John Wilkes, Liberty, and Scandal

Jeffrey Smitten
Utah State University

In The Life of John Wilkes , Percy Fitzgerald praised Wilkes’s contributions to the expansion of English liberty but drew the line at any kind of public homage.   Wilkes was simply too scandalous a character to be set up as a public icon:

His services to the State and Constitution were of an extraordinary and valuable kind.   He “settled,” or caused to be settled—“paying with his person”—points of constitutional law affecting the liberty of the subject.   He confronted the arrogant pretensions of despotism in a coarse, rough, and violent way, the most effective for the purpose; and fought the battle with an insolent scurrility and courage that roused the nation.   Yet, notwithstanding these services, we feel that the idea of a STATUE to John Wilkes somehow shocks the sensibilities and it would be felt to be the celebration of a victory won by violence in the cause of selfishness.[1]

Exactly 100 years after Fitzgerald’s comment that statue was raised by Dr. James Cope, an ardent admirer of Wilkes, at the fork of London’s Fetter Lane and New Fetter Lane.   In Arthur Cash’s new biography, John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty (Yale, 2006), the statue, created by sculptor James Butler, receives appropriate and positive notice:

His vigorous figure and handsome clothing are wonderfully rendered, but his face is too young and strong to represent well the damaged countenance of Wilkes at the age of forty-nine.   . . . Following Dr. Cope’s instructions, Mr. Butler designed a statue of Wilkes addressing Parliament on 21 March 1776.   The figure makes a sweeping gesture with his arm, and in his hand is a paper bearing the words, “A bill for a just and equal representation of the people of England in Parliament.” (350)

Since his death in 1797, Wilkes has become increasingly valued for his political achievements, like the introduction of the first reform bill, and less often judged by his sexual activities, financial irresponsibility, or sometimes self-serving politics.   Cash’s biography—the fullest now available—is perhaps the most forceful statement on behalf of Wilkes as not just a notorious figure but a figure to be taken seriously as a major contributor to the civil liberties of the Western world.

And it is an interesting time to think about Wilkes and his legacy because the big issues he struggled with have resurfaced today.   For instance, in helping to end general warrants, Wilkes helped redefine the concept of privacy that would be embodied in the fourth amendment.   In 2006, the right to privacy and personal security was a central issue in such areas as the choice of Supreme Court nominees, in judging domestic surveillance programs, and in one’s choices regarding sexual activities and reproduction.   His success in expunging his exclusion in the Middlesex election was cited as the precedent in the case of Adam Clayton Powell in 1969; the court’s decision in the Powell case led it to assume the role of ultimate interpreter of the Constitution.     Nor should we forget the role of scandal in political life.   Wilkes was known to his Middlesex constituents as a rake and pornographer, but for most of them, according to Cash, the words of John Almon applied:   “‘the foibles of his private life affected no public interest’” (220).   This is a timely consideration for an American public often inclined to choose its elected officials on the basis of tabloid stories and professions of religiosity than on their analysis of public issues.   But perhaps Wilkes’s greatest contribution was to journalism and freedom of the press.   He was a major participant in efforts to permit the press to report parliamentary debates, and, for Cash, these efforts led directly to the contemporary concept of freedom of the press (287).   He sounded the theme of freedom of the press in the very first line of North Briton No. 1:

The liberty of the press is the birth-right of a BRITON, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country.   It has been the terror of all bad ministers; for their dark and dangerous designs, or their weakness, inability, and duplicity, have thus been detected and shewn to the public, generally in too strong and just colours for them long to bear up against the odium of mankind.

The controversy surrounding the role of the American press in the run-up to the current Iraq war, for example, was a sign of how closely tied liberty of the press is to public policy decisions.

Cash is well aware of the timeliness of his book, and he has accordingly aimed it at two audiences:   “a general audience of well-read, intelligent people” and the scholarly community.   His text makes concessions to the general reader, such as including explanations of various features of eighteenth-century life; excluding detailed assessments of the reliability of his primary sources; and taking some liberties of modernization and editing of cited sources.   He makes no pretension of having consulted all the primary sources.   At the same time, his notes are extensive and intended for the scholar.   Making no bones about putting forward an interpretation of Wilkes that he claims is very different from that of most historians, Cash wants his sources available for assessment.   In the end, the two-audience strategy seems to make little difference to either reader beyond explaining some slightly unexpected features of the book.   What is important is the interpretation that Cash puts forward.   In this reviewer’s assessment, it is not as startling or controversial as Cash seems to believe, but it does bring Wilkes to the forefront of later eighteenth-century culture in a way earlier biographies did not and lays out a compelling case for taking him seriously.

One of the strengths of Cash’s approach is the comparative fullness and coherence of his representation of Wilkes’s life and career.   By showing us Wilkes in more intimate detail than any other biographer, Cash makes him into a complex human being that we can take seriously instead of a fragmented personality or a caricature.   The worst case of fragmentation comes at the hands of Horace Bleackley, who is Wilkes’s stoutest champion before Cash.   To support his position that Wilkes “has an indisputable claim to eminence,” Bleackley dissects his character and grades each part in order to separate out what was great about him.[2]   The result is that we value and understand Wilkes only in parts.   The biographies by Fitzgerald, William Purdie Treloar, or Charles Chenevix Trench often praise Wilkes’s political accomplishments but appear embarrassed or condescending when dealing with his private life and resort to caricature to manage these blemishes.[3]   Treloar, for instance, can offer this summary of Wilkes’s character:

His object in life appeared to be to live well, to do no work, to get as much amusement out of life as possible.   He was not ambitious for anything more than this; he lived for seventy years enjoying every moment; he was always irretrievably in debt. (239)

Cash makes us realize that there was far more to Wilkes than this shallow playboy image.   For Cash, Wilkes has an underlying seriousness of purpose throughout his character.   Though not a political theorist, Wilkes, in Cash’s view, possessed a “grand vision of liberty”:   “He wanted radical change in the laws and institutions so that they would protect all people and give them a voice in government” (118).   Even Wilkes’s libertinism had its serious, philosophical side—one that Treloar apparently did not see in emphasizing Wilkes’s pursuit of pleasure.   For Cash, Wilkes and his companions

were libertines, and a libertine was a gentleman and a scholar.   . . . The libertine was polite in his behavior and stylish in his dress; he kept company with men of refinement and intellect, with whom he discussed books and paintings as well as pornography and sex.   . . . A libertine was skeptical of Christianity and put his faith in “the religion of nature.”   . . . The freedom in sexual matters they allowed themselves was, they believed, morally and intellectually healthful. (32–33)

Cash’s Wilkes is clearly no “Harlequin” (in Trench’s words) who would “bound onto the political stage” (35) but a man of considerable intellect and shrewdness who had vision and purpose.

The chief rival to Cash’s biography is John Wilkes: A Friend to Liberty by Peter D. G. Thomas.   Although Thomas claims to present a rounded view of Wilkes, the political predominates; and Thomas’s forays into other areas of Wilkes’s life do not match Cash’s detailed treatment of the same topics.   But it is worth noting their interpretations of Wilkes’s political significance because the comparison indicates why Cash believes his biography may be controversial.   In general, Cash and Thomas tell much the same story about Wilkes’s political achievements.   Both agree that Wilkes was a watershed and that the political world after him was very different from the one that preceded him.   But Thomas qualifies his sense of Wilkes’s importance by arguing that in, for example, the case of general warrants and the Middlesex election, Wilkes was “defending the boundaries of a liberty that already existed,” and it is clear in hindsight that no British ministry would make substantial use of them to stifle opposition.[4]   Overall, he gives higher marks to Wilkes’s less dramatic success in securing the freedom to report parliamentary debates.   Cash, however, makes a less qualified claim about issues like general warrants.   For him, the court decision in Wilkes’s favor meant the ministry could not make

arbitrary arrests, arbitrary seizures of private property, or arbitrary invasions of privacy.   Thus the court erased the last vestiges of absolute monarchical power, the last loophole in the constitution wherein the will of the monarch constituted the law. (162)

The difference here is largely one of tone because Thomas would also agree about the long-term effect.   But Thomas takes a long historical view, while Cash is a committed Wilkes partisan and sees him in terms not unlike those of his eighteenth-century supporters.   In his closing chapter, Thomas weighs the question whether Wilkes was a radical or a rascal; for Cash, the question does not arise.

Perhaps the most unusual feature of the book is the amount of attention Cash gives to Wilkes’s literary interests and associations.   No other biographer tries to see Wilkes in this context, but the effort proves worthwhile because it helps us understand him as a cultural phenomenon, not just a political one.   Of course, Wilkes himself was primarily a journalist, not a belletristic author, but Cash has praise for his biting prose in the North Briton and the scholarship behind his editions of Catullus and Theophrastus.   The Essay on Woman , his notorious obscene poem written with Thomas Potter, was the subject of a detailed editorial and historical reconstruction by Cash in 2000, and the results of that study reappear in the biography.   But the poem has no literary, only historical, standing.   Wilkes had extensive associations with Charles Churchill and his circle including Robert Lloyd, Bonnel Thornton, and George Coleman the elder, whom Boswell dubbed the “London Geniuses.”   Wilkes was also an admirer of Laurence Sterne, who, scarcely mentioned in other biographies, makes several appearances in this one.   Because Cash is the author of a fine biography of Sterne, it is not surprising that the heteroclite parson is a kind of touchstone for Wilkes’s varied career.   While in prison, Wilkes was approached by Sterne’s daughter, Lydia, asking if he would collaborate with John Hall-Stevenson, whom Wilkes knew from his visits to Medmenham Abbey to write a biography of her father.   Wilkes and Hall-Stevenson agreed, and, though they never completed the task, the invitation suggests an affinity between the two.   That suggestion is captured nicely in a passage from Tristram Shandy that Wilkes transcribed on the back flyleaf of his copy of the North Briton :

“My sister, mayhap,” quoth uncle Toby, “does not choose to let a man come so near her ****.”   Make this a dash,—’tis an Aposiopesis.—Take the dash away, and write Backside , —’tis Bawdy. –Scratch Backside out, and put Cover’d-way in,—’tis a Metaphor;—and I dare say, as fortifications ran so much in my uncle Toby’s head, that if he had been left to have added one word to the sentence,—that word was it. (qtd. in 401–2, n. 20)

This passage brings Wilkes’s various interests into focus:   his interest in literature, in sex, and, perhaps above all, in the power of language to shape perception, which is fundamental to political discourse.   In this sense, Wilkes’s career was of a piece.   Like Sterne, Wilkes wished to explore and extend boundaries, to experiment with the liminal.   Their combination of jest and seriousness kept them on a gentlemanly rather than a revolutionary path, but both were plainly part of the later eighteenth-century phenomenon Lawrence Stone described as the rise of affective individualism.   It is very much to Cash’s credit that he has made it possible to see Wilkes as a cultural figure, and that new dimension, together with Cash’s lively narrative style, makes his new biography a valuable interdisciplinary addition to the vast literature on Wilkes.



[1]   Percy Fitzgerald, The Life of John Wilkes , 2 vols. (London, 1888), 1:2.

[2]   Horace Bleackley, Life of John Wilkes (London, 1917), 407.

  William Purdie Treloar, Wilkes and the City (London, 1917); Charles Chenevix Trench, Portrait of a Patriot: A Biography of John Wilkes (Edinburgh and London, 1962).

[4]   Peter D. G. Thomas, John Wilkes: A Friend to Liberty (Oxford, 1996), 218.