John Wilkes: a friend to liberty?

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John Wilkes (1725-1797) was the son of Israel Wilkes, a wealthy distiller, and Mary Heaton. Marked out by his parents for the life of a gentleman, in 1757 he was elected to Parliament for Aylesbury thanks to the interest of his friend, Thomas Potter, and the Grenville faction. Wilkes was initially disappointed with his reception in the Commons. He proved a poor orator and was overlooked for ministerial posts.

Turning to journalism, he found his metier as a propagandist. In 1762 he launched a paper, the 'North Briton', aimed at countering the policy of the administration headed by the Scottish Earl of Bute to make peace with France. Bute resigned and was replaced with Wilkes’s erstwhile patron, George Grenville (1712-1770).

Wilkes continued his campaign but in issue No. 45 he went too far and criticized the King directly. The result was the issuing of a general warrant seeking the arrest of the authors and publishers. Wilkes successfully claimed his privilege as an MP to secure his release but soon after fell foul of separate actions against him. He was forced to go into exile, remaining abroad for the next five years.

(John Wilkes: a friend to liberty? is based on text written by Dr Robin Eagles of the History of Parliament.)

John Wilkes Esq. John Wilkes Esq.
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John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute
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Wilkes and his publishing partner, Charles Churchill, had attacked their former associate William Hogarth in the 'North Briton' for Hogarth’s decision to support Bute. Wilkes’s appearance in court in 1763 offered Hogarth an opportunity to exact his revenge.

Here Wilkes’s genuine physical disabilities are exaggerated turning his squint into a demonic leer and his heavy jaw into a leering gape; the liberty cap that he is so often portrayed bearing becomes a chamber pot and his fashionable powdered peruke (wig) is curled to make the top resemble devil-like horns. He sits astride his chair unconcerned at his predicament, exuding malice.

John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute (1713-1792), first came to prominence as a member of the opposition court of George III’s father, Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751). After the Prince’s death he continued to be associated with the Dowager Princess and was rumoured to be her lover. He was a significant influence on the young George III and in 1762 he became Prime Minister overseeing the ending of the Seven Years War between Britain and France.

It was this policy and his rather autocratic bearing that brought him to Wilkes’s attention. The fact that he was a Scot (named Stuart) at a time when sensitivity remained high in the aftermath of the last Jacobite rebellion (1745-6) offered Wilkes and his associates additional ammunition against him. He resigned in early April 1763, unable to bear the pressure of constant carping attacks on his personal life and policies.