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LIBERTY AND THE LIBERTINE
(Book Review, John Wilkes, The Times, 11th March 2006)

"WILKES AND LIBERTY" they cheered as this courageous politician and publisher made George III's ministers account in court for their abuses of Government power. It is a poor reflection on our own royalty-besotted historians that they have produced no definitive biography of this champion of free speech who inspired Voltaire, influenced the first ten amendments to the American Constitution and made an Englishman's home his castle. It has taken an American to tell the story of the man who should be living at this hour.

Wilkes was born in 1725 to a father who was a brewer and a mother who had wealth from a family tannery, sufficient to pay for their brilliant son's rapid progress as a scholar (he was proposed for the Royal Society at 28) and to establish him as a country squire. They arranged his marriage ("I was a schoolboy dragged to the altar," he later complained) to a well-to-do but much older woman whose interest in sex shut down after the birth of their daughter, Polly. That may explain, if not excuse, the unapologetic rakishness that made him so easy to like and so difficult to defend.

Professor Cash is coy about "the Hellfire Club", in which young squire Wilkes and his aristocratic friends dressed as monks and cavorted drunkenly with prostitutes in the caves of High Wycombe. He paints this example of infantile sexual exhibitionism in the upper-class male as if it were a decorous scene from Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. For Wilkes it was a passing phase: his later relationships with women were lengthier (and warmer). He was cross-eyed and ugly, and admitted that he needed "twenty minutes to talk away my face" -after that he was great company, enjoyed by his lovers and by the leading scholars and politicians of the age.

The rake's progress was swift. He was elected an MP and opposed the Government through anonymous polemics in The North Briton. Edition No 45 -an attack on the King's speech to Parliament -provoked the Home Secretary to issue "general warrants" authorising government agents to search anywhere and seize anything. The warrants were executed by force against Wilkes and various printers by the Treasury Solicitor, Philip Cateret Webb, a sinister half-blind spymaster who fabricated evidence and delighted in seizing Wilkes's stock of condoms. Parliament abandoned him. The lickspittle Commons removed his MPs' privilege against prosecution and ordered The North Briton to be burnt by the common hangman. The Lords went further: Webb had seized (and tarted up) copies of The Essay on Women, a rude poetic satire that Wilkes was printing privately for friends. Lord Sandwich (famous for declining to rise from his gaming table for lunch, ordering instead "two slices of bread with something in between") read the poem to the House, declaring that:

"... life can little more supply Than just a few good fucks and then we die."

This was a golden moment in the history of British hypocrisy. Sandwich faltered, but their lordships shouted "Go on, go on" before condemning Wilkes for publishing an obscene and blasphemous libel. Wilkes had the last laugh -to Sandwich's suggestion that he would die either by hanging or the pox, he famously quipped: "That depends on whether I embrace your lordship's principles or your mistress."

But by now his public career seemed in ruins.

Wilkes counter-attacked: he had the London mob onside and lawyers prepared to sue the Government. The cases were heard by Charles Pratt (later Lord Camden) the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. He ruled that "general warrants" were unlawful and he awarded exemplary damages to Wilkes and the printers whose homes and offices had been ransacked illegally. His decision was a milestone in constitutional law, followed in the courts today. The mob, insightfully, now chanted "Pratt, Wilkes and liberty forever!" Without Pratt's courage and legal acumen, Wilkes would be half the hero he was then and remains today.

These great victories were in civil law, but the Government controlled the criminal process. Wilkes left for Paris, so it had him tried and convicted in absentia. Bravely, he returned to take his punishment -two years in prison, during which he was re-elected three times to a Parliament that twice refused to admit him. Having won another battle for MPs' privilege, he became, in due course, the first to propose democracy when he tabled a motion calling for universal male suffrage. He went on to become a popular Lord Mayor of London and was elected as the City's "chamberlain" (treasurer), a task he undertook with probity and prudence.

Cash tells this colourful story well, although he does not really comprehend the class divisions of the time, and his claim that The Essay on Women is "the dirtiest poem in the English language" is naive -although the book would benefit, in paperback, from republishing it. There are some delightful descriptions of Wilkes at home with the real love of his life -his loyal daughter Polly -and at verbal play with friends such as Boswell and Joshua Reynolds.

The most revelatory material concerns Wilkes and the American colonists, whose cause he supported in Parliament throughout the war. Cash speculates -the evidence is ambiguous -that Wilkes may even have risked his neck by assisting them with guns and money. Certainly he tried to impeach "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne for war crimes, because he hired Indians to scalp rebel soldiers. Wilkes may (or may not) have met Tom Paine one evening in Lewes, but the charisma of the libertine Lord Mayor and the prose of the Collector of Customs inspired the American Revolution. Wilkes was ever-present in the mind of Madison, and hence his spirit resided forever in the US Constitution just as his name abounds in that nation's geography (Wilkesboro, Wilkes County, Wilkes University).

Yet he remains (like Paine), a prophet dishonoured in his own country: no postage stamps, no television programmes, no definitive biography. His cause of civil liberty is now inconvenient: Parliament has brought back "general warrants" and free speech curbs under the guise of terrorism laws; the elected Lord Mayor is ludicrously "suspended" for robust expression, while editors accept D-notices docilely and are afraid to publish cartoons. This biography serves as a timely reminder that freedom of speech without the right to shock or offend is no freedom at all.

 

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