John Wilkes, an English radical, journalist and politician, was active in the late eighteenth century as a outspoken supporter of liberty. For Wilkes, liberty encompassed a wide range of freedoms – from freedom of the press through to freedom of religious belief. He put forward these views through both his writing and actions as a Member of Parliament and as an official of the City of London (where he served as an alderman, City Sheriff and Lord Mayor).
It was through the political magazine, the North Briton, that Wilkes made his mark. With each weekly edition from June 1762 to April 1763, Wilkes was critical of the government – led by George III’s Scottish favourite, Lord Bute. Over the course of its 45 issues, Wilkes argued against the appointment of the King’s favourites to government posts (in particular, the appointment of Scottish men); the government’s conduct of conflict with France and Spain (the Seven Years’ War); and the censure of the press in the reporting of government and parliamentary business.
Wilkes’ attack on the 1763 Peace of Paris – and criticism of George III – in issue 45 of the North Briton saw him arrested and prosecuted for seditious libel. His release from custody (on the grounds of parliamentary privilege) led to shouts of ‘Wilkes and liberty’ from the supportive crowd which had gathered at Westminster Hall. However, Wilkes had to flee from the country to avoid imprisonment after he was expelled from parliament and outlawed. He remained abroad, in France and Italy, for four years, but then returned to England and successfully engineered a return to political life – serving within the City of London and then as a Member of Parliament for Middlesex in 1774. During this period, he was a key figure in the successful campaign for press freedom to report on parliamentary debate by establishing a safe haven for newspaper printers in the City of London.
Through the library’s resources, you can discover for yourself what Wilkes had to say on the theme of liberty. We hold copies of the North Briton which can be consulted in the Special Collections’ reading room. Alternatively, University of Glasgow staff and students can consult electronic copies through our subscriptions to the Burney Collection of 17th & 18th Century Newspapers and the British Periodicals Collection. (Please note that the Library is unable to provide access to these electronic editions to individuals who are not members of the University.) We also hold a selection of books on John Wilkes and his place in eighteenth century politics – do a quicksearch on John Wilkes to find out more!
Dr Brown’s lecture is this evening (15th January) at 5.30pm in room 611 of the Boyd Orr Building. The seminar is free and open to all, but if you can’t make it, you can also read an abridged version in today’s Scotsman newspaper