The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 6. Wilkess literary triumph
His paper, The North Briton, may be regarded as the best example of its kind, the brief periodical pamphlet. It represents the type at which The Briton and the rest aimed, but which they could not reach. Like its congeners, it consisted of a weekly political essay. It was directed entirely to the object of overthrowing Bute and of reinstating the old group of whig families in alliance with Pitt. We notice at once in its polemic the scantiness of serious argument. Satire, ? scandal and depreciation in every form are there; but a real tangible indictment does not readily emerge from its effusions. In part, this peculiarity was due to the difficulty under which an opposition writer then lay in securing information and in publishing what information he possessed. When the preliminaries of peace or the jobbery of Bute’s loan issues gave Wilkes his opportunity, he could be cogent enough. But a more powerful reason lay in the main object of the paper. Bute was safe so long as he was not too unpopular: he had the king’s favour and a purchased majority in parliament. Therefore, he had to be rendered of no value to king and parliament. He was to be written down and to become the bugbear of the ordinary voter, while his supporters in the press were to be exposed to derision and thus deprived of influence. Wilkes and his allies in The North Briton were well equipped for this task. They were interesting and vivacious from the first, making the most of the suspicions excited by Bute. As the heat of battle grew and their case became stronger, the violence and abusiveness of their expressions increased till it reached the scale of their rivals. Still, even so, they continued to display an apt brutality wanting in the latter. In the earlier numbers, too, The Briton and The Auditor fell easy victims to the malicious wit of Wilkes. Perhaps the best instance of his fun is the letter which he wrote under a pseudonym to the unsuspecting Auditor, descanting on the value of Floridan peat, a mythical product, for mitigating the severity of the climate in the West Indies. An exposure followed in The North Briton; and poor Murphy could only refer to his tormentor afterwards as “Colonel Cataline.”