The Controversy

The suppression of John Wilkes’s periodical The North Briton for alleged aspersions against the British throne resulted in Wilkes’s arrest, conviction, and imprisonment for seditious libel, sparking a controversy with major implications for the development of a modern free press and the beginnings of modern lobbying groups.

Summary of Event

Until 1696, printed materials in England were required to bear the stamp of the government censor’s approval, although an unauthorized, underground literature had long flourished, and the control of publishing had broken down during the English Revolution. With the lapse of the Regulation of Printing Act in that year, official censorship ended, although its place was taken by laws against seditious libel that, in effect, placed the onus of censorship on authors rather than the state. Nonetheless, a vigorous press flourished, and satire in all its forms was to be a principal genre of eighteenth century literary and artistic expression. [kw]The North Briton Controversy (Beginning Apr., 1763)
[kw]Controversy, The North Briton (Beginning Apr., 1763)
[kw]North Briton Controversy, The (Beginning Apr., 1763)
North Briton controversy
[g]England;Beginning Apr., 1763: The North Briton Controversy[1690]
[c]Government and politics;Beginning Apr., 1763: The North Briton Controversy[1690]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Beginning Apr., 1763: The North Briton Controversy[1690]
[c]Social issues and reform;Beginning Apr., 1763: The North Briton Controversy[1690]
[c]Communications;Beginning Apr., 1763: The North Briton Controversy[1690]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Beginning Apr., 1763: The North Briton Controversy[1690]
Wilkes, John
George III
Pitt, William, the Elder

At the same time, the political constitution had evolved. After the revolution of 1688, the balance of power had shifted from Crown to Parliament. Parliament;British The king’s government was dependent on shifting parliamentary majorities whose maintenance was the responsibility of a chief official whose modern title of prime minister was only gradually adopted but whose unique position—part Crown spokesman, part power broker between Crown and Parliament—embodied the new relations between executive and legislative authority. Since, however, the fiction was assiduously maintained, then and still, that the king’s government was truly his own and that the policies it espoused expressed the royal will and no other, criticism of the government at least notionally reflected on the person of the monarch. This created a tension within political discourse, particularly since the king at this point still set or approved at least the broad outlines of policy.

This tension came to a head in 1763 with the suppression of The North Briton, an influential political periodical, and the imprisonment of its editor John Wilkes for having criticized a speech from the throne in its forty-fifth number. The immediate consequences of this event were felt for more than a decade, and its significance for the freedom of the press was permanent.

Wilkes was the son of a prosperous London distiller. Embarking on a political career as a self-described “friend of liberty,” he was appointed high sheriff of Buckingham in 1754 and elected a member of Parliament for Aylesbury in 1757, where he joined supporters of Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder. Pitt’s fall in 1761 dashed his hopes of political advancement, and on June 6, 1762, with Charles Churchill, he launched The North Briton as a riposte to The Briton, the government organ edited by writer Tobias Smollett.

The new government, headed by the earl of Bute, John Stuart, was in the process of negotiating an end to the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) with France on terms widely regarded as disadvantageous by London and Liverpool merchants, and bitterly opposed by Pitt. The North Briton not only joined in this political opposition but also ridiculed Prime Minister Stuart, whose alleged intimacy with King George III’s mother, the princess dowager, was seen as the basis of his power. Pitt himself disavowed The North Briton, and an offended courtier, Earl Talbot, challenged Wilkes to a duel. At Stuart’s resignation in favor of George Grenville on April 11, 1763, Wilkes announced that The North Briton, having served its purpose, would suspend publication. The king’s speech to Parliament on April 19, which indicated royal approval of the preliminary articles of the Peace of Paris, called forth a new issue of the paper, however, which appeared as no. 45 on April 23. Wilkes took care to characterize George’s speech as that of “the Minister” rather than his own, which avoided directly disparaging the king but at the same time reduced him to a mouthpiece. What followed gave offense not only as an unbridled attack on policy but in depicting the monarch as the hapless victim of his own government. Issue number 45 of The North Briton read,

The Minister’s speech of last Tuesday is not to be paralleled in the annals of this country. I am in doubt whether the imposition is greater on the Sovereign, or on the nation. Every friend of this country must lament that a prince of so many great and admirable qualities, whom England truly reveres, can be brought to give the sanction of his sacred name to the most odious measures and the most unjustified public declarations from a throne ever renowned for truth, honour, and an unsullied virtue.

A general warrant was issued for the arrest of Wilkes as well as his publisher, George Kearsley, and his presumed printer, Dryden Leach. Leach had earlier ceased his association with The North Briton, so Richard Balfe was arrested instead. Wilkes was able to remove the next issue (46) from the press and to destroy the manuscript of number 45 before being taken into custody. From his confinement in the Tower of London, he immediately described his detention as a breach of public liberty. A large crowd accompanied him to his arraignment at Westminster on May 3, chanting “Liberty! Liberty! Wilkes forever!” The chant was shortened to “Wilkes and liberty,” and it became a slogan that would rally a generation.

Wilkes was released on May 6 after the justices found that his privilege as a member of Parliament had been violated by his arrest. Wilkes, Leach, and others were awarded substantial damages upon suit. This narrow ruling did not address the legality of general warrants as such, which had been issued by successive secretaries of state to prosecute charges of seditious libel. In effect, such warrants had taken the place of the expired Licensing Act to maintain control of the press. Freedom of the press;England The seizure of Wilkes brought the legality of these warrants to the fore, and it resulted in their suppression. In 1765, they were declared null and void in the case of Entick v. Carrington, which was heard before the same justice, Sir Charles Pratt (now Lord Camden), who had freed Wilkes. In April, 1766, a resolution by the House of Commons denounced them as illegal and obnoxious.

The Wilkes affair, however, had only begun. Wilkes himself, seeking to pay debts by capitalizing on his celebrity, reprinted the entire run of The North Briton as one volume in the fall of 1763, and also prepared the private publication of An Essay on Woman, a ribald parody by Thomas Potter of Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man (1733-1734), to which Wilkes had contributed some notes and commentary. While these ventures were in progress, he imprudently vacationed in France. In his absence, the government procured a proof copy of the essay and read it aloud to a properly scandalized House of Lords. The House of Commons, meanwhile, determined The North Briton to be “a false, scandalous, and seditious libel,” Libel;John Wilkes[Wilkes] voting 273 for and 111 against, and, with the concurrence of the House of Lords, ordered it burned by the common hangman. The offending journal was rescued from the flames by a tumultuous crowd on December 3.

Parliament responded to the decision of the houses by expelling Wilkes, who, facing prosecution, then fled to France. A Middlesex grand jury indicted him in January, 1764, for publishing The North Briton and An Essay on Woman and, on November 1, declared him an outlaw.

Wilkes returned home three years later, on February 6, 1767, and sought a new seat in Parliament, which would shield him from the law while he sought a pardon. Unlike his first seat, which had been obtained with the usual patronage, Wilkes now offered himself to the electors as “a private man, unconnected with the Great, and unsupported by any Party.” He was returned for Middlesex amid much tumult. While Parliament waited its session, Wilkes was arrested. A crowd stormed the King’s Bench prison where he was held on May 10, and eleven persons were killed in what became known as the Massacre of St. George’s Fields.

A British political cartoon symbolizing the conflict between supporters of John Wilkes and his newspaper The North Briton and members of the censorious British government. “Wilkes and liberty” became a rallying cry, or song, after Wilkes’s arrest for seditious libel.

(Library of Congress)

Wilkes’s outlawry was reversed in the Court of King’s Bench on June 8, but he was fined £11,000 and sentenced to twenty-two months in prison. Returned to prison, he was showered with gifts and funds by supporters and well-wishers from as far away as the American colonies, supported by groups such as the Sons of Liberty in Boston and the House of Assembly of South Carolina. Wilkes’s birthday was the occasion of both celebration and violence; the House of Commons expelled him again on February 3, 1769, by 219 votes to 137. The Middlesex freeholders promptly returned him to Parliament, again, only two weeks later. The House of Commons expelled him once more the following day, and the process was repeated one month later. In April, he was returned to his seat for the third time, though opposed by a Court candidate, Henry Lawes Luttrell. The commons, ignoring the poll, declared Luttrell the victor. This action led to a series of petitions protesting Wilkes’s exclusion, whose subscribers included fully one-quarter of the national electorate. The petitions soon moved beyond the demand for Wilkes’s seating to a call for the dissolution of the Parliament that had excluded him. A number of members of Parliament supported the demand.

Wilkes was released from prison on April 17, 1770. He had been elected an alderman of London while still confined, establishing the base from which he would be elected lord mayor in 1774. Touring the country, he was widely feted and honored, and each year he ritually claimed his seat in Parliament. Gradually, however, the Wilkite movement, which had coincided with popular agitation over rising food prices, subsided. When Wilkes was returned to Parliament for Middlesex yet again in 1774, he was seated without opposition. He remained a visible figure, but increasingly an irrelevant one. In 1780 he helped quell the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots, personally killing two citizens. This event marked his political eclipse, and when he retired from Parliament in 1789 he aptly described himself as an “extinct volcano.” The French Revolution, which he observed in retirement, appalled him.


The Wilkes affair was the most important irruption of popular politics in England between the time of the Glorious Revolution at the end of the seventeenth century and the radical agitation of the 1790’s, and it has had lasting consequences. The Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights, Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights (England) launched on Wilkes’s behalf, was the precursor to modern lobbying groups. Spurred by the Wilkes case, printers successfully defied the long ban on reporting parliamentary debates, thereby gaining a major victory for a free press. Wilkes himself was one of the first politicians to make specific pledges to his constituents, an innovation that greatly troubled his erstwhile supporter, Edmund Burke. With a publicist’s eye to posterity, he had his gravestone inscribed “A Friend to Liberty,” and so, despite his fundamental opportunism, he has been remembered. What he lacked in lasting principle, and often in prudence, he was always willing to make up in courage.

Further Reading

  • Boulton, James T. The Language of Politics in the Age of Wilkes and Burke. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1951. Places the Wilkes affair in the context of the development of eighteenth century political rhetoric.
  • Christie, Ian R. “Radicals and Reformers in the Age of Wilkes and Wyvill.” In British Politics and Society from Walpole to Pitt, 1742-1789, edited by Jeremy Black. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Examines the parliamentary reform movement that developed during the late eighteenth century and the role of Wilkes and other radicals in that movement. With Christie’s earlier work, very useful for putting the role played by Wilkes and his followers into context.
  • _______. Wilkes, Wyvill, and Reform: The Parliamentary Reform Movement in British Politics, 1760-1785. London: Macmillan. 1962. A lucid study that relates the Wilkes affair to the wider quest for parliamentary reform in the early part of George III’s reign.
  • Nobbe, George. North Briton: A Study in Political Propaganda. 1939. Reprint. New York: AMS Press. 1966. An older but still useful study of the development of popular political criticism in the press.
  • Postgate, Raymond W. That Devil Wilkes. New York: Vanguard Press, 1929. An engaging biography that vividly portrays Wilkes and his era.
  • Reich, Jerome R. British Friends of the American Revolution. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1998. Chapter 4 places Wilkes in the context of those who spoke for revolution in America.
  • Rude, George F. E. Wilkes and Liberty: A Social Study of 1763 to 1774. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1962. An important study by a distinguished historian of popular culture and action that relates Wilkes to the wider movement for reform in England in the years before the American Revolution.
  • Thomas, Peter D. G. John Wilkes: A Friend to Liberty. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. A readable biography that includes chapters on the North Briton controversy, Wilkes as a politician, and Wilkes’s reception by Americans.

Trial of John Peter Zenger

Gentleman’s Magazine Initiates Parliamentary Reporting

Seven Years’ War

Voltaire Satirizes Optimism in Candide

Peace of Paris

Hansard Begins Reporting Parliamentary Debates

Battle of Lexington and Concord

France’s First Daily Newspaper Appears

Gordon Riots

Fichte Advocates Free Speech

Alien and Sedition Acts

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i><br />

Edmund Burke; George III; Samuel Johnson; Lord North; William Pitt the Elder; Alexander Pope; Voltaire; William Wilberforce; John Wilkes; John Peter Zenger. Censorship;England
North Briton controversy