John Wilkes, an English politician, born in London, Oct. 17, 1727, died there, Dec. 27, 1797. He was the son of a rich distiller, and was educated at Hertford and Aylesbury, and afterward studied at Leyden. In 1757 he entered parliament, and in 1762 started the "North Briton" newspaper for the purpose of assailing the administration of Lord Bute. After that minister's downfall, the " North Briton " continued its attacks upon the government, Wilkes being aided, it is said, by Lord Temple and the poet Churchill. The king's speech at the close of parliament in 1763 claimed for Great Britain the merit of the peace closing the seven years' war. The "North Briton" charged the monarch with falsehood. Wilkes was arrested and committed to the tower, but in a few days was discharged by means of a writ of habeas corpus, on the plea of his privilege as member of parliament. The house of commons at the next session, however, declared the paper in question to be a seditious libel, ordered it to be burned, and passed a special law for the author's prosecution. The populace took up the side of Wilkes, and when the attempt was made to burn the obnoxious numbera riot ensued. Wilkes also won his suit against the under-secretary of state for the seizure of his papers, the jury giving him £1,000 damages.
In January, 1764, he was expelled from the house of commons; and the upper house having accused him of writing an obscene poem called an "Essay on Woman," he was tried before Lord Mansfield and found guilty, and, as he had fled to France, was outlawed.
He returned to England four years afterward, and was again elected to parliament from Middlesex. He now gave himself up to the court of king's bench, but it refused to commit him. Having been at once rearrested, he was rescued from the officers by the mob, but voluntarily went into confinement. On the day when parliament met, a large crowd assembled in front of his prison to conduct him to the house of commons. A riot followed, and several of the mob were shot by the military. The sentence of outlawry was reversed by Lord Mansfield; but Wilkes was convicted of two libels, fined £1,000, and sentenced to 22 months' imprisonment. Having charged Lord Weymouth with planning " the horrid massacre in St. George's fields," as the quelling of the riot was called, he was again expelled from parliament, and a new election was ordered for Middlesex. Wilkes was returned without opposition, but the house declared him incapable of sitting. Three other elections had the same result, and at last the commons declared his opponent Col. Luttrell elected, on the ground that the votes cast for Wilkes were void. Wilkes, though in prison, now became the most popular man in England. His contest with the ministry was regarded as one for the preservation of the rights of the people.
Costly presents were sent him, and £20,000 was raised to pay his debts. In November, 1769, a jury gave him £4,000 damages against Lord Halifax for false imprisonment. In April, 1770, he was set at liberty and elected alderman of London. He was twice commanded to attend at the bar of the house to answer for his conduct in that office, but refused to appear except as member for Middlesex. The house finally evaded the contest by summoning him to appear on April 8 and adjourning to the 9th. In 1771 Wilkes was elected sheriff of London, and in 1774 lord mayor; and in the latter year he was again elected to parliament for Middlesex and took his seat. From 1779 till his death he was chamberlain of London. In 1782 he succeeded in procuring the expunging of the resolutions of expulsion from the records, on the ground that they were subversive of the rights of electors. He published translations and editions of several classics. His "Letters to his Daughter" from 1774 to 1796 were printed in 1804; and in 1805 Almon published his correspondence in five volumes, with a biography. - See "Biographies of John Wilkes and William Cobbett," by the Rev. John Watson (London, 1870), and " Wilkes, Sheridan, and Fox: the Opposition under George the Third," by W. F. Rae (London, 1874).