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Eighteenth Century Radicalism

Popular participation in politics had somewhat stultified during the reigns of the first two Georges. However, the English radical tradition could not be obliterated by the years of conservatism and oligarchy after 1714. There was a vigorous resistance to ruling cartels and an overwhelming sense of liberty and freedom among the English. Freedom before the law including the right to trial by jury was enshrined in the English legal tradition; the settlement of 1688 confirmed the right of parliamentary government, habeas corpus, religious toleration and property rights; the overt censorship of books and the press lapsed in 1695; the reporting of parliamentary proceedings in the press dated back to the 1730s. Any attempts to extend standing armies, erect military barracks or centralise the police forces or tax collection met with fierce resistance. The rebirth of political radicalism which occurred in the 1750s and 1760s owed much to the industrialisation and urbanisation of the country and the fact that such changes nurtured the growth of an increasingly acquisitive middle class. Wright in his study of Popular Radicalism estimates that this amounted to one out of a population of seven million in 1760. They had the wealth education and independence to demand increased social status and political influence and were becoming increasingly distressed with the behaviour and policies of the ruling landed aristocratic elite. However, this social and economic interpretation of the rise of radicalism has been challenged by those historians like Namier who fall into the 'Tory' school. Christie, in his book, Wilkes, Wyvill and Reform, sees an overtly political motive for the increase in radical activity after the accession of George III and argues that the reform movement in Britain derived its 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'.


The initial forays into radicalism were centred on the city of London. Within the city political predominance was exercised by 12-15,000 freemen who had incomes of between £50 and £400 per year and included lesser merchants, tradesmen and master craftsmen. Their political leaders, notably Alderman William Beckford, the City MP and Lord Mayor resorted increasingly to a petitioning movement and extra parliamentary pressure to redress grievances with the national government.

Wilkes was of middle class extraction - his father was a wealthy distiller in Clerkenwell. He was educated as a gentleman including a spell at University abroad. He married a Buckinghamshire heiress and through her was able to enter the upper echelons of county society. Under the patronage of the Grenvilles of Stow, Temple Grenville being brother to George, First Lord of the Treasury from April 1763 to July 1765, Wilkes entered parliament in 1757. Wilkes had tremendous wit and charm, though he was not a great public speaker, but was also ambitious, reckless and impetuous. Above all he was a publicist of immense skill and he cultivated the press by associating himself with the abstract cause of liberty and portraying political power as emanating from the people. But the Wilkite movement was far more than merely the character of Wilkes himself. Indeed Wilkes told George III that he was not a Wilkite. He simply provided the focus for the discontent among the middle classes of London and elsewhere providing a cause for the amorphous group of radicals to rally around.

From mid 1762 Wilkes had been carrying on a campaign against Bute in his paper the North Briton. A fortnight after Butes reignation in 1763 issue number 45 of the North Briton contained a trenchant attack on the peace treaties. To secure evidence against Wilkes a series of arrests and searches were undertaken under the legitimacy of general warrants issued directly by secretaries of state. These had been used for nearly a century but were of doubtful legality. Temple Grenville made available funds to challenge the use of the warrants in the courts and they were subsequently found to be illegal. Furthermore Wilkes was arrested whilst he was an MP and this was found by the courts to be a breach of parliamentary privilege. Thus in order to secure his trial, the ministry with the support of the Commons directed that Wilkes should be expelled from the House. Wilkes was successful in his campaign but had been injured in a duel with a government supporter and had legal proceedings against him pending and so fled to exile on the continent. He returned in 1768 and began his campaign to be elected to parliament. Once elected as MP for Middx he surrendered to the authorities and was sentenced to 22 months in the King’s bench prison for his authorship of the article in the North Briton.

In the winter of 1767-8 with the approach of a general election the state of the electoral system attracted renewed attention. The corporation of Oxford was discovered in an attempt to sell its representation in order to pay off its debts. Wilkes began his election campaign for the City of London. In the London election he was successful but stood for Middlesex and swept the poll. Wilkes election sparked off riots and demonstrations in Westminster, the City of London and in Southwark, these came to a head on 10 May 1768 when a crowd gathered by the prison in St George’s Fields to cheer the imprisoned Wilkes and were shot on by troops, killing a number of protesters. For this he was ejected from his seat at Middx but as often as the government expelled Wilkes the people reelected him until the government was forced to declare the candidate with the minority of votes elected. In December, Serjeant John Glynn, Wilkes' counsel in his libel trial succeeded in a byelection in Middlesex and support for Wilkes was at its zenith when he stood as an alderman in Farringdon and polled 1300 out of 1500 votes.

Support for Wilkes had now spread beyond London and there were 55,000 signatures on petitions in support of his cause. After 1769 public opinion mattered in politics and the nationwide political network developed by Wilkes supporters was to provide a legacy for the reformers of the next generation. Wilkites were strongly committed to reform. Fought for liberty of press and argued for more frequent elections, the removal of placemen from the Commons and a more fair and equal representation. They moved from particular grievances to demands for a structural reform programme although historians debate the precise nature of the radicals’ demands, the legitimacy of their grievances and the extent of their support. They spearheaded Wilkite activity in the courts, exploited loopholes, generated drama from the courtroom. Wilkite view of the law was dominated by four main themes: accountability; the elimination of partial justice; right to trial by jury; and governing by public consent rather than by force. These were not new complaints or only held by Wilkites. Wilkites used cases for their own political ends: eg the printers cases of 1771. These centred on the right of newspapers to publish parliamentary debates.

Portrayals of popular Wilkite politics

Popular plebeian politics is seen in Wilkite images as form of disorder. This includes not only the political riot but also political debates in taverns and coffee houses where politics is portrayed as contentious and divsive. Ramshackle buildings, unkempt rooms, dishevelled dress etc convey the disorderliness of popular politics. Popular prints also condemned social emulation. Eg in tailor riding to Brentford is disparagement of the humble man’s desire to exceed their station and emulate the rich. The tailor whose radical sympathies are indicated by the favour marked Wilkes and Liberty that he wears in his hat is precariously mounted on a hired horse on the way to the Middx hustings at Brentford. His unsteadiness hints at a forthcoming fall and the rules for bad horsemen is displayed in his pocket. Exceeding one’s station in politics or horsemanship is foolish and harzardous. Echoed by the blacksmith who neglects his work for ill-informed and idle gossip.

Wilkes supporters

Wilkes main support came from London and the Home counties although there was sporadic support for him from all over Britain. The Wilkite movement has been described as ‘essentially a product of the metropolis’. Wilkes found solid support among the merchants in London and other commercial cities. The more wealthy merchants, bankers and government contractors were not surprisingly hostile to Wilkes and his radical ideas but the middling tradesmen supported him wholeheartedly 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.


Were the eighteenth century reform and agitation movements really radical? The reformers’ ideal was a broad, propertied oligarchy in which the lower orders should accept their place. They sought to make the Commons more representative but had no wish to curb the powers of the monarchy or reform the House of Lords. They did not envisage any great redistribution of wealth. They emphasised lower taxes and cheaper more economical government but not poor relief or reform of economic injustices. Private property rights were still sacrosanct. However, the concentration of Christie and others on 'big name' and overtly political causes of the radicalism of the eighteenth century pushes one towards this conclusion by concentrating on the organisations themselves and their representatives rather than looking at their supporters in the country at large as Rudé and Brewer attempt to do in their studies of the social causes of the agitation. Radical opinion from at least 1780 endorsed the principle of the sovereignty of the people and the derivation of political power from the populace. Even those without the vote were represented by the social and economic superiors it was argued. People were now involved in the political debate and had to be addressed by politicians. In the general election of 1784 for example Kelly discovered that radicals took an active role in shaping public opinion and imposing electoral pledges on candidates. But the supporters of Wilkes were largely upper and middle class. The political nation did not yet include wage earners and labourers. In some ways they were innately conservative movements concerned with the restoration as they saw it of a mythical balance of power that had existed after 1688. The 'mob' played a peripheral role in the disquiet of the period and often took to the streets for reasons other than political ones. Indeed in the Wilkes case there were often fights between the Wilkites who Rudé has found to be wage earners, lesser craftsmen and apprentices rather than criminals, vagrants and the very poor and groups like the merchant seamen and journeymen who protested loyalty to the Crown.