On this day in 1764, the British Parliament expels John Wilkes from its ranks for his reputedly libelous, seditious and pornographic writings. Over the next 12 years, Wilkes’ name became a byword for Parliamentary oppression both in Britain and in Britain’s North American colonies.
Wilkes earned the ouster by impugning the integrity of King George III and his closest advisor, a Scot, John Stuart, earl of Bute, in the 45th edition of his newspaper, The North Briton, in 1763. When the government responded by having the newspaper’s offices searched and its staff arrested under a general search warrant, a judge deemed the warrant illegal and dismissed the charges. When Wilkes was subsequently taken into custody under a special warrant, the judge released him on the grounds of parliamentary privilege. But Wilkes continued to irk the King’s leading minister, George Grenville, and, after his pornographic Essay on Women was read in Parliament during the debate over his expulsion, the politician-journalist fled to France to avoid imprisonment. By that time, his place among London artisans as an icon of liberty confronting parliamentary injustice was already assured.
In 1764, Wilkes moved to France, just as Grenville’s Sugar Act was rankling colonists. He returned to Britain in 1768, as opposition to the Townshend Acts, which taxed British imports to the American colonies, including tea and paper, raged. Upon his return, Wilkes managed to simultaneously win re-election to Parliament and serve a prison term, but Parliament refused to allow him to take his seat despite three electoral victories, giving the position to the loser. Soldiers killed six of his supporters and wounded 15 who had gathered in front of Wilkes’ prison to protest his plight.
Colonial protestors across the pond quickly joined the rallying cries of Wilkes and liberty! In Boston, colonists devised a Wilkite Apostle’s Creed and, in South Carolina, the assembly sent money for Wilkes’ legal defense fund.