John Wilkes Dies
December 26th, 1797
When asked by Madame de Pompadour how far the freedom of the press extended in England, the radical politician and journalist John Wilkes replied 'that is what I'm trying to find out' By his death on Boxing Day, 1797, he certainly had found out – the hard way. And in doing so he extended that freedom and asserted the sovereignty of Parliament against the arbitrary use of power by those who sat in it.
Famed for his squint eyes and 'dropsical ugliness', as well as his acerbic wit, John Wilkes could almost be the model newspaper hack As a dissolute former member of the notorious Hell Fire Club he equally fitted the archtype of a malleable and amoral young MP ready to sell his votes to the highest bidder But Wilkes transcended these stereotypes – whilst retaining some of their faults – to become a radical icon.
Typically of the period, Wilkes' 'heroic' Championing of liberty originated in low down and dirty party political squabbling As an opposition Whig under George III, Wilkes loyally attacked the Government at every opportunity The MP for Buckinghamshire since 1757, he really made himself known when he founded The North Briton newspaper in 1762, which he used to attack relentlessly the king's chief minister, the Earl of Bute When, in 1763, The North Briton suggested that Bute had Jacobite sympathies – and that he owed his power to an alleged affair with George III's mother – the Government decided enough was enough.
The offending newspaper issue, number 45, was declared to contain seditious libel Wilkes was arrested and placed on trial where, to the king's consternation, he was acquitted and awarded damages for false arrest Wilkes argued that he had only been exercising traditional English liberties, 'a question' he claimed in court 'of such importance as to determine, at once, whether English Liberty be reality or shadow'