John Wilkes (1725–1797) was an Englishman who championed free expression and individualism during the 18th century. With a penchant for spending beyond his means, he was known during his life as a libertine, an audacious agitator who craved excitement, and a popular friend of people who championed “reform.” He was thrown out of Parliament several times but was returned by his loyal constituents.

Wilkes was arrested for insinuations against the monarch in his paper

Wilkes entered Parliament in 1757 and was a follower of the elder William Pitt. He created a journal, The North Briton, as a rejoinder to a pro–Lord Bute’s administration weekly paper that attacked Pitt. For the insinuations his journal promoted in regard to the monarchy, Wilkes was arrested along with others associated with The North Briton, but a judge released him, since Wilkes was a member of Parliament and his privilege could only be suspended if he were charged with treason, felony, or a breach of the peace. The court also invalidated the general warrant (later called writs of assistance in America) under which he had been arrested, striking a blow for privacy rights. Following this decision, the Crown brought another action against Wilkes.

Wilkes was accused of libeling a member of Parliament

Wilkes then printed a pornographic Essay on Woman as a parody of Pope’s Essay on Man, and the House of Lords subsequently accused Wilkes of libeling one of its members. While his case was before Parliament, Wilkes was wounded in a duel. He wrote the Speaker of Commons from Paris asking for an excused absence, but his request was rejected and he was expelled from the House. Expulsion stripped him of his parliamentary immunity and made him liable for prosecution for seditious libel and obscenity and for arrest for debt. In his absence from England, he was convicted of libel, so Wilkes remained in exile in Paris.

Wilkes was committed to parliamentary reform and religious tolerance

Wilkes was finally reseated in Parliament in 1774. For the first half-dozen years he spoke regularly and persuasively in a number of debates on parliamentary reform; on the rights of the American colonists, with whom he frequently corresponded; and on religious toleration. On March 21, 1776, Wilkes became the first individual to propose in the House of Commons that the vote be extended to all males, regardless of whether they owned property or not; he also favored the abolition of “rotten boroughs,” from which only a few voters elected a member of Parliament.

Wilkes was so committed to religious tolerance that he disfavored prosecution of atheists and said, “I wish to see rising in the neighborhood of a Christian cathedral, near its Gothic towers, the minaret of a Turkish mosque, a Chinese pagoda, and a Jewish synagogue, with a temple of the sun, if any Persians could be found to inhabit this island and worship in this gloomy climate the God of their idolatry” (Quoted in Cash 2006: 360).

This article was originally published in 2009. Martin Gruberg was President of the Fox Valley Civil Liberties Union in Wisconsin.

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