May 29, 2008

Early heroes of the blogosphere

During [Thomas Paine's] years in Lewes, a great and endless political struggle captivated the entire nation, and its central figure was John Wilkes. Son of a maltster, parliamentarian for Aylesbury, and member of the notorious Hell-Fire Club, Wilkes loved nothing more than to attack King George III and his ministers — along with George's very own mother — in the pages of his newspaper, the North Briton. The government replied by having Wilkes thrown into the Tower, but the lord chief justice ruled this a violation of the parliamentary privilege, and he was released. Asked at the time to define the limits of free speech in Britain, Wilkes said, "I cannot tell, but I am trying to find out."

The government would not be stopped. While Wilkes was visiting his daughter in Paris for Christmas (and recovering from a duel), Lord Sandwich led a successful campaign to have him expelled from the House of Commons. Now stripped of privilege, Wilkes was quickly tried and convicted of seditious libel and, when he decided not to return from France, declared an outlaw. After running out of money, however, he was forced to come home, where he immediately won a seat in Parliament for Middlesex and turned himself over to the authorities, who responded with a sentence of two years' imprisonment. Wilkes sought a pardon, and Whitehall arranged to expel him from the Commons once again. His bravery against the state had made him one of the most popular figures in Britain, however, and he was immediately restored to his seat by the voters of Middlesex.

The story of John Wilkes was a dramatic illustration of government corruption abridging the sacred and traditional rights of a free Englishman, and it would resonate strongly with the American founders, including Thomas Paine. Additionally, Paine would seem to inherit something of Wilkes's style of provocation, with the bon mots of both men passed along at every level of society. While attacking George III, Wilkes was invited to play a game of cards. He replied, "Do not ask me, for I am so ignorant that I cannot tell the difference between a king and a knave." When Sandwich predicted that Wilkes would die from the pox or the gibbet, Wilkes responded, "That depends, my lord, whether I embrace your mistress or your principles."

— Craig Nelson, Thomas Paine, pp. 41-2.


Emily said...

Oh man, they just don't make bon mots like they used to.

illusory tenant said...

I know! I wonder if he got slapped with a glove for that last one.