so ably supported. On Jan. liJ, 1764, he was expelled from the House of Commons; and on Feb. 21 was convicted in the court of King’s Bench for re- publishing the 46 North Briton, No. 45,“and also upon a second indictment, for printing and publishing an <; Essay on Woman.” This was an obscene poem which he printed at his private press, but can scarcely be said to have published it, as he printed only a very small number of copies (about twelve) to give away to certain friends. The great offence was (and this was complained of in the House of Lords), that he had annexed the name of bishop Warburton to this infamous poem, and it was hoped, by the ministry, that holding Mr. Wilkes forth as a profligate, might cure the public of that dangerous and overpowering popularity they were about to honour him with. But this was another of their erroneous calculations.- The populace at this time, at least the populace of London, were more anxious about general warrants, which might affect one in ten thousand, than about morals, which are the concern of all; and even some of the better sort could see no immediate connection between Wilkes’s moral and political offences.

In the mean time being found guilty on both | informalions, and neglecting to make any personal appearance, when called upon to receive the judgment of the court of King’s Bench, he Was, towards the close of the year, outlawed. He had again repaired to France, whence he addressed a letter, in defence of his conduct, to the electors of Aylesbury, which, like all his publications, was read with much avidity. It was in this year (1764), and when at Paris, that he addressed those letters to his friends, of which we have already given extracts, to prove that, whatever his popularity, he had no very high expectations from it, and had sense. enough to perceive that his deranged circumstances could be restored only by making peace with administration. His terms, we have seen, were not exorbitant, and might probably have been agreed to, had they been known, which it is doubtful whether they were.

The years 1765 and 1766 he passed in a journey through Italy. But as he knew too well the nature of the multitude, not to be aware that a long retirement would soon cause him to be forgotten, even by those whose sympathy in his favour was most warm, when the duke of Grafton became minister, towards the end of 1766, Mr. Wilkes solicited, in a letter to him, the clemency of his sovereign; and finding. his address but faintly listened to, he, in a second letter to the same nobleman, again called the public attention to his case. He endeavoured also to keep his name alive, by publishing in 1767, “A collection of the genuine Papers, Letters, &c. in the Case of J. Wilkes, late member for Aylesbury in the county of Bucks; a Paris, chez J. W. imprimeur, Run du Columhier, Fauxburgk St. Germain, a I' Hotel de Saxe” In 1768 he again appeared personally upon the theatre of public action. On the 4th of March he addressed a letter of submission to the king, which was delivered by his servant at Buckingham Gate. This, like his first letter to the duke of Grafton, supplicated pardon, which one of his biographers says he was enabled to do without meanness, because “in no one syllable of his otherwise offensive publications had he offended against the personal respect due to the prince on the throne.” But this writer surely forgets the obvious tenour-of his No. 45, as well as the repeated and atrocious attacks he made on the princess dowager, his majesty’s mother.

No attention was paid to this petition, and probably he had no great reliance on it, but as he had so long been the | idol of the people of London, on the 16th of the same month, he offered himself a candidate to represent the city of London. In this he did not succeed, although at the close of the poll on the 23d he was found to have polled 1247 votes. Not disheartened at this failure, he immediately declared his intention of becoming a candidate for the county of Middlesex, and on the 28th was chosen by a vast majority. On the 27th of April he was taken up on a capias utlagatum, and committed to the King’s Bench, and on the 18th of June was sentenced, on the two verdicts against him, to be imprisoned twenty- two months, to pay two fines of 500l. each, and to give security for his good behaviour for seven years, himself in 1000l. and two sureties in 500l. each. This judgment was far milder than had been expected by the public, and it is said that Mr. Wilkes might have made his peace with government at this time, but one condition was proposed to him in which he could not concur, namely, not to present a petition relative to his case, which he had told the freeholders of Middlesex he should present. He conceived that a public pledge had been given to the contrary, and from this public pledge he resolved not to withdraw. The petition was accordingly laid before the House on the following day by sir J. Mawbey, and was received as the declaration of a second war.

On the 10th of May, 1768, the populace had assembled in great numbers about the neighbourhood of the King’s Bench prison, where Mr. Wilkes was in confinement. The riot-act was read by the justices of Surrey, and the mob not dispersing, the military was ordered to fire: several persons were slightly wounded, some more seriously, and one was killed on the spot. Lord Weymouth, the secretary of state, had written to the magistrates a letter dated April 17, exhorting them to firmness in the suppression of any popular tumult which might arise: and lord Barrington, the secretary at war, returned thanks, after the 10th of May, in the name of his majesty, to the officers and soldiers of that regiment of guards, which had been employed upon the occasion. These two letters were transmitted to the newspapers by Mr. Wilkes, accompanied with some prefatory remarks, in which he termed the unhappy transaction a massacre. Of these remarks he avowed himself, at the bar of the House of Commons, to be the author. The remarks were voted libellous, and he, as the | author of them, was expelled but his conduct appearing? still more meritorious in the eyes of his constituents, hewas re-chosen on the 16th of February, 1769, without opposition. On the following day he was declared by a majority of the House of Commons incapable of being electee! into that parliament, and the election was vacated, upotv the principle that the expulsion of a- member of parliament was equivalent to exclusion but notwithstanding this resolution, he was a third time elected, again without opposition; a Mr. Dingley indeed offering himself as a candidate, but without the least success. In April, Wilkes was elected a fourth time by a majority of 1143 votes against "Mr. Luttrell, a new candidate who had only 296. and the same day the House of Commons confirmed Mr. Luttrell’s election. These proceedings were not carried on, however, without long discussions in the fiouse, and a warm controversy from the press, in which many eminent writers took a part.

In the mean time, Wilkes, now within the walls of the King’s Bench, was approaching nearer to those substantial rewards which he valued more than the erapty noise of a triumph. From the time of his first election for Middlesex in March 1768,. through the whole of 1769, and even far into 1772, he was the sole unrivalled political idol of the people, who lavished upon him all in their power to bestow, as if willing, to prove that in England it was possible for an individual to be great and important through them alone. A subscription was opened for the payment of his debts, and 20,000l. are said in a few weeks to have been raised for that purpose, and for the discharging his fine. A newly established society for the support of the “Bill of Bights” presented him with 300l. Gifts of plate, of wine, of household goods, were daily heaped upon him. An unknown patriot conveyed to him in a handsomely embroidered purse five hundred guineas. An honest chandler enriched him with a box containing of candles, the magic number of dozens, forty-five. High and low contended with each other who most should serve and celebrate him. Devices aod emblems of all descriptions ornamented the trinkets conveyed to his prison: the most usual was the cap of liberty placed over his crest: upon others was a bird with expanded wings, hovering over a cage, beneath a motto, “I love liberty.” Every wall bore his name, and very window his portrait. In china, in bronze, in marble, | he stood upon the chimney-piece of half the houses in the metropolis: and he swung upon the sign-post of every village, and of every great road throughout the environs of London.

In November 1769, he brought his action, which had been prevented by his absence abroad, against lord Halifax, for false imprisonment, and the seizure of his papers, and obtained a verdict of 4000l. On the 17th of April, 1770, he was discharged from his imprisonment. On the 24th he was sworn as alderman of the ward of Farringdori Without. It was, however, soon discovered that there was a difference of opinion in many points between him and several of his former friends. Early in 1771 a rupture between him and Mr. Home (afterwards Home Tooke) produced hostilities in the newspapers, and both parties exerted their abilities in abusing each other with much acrimony, to the great entertainment of the public, though., little to their own credit. After some time it was fotind that the world was perverse enough to believe both the gentlemen in their unfavourable representation of each other. Mr. Wilkes soon saw this effect of the controversy, and wisely withdrew from it on being chosen sheriff on the 3d of July, 1771. His antagonist also, being left to himself without an opponent, and feeling the disgrace which he had brought on himself, also prudently and silently quitted the field, discomfited and disappointed.

On the 8th of October, 1772, Mr. Wilkes was by the livery elected one of the persons to be selected for lord mayor, but was not chosen by the court of aldermen; and the same circumstance happened the succeeding year. On the third year (1774) he was again elected in the same manner, and approved by the court of aldermen. On the 20th of October he was again elected member for the county of Middlesex, and was permitted to take his seat without molestation. The popularity which he had hitherto enjoyed was now to suffer some diminution. In the beginning of 1776 sir Stephen Theodore Jaosseii resigned the office of chamberlain, and Mr. Wilkes was a candidate to succeed him; when, notwithstanding every exertion in his favour, and every art employed, he lost his election, and Mr. alderman Hopkins was chosen, by a majority of 177. He made another effort in the succeeding year with equal ill success; and on a third attempt in 1778, was again rejected, having only 287 votes against 1216. His situation at this time was | truly melancholy: his interest in the city appeared to be lost; a motion to pay his debts had been rejected in the common council; he was involved in difficulties of various kinds; his creditors were clamorous; and such of his property which could be ascertained, and amongst the rest his books, had been taken in execution: those who formerly supported him were become cold to his solicitations, and languid in their exertions, and the clouds of adversity seemed to gather round him on every side, without a ray of light to cheer him. While in this forlorn state, Mr. Hopkins died in 1779, and Mr. Wilkes at length obtained an establishment, which, profiting by experience, rendered the remainder of his life easy and comfortable. On the 1st of December he was chosen chamberlain, by a majority of 1972 votes, and continued to fill the office with credit to himself, and to the satisfaction of his constituents, during the rest of his life, in spite of some feeble attempts at opposition to him.

In 1782, upon the dismission from office of the ministers who conducted the war against America, the obnoxious resolutions against him were, at length, upon his own motion, expunged from the journals. This was the crown of those political labours, which more immediately concerned his own personal actions. He thenceforward deemed himself “a fire burnt out.” His popularity was fast decaying, and although he took the popular side in the contest betwixt Mr. Pitt and Mr. Fox in 1783, and thereby secured his election in 1784, he did not venture to be acandidate in the general election of 1790. That he was pretty well tired of “his followers,” appears from a short letter to his daughter, written in 1784, in which he says, “yesterday was saered to the powers of dullness, and the anniversary meeting of the Quintuple Alliance*

*

A political club not now existing.

when I was obliged to eat stale fish, and swallow sour port, with sir Cecil Wray, Mr. Martin the banker, Dr. Jebb, &c. to promote the grand reform of parliament. I was forced inta the chair, and was so far happy as to be highly applauded, both for a long speech, and my conduct as president through an arduous day. I have not, however, authenticated to the public any account of the day’s proceeding, nor given to the press the various new-fangled toasts which were the amusement of the hour, and should perish with it.” This | insincerity he was at no pains to disguise, and after he had obtained his wishes as to situation, he appeared always sufficiently candid in ridiculing the persons who had brought him to it.

Though now far advanced in years, he shewed no decay of intellect. His short congratulatory addresses spoken as chamberlain to those public characters, who received between 1790 and 1797 the freedom of the city, were his last public exertions. He died Dec. 26, 1797, aged seventy, at his house in Grosvenor-square; and his remains were interred in a vault in Grosvenor chapel, South Audley-street, according to the directions of his will, being near to where he died. A hearse and three mourning-coaches, and Miss Wilkes’ s coach, formed the cavalcade; and eight labouring men, dressed in new black cloaths, bore the deceased to the place of interment, for which each man received a guinea besides the suit of cloaths. He has also directed a tablet to be placed to his memory, with these few lines

The Remains

Of

John Wilkes,

A Friend To Liberty.

Born At London, Oct. 17, 1727, O.S.

Died In This Parish.

Mr.Wilkes left behind him a daughter, Mary, the offspring of his marriage with Miss Mead. Miss Wilkes survived her father but a few years, she died the 12th of Marck 1802, aged fifty-one. He left also two natural children, hut scarcely any property.

Wilkes was perhaps the most popular political character that ever had been known, or perhaps will ever be known again, for, by imposing on the credulity, he has added to the experience of mankind, and it will be difficult, although we have seen it tried, for any other pretender to imitate Wilkes with equal effect. At one period of his life, he obtained a very dangerous influence over the minds of the people; his name was sufficient to blow up the flames of sedition, and excite the lower orders of the community to acts of violence against his opponents in a manner something allied to madness. After great vicissitudes of fortune, he found himself placed in a state of independence and affluence; gradually declined from the popularity he had acquired, and at last terminated a turbulent life in a state of neglected quiet. Reviewing the present state of the | country, and comparing it with that in which he began his exertions, though some advantages may be placed to his account, we hesitate in giving him credit for those beneficial consequences which his admirers are apt to ascribe to him. We believe he was a patriot chiefly from accident, a successful one it must be owned, but not originating in principle. This was thought even in his life-time, but it has been amply confirmed by two publications which have since appeared; the one “Letters from the year 1774 to the year 1796 of John Wilkes, esq. addressed to his daughter,1804, 4 vols. 12mo, with a well-written memoir of his life, of which we have occasionally availed ourselves; the second, “The Correspondence of John Wilkes, esq. with his friends, printed from the original manuscripts, in which are introduced Memoirs of his Life, by John Almon,1805, 5 vols. 8vo, a publication in which Mr. Almon is the greatest admirer and the greatest enemy to Mr. Wilkes’s character he ever had.

Of Wilkes’s private character, blackened, with no sparing hand, in the latter of these publications, there are parts which always conciliated esteem. He was a gentleman of elegant manners, of fine taste, and of pleasing conversation. Amidst all the vicissitudes of his life, he spared some hours for the cultivation of classical learning, and in 1790, paid his worthy deputy (of the ward) John Nichols, esq. whom he highly and deservedly esteemed, the compliment of publishing from his press, for the use only of particular friends, splendid editions of the characters of Theophrastus andthepoemsofCatullus; and hehad also made considerable progress in a translation of Anacreon. His own letters and speeches were collected in 1769, 3 vols. 12mo, his speeches, by himself, in 1787, J vol. 8vo, to which, in 1788, he added a single speech in defence of his excellent friend, Mr. Hastings on which he justly prided himself; it being, perhaps, the ablest exculpation of that gentleman which has appeared in print. Many other of his occasional effusions are scattered through the newspapers and magazines of the day, and the principal have been reprinted in Mr. Almon’s book. 1

1

Almon’s Correspondence.—and “Letters” above mentioned.—Gent. Mag. 1798, &c.