City Readers Digital Historic Collections at the New York Society Library
John Wilkes (1727-1797)
John Wilkes (17 October 1725 – 26 December 1797) was a British radical, journalist, and politician.
Wilkes was born in 1725 in London to the prosperous distiller Israel Wilkes Jr. and was a brother to the businesswoman Mary Hayley.
He was first elected Member of Parliament in 1757. In the Middlesex election dispute, he fought for the right of his voters—rather than the House of Commons—to determine their representatives. In 1768, angry protests of his supporters were suppressed in the St George's Fields Massacre. In 1771, he was instrumental in obliging the government to concede the right of printers to publish verbatim accounts of parliamentary debates. In 1776, he introduced the first bill for parliamentary reform in the British Parliament.
During the American War of Independence, he was a supporter of the American rebels, adding further to his popularity with American Whigs. In 1780, however, he commanded militia forces which helped put down the Gordon Riots, damaging his popularity with many radicals. This marked a turning point, leading him to embrace increasingly conservative policies which caused dissatisfaction among the progressive-radical low-to-middle income landowners. This was instrumental in the loss of his Middlesex parliamentary seat in the 1790 general election. At the age of 65, Wilkes retired from politics and took no part in the social reforms following the French Revolution, such as Catholic Emancipation in the 1790s. During his life, he earned a reputation as a libertine.