Vox Populi: ‘Wilkes and Scottish Liberty: The Reception of John Wilkes in The Weekly Magazine’

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On 15 January 2013, as part of the on-going Vox Populi series, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr Rhona Brown who discussed ‘Wilkes and Scottish Liberty: The Reception of John Wilkes in The Weekly Magazine’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

The lecture was centred around the controversial figure of John Wilkes, an English politician, libertine, pistol-dueller and perhaps the progenitor of slanderous gossip-journalism in Britain. He was, predictably, a divisive figure, Voltaire admired him for his ‘courage’ and ‘wit’, while King George III described him as a ‘devil’. He was certainly a figure of some hatred in Scotland, with effigies of him burnt at Edinburgh, essentially making him the ‘Guy Fawkes for Scots’. The principle reason for this hatred was his newspaper ‘The North Briton’ which was vehement and unrelenting in its negative depiction of the Scots.

A clear influence for Wilkes’ antipathy was the term of John Stuart, third earl of Bute, who was Prime Minister between 26 May 1762- 8 April 1763. In Wilkes’ opinion, Bute’s term was disastrous, due to his position as royal favourite and for ending the Seven Years War with an unfavourable treaty (for the English). The peace treaty of Paris was viewed as beneficial only for the Scots and served to strengthen England’s bitter enemies, the Spanish and French. Apparently honouring the ‘Auld Alliance’, Bute was accused of being a ‘Jacobite at heart’.

Around this time, journal called ‘The Briton’, edited by Tobias Smollett, presented a harmonious union between Scotland and England. Wilkes was incensed by this and the first issue of ‘The North Briton’ was released in 1762. The title alone has clear implications: Scotland was an ‘unwanted voice of Britain’, nor was she truly part of Great Britain. Furthermore, it satirised and undermined Bute’s mandate to represent the country. Within the paper, there were venomous attacks against Bute and Wilkes’ other enemies. In issue no. 44, he claimed ‘the name of Scot (is) hateful to every true Englishman’. He even dispensed with the accepted custom of the time: instead of using initials when verbally attacking his enemies, Wilkes boldly named names. Dr. Brown noted the clear correlations between these events and the super-injunctions of today’s media and politics. Some champion Wilkes as a hero for exposing corruption, while others call him a villain for involving the, arguably irrelevant, private lives of his enemies.

One contemporary paper can be argued as exhibiting the Scottish response to Wilkes’ inflammatory opinions. ‘The Weekly Magazine’, established around this time, was based in Edinburgh and has been associated with the ‘hotbed of genius’ that allegedly existed in Enlightenment Edinburgh. Unlike the clearly partisan opinions of ‘The North Briton’, ‘The Weekly Magazine’ demonstrated a fairer spread of political belief. The magazine had considerable readership, around 3,000 compared to ‘The North Britons” 2,000. It also published reader’s correspondence, which meant it featured the voice of the Scottish people, to a limited extent.

Wilkes was a common topic in ‘The Weekly Magazine’ and near constant updates of his shenanigans were found. A review of his book on the history of England was full of harsh criticism of both his scholarship and political ignorance. Another story printed outlined a Scot attempting to duel Wilkes, ultimately unsuccessfully. However, this showed willingness to fight Wilkes both physically and on paper. His physical attributes were often the subject of scorn and also presented him as a ‘figure of vice’.

Moving from Wilkes, there was discussion of the poor representation of Scotland in the English parliament by the fantastically named, ‘Sam Bombshell’. Despite this response, ‘The Weekly Magazine’ also featured other contributors who were less sceptical about Wilkes and England as a whole. A poem by an English poet was printed in 1764, which argued that true freedom was found in England, while a letter in 1773 claimed that in place of England and Scotland there was now South Briton and North Briton. One implicit point that perhaps unveils ‘The Weekly Magazine’s’ true political leanings is the praise lavished on Tobias Smollett, the editor of ‘The Briton’, upon his death in 1771.

In conclusion, Dr Brown noted the same debates that raged in the late eighteenth century continue today. The issue of press freedom and the state of the union between England and Scotland remain hotly discussed topics.

Some comments after the lecture included the point that ‘The Weekly Magazine’ was essentially a Tory magazine, bi-partisan in only the loosest sense. Another noted that Scots are often claimed as defining themselves through their hatred of England, whereas Wilkes seems to demonstrate the inversion of this.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Next Tuesday 22nd January, our seminar series continues with Steven Reid and David McOmish’s, ‘What role did Latin play in Jacobean Scotland? An introduction to the ‘Bridging the Continental Divide’ Project’. We are back to Room 202 of 3 Uni Gardens at 5.30pm for this one. All welcome!

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