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    Portrait of John Wilkes
John Wilkes
Born October 17, 1725
Died December 29, 1797

Journalist and politician. Son of Israel Wilkes (1689-1761) and Sarah Heaton (1699-1765). Married (1747) to Mary Meade, heiress of the manor of Aylesbury.

In 1757 he was elected Member of Parliament for Aylesbury. In 1762 he founded the weekly The North Briton, which was primarily used as a platform for attacking the government headed by Lord Bute and his successor George Grenville. In this venture, he was assisted by his friend Charles Churchill. Following the publication of the infamous Issue 45, Wilkes was arrested on April 30, 1763, charged with libel. He was released a week later as his arrest was found to be a breach of parliamentary privilege. In November 1763, he was wounded in a duel with Secretary to the Treasury, Samuel Martin.1  In December 1763 he travelled to Paris, and on January 20, 1764, he was expelled from parliament. In February he was found guilty, in absentia, of seditious libel (for the North Briton) and of obscene and impious libel (for Essay on Woman, a parody on Pope which he had co-written with Thomas Potter years before, intended for a select group of friends).

In 1768 he returned to London and again ran for parliament. He was elected member for Middlesex, but in February 1769 was again expelled. The following months he was expelled and re-elected a couple of times, due to large popular support, until in April his opponent was (unduly) deemed the winner of the election. He then initiated a public career in the City of London culminating in 1774 when he was elected Lord Mayor. The same year he was again elected to Parliament for Middlesex, a seat which he kept until 1790.

  • 1In the North Briton no. 45, Wilkes had described Martin as "the most treacherous, base, selfish, mean, abject, low-lived and dirty fellow, that ever wriggled himself into a secretaryship."
Life with Boswell

Boswell knew Wilkes by sight when, on May 5, 1763, he went to The Tower of London to watch his release from prison (he was too late, as it turned out). At this time he was also a frequent reader of The North Briton, which he mailed each week to West Digges in Edinburgh. They may have met as early as November 26, 1762, when Boswell accompanied Lord Eglinton to a dinner in the Beefsteak Club, of which Wilkes was also a member, but from the journals it would seem as if they weren't actually introduced to each other until they met at Bonnell Thornton's on May 24, 1763. Although Boswell isn't explicit about it in his journal, it is evident from letters to William Temple and David Dalrymple that he met and became better acquainted with Wilkes in the ensuing months, and on the day before going into exile in Paris, Wilkes let Boswell have a number of "franks" (i.e. free postage given to Members of Parliament). In a letter to Dalrymple dated August 2, 1763, Boswell writes that "[t]he truth is, Wilkes is a most agreeable companion. He is good-humoured and vivacious, and likes the Scots as well as anybody; only he considers the abusing that nation as a political device, which he must make us of. [...] Wilkes and I are exceeding well, when we meet." 

Boswell and Wilkes met again in Italy during Boswell's grand tour. On January 9, 1765, shortly after his own arrival in Turin, Boswell discovered that Wilkes was passing through that city as well. He, therefore, sent Wilkes a curious invitation to dine with him:

Sir, I am told that Mr. Wilkes is now in Turin. As a politician, my monarchical soul abhors him. As a Scotsman I smile at him. As a friend I know him not. As a companion I love him. I believe it is not decent for me to wait upon him. Yet I wish much to see him. I shall be alone and have a tolerable dinner upon my table at one o'clock. If Mr. Wilkes chooses to be my guest, I shall by no means oppose it. I may venture to syay he shall be very welcome, and do promise hima a fest of most singular and choice conversation. BOSWELL.1

Wilkes was not at home when the invitation arrived, but later called on Boswell who was, by then, out of his lodgings. In the evening, Boswell went to the opera in the company of Mme. de St. Gilles, and there spotted Wilkes sitting high up in a box, but without being able to talk to him. So, once back at his lodgings, Boswell sent Wilkes another note:

Since Churchill's death, I have had a serious sympathy with you. Has it not made you pause and reflect a little? Might we not have an interview, and continue the conversation on the immortality of the soul which you had with my countryman Baxter many years ago at Brussels? [...] To men of philosophical minds there are surely moments when they set aside their nation, their rank, their character, all that they have done and all that they have suffered in this jumbling world. [...] John Wilkes, the fiery Whig, would despise this sentiment. John Wilkes, the gay profligate, would laugh at it. But John Wilkes, the philosopher, will feel it, and will love it. [...] Perhaps you may come to me tonight. I hope at any rate you will dine with me tomorrow. 2

Unfortunately, Wilkes had gone to bed. They met again on February 15 that same year, when Boswell arrived in Rome and saw Wilkes at the customs. Boswell reports having "[s]eized him, embraced [him]" after which they went to a gloomy café discussing philosophical and other issues.

Their meeting in Rome marked the true beginning of their friendship, and on February 25 Boswell followed Wilkes to Naples, where Wilkes was going to stay for some time with his mistress Gertrude Corradini. They frequently dined together, and on March 14 they ascended Mount Vesuvius. The journal contains numerous extracts of their many conversations in Italy, although some have been difficult to reconstruct from Boswell's notes.

A letter from Boswell to Wilkes from Rome on April 22, and Wilkes reply from Naples on April 27 are telling of their, by then, intimate friendship and intellectual attraction to each other. Boswell wrote, among other things, that "[t]he many pleasant hours which we passed together at Naples shall never be lost. The remembrance of them shall inspirit this gloomy mind while I live." Wilkes returned the compliment by writing in his reply that "I thank you very much for your most friendly letter [...] and still more for the many agreeable hours you favoured me with here [in Naples]. You have made me know halcyon days in my exile, and you ought not to be surprised at my cheerfulness and gaiety, for you inspired them."  

The pair met again in Paris almost nine months later on January 19, 1766. Since they had taken leave of each other in Naples, Boswell had travelled with Lord Mountstuart, had an amorous affair with Girolama Piccolomini, and he had, not least, travelled to the island of Corsica where he met and befriended the leader of the Corsican independence movement on the island, Pasquale Paoli. Therefore, Boswell did not feel the same awe for Wilkes, when they met again, writing in his journal that "[y]ou felt yourself above him."3 . They soon resumed their friendship, however, and it was in Wilkes' lodgings in Paris, that, on January 26, Boswell received the news about the death of his mother a few weeks earlier, when he saw a notice of it in St. James's Chronicle.

Boswell stayed in Paris until January 31, and - as one of his last actions in Paris - he took leave of Wilkes on the night before. Wilkes comforted him and told him to "[c]onsider how you have avoided the pain of seeing mother dying, and how you'll go back and comfort father, and amuse him by talking of all you've seen."4

After having been back in his ancestral Scotland for a few months, Boswell wrote again to Wilkes, beginning his letter "I shall never forget your humane and kind behaviour to me at Paris, when I received the melancholy news of my mother's death. I have been doing all in my power to comfort my worthy Father, and I thank God He is now greatly recovered. [...] Indeed I never admired you more than when you tried to alleviate my afflicition; for whether it be from self interest or not, I set a higher value on the qualitys of the heart than on those of the head." Boswell ended the letter my saying, that as he not sure whether Wilkes would receive it at the address to which he would send it, "I think it would be improper for me to write to you with our usual freedom, till I am sure that my letters can go safe."5

[Entry to be expanded with the later stages of their friendship]


Several books by or about John Wilkes can be found on AbeBooks. The most comprehensive biography is probably John Wilkes - a Friend to Liberty by Peter D. G. Thomas. Other titles are the biography Portrait of a Patriot, Four Portraits (1947) by Peter Quennell (which includes bios of Wilkes, Boswell, Edward Gibbon and Laurence Sterne), Sherrard's A Life of John Wilkes (1930), Postgate's biography That Devil Wilkes (1956), reports about his trials in 1763/4 and 1770 (search for The Case of John Wilkes), An Essay On Women by John Wilkes and Thomas Potter and even original copies of The North Briton. See also Arthur Cash's An Essay on Woman by John Wilkes and Thomas Potter: A Reconstruction of a Lost Book, With an Historical Essay on the Writing, Printing and Suppressing (2001) and his excellent biography of Wilkes, John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty (2007), for which he was nominated for a Pulitzer prize.