JOHN WILKES, ESQ., M.P.
Whose arrest and conviction for writing seditious and blasphemous pamphlets led to riots in London in 1768.
The year 1768 will ever be remembered in the annals of the English history, on account of the murders and mischief committed by a deluded mob, stimulated by the writings of John Wilkes, Esq. an alderman of London, and member of parliament for Aylesbury.
The most scandalous and offensive of his writings, were in a periodical publication called "The North Briton," No. 45, and a pamphlet entitled "An Essay on Woman." The North Briton was of a political nature; the other a piece of obscenity; the one, calculated to set the people against the government, the other to corrupt their morals.
Among the ministers who found themselves more personally attacked in the North Briton, was Samuel Martin, Esq. member for Camelford. This gentleman found his character, as secretary of the treasury, so vilified, that he challenged the writer to fight him. Wilkes had already been engaged in a duel with Lord Talbot, and escaped unhurt; but Mr. Martin shot him in the body, of which wound he laid in imminent danger, during several days, and was confined to his house for some weeks.
The attorney-general filed informations against Wilkes, as author of the North Briton, No. 45, and a pamphlet emitted "An Essay on Woman." On these charges he was appre hended and committed prisoner to the Tower, but soon admitted to bail. His papers were forcibly seized, for which be charged the secretaries of state with a robbery, and which was afterwards, by the court of the King's Bench, determined to have been illegal.
Before his trial came on, Mr. Wilkes fled to France, under the pretext of restoring his health, which had suffered from his wound, and the harrassing measures taken against him by the secretaries of state, lord Egremont and lord Halifax. No sooner was he out of the kingdom, than they proceeded to outlaw him, dismissed him from his command as colonel of the Buckinghanishire militia, and expelled him from this seat in parliament.
But even a foreign land did not shelter him from the resentment of his fellow subjects. On the 15th of August, captain Forbes, in the British service, met Wilkes walking with lord Palmelston in Paris, and though he had never seen either of them, yet, from a drawing, he conceived one of them to be the man who had so much abused his native country, Scotland. Finding his conjecture right, he told Wilkes, that, as the author of the North Briton, he must fight him, and Mr. Wilkes referred him to his hotel; but when Mr. Forbes got an interview with him, which he stated to have been attended with much difficulty, he was answered that Mr. Wilkes would meet no man in combat, until he had fought lord Egremont, whom he could not challenge while he held his high official station under government.
The captain insisted to no purpose; and then calling him a scoundrel, threatened him with a caning, on their next meeting in the public streets. Lord Egremont's death, which happened at this juncture, released Wilkes from his pretended sanguinary determination against that nobleman.
In a few months Mr. Wilkes returned to London, and gave notice, that he would, on a certain day, surrender himself on the information filed against him. He then appeared in his place as an alderman at Guildhall; and on his return, the mob took the horses from his carriage, and dragged it to his house, crying, "Wilkes and Liberty!"
On the 21st of February, 1764, the trial of Mr. Wilkes for the libels before-mentioned, came on before lord Mansfield, and he was found guilty of both. More than two years were occupied in law proceedings on the validity of his apprehension, the seizure of his papers, and the outlawry, the detail of which would afford little entertainment to our readers.
On the 27th of April, 1768, Mr. Wilkes was served with a writ of Capias Ut Logatum, and he appeared before the court of King's Bench, in the custody of the proper officer. His counsel moved to admit him to bail, but it was opposed by the counsel for the crown; who contended that no precedent could be produced of a person under a criminal conviction being admitted to bail, for, by such an indulgence it might be said, that a man who flies from justice, and is thereupon outlawed, would be in a better state than the man who submits to it; in the latter case, after conviction, he must remain in custody until sentence is passed; whereas, in the former case, he would be at large.
The court was convinced by this argument, and Mr. Wilkes was ordered to the King's Bench prison. In his way thither, the coach in which he was carried, was stopt by the mob, who took off the horses and dragged it, with him, through the city, to a public- house, in Spital-fields, where they permitted him to alight. From thence, about eleven at night, he made his escape, and immediately proceeded towards the prison, where he surrendered himself.
The next day he was visited by many of his friends, and the prison was surrounded by a vast concourse of people, who, it was feared, would have offered some outrage; but all remained quiet until night, when they pulled up the rails which inclosed the footway, with which they made a bonfire, and obliged the inhabitants of the borough of Southwark, to illuminate their houses; nor would they disperse until the arrival of a captain's guard of soldiers.
From this time a mob constantly surrounded the King's Bench prison for several days. At length the justices appeared, followed by the military, the riot-act was read, and the mob not dispersing, the soldiers were ordered to fire upon them. Many were killed, and among them some passers-by, at a considerable distance from the scene of confusion.
On the 28th the case of the outlawry was finally argued in the court of King's Bench; serjeant Glynn, on the part of Mr. Wilkes, greatly added to his reputation, as a sound lawyer, and was ably answered by the attomey-general; but the judges, though they somewhat differed in their reasons on the illegality of the outlawry, were unanimous in their opinion, that it should be reversed. This was a great point obtained by Mr. Wilkes, and obnoxious as he was to government, the determination, consistent with law, was upright and honourable in the learned bench.
Mr. Wilkes was not, however, destined to clear himself by this single point gained, for the attorney-general immediately moved, that judgment might be passed upon him on his several convictions. The prisoner's counsel upon this, moved an arrest of judgment; and the court appointed the next Thursday to hear the arguments thereon. The general warrant on which Mr. Wilkes was apprehended, was also declared illegal.
These determinations will shew the reader, that however great a man's crimes, he must be proceeded against according to the strict letter of the law of the land. In this respect Mr. Wilkes was hardly dealt with, and he took especial care to promulgate those hardships to the people.
In his address to his constituents, the freeholders of Middlesex, he says,
"in the whole progress of ministerial vengeance against me for several years, I have shewn, to the conviction of all mankind, that my enemies have trampled on the laws, and have been actuated by the spirit of tyranny and arbitrary power.
"The general warrant under which I was first apprehended has been judged illegal. The seizure of my papers was condemned judicially. The outlawry, so long the topic of violent abuse, is, at last, declared to have been contrary to law; and on the ground first taken by my friend, Mr. Serjeant Glynn, is formally reversed."
On the day apppinted for that purpose, the last effort was made to get rid of the remainder of the proceedings against Mr. Wilkes. The arguments for an arrest of judgment, though carried on with great ingenuity, would not hold, and he was found legally convicted of writing the libels. For that in The True Briton, he was fined 500L. and sentenced to two years imprisonment in the King's Bench prison; and for The Essay on Woman, 500L. more, a farther imprisonment of twelve months, and to find security for his good behaviour for seven years.
Previous to his imprisonment, Mr. Wilkes was elected member of parliament for Middlesex, when the mob proceeded to various acts of outrage. They broke the windows of lord Bute, the prime minister, and of the mansion-house, even that of the lady mayoress's bed-chamber, forced the inhabitants of the metropolis to illuminate their houses, crying out, "Wilkes and Liberty!" and all who refused to echo it back, were knocked down. The outrages of the populace, were too many to be enumerated; several innocent people were killed, and numbers wounded. They broke windows without number, destroyed furniture, and even insulted royalty itself.
Thus we find, that Wilkes was long the idol of the mob, but like all other such leaders, he fell into oblivion, and passed through the crowd with as little notice as any other man. He greatly wished to possess the chamberlainship of London, but the better class of citizens were too wary to trust him with their cash, and after a contested election for that lucrative place, alderman Hopkins was chosen.
The metropolis, as well as various other parts of the kingdom, had not been so convulsed with riots and partial insurrections since the civil wars, as during the short time of Wilkes's popularity.
These disgraceful tumults, and the lenity, or as some would have it, the timidity of government, spread disaffection into all classes of mechanics, who, thinking the time at hand, when they might exact what wages they pleased, and perhaps beyond their masters' profits, struck their work.
The Watermen of the Thames assembled in a body before the mansion-house, and complained to the lord-mayor of the low prices of their fares, when his lordship advised them to draw up a petition to parliament, which he would himself present, upon which they gave him three cheers and departed.
The Spitalfields Weavers proceeded to greater outrages. A great number of them forcibly entered the house of Mr. Nathaniel Fair, in Pratt's-alley, cut to pieces and destroyed the silk-work manufactory in two different looms. They forcibly entered the house of his relation, Mrs. Elizabeth Pratt, in the same alley, and murdered a lad of seventeen years of age, by shooting hun through the head with a pistol loaded with slugs. A reward was offered for apprehending these rioters, and his Majesty's pardon offered to him who discovered the murderer.
The Sawyers assembled in large bodies, pulled down the saw-mill, lately erected at a great expence, on pretence that it deprived many workmen of employment. They also wanted more wages.
The Hatters at the same time struck, and demanded encreased wages; but we do not hear of any outrages being committed by them.
The Labouring Husbandmen rose in several parts of England, in order to reduce the price of grain.
At Tenderton, in Kent, a paper was pasted on the church door, threatening the farmers, if they refused to sell their wheat at 10L. a load, and the millers, if they gave more; and exciting all the poor to assemble, and raise a mob, and those who refused were to have their right arms broke. At Hastings in Sussex, the mob committed various outrages on the farmers in That neighbourhood, and threatened the life of a justice of the peace for attempting to commit one of them to prison.
The Journeymen Coopers at Liverpool also rose in a body, and in a cruel manner forced one of their masters on a pole, and carried him through the streets, pretending he had hurt their trade.
The Subalterns of the Army and Marines also petitioned, though not in a tumultuous manner, for an increase of pay which being granted, they assembled at the Globe Tavern, in the Strand, and deputed lieutenant Carrol to wait upon the Marquis of Granby, and General Conway, to return them thanks for their support on that occasion.
The Lieutenants of the Navy, followed their example, and deputed one of their rank to return thanks to the honourable Captain Henry, for his unvarying perseverance in obtaining them the addition to their pay, of one shilling per day.
The Sailors also followed the example of the landsmen, went in a body of many thousands, with drums beating and colours flying, to St. James's Palace, and presented a petition to the king, praying a "Relief of Grievances." Two days afterwards they assembled in much greater numbers, and proceeded as far as Palace-yard in order to petition parliament for an increase of wages; where they were addressed by two gentlemen standing on the top of a hackney-coach, who told them that their petition could not be immediately answered, but that it would be considered and answered in due time, where upon the tars gave three cheers, and for a while dispersed. A short time, however, afterwards, they assembled at Limehouse, boarded several outward-bound ships, and forcibly carried away several of their crews, under pretence of not suffering ships to sail, until the seamens' wages were increased.