Go to the U of M home page


Friday, May 8, 2015

Magna Carta Across the Atlantic

Portrait of John Wilkes by Hogarth (1763)
In the Riesenfeld Center's current exhibit, "Magna Carta, 800 Years: Rights and the Rule of Law," several items highlight the political dialogue between England and the American colonies on the eve of revolution. Colonists sought to assert what they saw as their essential English rights against an overreaching British government, and those asserted rights expanded in the 18th century. Some had early origins - the colonial slogan "No taxation without representation," referred to a principle of consent to taxation that traced back to Magna Carta. That argument found some favor in England, just as opposition to broad search warrants, and support for free political speech and expanded religious freedom, echoed across the Atlantic in sympathetic circles.

Political radical and nonconformist John Wilkes (1725-97), was one English figure who became a symbol of rights and liberty on both sides of the Atlantic. Starting as an incendiary journalist, Wilkes went on to a political career that saw him successively expelled from the Commons, exiled from England and imprisoned. As a savvy and ambitious politician, Wilkes took up the discourse of liberty and rights as adeptly as anyone in the period. During his career he resisted broad arrest warrants - also a colonial grievance - and defended his own privilege as a member of Parliament against arrest for libel. Partly in response to his enemies, he also supported the publication of direct reports of Parliamentary debates, and the cause of freer speech eventually won out. At his height and after, the popular slogan "Wilkes, Liberty and No. 45!" captured Wilkes's deep appeal as an opposition figure.

In America, Wilkes was popular prior to the war and had support from the likes of John Adams, John Hancock and James Otis. William Hogarth's satirical portrait of Wilkes, depicting him as a devilish figure holding a tall pole with a cap on top, has become his iconic image. The objects in his hand are the liberty pole and Phrygian cap, symbols of freedom that were likewise used in the colonies in opposition to British rule. One of our current exhibit books, Magna Carta, Opposed to Assumed Privilege… (1771), shows these symbols stamped on its spine, and it is no coincidence. The book treats the controversy over printing Parliamentary debates, and Wilkes's role in it. Invoking Magna Carta in the book's title was a first calculated appeal, to which the elegant blue morocco binding, with liberty poles and caps, added another recognizable sign for those in the know.

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections

Magna Charta, Opposed to Assumed Privilege (London, 1771)


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.