Biography of Colorful English Politician John Wilkes Part 2

About the colorful English politician John Wilkes, his biography including his love of women and affairs and his reform work.

JOHN WILKES (1725-1797). Colorful English politician.

With the aid of his onetime friend Lord Sandwich, evidence was gathered about Wilkes's activities in the Hellfire Club. Lord Sandwich, who invented the "sandwich" because he gambled so compulsively that he had no time to eat his meat from a plate, spared no effort to damage Wilkes, and he gathered information about the "Essay on Woman." Both the "Essay on Woman" and Wilkes's attack on King George were declared obscene and libelous and he was banished from England. He spent 4 years in France, from whence he had the gall to advise his sovereign that all was well and that he was "engaging in amorous delights."

In 1768, Wilkes got restless and decided to cross the English Channel to face his punishment. He accepted a 2-year prison term in exchange for permission to return home, but his followers didn't, and great crowds gathered outside his prison to protest his innocence. When government troops put down a near riot--many lives were lost during this demonstration--Wilkes wrote a paper exposing the troops' brutal suppression and won still more popular support. He was elected to Parliament 3 times while in prison, the Government denying him his rightful seat, and because of his plight the lower classes were made more aware of their own disenfranchisement. His supporters grew stronger and more numerous; they rioted; there were general strikes; "Wilkes and Liberty" was shouted as a slogan and "#45" was scrawled on doors throughout England. There were still many who thought Wilkes would be "tremendously improved by death," but he was eventually released from jail.

Carefree as ever, Wilkes went on to draft a program of reform which included voting rights for the common man, the end of non-existent or "rotten" boroughs, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. The name "Wilkes" became a synonym for liberty, and the great libertine was elected lord mayor of London, went to Parliament where he advocated freedom for the American Colonies, and was chosen lord chamberlain of London. He also refused many lucrative positions in an era when there were few political vacancies due to death and none by resignation. Only in 1780, when he alienated his followers by courageously opposing the popular anti-Catholic riots led by Lord Gordon, did Wilkes lose his political power. He managed to restore order in London but his career was ruined. Although he remained in Parliament for another 10 years, he took little part in politics. But even crusty old Dr. Johnson--who had said he would rather dine with Jack Ketch, the public hangman, than with Jack Wilkes--came to admire Wilkes in later years. By the time the great libertine and libertarian died at the age of 70 in 1797, he had come to be as universally respected as he had earlier been reviled.

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