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Wilkes and the Wilkites

Eighteenth century radicalism

Popular participation in politics stultified during reigns of GI and GII

Whig oligarchy after 1714 engendered period of apathy although radical philosophy lived on in independent MPs who resisted idea of political cartels, adhered to tradition of liberty and freedom characterised by right to trial by jury, habeas corpus, religious toleration, property rights, resistance to censorship, reporting parliamentary proceedings, opposition to standing armies, conscription, centralised police force or centralised tax collection.

1750s-60s saw rebirth of popular radicalism. Two differing interpretations of this:

a) owed much to industrialisation and growth of 'middle class' eg see D Wright, Popular Radicalism - he estimates middle class were 1 million [out of total population of 7 million] in 1760. Had wealth, education and independence to demand increased soicial status and political influence

b) socio-economic interpretation challenged by Namier/Tory school of historians eg Christie in Wilkes, Wyvill and Reform sees overtly political motive for rise of radicalsim. reform movement derived momentum from 'the resentments of frustrated minorities already in the enjoyment of constitutional rights who were unable to rectify circumstances of an entirely temporary character to which they were opposed'. Christie dates radical renaissance to start of Seven Years War - the nation triumphed over the Court when Pitt insisted that British interests should not be sacrificed to GII for his Hanoverian electorate. Pitt's resignation in 1761 and the uneasy peace in 1762 illlustrated the shallowness of that victory and need for institutional safeguards. rise of Bute, unpopular peace treaties, massacre of Pelhmaite innocents etc exacerbated these tensions and Wilkes affair was the inevitable consequence


London - popular radicalism centred on capital. Population was 1million. political predominance in City was exercised by 12-15,000 freemen with incomes of around £50-400 per annum. political leaders eg Alderman Wm Beckford MP and Lord Mayor increasingly resorted to extra parliamentary pressure and petitioning to redress grievances with national government with whom they constantly clashed. city had thriving radical culture - were 4 daily and 5-6 tri-weekly newspapers, assisted by satirical prints, broadsheets and cartoons. By 1740 there were 550 coffee houses aided by debating societies and clubs disseminating information.

Wilkes - 'middle class'. Father was wealthy distiller; educated as gentleman, married Bucks heiress and entered upper echelons of county society. Under patronage of Grenvilles of Stow entered Parliament in 1757. Had wit and charm although not a public speaker. Was a publicist of great skill, cultivated press by associating himself with idea of political liberty emanating from people.

General warrants affair

Bute carried on campaign against Bute and government in his paper the North Briton. After Bute's resignation, issue no. 45 carried trenchant attack on peace treaties. Government were determined to silence Wilkes and a series of arrests and searches were carried out using 'general warrants'. These were of doubtful legality and had not been used for a century. Wilkes challenged their use in the courts. Wilkes was expelled from Commons in order to be tried. Opposition groups rallied to the Wilkite cause.

Middlesex elections

In winter of 1767-8 Wilkes returned from exile abroad and launched election campaign first for City of London and then for Middlesex where he swept the poll. In December his lawyer John Glynn was elected in a by-election for Middx and Wilkes was elected an alderman for Farringdon polling 1300/1500 votes. Ministry took action and expelled Wilkes from House. He was re-elected three times. On the third occasion the House had to take the invidious step of decreeing that votes cast for Wilkes should not count and his opponent Henry Lawes Luttell was decalred elected.

Wilkes supporters

Wilkes main support from London and the Home counties. Wilkes found solid support among the merchants in London and other commercial cities. eg the coopers, hatters, jewellers of the London livery companies and freemen. He was also supported by the so-called London mob who chalked Wilkes and Liberty on the streets of the city; who smashed the windows of Lord Bute and Lord Egmont; who paraded the Boot and Petticoat in the streets and burned effigies of Luttrell outside the Tower of London. The great majority of these were labourers, servants, journeymen and petty traders. There is debate amongst historians about whether Wilkites were of the elite (eg Christie etc); bourgeois (Brewer) or from a broad social spectrum (Rudé) and the extent of that support.


The abuses of democratic and parliamentary procedure illustrated by Wilkes affair gave opposition a cause to rally around. It showed the need to reform the law and to purify the system of government and launched the eighteenth century reform movement that culminated in the 1832 Reform Act. After 1769 public opinion mattered and the nationwide political network developed by Wilkes' supporters was to provide a legacy for the next generation of reformers.