Wilkes and Liberty

By challenging and destroying the system of General Warrants, John Wilkes struck an important blow for civil liberty in England, writes George Rudé.

In the course of an eventful life and public career, John Wilkes achieved much and stirred many passions.

His name is, of course, most frequently linked with the constitutional liberties which he played so conspicuous a part in wresting from an unwilling Parliament and a bitterly hostile Government.

Scarcely less remarkable than the achievement itself were the means employed: the stimulation and direction of the political energies not only of City merchants and liverymen and Middlesex freeholders, but of far wider circles among those “middling and inferior set of people” whose particular champion he professed to be.

It is of this latter kind that the “Wilkes and Liberty” movement, which played so striking a role in the political battles of the 1760’s and 1770’s, was essentially composed.

The cry “Wilkes and Liberty” was first heard at Westminster Hall in May 1763. The famous No. 45 of Wilkes’s weekly journal, the North Briton, had appeared on April 23rd. The Government, eager to seize its opportunity, issued a “general warrant” for the apprehension of the writers, printers and publishers of the offending number.

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