< Civil Libertine


Friday, July 14, 2006

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Possibly the dirtiest poem in the English language was written by John Wilkes in the 1760s. It almost ended his career. The son of a well-to-do distiller, Wilkes was at various times an exile, a jailbird, a mayor of London and a member of Parliament, elected three times from prison. His private life was notorious, crowded with mistresses, buried in debt, punctuated by duels. His face was equally shocking, with crossed and squinty eyes and a jutting lower jaw that exposed some stunningly awful teeth. But he was adored by the unwashed mobs in London and venerated by the founding fathers across the water in the future United States of America. The reason? John Wilkes loved civil liberties as much as he loved sex, and, despite his looks, he had enough grit and charm to win them both. Arthur Cash is the author of John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberties. He quotes Wilkes saying that he needed only 20 minutes to talk away his face.

ARTHUR H. CASH: He really was a sight, but what a personality. He was completely uninhibited and unembarrassed, and a daredevil.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: He was a famous wit. One of his former friends turned foe, Lord Sandwich, once shouted to him, "You, sir, will die either of the pox or the gallows!" And Wilkes responded, "That would depend on whether I embrace your lordship's mistresses or your principles."

ARTHUR H. CASH: [LAUGHS] That was the man. [LAUGHS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you say that he was a daredevil, so tell me about that.

ARTHUR H. CASH: Well, he began by writing this weekly paper that he called "The North Briton," which was a weekly essay on the politics of the time. And he was attacking very strongly the first ministry of the very young King George III.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Particularly in the 45th edition of Wilkes' paper, The North Briton, and thereby hangs the tale.

ARTHUR H. CASH: Thereby hangs the tale. He was arrested for The North Briton under a general warrant. A general warrant was one that did not name the criminal but named the crime, and the warrant had said, go out and find the author, publisher and printer of North Briton Number 45 and bring them in to the secretaries of state. They arrested 49 people in order to get three. It was scandalous. They did eventually get Wilkes and sent him to the Tower of London. And after his release, he went home, found his house had been sacked, and he sued the government for invasion of his privacy and for false arrest. It was unheard of for private people to sue the government. And he won all of those suits. And so those two rights were, for the first time, recognized in the courts.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, there were a number of ways you recount in the book in which Wilkes fought for freedom of the press. He certainly did it through lawsuits. He also seemed to do it, to some degree, through duels.

ARTHUR H. CASH: That's right. When he was writing The North Briton, the government was constantly trying to find out who the author was, because it was written anonymously. It was an open secret – everybody knew Wilkes was writing it – but they had no proof. Lord Talbot was the head of the king's household, and he was very insulted because Wilkes had written this funny essay about him at the coronation of the king, when he was supposed to ride his horse into Westminster Hall and salute the king and ride out again. But he was trying to outdo everybody else, and so he rode his horse in and backed his horse out. He'd been training the horse for weeks and weeks to do this. And when the time came, the horse got very nervous – all these people all around – and the horse came into the hall and turned around and backed up to the king, and the crowds of people just roared with laughter and clapped and clapped. And so Lord Talbot was terribly embarrassed when Wilkes wrote about this in The North Briton, and he insisted upon finding out who had written it so that he could charge him. And Wilkes said, you have no right to know, this is published anonymously. And eventually, the contention ended up in a duel. Everybody's very suspicious that they both fired the pistols in the air, but [LAUGHS] never mind. It settled their quarrel. Afterwards, they went into the tavern, they had some wine together, they called each other fine fellows, and they went about their business.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But was Wilkes at that point really protecting the principle of anonymity or was he just protecting his own identity?

ARTHUR H. CASH: No, I think he was protecting the principle of anonymity, but at the same time, there's not much doubt about it that he was getting some very good publicity out of this.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You call Wilkes the father of the modern newspaper. How is he the father?

ARTHUR H. CASH: Well, this happened a few years later. At this time, Wilkes had served two years in prison for his insults of the government. [LAUGHS] But he was out, and he was very active in the city of London government. Now, you have to understand in those days there was a distinction between the city of London and the city of Westminster. They were different political entities. Anyway, Wilkes got two of his friends, one of whom was the Lord Mayor, and another one, who was also, along with Wilkes, an alderman – that is, ran one of the wards of the city of London – and these three pulled a trick. They got their printers to print accounts of the debates in the House of Commons. This was against the law. Well, the House of Commons ordered the printers to come before them. They didn't come. So the House of Commons sent their policemen into the city of London to find these guys.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But since Parliament was in Westminster and the printers were in the city?

ARTHUR H. CASH: Wilkes and his friends said, you are trying to arrest citizens of the city of London. You have no authority under the city of London, into jail you go. Well, everybody in the government was just furious with this. The poor men didn't stay in jail very long, of course, but they had made their point. And the net result of all this, the hoopla that was raised around this event, the House of Commons finally gave up.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: They had enjoyed blanket secrecy, protection from reporting, for as long as there'd been a Parliament until Wilkes kicked up this fuss. And here's what I want to ask you. As he was doing all of this in England, what was his impact on civil liberties in the emerging nation of the United States of America?

ARTHUR H. CASH: Well, he had an enormous impact, especially during that 10-year period before the fighting actually broke out. The Americans, for a very, very long time, had no intention of going to war. What they were looking for was a way to live with this king and this House of Commons who were being so unreasonable to them. And they looked to John Wilkes as the model of a man who could protest the tyrannies of the government without himself breaking the law. And that's what they wanted. So they idolized Wilkes. They followed his arrest.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: They sent him big turtles to eat - [OVERTALK]


BROOKE GLADSTONE: - when he was in prison.

ARTHUR H. CASH: And he corresponded with them, and he corresponded with the two Adams.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sam and John Adams.

ARTHUR H. CASH: Yes. And he had a very strong impact upon the Constitution. One of the things we haven't talked about was how Parliament had failed to seat him. They put somebody in his place. They appointed someone.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You could elect somebody, as John Wilkes was elected, and then be barred from the House of Commons if they decided you shouldn't be there.

ARTHUR H. CASH: Not at all uncommon, actually. Wilkes is one case among quite a few. This had a great effect upon James Madison at the Constitutional Convention, so that in our Constitution, Article One, Section Two and Section Three spelled out the qualifications for members of Congress. They must be 25 years old or 30 years old, depending on which House. They must be residents of the place that they live. These simple qualifications were built into the law. What had happened in England, they didn't have anything like that, so the House of Commons thought that they had a right ad hoc on each case to decide whether somebody was worthy of coming in with them or not.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then you had a situation where people were in a position of being, say, taxed without actual representation.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: An idea that underpinned the American Revolution.

ARTHUR H. CASH: Absolutely. The other thing is the First and the Third Amendments to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights have to do with freedom from false arrest, freedom of privacy, freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And they derive directly from John Wilkes' lawsuits and his duels?

ARTHUR H. CASH: Well, if you read my book and then you read the Third Amendment, the Third Amendment is just John Wilkes' experience.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Did John Wilkes love liberty as much as an old man as he did as a young one?

ARTHUR H. CASH: Oh, absolutely. He never quit. He stayed in Parliament until he was too old, actually. [LAUGHS] But when he was in Parliament in all those years after the war had broken out, he was always the champion of the Americans. And that country, for him, was a country that he thought would stand up for freedom. He said in Parliament one day, "I rejoice that liberty will have a resting place, a sure asylum in America."

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.

ARTHUR H. CASH: Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arthur Cash is author of John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo and edited – by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer, and we had engineering help from Rob Christensen. We also had help from Mark Phillips, Noah Kumin and Claire Peters. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.