Painting the number “45” on stuff? Have we stopped doing that?
Arrest of John Wilkes on a “General Warrant”, April 30th, 1763.
Today is the anniversary of the arrest of John Wilkes, one of the most enjoyably bizarre yet anniversaries in Britain’s national history. If Britain chose to celebrate its most adventurous heritage instead of throwing money at tedious and uninspiring notifications of dynastic longevity, then today might be the focus of some imaginative celebrations and discussions.
Wilkes was co-editor and principle author of The North Briton, a popular and funny opposition periodical. Issue No. 45. attacked the King’s Speech objecting to the terms of the recent Treaty of Paris. Although Wilkes made it clear in his paper that he was attacking a ministry, not a monarch who was merely reciting the work of politicians, those same politicians, with the enthusiastic support of George III decided to brand No. 45 as a “treasonable and seditious libel”. Not for the last time, the sacred majesty of “the crown” was used to protect politicians.
George III did not see himself as a mere ceremonial head of state and believed he had the right to pick and choose ministers. He professed to be “above politics” at the same moment that he waded eagerly into politics. His ministers saw the chance to use the authority of “the crown” to suppress opposition to their ministers. The entire episode illustrates how “the crown” was used by politicians to suppress healthy political debate.
The “General Warrant” that was used to arrest Wilkes did not, controversially, cite any names of any person to be arrested – it gave sweeping powers to arrest anybody that the powers that be deemed responsible for an alleged crime. The arrest led to prolonged legal arguments regarding the legality of such warrants, an argument which thankfully was resolved in Wilkes’ favour. The arrest and its aftermath was an important event in British legal history, and help to establish basic liberties of the subject.
As a result of this arrest, many ordinary people flocked to the cause of Wilkes – and “Wilkes and Liberty” became a remarkably popular and successful rallying cry. The very number “45” would be daubed on walls and doors as a symbol of political and legal freedom. “The crown” – whether considered as the encroaching influence of George III himself, or as a political abstraction used by politicians to suppress political debate – suffered a crucial loss, a loss that deserves to be celebrated.
The story of John Wilkes has everything – sex, comedy, passion, intrigue and eventually a happy ending. Wilkes was one of the ugliest men in London, along with his co-editor Charles Churchill, who died in 1764 within a few weeks of the mutual enemy of Wilkes and Churchill, William Hogarth – who provided the bitter illustration for this blog. Everyone presumably remembers all those grand Hogarth-Churchill commemorative events back in 2014?
Today is a vastly important cause for commemoration, an arrest that provoked a critical chapter in the (unfinished) history of Britain’s political liberties. The enemy of these liberties was, and perhaps remains “the crown” – conceived of not simply or primarily as an individual or family of individuals wearing a gold circlet, but as all means of asserting and imposing an unelected and unaccountable legal definition of sovereignty both upon parliament and within parliament.