In the long history of memorably scintillating exchanges between British parliamentarians, one ranks as my personal favorite. Though attribution is sometimes disputed, it seems most likely that the principals were John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, and the member from Middlesex, John Wilkes.
Montagu: Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox.
Wilkes: That depends, my lord, on whether I embrace your lordship’s principles or your mistress.
Repartee doesn’t get much better than that. And it certainly fits the style and reputation of Wilkes. Once when a constituent told him he would rather vote for the devil, Wilkes famously responded, “Naturally. And if your friend decides against standing, can I count on your vote?”
Wilkes deserves applause for his rapier wit, but also for something much more important: challenging the arrogance of power. He was known in his day as a “radical” on the matter. Today, we might label him “libertarian” in principles and policy and perhaps even “libertine” in personal habits (he was a notorious womanizer). His pugnacious quarrels with a King and a Prime Minister are my focus in this essay.
Born in London in 1725, Wilkes in his adult life was cursed with bad looks. Widely known as “the ugliest man in England,” he countered his unattractive countenance with eloquence, humor, and an eagerness to assault the powers-that-be with truth as he saw it. Fortunately, the voters in Middlesex appreciated his boldness more than his appearance. He charmed his way into election to the House of Commons as a devotee of William Pitt the Elder and, like Pitt, became a vociferous opponent of King George III’s war against the American colonies.
Pitt’s successor as PM in 1762, Lord Bute of Scotland, earned the wrath of Wilkes for the whole of his brief premiership. Bute negotiated the treaty that ended the Seven Years War (known in America as the French & Indian War), which Wilkes thought gave too many concessions to the French. Wilkes also opposed Bute’s plan to tax the Americans to pay for the war.
In an April 1763 speech written by Bute, King George III publicly endorsed his PM’s policies. Wilkes responded with a merciless broadside in his publication, The North Briton. His opening paragraph aimed squarely at Bute:
The North Briton has been steady in his opposition to a single, insolent, incapable, despotic minister and is equally ready, in the service of his country, to combat the tripled-headed, Cerberean administration.
“Cerberean,” incidentally, referred to Cerberus, the vicious, three-headed watchdog in Greek mythology that guarded the gates of Hades.
The King himself fared slightly better, but Wilkes nonetheless lamented that George III had given “the sanction of his sacred name to the most odious measures.” The terms of the peace treaty drew “the contempt of mankind on our wretched negotiators,” he declared. He strongly hinted of official corruption when he wrote, “Many unnecessary expenses have been incurred, only to increase the power of the crown, that is, to create more lucrative jobs for the creatures of the minister.” He closed with what the King took as a thinly veiled threat:
The prerogative of the crown is to exert the constitutional powers entrusted to it in a way, not of blind favor and partiality, but of wisdom and judgment. This is the spirit of our constitution. The people too have their prerogatives, and, I hope, the words of Dryden will be engraved on our hearts, “Freedom is the English subject’s prerogative.”
George III took it personally. He ordered the arrest of Wilkes and dozens of his followers on charges of seditious libel. For most of the nearly thousand years of British monarchy, kings would have remanded foes like Wilkes to the gallows forthwith. But as a measure of the steady progress of British liberty (from Magna Carta in 1215 through the English Bill of Rights in 1689), the case went to the courts.
Wilkes argued that as a member of Parliament, he was exempt from libel charges against the monarch. The Lord Chief Justice agreed. Wilkes was released and took his seat again in the House of Commons. He resumed his attacks on the government, Bute’s successor George Grenville in particular.
Over the next decade, Wilkes fought for the continued reduction of concentrated power, including the right of printers to publish the debates in Parliament unedited. He once wrote what was called “the dirtiest poem in the English language,” tangible evidence of his libertinism and his sometimes scandalous personal life. No matter the issue, he was not averse to, shall we say, “pushing the envelope.”
Among his defenders was the great statesman Edmund Burke, who himself chipped away at the power and privileges of the British establishment.
Though Wilkes won re-election on an anti-government platform in 1768, Parliament expelled him. He was re-elected again in three successive elections a month apart—in February, March and April 1769—only to see Parliament void each election and attempt to give his seat to someone else. In the April balloting, Wilkes garnered more than 79 percent of the vote against Parliament’s choice of Henry Luttrell. The House of Commons seated Luttrell anyway.
Out of Parliament, Wilkes got himself elected as an alderman for London (equivalent to a city council seat), and then Lord Mayor of London in 1774. When he ran again for the House of Commons a few months later, he won back his Middlesex seat. Parliament had moved on to more pressing matters, namely, rising tensions with the American colonies. Wilkes was allowed to take his seat, a perch he used to assail the government’s drift toward war.
It should not surprise you to learn that the man who introduced in the House of Commons the first bill for reforming Parliament itself was none other than John Wilkes, in 1776.
British liberty, when Wilkes died in 1797, was more robust than it was in the year of his birth (1725)—in part because of him and his “radicalism.” Though he settled down in his later years into a more “moderate” perspective (and lost popular support because of it), his most significant contributions remain unquestionably those of his earlier days.
Now and everywhere, as in the 18th Century in Britain, lovers of freedom must recognize and appreciate those who man the barricades. Two centuries after the events described above, Ronald Reagan expressed a truth with which the radical Wilkes would, I think, heartily agree:
Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.
For Additional Information, See:
John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty by Arthur H. Cash
Life of John Wilkes by Horace William Bleackley
Portrait of a Patriot: A Biography of John Wilkes by Charles Chevenix Trench