John Wilkes

On this date in 1727, Lord Mayor of London John Wilkes was born in England. He studied at Leyden University with fellow student Baron d'Holbach, who became a leading encyclopedist and rationalist. During a decade of social exploits as a member of the Hell-Fire Club, Wilkes was known for his witticisms, once announcing before a card game: "I am so ignorant that I cannot tell the difference between a king and a knave." Wilkes became High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire in 1754. He was elected a member of Parliament for Aylesbury in 1757, where he agitated for Parliamentary reform. He founded the periodical, North Briton, in 1762, to campaign against the king and his prime minister. Wilkes was prosecuted for seditious libel for an article appearing in April 1763. He was sent to the Tower but was released under parliamentary privilege. His Essay on Woman (1763), which was both bawdy and blasphemous, was burned by the hangman. Parliament voted to repeal the privilege of arrest for seditious writings, and Wilkes escaped arrest by fleeing to France, where he was welcomed by d'Holbach and Diderot. After Wilkes returned to England, he was elected Member of Parliament for Middlesex in 1768. A crowd of 15,000 assembled at the prison where Wilkes was detained, chanting "Damn the King." Troops opened fire and killed seven in the Massacre of St. George's Fields. Wilkes, sentenced to 22 months in prison, was expelled from the House of Commons. Voters nevertheless kept returning Wilkes. He was released from prison in 1770 and founded the Bill of Rights Society. After a long fight, he was seated. The Deist made a campaign for religious toleration a priority. When the House tried to bar London newspapers from publishing House debates about freedom of the press, arresting two of Wilkes' printers, Wilkes took quick action. His printers were released, there was a triumphant parade and British freedom of the press was secured. Wilkes was a supporter of Americans in the War of Independence. He became Lord Mayor of London in 1774. His popularity waned toward the end of his life as he became more conservative. D. 1797.

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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