Born on 17th of October 1727
Died on 26th of December 1797
John Wilkes was the archetypal radical. His fearless attacks on the status quo and calls for Parliamentary reform endeared him to the people and made him a spokesman for popular discontent.
John Wilkes was born in Clerkenwell, London on October 17, 1727. In 1742 he entered Lincoln’s Inn and spent two years (1744 -1746) at the University of Leiden. His marriage to the daughter of a Buckinghamshire squire in 1747 ensured his financial well-being and enabled him to become a sheriff of the county. They separated in 1756, his membership of the notorious Hellfire Club not being conducive to domestic harmony. He was also notoriously ugly but was compensated by his ready wit and charm. Elected MP for Aylesbury in 1757 his reply when told by a constituent that he would rather vote for the devil was: "Naturally. And if your friend decides against standing, can I count on your vote?"
In the commons Wilkes became a leading opponent of the king’s favourite Lord Bute whom he attacked in his paper The North Briton. Eventually he was arrested for seditious libel and held in the Tower of London. Expelled from the Commons in 1764 he managed to obtain his release through habeas corpus and retreated to the continent. His exploits made him a popular hero and on his return in 1768 he was elected MP for Middlesex but was prevented from taking his seat. “Wilkes and Liberty” became the cry of the London crowds who demonstrated in his support. In 1769 he again was allowed to take his seat in Parliament and in 1770 was elected sheriff of London, where in 1774 he became Lord Mayor. As a radical MP Wilkes opposed the war with the American Colonies, fought for religious tolerance, and championed the freedom of the press.
In later years his popularity declined as he became less radical. As Governor of the Bank of England his order to fire on the mob during the Gordon Riots (1780) practically ensured his withdrawal from politics by 1790. John Wilkes died at Rouen, France, on December 26, 1797.
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