John Wilkes

On this date in 1727, John Wilkes, future lord mayor of London, was born in England. He studied at Leyden University. 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 and was elected a member of Parliament for Aylesbury in 1757, where he agitated for 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 and 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 Baron d’Holbach and Diderot. After Wilkes returned to England, he was arrested. A crowd of 15,000 assembled at the prison where he was held, chanting “Damn the King.” Troops opened fire and killed seven in the Massacre of St. George’s Fields.

Wilkes, sentenced to 22 months, was expelled from the House of Commons but voters reelected him. After a long fight he was seated. A deist, he made a campaign for religious toleration a priority. Wilkes supported America 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. He died at age 72 in London of a disease known at the time as marasmus. (D. 1797)

Freedom From Religion Foundation