John Wilkes: The scandalous father of civil liberty by Arthur H Cash

Instead of libel trials, let's have duels
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The Independent Culture

'FREE FROM COCK to wig," was how the man on the street described John Wilkes, the great 18th-century radical politician and journalist. Cross-eyed and of pronounced jaw, dandyish in his three-cornered hat and fantastic dress, Wilkes loved books, booze, sex and freedom, and mixed them all up into a freewheeling, carefree, intensely lived life. In and out of prison, in and out of debt, in and out of exile, in and out of favour, in and out of courtesan's bedrooms... libertinism and liberty, those were his passions. In this superb biography, both scholarly and pacey, academic Arthur Cash provides a rollicking account of Wilkes's life while also painting a vivid portrait of a more rumbustious age, in all its pre-Industrial sociability, intimacy and moral laxity.

Despite his raucous behaviour, heavy drinking and promiscuity, Wilkes was well loved and admired by nearly everyone who encountered him for his cheerful spirits and scholarly conversation. Boswell became great friends with him and even Dr Johnson was grudgingly charmed by Wilkes on one occasion. Edward Gibbon, author of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, spent a day and night drinking with Wilkes when both were in the army:

"I scarcely ever met with a better companion; he has inexhaustible spirits, infinite wit, and humour, and a great deal of knowledge; but a thorough profligate in principle as in practice; his character is infamous, his life stained with every vice, and his conversation full of blasphemy and bawdy. These morals he glories in - for shame is a weakness he has long since surmounted..."

Wilkes became best known for his endless campaigns in favour of "English Liberty", or rather, against George III's government, under the Prime Minister Lord Bute, which, like most governments, was constantly making little efforts to erode its citizens' civil liberties. The word Liberty, as Cash explains, in the 18th century "suggested breaking away from restraint, usually breaking free of the Crown or the judiciary". Wilkes's name became virtually synonymous with liberty, and "Wilkes and Liberty!" was the chant of the mob when protesting against abuses of Crown and parliament.

In 1762 Wilkes began to write and publish a weekly political paper called the North Briton. Published anonymously - although its authorship was an open secret - to protect its author from libel actions, its purpose was to defend a free press and to savage unfair laws. He particularly attacked the excise taxes that were levied on cider production, because it allowed the authorities to break into people's houses to search for cider stores. It was number 45 of the North Briton that was to get Wilkes thrown into the Tower. In it he satirised a plea for a "spirit of concord" in the public from the King, saying: "A nation as sensible as the English, will see that a spirit of concord, when they are oppressed, means a tame submission to injury, and that a spirit of liberty ought to arise." This is a sentiment which would have been viewed as treasonable by the King.

A "general warrant" was drawn up, a procedure of the time which named the offence but not the offenders, and thereby gave government messengers the power to enter houses and arrest people on suspicion of involvement. In the case of North Briton 45, a public outcry over the number of arrests and the seizure of private papers led eventually to a change in the law, but not before Wilkes had been arrested and put in the Tower.

He was also in his younger days a publisher of obscene verse, and his "Essay on Woman", a bawdy parody of Pope's "Essay on Man", became a cause célèbre, despite only printing 13 copies. The title page showed an erect penis next to a ruler measuring 10 inches. Wilkes's enemy Lord Sandwich, himself a foulmouthed rake, read out the following excerpt in parliament:

Awake, my Fanny, leave all meaner things,

This morn shall prove what raptures swiving brings

Let us (since life can little more supply

Than just a few good fucks and then we die)

Expatiate free o'er that lov'd scene of Man;

A mighty Maze! For mighty pricks to scan.

I'm sure the intelligent reader can guess which physical act the Ango-Saxon word "swiving" signifies. There was "pandemonium" says Ash, some laughing, some sitting in shock, some nearly fainting. It's a wonderful scene, particularly as the whole house knew that the "Fanny" in the poem referred to Frances Rudman, a former mistress of Sandwich's. "Never before heard the devil preach a sermon against sin," remarked one nobleman.

The 18th century was still an age of duelling, and Wilkes sought satisfaction at least twice. In one duel he was injured. Duels seem like a much more efficient way of sorting out a quarrel than the courts, more entertaining, too. Imagine if Alan Rusbridger and Jonathan Aitken had instead decided to fight a duel in Hyde Park! Much more exciting, although of course the 18th century had the advantage of poor-quality guns which sometimes would not go off, and if they did were hopelessly inaccurate. Duels were not, therefore, quite as dangerous as you might have thought. Sometimes also both duellists, who neither wanted to kill nor be killed, would shoot into the air.

Today, of course, if we were to discover that a politician had indulged umpteen affairs, written obscene verses and fought duels with pistols, he'd be put through the wringer. Such behaviour though, did Wilkes's public image a lot of good: his love of private licence reflected his love of public liberty. His personal appearance was striking, too: he would walk around town wearing his tricornered hat, sword at his side, the kind of get-up that would literally get you arrested these days.

Another sign of Wilkes's fearless approach to life was his disregard for the many and large debts that he built up at different stages of his life. Somehow they were always paid off in the end, or written off, and Wilkes never seemed in the least bothered by them. Dandy, scholar, soldier, wit, lover, libertine, radical, Wilkes emerges in Cash's book as a sort of Nietzschean amoral superman, a yay-sayer to life, and the issues around Liberty and government interference are strikingly relevant today. The story would make a superb movie, and congratulations to the amiable Cash for having produced this terrific read. After finishing the last page I turned back to the beginning in order to enjoy it all over again.