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years afterwards, in the House of Commons, Burke described this Number Forty-five as “a spiritless, though virulent, “performance, — a mere mixture of vinegar and water, at “once vapid and sour!”* A more timid statesmanthan Grenville might have shrunk from any conflict with the Press. A wiser would probably have left the cure of this libel to its own dullness and defects. But the new Prime Minister was eager to signalize his accession by a vigorous defence of the Prerogative, and thus, after a few days' deliberation, on the 30th of April Wilkes was arrested in his own apartment by the authority of a “General Warrant,” that is, a Warrant not specifying the names of any person, but directed against the “authors, “printers, and publishers,” whoever they might be, of the paper complained of. Under this Warrant, which, as will presently be seen, was at least of doubtful legality, Wilkes was carried to the house of Lord Halifax, by whom the Warrant had been signed. Here he was examined by Halifax and his brother Secretary Egremont, and then committed a prisoner to the Tower. At the same time his papers were seized and examined by Mr. Wood, the Under Secretary of State, and Mr. Carteret Webb, the Solicitor of the Treasury. His two printers, Balfe and Kearsley, being also taken into custody, acknowledged him to be the author of Number Forty-five. Wilkes in his confinement was at first denied the use of pen and paper, or the privilege of receiving visits, but these restraints were almost immediately afterwards removed. His high spirits and powers of wit did not for a moment forsake him. When brought to the Tower he asked in derision to be allowed the same room in which Lord Egremont's father had been confined on a charge of treason.* A few days afterwards he wrote a letter to his daughter, his only child, whom he had placed for her education at a * Debate of November 27. 1770. Mr. Adolphus, in referring to this passage, changes the “vinegar and water” into “milk and water,” which entirely alters the meaning (perhaps I should rather say the flavour) intend1763. Wilkes D1scHARGED BY CHIEF JUSTICE PRATT. 33
ed by Mr. Burke. ** See vol. i. p. 164.
convent in France, and this letter he sent open for previous perusal to Lord Halifax. It was found to wish her joy of living in a free country! No sooner was the prison-rule relaxed than Lord Temple, who had once already called in vain, hastened ostentatiously to pay a visit to Wilkes. The same compliment was shown him by the Duke of Grafton; but in general men of character and station shrunk from any intercourse with this profligate adventurer. Wilkes had lost no time in applying for a writ of Habeas Corpus to the Court of Common Pleas, then presided over by Sir Charles Pratt, lately Attorney General, and afterwards Lord Chancellor Camden. Being carried before this eminent magistrate on the 3d of May, he (after a speech from his learned counsel, Serjeant Glynn,) spoke himself for an hour with no slight degree of flippancy, declaring that he had been “worse treated than any rebel “Scot.” At these words, so consonant to the popular humour of the moment, the crowd in Westminster Hall raised a great shout until the Lord Chief Justice with much dignity reproved them. Wilkes proceeded to say, that the Ministry adopted this mode of persecution because they had failed in their earlier attempts to corrupt him. The effrontery of this assertion cannot be fully appreciated without remembering that in fact Wilkes himself had been a disappointed suitor for place, and that from such disappointment had all his libels sprung. The Court took time to consider the arguments, and Wilkes was led back to the Tower amidst the acclamations of the mob. Three days afterwards he again appeared in Westminster to hear the judgment which the Lord Chief Justice delivered in the name of his brethren. Waiving the question as to the legality of General Warrants, which the Crown lawyers by a technical contrivance had avoided, Sir Charles Pratt pronounced Wilkes entitled to his discharge, from his privilege as a Member of Parliament, since that privilege holds good in all cases, except treason, felony, and an actual breach of the peace. “We are all of opinion,” Mahon, History. W. 3
he said, “that a libel is not a breach of the peace; it tends “to a breach of the peace, and that is the utmost. But that “which only tends to a breach of the peace cannot be an “actual breach of it. In the case of the Seven Bishops, “Judge Powell, the only honest man of the four Judges, “dissented, and I am bound to be of his opinion, and to say “that case is not law, - but it shows the miserable condition “to which the law was then reduced. Let Mr. Wilkes be “discharged from his imprisonment.”* Much elated at this victory, and determined to pursue it to the utmost, Wilkes erected a printing press in his own house, pretended that his goods had been stolen by the messengers, set on foot an action for damages against them, and threatened Lord Egremont with a challenge as soon as these proceedings should be over. During the continued recess of Parliament he proceeded on a visit to his daughter at Paris, where he was himself challenged by Captain Forbes, a Scottish exile in the French service; the duel, however, being prevented by the interposition of the Lieutenant de Police. Meanwhile in England the Court could only show its chagrin by depriving him of his commission in the Buckinghamshire Militia. Earl Temple being looked upon, and not unreasonably, as his patron and his instigator, was dismissed from the Lord Lieutenancy of the same county, and likewise struck off the list of Privy Councillors, the former post being now bestowed on Lord Le Despencer. Such was the first campaign of that memorable Seven Years' War which the Government of England thought fit to wage against John Wilkes. Little blame beyond that of imprudence seems to reston the first proceedings,but far heavier the fault of those that followed, when, as will be seen, the powers of the House of Commons being brought into play, notwithstanding the popular voice, and against an Electoral
* Lord Campbell's Lives of the Chancellors, vol. v. p. 247. In referring for the first time to these most agreeable volumes I am anxious to bear my testimony to their merit, and to state how much new and valuable information I have derived from thcm.
1763. POPULAR REJOICINGS AT HIS RELEASE. 35
body, were unconstitutionally wielded, and at last disgracefully foiled. So great were the acclamations and rejoicings at Wilkes's present release from the Tower, that they might well have warned any prudent statesman against the policy of a further prosecution. Nor were these confined to London alone. In the Cyder counties, still exasperated by the new tax laid upon them, the triumph over the administration was celebrated in a mode not extremely consistent with their boasted loyalty. Besides the usual emblems of the jackboot and petticoat, a figure was carried round, dressed in Scotch plaid and with a blue riband, to denote Lord Bute, and this figure was made to lead by the nose an ass Royally crowned!” CHAPTER XLII.
* Lord Orford's Memoirs of George III., vol. i. p. 280.
Mr. George GRENVILLE, the new Prime Minister, was (to sum up his character in three words) an excellent Speaker spoiled. All his first training, all his earlier inclinations, had qualified him to fill the Chair of the House of Commons with dignity, firmness, and learning. His whole mind, as Ihave elsewhere noticed, was cast in the mould of precedents and order. Of even his most familiar letters I should have guessed that they must have been grave and solemn; and I have been surprised to find that they do not all begin exactly like an Act of Parliament with the word “Whereas—.”
It is worthy of note that whenever any man who has been most respectable and most respected in the Speaker's Chair is called on to assume the office of Prime Minister, — as Sir Spencer Compton in 1727, Mr. Addington in 1801, and Sir Charles Manners Sutton during a few days of negotiation in 1832, — the result in each instance has been far from satisfactory. Mr. George Grenville's might properly be added to this class of cases, since, although he was never in fact raised to the Chair, he had been designated for it by the Ministry in 1761, with the general concurrence of the House and of the public, until the retirement of Pitt brought before him, unhappily for himself, the allurements of political office. As a Minister his two principal measures were the Parliamentary expulsion of Wilkes and the Parliamentary taxation of America. Both have long since been acknowledged not only as disastrous, but as in the highest degree unwise. But both, it may be added, took their rise from one and the same feeling in his mind, - the most lofty notion, namely, of the rights and privileges of the House of Commons, – a feeling which, had he been only Speaker, would have been natural, praiseworthy, and harmless, may even beneficial. '