John Wilkes


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John Wilkes – Liberty

‘North Briton’ No. 45 (23 April 1763) dealt with the speech from the throne preceding the recent adjournment, and characterised a passage in which the peace of Hubertsburg was treated as a consequence of the peace of Paris, as ‘the most abandoned instance of ministerial effrontery ever attempted to be imposed on mankind;’ nay, even insinuated that the king had been induced to countenance a deliberate lie.

The resentment of the king (George III) and the court knew no bounds, and the law officers advised that the article was a seditious libel.  Proceedings in the ordinary course were, however, precluded by the anonymity of the publication; and accordingly the two warrants which were issued by the secretaries of state (Egremont and Halifax) for the apprehension of the authors, printers, and publishers of the alleged libel and the seizure of their papers contained the names of the printers only.  The secretaries had no higher jurisdiction than justices of the peace, and as a justice’s warrant was valid only against the persons named therein, there was thus in fact no warrant under which Wilkes could be legally arrested. 

The printers were first apprehended, and, on the information of one of them, Wilkes was taken early in the forenoon of 30 April, on his way from the Temple to his house in Great George Street, Westminster.  The officers entered the house with him, and John Almon q. v. calling about the same time, the news was carried to Lord Temple, who at once applied for a habeas corpus.  Wilkes was meanwhile taken before the secretaries.   He parried their questions and protracted the examination until the habeas corpus had been granted.  There was, however, some delay in the actual issue of the writ, of which the secretaries took advantage by committing Wilkes to the Tower under a warrant which directed him to be kept close prisoner.

The direction was obeyed to the letter, neither his legal advisers nor the Duke of Grafton nor Lord Temple being permitted to see him.  Temple, as lord-lieutenant of Buckinghamshire, received the king’s express orders to cancel Wilkes’s commission in the militia.  He obeyed (5 May), and was then himself dismissed from the lieutenancy (7 May).  Wilkes’s house had meanwhile been thoroughly ransacked, and his papers, even the most private and personal, seized.

Excerpt from The Dictionary of National Biography Volume 21 1909

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