Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 5. Wilkes and The North Briton

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XVII. Political Literature

§ 5. Wilkes and The North Briton

The publication of The Briton provoked the appearance of the only one of these fugitive periodicals which has any reputation, The North Briton, edited by John Wilkes. That demagogue, on whom the mob-ruling mantle of Sacheverell descended, was sprung from a middle class family, typical of a respectability alien to the manners of its celebrated scion. He was born in 1727, and was the son of a maltster of Clerkenwell. He received a good education from a presbyterian minister and at the university of Leyden; and, before he was twenty-one, married, by his father’s desire, an heiress much his senior in years. His wife and her mother were dissenters, and he was gallant and gay. Wilkes grew steadily estranged from his home and soon exceedingly dissipated. A separation from his wife was arranged, and he plunged into a course of profligate living in town. He became a member of the Hellfire club, which met at Medmenham abbey and included the most noted rakes of the day. It was in the midst of these wild orgies that he took up politics. In 1755, he obtained a seat in the commons as a member for Aylesbury, where his wife’s estate lay. He was a follower of Pitt and hoped for some promotion—the embassy in Constantinople would have been most congenial to him—from his patron. But George III was king, and Bute intervened. His hopes of repairing his shattered fortunes having thus vanished, Wilkes turned to journalism for his revenge upon the favourite, whose incompetence filled him with indignation. After producing a successful pamphlet concerning the breach with Spain, he proceeded to send contributions to The Monitor, in which he developed with much ingenuity the history of contemporary foreign favourites, and left his readers to point the obvious moral. Then, on the appearance of The Briton, he, in June, 1762, started his rival print, The North Briton. Week by week, the new periodical continued its attacks on the government. It showed itself bold, to start with, in printing the ministers’ names in full, without the usual subterfuges of dashes and stars; and it grew bolder as it went on, and as the odium into which Bute had fallen became more obvious. Nothing, however, gave a handle to the authorities by which, even under the existing law of libel, the writers could be brought to book, although The Monitor was subjected to lengthy legal proceedings. At last, Wilkes overstepped the line in No. 45, which bitterly impugned the truthfulness of the speech from the throne regarding the peace of Paris. The long government persecution of the libeller, which followed the publication of No. 45, and which finally resulted in the abolition of the tyrannic system of general warrants, also snuffed out The North Briton. The paper was subsequently revived; but it proved only the ghost of its former self. Wilkes, on the other hand, had yet to play the part of a full-fledged demagogue in his contest with king and parliament concerning the Middlesex election of 1768. Triumphant at last, he ended his life in 1797 as chamberlain of London and a persona grata with George III. In all his vicissitudes, he had kept in touch with public opinion.

It is not easy to describe the blackguard charm of Wilkes. Notoriously self-interested and dissolute, ugly and squinting, he enjoyed a popularity by no means confined to the mob. Much may be ascribed to the singular grace of his manners. Even Johnson fell a victim to these. But he, also, possessed some very obvious virtues. He was brave, good-humoured and adroit. He had a sort of selfish kindliness. He was, moreover, manifestly on the right side:few people had any love for general warrants or for the infringement of the liberty of election. And he turned all these advantages to account.