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A highly entertaining biography of the incredible John Wilkes, champion of liberty and irrepressible libertine.
"It is difficult to believe that John Wilkes, a notorious womanizer and scandal-monger, was a genuine hero of civil liberties and political democracy on both sides of the Atlantic in the late 18th century, but hero he was and in this engaging book Arthur Cash gives Wilkes the serious treatment he has long deserved."—Eric Foner, Columbia University
“[A] superb biography. . . . After finishing the last page I turned back to the beginning in order to enjoy it all over again.”—Tom Hodgkinson, Independent on Sunday
“Informative and enjoyable. . . . So well researched, so full of fascinating detail, . . . so delightfully buoyant.” - John Barrell, London Review of Books
Jack, as his family and friends called him, must have been an appealing child despite the severe inward cast of his right eye and his forward-jutting jaw. There is a sketch portrait of him at about the age of twenty (illustration 1) that makes it easy to imagine the child with a twisted face smoothed over by a healthy skin, surprising, ironic in its forecast, cute. He was touching to older folk, the favorite of his father and his schoolmaster, and in his teens of the Scottish philosopher Andrew Baxter.
Jack came from a wealthy family that, to use our modern terms, was middle class but upwardly mobile. He once described himself as "a private gentleman ... of inferior, but independent condition," and he said candidly that his father was "in trade," that tag which for centuries has limited the ambitions of what then was called "the middling sort."
His mother, née Sarah Heaton, was the daughter and heiress of such a middle-class man, the successful proprietor of a tannery. Her fortune enabled her husband to buy Hoxton Square on the north edge of the City of London, an area inhabited largely by Presbyterians. She had been reared aPresbyterian and would remain so all of her life. Presbyterians and Quakers and other Protestant sects outside the Church of England were recognized in English law as Dissenters, deprived of the right to hold most public offices but free to worship in their own chapels, to labor, to engage in business, and, if they had the qualification, to vote. The tastes of Sarah Heaton Wilkes were cultivated, and she owned bronze and marble statues of Greek mythical figures as well as religious and decorative paintings. It was risky to cross her. She once took her daughter to Bow Church, perhaps for a wedding or baptism, for she did not normally go there. Unable to find a seat in the crowded church, she asked a lady of higher social rank than she if she would mind sharing her box, for there were no pews at that time, only boxes containing seats assigned to particular families. When the lady refused, she went home and wrote her an excoriating letter: "I was astonished at so unpolite a refusal! But why should I soften the expression? ... No! it will bear a more severe reflection ... that all haughty and assuming airs is most repugnant to the mild and benevolent genius of our religion." But this earliest of her few surviving letters is no key to her personality. She was a woman of cardinal virtues, loyal to her family and protective of them without dominating them. But she was strong. Her usual place of worship was a little Presbyterian chapel in Carter Lane within the shadow of the great dome of St. Paul's Cathedral.
Jack's mother was content with the social status into which she had been born, but his father was not. Israel Wilkes worshiped in the established Church of England, though he had been reared a Presbyterian. He was well educated by the standards of a day when university degrees were required of no one except clerics and professionals, but looked to a mastery of liberal arts and classical languages acquired at secondary schools or at the hands of private tutors. Israel was wealthy, having inherited from his father and uncle a prosperous distillery that stood behind the Church of St. John of the Cross and fronted on James Street. In time, he bought or built the house at the other end of the distillery, fronting on St. John's Square. He did not grow rich by selling gin to the poor, for that dangerous drink was made in the back rooms of almost every tavern. But he was a little ashamed of his business and sometimes gave it out that he was a brewer of beer. He kept a coach and four and paid a coachman, a groom, and three or four other servants. He has been said to have opened his house to bon vivants and artists and literary people, though their identities have not been established.
The eldest son, also named Israel, turned out to be a restless youth of mediocre talents who squandered his father's fortune in failed trading ventures. The third son, named Heaton for his mother's family, was to take over the family business. But Jack, who came between these middle-class siblings, was singled out by his father to be a gentleman, to speak the English of a gentleman, to be a scholar and a man of leisure, to wear a wig and to carry a sword. Accordingly, on Sundays his father took him to the Anglican church of St. John of the Cross, which stood in the angle between Israel's house and his distillery.
There were three daughters. Sarah, the eldest child, turned out to be a disgruntled spinster who played little part in Jack's later life. Ann, the youngest, died in her teens of smallpox. Mary, the middle girl, a tomboy, would prove a bright, eccentric woman and outlive three husbands, heiress to the first two, cheated of her inheritance by the last.
Oddly, we cannot be certain in which year John Wilkes was born, for no birth record has been found for him or any of his siblings. They may have been baptized in Carter Lane chapel, but the registers for those years are lost. More likely the children were baptized at a home service, a common practice among dissenters. Very probably Jack was born on 17 October 1726, though in his maturity he habitually gave out that it was 1727. October the seventeenth is an Old Style date. When New Style became official in 1752 with the dropping of eleven days from the calendar so as to give Great Britain the same calendar as that used on the Continent, Jack's birthday became 28 October, the date on which his birth was always celebrated. He was christened John for the great uncle who had been his grandfather's partner in the family distillery.
Israel Wilkes's house was located in the part of London called Clerkenwell, the largest house in a new residential development, Jerusalem Court, soon to be renamed St. John's Square. It was a handsome brick house surrounded by a fence of iron palings standing next to St. John's church and looking southward across a grassy common to an ancient Gothic arch, St. John's Gate. The cloister of the priory of St. John had once stood here, but the stones had been cleared away to prepare the space for houses. Three medieval structures remained, the arch, the gatehouse next to it, and the church. They still may be seen, but the houses around the square are gone, and noisy Clerkenwell Road now cuts through the middle of an ugly space that had once been the fashionable, grassy Jerusalem Court. Jerusalem passage at the north end of the court led to Clerkenwell Green, where children might play under the supervision of a servant, but to the south all was the bustle and hurry of the City of London. St. John's Gate itself was a beehive of activity. Edward Cave had a printing press in the gatehouse, where he published the celebrated Gentleman's Magazine with an image of the gate on its masthead. There Samuel Johnson turned in his essays and his reports on the debates in the parliament of Lilliput. William Hogarth, the great painter and caricaturist, grew up there, for his father had a coffee shop in the gatehouse where the customers pored over the latest issues of the Gentleman's Magazine and other publications. There young David Garrick, who would become the greatest actor of his age, put on his first London performance, playing the lead in Henry Fielding's Mock Doctor on a contrived stage in Cave's printing shop, with printers and apprentices dragooned into reading the other parts. Might a boy with a cast eye have been in the audience?
Southward from the Gate all was commotion, the City of London, not greater London, but the ancient City, roughly defined by what remained of the medieval walls-the City distinct from Holborn and Westminster, the chartered "City of London," with its own laws and courts and rights, jealously guarded. Here was the world of manufacture and the Spitalfields weavers, the world of finance and the Royal Exchange, the world of business and the Guildhall, the Inns of Court (as the law colleges were called), the Old Bailey criminal court, the booksellers and printers in Fleet Street, the ships tied up at Wapping, the Protestant meetinghouses, and the magnificent Cathedral of St. Paul. Four hundred thousand persons were packed into the City, the area of which was equivalent to a single square mile, and in time most of them would become aware of John Wilkes, in time come to admire, even adore him, and in time to reward him for his sufferings. The word sufferings was widely used to describe Wilkes's four-year exile and two years in prison, but it must be said that he had a pretty good time during both.
Sarah Wilkes was determined not to have her sons educated in the decadent institutions of the rich. Israel was bent upon classical languages and literature. They reached a compromise: Jack and his two brothers were sent to a boarding school in Hertford run by a Presbyterian, John Worsley, who was also a classical scholar. Off the boys were packed, each as he reached the age of eight, to Hertford, to the castle at the top of the town, through a dry moat, up a set of stairs, into Tower House, an ancient fortification rising from the castle wall that had been revamped to make a residence and school for Mr. Worsley. Jack would live there for five years, not a lonely life, for he had his brothers and Worsley's boy, who was his friend. Mr. Worsley laid for Jack a foundation in Latin and Greek that would serve him well for the rest of his life. Days after he left the school, the master, brokenhearted to have lost such a pupil, wrote him a letter praising his "generous sentiments and that love of letters which I myself beheld the first dawnings of." For the rest of his life, Wilkes would regard himself as a man of letters and would attain no mean reputation as such. "Go on, dear youth," Mr. Worsley continued, "and prosper in your noble pursuits: and I pray that the giver of every good and perfect gift may not only succeed your endeavors after human knowledge and sound learning, but also enrich your mind with that heavenly wisdom which is still more excellent and valuable." Mr. Worsley was a clergyman as well as a classicist.
Jack's father, delighted with his progress and promise, decided to continue his education beyond that which he would give the other boys. He sent him to Thame, Oxfordshire, to be tutored by a friend, Matthew Leeson, preacher to a Presbyterian congregation. Israel was convinced that Mr. Leeson was a first-rate classical scholar, which he may well have been, but he was no typical Presbyterian. Late in life, he had taken up theology and was in revolt against the doctrines of the church. "He was continually poaching in dull volumes ... for some new heresy," Wilkes would later write.? About a year after Jack joined Leeson's family, Leeson announced to his congregation that he had become an Arian, that is, he did not believe in the divinity of Jesus or in the doctrines of original sin and redemption. His flock, as might be expected, turned him out.
Sarah and Israel Wilkes, wanting to be of help, introduced Mr. Leeson to a new convert to Presbyterianism whom Sarah had met at chapel, Mrs. Mary Mead, née Sherbrooke, the widow of a wealthy grocer whose shop had been on London Bridge. Mrs. Mead lived in Red Lyon Square behind the church of St. Sepulchre in the old City. Moved by the "warmth" of her conversion, said Wilkes, Mrs. Mead set about rescuing the wayward Leeson. She invited him to take over an empty parsonage house that she owned at Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. Her uncle had been the leading resident at Aylesbury and had built Prebendal House, the largest house in that town, now Mrs. Mead's summer residence. Leeson and two or three pupils moved into the old parsonage, a timber house fronting on the street called Parson's Fee. Jack commenced the study of French, in which language he would quickly develop a proficiency.
There is an amusing letter from the seventeen-year-old Jack to his father when he was returning to Mr. Leeson's school after the Christmas holidays. He describes the other passengers in the stagecoach, including a woman bigoted against dissenters, and how he turned the laugh against her and made her look ridiculous. Though he would never leave the Church of England, Jack would be a friend to dissenting religions for the rest of his life and a believer in the separation of church and state.
Mrs. Mead asked no rent of Mr. Leeson. It seems odd that an enthusiastic convert to Presbyterianism should go to such trouble for a preacher who had been drummed out of chapel for becoming an Arian. One wonders whether Mrs. Mead had other interests in Mr. Leeson and his pupil. It happened that she had a daughter, also named Mary, a silent, withdrawn, unmarried woman. In her portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mary appears to be far from ugly, though not a beauty (illustration 2). Looks such as hers in a wealthy heiress would seem to be good enough to attract a husband. She, not her mother, owned Prebendal House and the estate that went with it, and she had been named heiress to even greater riches in the wills of her mother and her rich, unmarried uncle, Richard Sherbrook, who lived with them. Rumor said she had rejected three suitors that the family had found acceptable. The difficulty was that Mary Mead was deeply neurotic, almost catatonic, and probably unable to take the final steps toward marriage. As she grew older, her mother must have become desperate to find a husband for her odd daughter. And then she met Mrs. Wilkes, who had an odd son. Sarah Wilkes must have thought that a boy with Jack's face would never make a marriage of love, so why not one of convenience? What difference if Mary Mead was ten years older than Jack so long as she came from a good Presbyterian family and was an heiress? The mothers, it seems, decided to foster a match, but they would have to be patient. Jack was only fourteen years old when he moved to Aylesbury with Mr. Leeson. Mrs. Mead often invited him to dine.
Israel Wilkes, bent upon making his son a gentleman, fetched him one autumn day when he was fifteen or sixteen and took him to Lincoln's Inn, one of the four Inns of Court, the venerable law colleges of London. Israel had wanted his oldest son, Israel, to be a lawyer, but the young man declined to pursue that profession; and so "John Wilkes, 2nd son of Israel W., the younger, of the Parish of St James, Clerkenwell, Middlx, malt distiller," was enrolled on 17 November 1742. Also enrolling at that time was Charles Townshend, son of Viscount Townshend, who would reappear at the University of Leiden in Holland when Wilkes would go there. But then, Wilkes may never have met him or any other student at Lincoln's Inn and may never have attended a lecture. Youths were often enrolled in the Inns of Court for reasons other than the study of law. Some came because membership gave them social status: it admitted them to the court of St. James. Israel more probably enrolled his son because it would make it easier for him to be accepted at the University of Leiden, which was attended by many young Englishmen of dissenting families.
In 1744, Mr. Leeson worked out a plan with the families of Jack and another pupil, Hungerford Bland, son of a Yorkshire baronet, to continue their education at Leiden. He would be their tutor at the university. English dissenters were especially attracted to Leiden because they were denied access to Oxford or Cambridge. The stones of Leiden were not as ancient, but the education was superior to that at the English universities, which were at their nadir as institutions of learning. Professorships at Oxford and Cambridge had become political appointments and were sometimes given to men who knew nothing about the subject they were to teach. Professional education in law and medicine was a little better, but by and large the only education in the arts to be had at Oxford and Cambridge was that afforded by the college tutors. At Leiden the lectures had a better reputation, but the tutoring of the young men from England was out of the hands of the university. The tutors were provided by the students' families. They would guide the young men in their studies and, their parents hoped, supervise their social lives.
In early September 1744, Mr. Leeson and his two pupils reached the lovely old town of Leiden, with its tenth-century castle, its ancient churches and tree-shaded streets and seventeenth-century houses. On 8 September, shortly before his eighteenth birthday, Wilkes was enrolled as a student of law. He and Mr. Leeson settled into a boardinghouse close to one of the oldest churches, the Pieterskerk. Wilkes's brother Israel wrote, expressing the hope of a middle-class family, that Jack would acquire "a stock of useful knowledge" and "such generous and virtuous and heroic principles as will render you useful to the world, and an honor to your friends at least, perhaps to your country and the age you live in," and warning him against "idle sophistry, effeminate pleasure, and a degenerate race of men who laugh at ... virtue." Wilkes did not much like this brother with a Puritan streak, pompously anticipating the role of family head, and had no intention of submitting to his authority.
Alexander Carlyle, a Scottish student of theology at Leiden, was startled at the first sight of Wilkes's face. "The son of a London distiller or brewer," he was told, "who wanted to be a fine gentleman and man of taste, which he could never be, for God and nature had been against him." But the students found Jack Wilkes "a sprightly, entertaining fellow" and soon got used to his face, which, for all its distortions, was a "cheerful countenance," said Dr. Samuel Johnson.
Carlyle in his Autobiography left a lively account of his student years at Leiden, especially of the gatherings at the boardinghouse of Madam Van der Tasse. "In the evenings about a dozen of us met at one another's rooms in turn three times a week and drank coffee and smoked tobacco, and chatted about politicks, and drank claret, and supped on bukkam [Dutch red herrings] and eggs and salad, and never sat later than twelve o'clock."
Though the young scholars hardly knew it themselves as yet, they formed a brilliant coterie. Carlyle would one day make a mark as the leader of the Broad Church Presbyterians of Scotland; John Gregory was destined for the professorship of philosophy at Aberdeen and then of medicine at Edinburgh; Mark Akenside was already recognized as an important poet for his Pleasures of the Imagination; and both William Dowdeswell and Charles Townshend would one day be chancellors of the exchequer, the treasurers of England.
"Though Jack was but eighteen," said Carlyle, he was "passionately desirous of being thought something extraordinary" and "fond of shining in conversation-very prematurely, for at that time he had but little knowledge." In shining he was outdone by Charles Townshend, though Townshend had even "less furniture in his head." Townshend would one day prove himself such a brilliant speaker in the House of Commons that no ministry seemed able to do without him. Though he was slippery in his loyalties and far to the right of Wilkes in politics, he and Wilkes remained secret friends and protected one another. They are both remembered today, Wilkes for his reforms of legal and electoral systems and Townshend for the Townshend Duties imposed upon the American colonies with disastrous results.
No records were kept of the students' academic programs or performances, but Wilkes, said Carlyle, had a thirst for learning. Before that, there were other thirsts to be satisfied, as Wilkes was later to explain: "I was always among women at Leiden. My father gave me as much money as I pleased, so I had three or four whores and got drunk every night. I woke up with a sore head in the morning, and then I read." Little wonder that Carlyle should report, "Even then," in his teens, "he showed something of the daring profligacy, for which he was afterwards notorious." Mr. Leeson must have known what was going on and blinked at it, probably because he had been told by Israel Wilkes that young gentlemen abroad were supposed to be initiated into the mysteries of love.
Excerpted from John Wilkes by ARTHUR H. CASH Copyright © 2006 by Arthur H. Cash. Excerpted by permission.
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