|Portrait of John Wilkes by Hogarth (1763)|
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)|