Scribbling Rascal

Leslie Mitchell

  • John Wilkes by Peter D.G. Thomas
    Oxford, 280 pp, £25.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 19 820544 9

With a lamentable record in actually winning power, English Radicals have been content to comment on, be rude about and occasionally constrain those in office. To be tolerated by a conservative majority, a Radical should be as patriotic as any right-wing xenophobe, so disreputable in private life and judgment that the country would have no qualms about denying him office, and so good-hearted that the rumour could get about that Radicalism was really nothing more than a misplaced desire to tease. John Wilkes met all these criteria, and was therefore much loved.

Peter Thomas has produced the first serious study of Wilkes for some years. This neglect is surprising, in that Wilkes was the quintessential English Radical. With few teeth, a pronounced lisp and one of the most famous squints in history, he leers out of Hogarth’s cartoon with a beguiling invitation to naughtiness. He was as corrupt as his age, buying his way into the representation of Aylesbury with what he called ‘palmistry’. He always lived splendidly beyond his means, betraying patrons like Grafton and taking advances from publishers for books which never progressed beyond a few pages. He borrowed, overspent, and made a will which disbursed sums that did not exist.

In addition, Wilkes was a libertine. He had little or no religion, but an inclination for sexual adventures that lasted well into old age. In this respect, his apprenticeship was served in the Hell Fire Club, and he learnt his trade well. His life was all ‘blasphemy and bawdry’. Unlike some rakes, however, he looked after his mistresses and acknowledged his bastards. Sadly, the history of his conquests occupies only a few pages of this Life. Instead of speculating about what actually went on in those caves in West Wycombe, Thomas joins Wilkes’s contemporaries in calling his behaviour ‘profligate’. No doubt it was, but it had a significance in giving Radicalism a bad name: critics of Wilkes could dismiss his politics as merely the mechanism by which a reprobate made a mark. His views had no substance in themselves. He had to ‘raise a dust or starve in jail’.

Thomas is much happier in Westminster, and this is a severely Parliamentary biography. By page four, Wilkes has reached adulthood and is standing for Parliament. Thereafter, Wilkite Radicalism is all votes, debates, amendments and City conspiracies. There will never be a better guide through the complexities of the General Warrants affair and the Middlesex Elections. Could someone be arrested on the authority of a warrant issued by government, in which he was not specifically named? Could Parliament declare that Wilkes was unfit for the office of MP, or did electors have the absolute right to choose anyone, even an outlaw? These issues dragged government into a decade of wrangling, and gave Wilkes his chance to shine. Thomas is very good on the two factors that made it possible for his subject to be tolerated – namely, patriotism and the suspicion that he was essentially a showman, who had no real wish to upset authority.

Much in Wilkes’s programme was pleasantly familiar. The complaint that the actions of ministers were illegal or corrupt had characterised ‘Country’ attitudes earlier in the century. Some of Wilkes’s proposed remedies were a little more radical than those that had been proposed before, but still broadly within an English tradition Arguably, Wilkes was English before he was Radical. France for him was a refuge, but never a substitute or a model. Unlike Burke or Pitt, he liked Paris, and described himself as ‘never so happy’ as when he was in the French capital. He knew the language and he knew French women. He corresponded with d’Holbach and Suard. He flattered himself that ‘Voltaire caresses me enough to turn my head,’ but insisted that he was ‘no French renegade’. Wilkes’s francophilia never led him to be accused of unpatriotic sentiments, as happened with so many members of the Whig party. No one was surprised, in1794, to see him raising a corps of Loyal London Volunteers to stop a French invasion reaching the Guildhall.

He was so patriotic that even his sympathy for the sufferings of his admirers in America had limits. Of course, successive governments had mishandled the situation. Of course, he wrote encouragingly to the brave, liberty-loving lads of Boston, and accepted presents of turtles from the Carolinas. Americans like Arthur Lee were prominent in his London campaigns, but, though he happily joined American grievances to his own when it suited his purpose, he had little sympathy with actual rebellion and, after 1775, accused the Americans of following ‘levelling’ policies. Indeed, it was Wilkes’s lack of response to America that did most to damage his Radical credentials. In the end, it seemed, he preferred to stand with his countrymen rather than pursue principles that would have connected him with those living across the Atlantic or the English Channel. This made him, ultimately, a comfortable figure.

Equally reassuring was the sense that, at heart, Wilkes was as conservative as any of his compatriots. His well-publicised arguments with John Home Tooke and others inflicted terrible damage on metropolitan Radicalism. As Thomas ably demonstrates, this was less a matter of principle than personality. Tooke believed that funds collected for the work of the Bill of Rights Society were being diverted to pay off Wilkes’s personal debts. If Radicalism threatened to upset government in the Middlesex Elections, very soon afterwards it was divided. ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ was a powerful, unifying totem, but Wilkes the man set Radical against Radical. Horace Walpole presciently thought that by temperament he was a man who might be ‘dulled into prudence’. When he became an exemplary City magistrate, defending the Bank of England against the Gordon Rioters, there was little comment. When he became a steady supporter of George Ill’s friends after 1782, no one was surprised. At one point, he reputedly whispered an apology to Lord North for all the trouble he had caused. It was the English way: Radicals become conservatives, so Radicalism can be dismissed as the politics of the immature.

Wilkes did show some principle, on religious toleration for example, but never so much as to be tiresome, and this raises the central issue of his career. Why was such a man able to embarrass British governments for over a decade? On this point, Peter Thomas has a very clear argument to put. The Wilkes campaigns, with or without the assent of their leading actor, set Radicalism onto new paths. Before 1760, complaints about the structures of politics had come from within the political élite itself. They were the complaints of those who were ‘out’ and wished to be ‘in’. They corresponded to the ‘Country’ criticism of ‘Court’ politics that had been heard for a hundred years. Wilkite Radicalism was different. Its effectiveness lay in its ability to mobilise for the first time social groups who wished to criticise the whole of the élite and the politics it dominated. Politics ‘out of doors’, beyond the walls of Parliament, had arrived, and had found a focus in the unlikely figure of Wilkes. When Parliament surrendered on the issue of journalists reporting its debates, it was symbolically acknowledging that there were now wider terms of reference.

Thomas argues the point effectively, and when this study is set alongside the work of John Brewer and others, it seems undeniable that something odd was happening in the 1760s. All those shopkeepers and artisans, who voted for Wilkes over and over again, read recently-founded newspapers and laughed at cartoons that mocked the capabilities of their betters. Demands for change became endemic. Even the repression and John Bullism of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars never quite snuffed them out. Wilkes and his repeated martyrdoms contributed heavily to this development. He caught a mood and gave it an enduring definition. Wilkes the man, roguish and equivocal, was nothing. Wilkes the symbol was everything.

I have lingering doubts about how far this argument should be pressed. Enthusiasm for Wilkes was certainly genuine in parts, but it was also contrived. As Thomas himself tells us, Wilkite riots were often observed with approval by ‘gentlemen in coffee houses and on balconies’. Wilkes himself seems to have been able to summon up substantial sums of money at very short notice to finance his operations; the organisation of the Middlesex Elections was ruthlessly efficient. At different points, Temple, Grafton, Chatham, Portland and Rockingham acted as his patrons. Most of them came to regret their generosity, but, at the time, they could hardly have seen Wilkes as a new and powerful threat to the élite politics they represented.

Equally, Wilkite Radicalism had geographical limits. Attempts to generalise campaigns around the country were usually failures, unless an established interest, like John Trevanion’s in Dover, should be fortuitously behind them. Even in the metropolis, success could not be guaranteed. Before magnificently winning in Middlesex, Wilkes had ignominiously failed in an attempt to represent London. Perhaps the fires of Radicalism needed a little more stoking than has been suggested. Perhaps, too, high taxation, failed government policies and harvest failure were needed to give it its true potential. Rioters might have been as hungry for bread as for the niceties of English constitutionalism. Sawyers, as usual, took the opportunity of the Wilkite riots to destroy saw-mills. Almost certainly there was a new dynamic in the Radicalism that focused on Wilkes, but more established methods and motives in the causing of mischief were far from dead.

Attributing Wilkes’s success to a mixture of the spontaneous and the artificial may go some way to explaining why it was that many contemporaries, while suffering all the real inconveniences of his cheeky initiatives, could not in the end take the man seriously. Burke wrote to him and negotiated with him, but concluded only that he was ‘capable, as an incendiary, of doing some mischief’. Wraxall thought him ‘an incomparable comedian’. George III took him seriously, but then he took everything seriously. For many of his subjects, Wilkes was simply someone ‘who wanted to be a fine gentleman and a man of taste, which he never could be, for God and nature had been against him’. In other words, he was a self-advertising showman. However deep his Radicalism, it lacked both the historical depth of Catharine Macaulay’s and the authority of the natural rights theories that attracted Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft. One is left with the feeling that Wilkes sincerely believed in the liberties of Old England because they allowed scribbling rascals like him to cut a figure.

What his career brings forcibly to light is how limited the options were when 18th-century governments faltered. In the 1760s, the members of the élite began to squabble with each other. They dramatically mismanaged America, and they had a lot of bad luck with the weather. Ruined crops and high bread prices introduced tension into any political debate. When protest occurred, as it inevitably did, British governments could not shoot people or lock them up with the ease of their Continental equivalents. When soldiers opened fire on a crowd of Wilkites in St George’s Fields, one or two corpses led to cries of ‘massacre’. In circumstances such as these, men like Wilkes took their opportunity: whether his career accurately demonstrates the new strength of Radicalism or the old vulnerability of government in moments of crisis remains in doubt.