Some momentous developments occurred during the last third of the eighteenth century, and John Wilkes was certainly part of them. Arthur Cash has written an enjoyable biography of the libertine, civil libertarian, and popular symbol of protest. Cash’s treatment seeks to remind those who might have forgotten that Wilkes was the eighteenth century’s principal champion of free speech and a free press and the primary reason for the end of general warrants, warrants for arrest that did not need to name the parties charged. Cash’s book, in part, seeks to explain how a Whig functionary became “In May 1763 . . . what in English history is called a radical” (118).
Cash re-creates the bizarre, self-indulgent, and usually scatological circles in which Wilkes was happiest. These circles included leading lords, gentlemen, and cultural luminaries such as Diderot, Dr. Johnson and Boswell, Smollett, Garrick, and Hogarth. One of the pleasures of the book is to keep track of the household and near-household names Wilkes knew. Assuming that readers of the JER know why Wilkes matters—and probably give a lecture about every other year in which liberty-loving colonists eat 45 dishes at public dinners and drink 45 toasts from bowls weighing 45 ounces—let me suggest some thoughts that will also lead to Maurice Bric’s treatment of Irish immigrants and radical politics in late eighteenth-century Philadelphia.
A bit too often, Cash presents Wilkes as the agent of Whiggish progress: “Since the time of Charles II,” he writes, “the whole of political activity had been the contest for control of the state between the king and his ministers on the one side and the privileged gentlemen of Parliament on the other. Now the common folk had entered into the play” (162). And Cash quotes with full approval from a 1963 study: “The transference of political authority from government and law to the people [End Page 481] and law may be dated from the cases revolving about North Briton” (133). In fact, it’s more interesting to see Wilkes’s escapades hearkening simultaneously forward and backward. To be sure, Wilkes became a symbol for radicals and reformers because subjects of Britain’s limited constitutional monarchy expected a great deal more than pre-1688 subjects did. In addition, eighteenth-century print culture and its robust public sphere provided Wilkes with the opportunity to act as something of an independent agent stirring the waters to better his position and challenge authority. Wilkes could be Wilkes in large part because of the modern opportunities available to private men to speak directly to the public and to chase popularity.
But Wilkes was also a minor Whig and creature of Pitt/Chatham. Pitt and Wilkes’s more immediate patrons, such as Earl Temple, could use him to say things in the North Briton that they wanted said, but that were inconvenient for them to say about the king and His Majesty’s intimates. In starting the North Briton, Wilkes operated in a venerable tradition occupied by royal critics such as the Elizabethan pamphleteer John Stubbs, who protested the Anjou Match on behalf of leading privy councilors. How unique was Wilkes when as far back as the 1580s members of Parliament and Lords Mayor of London (a position Wilkes eventually occupied) led, at the secret behest of crown advisors, violent protests against the embassies of Catholic monarchies? Even Protector Somerset knew the advantages of popularity and appeals to angry crowds and tried to deploy some of the riots often called Kett’s Rebellion to awe rivals at court. Pamphleteers and rowdy crowds were, in complex and not unambiguously edifying ways, part of nobles’ and gentlemen’s high politics for far longer than Cash allows.
Wilkes never fully severed his connections to Pitt. Even after publication of forty-four editions of the North Briton, the Grenville ministry...