Our Namesake: Processing the John Wilkes subseries, 1763-1805, of the Gilbert Stuart McClintock collection, 1549-2015

The Gilbert Stuart McClintock collection is a large special collection located within the Wilkes University Archives at the Eugene S. Farley Library. One of Wilkes College’s original Board of Trustees, Gilbert Stuart McClintock, collected during his lifetime hundreds of manuscripts, rare books, engravings, newspapers, paintings, political cartoons, bookplates, and objects spanning centuries that document historical subjects related to international and national figures, as well as focusing on historical events and figures from Northeastern Pennsylvania. When Gilbert Stuart McClintock passed away in 1959, his estate was donated to Wilkes.

As of Spring 2022, this collection has not been fully processed yet, however, much progress has been made with specific series and subseries from the collection. It has taken over two years and counting to transcribe, arrange, describe, and research many of the series and subseries within this collection and Wilkes University’s Archivist, Suzanna Calev, could not have accomplished this without the dedication and hard work of many Wilkes History and Public History students. Many students deserve to be recognized for their work on this collection such as Class of 2021 History, International Relations, and Political Science major Christopher Smith who conducted 75% of the initial processing, research, and transcribing of the collection from Fall 2020 through Summer 2021. During Summer 2021, History majors Logan Yeakel and Ryan Mercer also participated in the initial processing and transcribing of the collection.

The first blog post for the Gilbert Stuart McClintock collection is written by Conrad Middleton, a Sophomore History major with a focus on Public History, who has transcribed and described the John Wilkes subseries in great detail within the collection. Conrad hopes to do archival work in the future.

To view the digitized John Wilkes subseries and series description, please visit our Archivesspace catalog here. Below are Conrad’s highlights from the series.

As a current student who attends Wilkes University, I’ve often wondered who was the man behind our namesake and why was he so significant. We have a statue of him in the center of campus and yet his historical legacy is unknown to most students. Now that I’ve transcribed and researched the John Wilkes subseries, I am able to understand why our founders decided to name us after this historical figure. This collection of Wilkes manuscripts, publications, newspapers, and artwork reveal so many interesting things about his scandalous and radical life and about the politics of his time that it deserves closer reflection and analysis. 

John Wilkes was born October 17, 1725 in London to Israel Wilkes and Sarah Heaton Wilkes. His youth consisted of scholarly pursuits and this continued into his young adult life when he received an education from the University of Leiden. Wilkes began his political career with the 1757 election as a Parliament Member for Aylesbury. Above is a French engraving of Wilkes from after his death by an unknown artist which references the election in a description underneath the portrait. This event marks the beginning of his lifelong relationship with Parliament and the House of Commons. 

Unfortunately, we do not have any materials that are relevant to his earlier years. The majority of items within the collection are focused around his political career from 1763 onward, as this is where most of the major events in his life occurred. 

Upon examining the newspapers, manuscripts, and artwork within the John Wilkes subseries of the Gilbert Stuart McClintock Collection, I was able to see the progression of Wilkes’ political escapades and controversies, especially during the 1760’s and early 1770’s when he encountered the majority of his troubles. 

One of the biggest controversies that Wilkes was privy to during his early career involved an issue of his radical newspaper The North Briton, specifically issue No. 45 published on April 23, 1763. In this issue, Wilkes criticized King George III for a royal speech in which he praised the Treaty of Paris.  As a result, he was charged with seditious libel, in addition to many more legal problems which arose from this publication. Beneath is the print related to this incident which may be my personal favorite portrait of Wilkes in the collection because of its relation to one of Wilkes’ most scandalous writings. The image, engraved by Bickham in June 1763, is in defense of Wilkes’ newspaper issue, with the figure seen in the Tower of London behind bars. The image comes with a quote from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man seen above the etching:

“A wit’s a feather, and a chief’s a rod:
An honest man’s the noble work of God.”

Already in hot water, his situation would only worsen upon the discovery of one of his most infamous, scandalous, and controversial writings that he authored in his possession after a raid on the figures’ house on April 30, 1763; Essay on Woman. We have a copy of this work in the collection from 1788, and upon reading through it, it is easy to see just why this was controversial for the time. Beneath is a transcription of the first few lines of the book within our possession next to the published version:

Awake my Sandwich, leave all meaner joys,
To Charles* and Bob♱, those true poetic boys ;
Let us, since life can little more supply, Than just to kiss, to procreate, and die,
Expaitiate free o’re all the female sex,
Born to subdue, and studying to perplex ;
Shew where the virtuous, where the vicious rise,
The heaving bosom and the sparking eyes,
The latent tracts, the secret cause to explore,
Of each who is, or longs to be a whore .
Eye woman’s walks from earth unto the skies,
A Mussay fallen or a Fisher rise ;

Here is the equivalent excerpt from Essay on Man for comparison.

Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of kings.
Let us (since life can little more supply
Than just to look about us and to die)
Expatiate free o’er all this scene of man;
A mighty maze! but not without a plan;
A wild, where weeds and flow’rs promiscuous shoot;
Or garden, tempting with forbidden fruit.
Together let us beat this ample field,
Try what the open, what the covert yield;
The latent tracts, the giddy heights explore
Of all who blindly creep, or sightless soar;
Eye Nature’s walks, shoot folly as it flies,
And catch the manners living as they rise;

Pope, Alexander. “An Essay on Man: Epistle I by Alexander Pope.” 1733-1734, Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, Accessed in January 2022.

Essay on Woman is a parody of Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, which sexualized the work in an extremely pornographic manner for the time, as seen above. He was eventually charged with obscene libel. The work was originally written by one of John Wilkes’ good friends, Thomas Potter, however the figure unfortunately passed away prior to its completion. Upon Potter’s death in 1759, Wilkes inherited the manuscript and continued Potter’s vision through his additions to it until its discovery and subsequent publication. 

  “ …so fill’d with obscenity & Blasphemy that Lord S- could hardly pick out two or three sentences from the whole to foreward his complaint upon that would not so shock the ears of all present that he was sure they would call to him to stop, we unanimously voted it is an impious libel, a high breach of Principle, most scandalously reflecting upon the Holy scriptures & the Person of our Blessed savior …”

As previously mentioned, Wilkes was charged with obscene libel, outlawry, his exile and imprisonment after the discovery and subsequent publishing of Essay on Woman. Wilkes fled to France on December 23, 1763 due to the controversy he had stirred up from this in addition to his publication of the North Briton No. 45.

Wilkes lived in France as well as Italy in sojourn for five years. However, when he returned to England in 1768, Parliament members had not forgotten his past transgressions. Wilkes was still an outlaw, and although they did not immediately issue a warrant upon his return, after his victory in the Middlesex election in 1768 for a position in Parliament, Wilkes was quickly sought after. A newspaper clipping from a pro-Wilkes newspaper written in 1768 describes his return to England and consequently sparked more controversy from the Middlesex election affair. The article, which can be seen below, describes his return to the country as he set off to Brentford in Middlesex to announce his candidacy in the upcoming March 1768 Parliamentary election, and the election results. Wilkes won by quite a large margin which reveals his popularity and support from the people despite Parliament’s consistent attempts to ban him from holding office. 

In stark contrast, the broadside featured below from March 29, 1768, the day after Wilkes’ victory, provides us with a portion of his speech to the Court of Common Pleas, which provoked Parliament to imprison him in King’s Bench Prison.

Below the broadside is Wilkes’ account regarding his imprisonment. This account titled “To the Gentlemen, Clergy, and Freeholders of the County of Middlesex,” contains many interesting statements, however the most interesting and relevant one is regarding his integrity during this event.

 Please keep in mind that during this time f’s were sometimes used in place of the letter s.

“I pledge myfelf to you that my ftongeft efforts fhall be exerted to carry this through with a spirit anf firmnefs becoming an affair on national confequence, yet without the fmalleft degree of private rancor or malice, which neither my long and hard imprifonment, nor the paft provocation, fhall make me harbor against any man.”

These two events preceded Wilkes’ expulsion from Parliament in February 1769 and the Middlesex Election affair. The Middlesex Election affair ignited a debate on democracy and the rights of electors within England due to Wilkes’ repeated success in the polls for the same position in February, March, and April of that same year, and the almost immediate void put on his election by Parliament on every single occasion. Once Wilkes won for a third time in April of 1769, Parliament gave the position to Henry Lawes Luttrell, 2nd Earl of Carhampton, a figure who was approved by the government.

Up to this point, it may seem that Wilkes is mostly known for his various controversies which are loitered throughout his career as a political figure, however behind all of these controversies lies an advocate of free speech and liberty. This is the reason why Wilkes has become such a beloved figure in history. The official website for the UK Parliament recognizes this on their website, stating; 

“Whilst in Parliament Wilkes made the first ever motion for Parliamentary reform. Wilkes’ activities generated significant interest by newspapers in Parliament’s proceedings at a time when the reporting of debates was not allowed. In 1771 Wilkes was able to use his influence in the City of London to force the Government to relax the restrictions, thereby establishing the freedom of the press to report Parliament.”

John Wilkes – Liberty & Parliament – UK Parliament.” UK Parliament

Wilkes quickly became a symbol for free speech and liberty, so much so that his name was frequently used with political slogans. An example of this is in relation to the previously mentioned North Briton No. 45, where the number forty five became one of these slogans. Another example of this is with his name, as the phrase “Wilkes and Liberty!” became a popular slogan against arbitrary power (Tilly, Charles. “Inventions of the Social Movement.” Social Movements, 1768-2004, Routledge, 2018, pp. 17–18.)

Unfortunately for Wilkes, the end of his life was less prosperous than the rest, as a life of debt had slowly drained the funds from his pockets. John Wilkes passed away insolvent on December 26, 1797 at St. Grosvenor’s Square in London. Although his quality of life deteriorated in his final years, Wilkes’ legacy lives on through the monumental progress that he made in freedom of speech and liberty, and through locations and institutions like ours who bear his name. Wilkes University also pays tribute to John Wilkes in other ways besides our name; for those who did not know, the statue that stands tall in the center of campus is a depiction of the figure.

Above is a picture of the statue of John Wilkes found on campus sourced from the Wilkes University website. Accessed in January 2022.
Above is the cover of a pamphlet from the dedication of the statue of Wilkes in 1995.

One of the reasons we were able to erect a lifesize statue of the figure in 1995 is because so many artists depicted him during his lifetime and after. Many of these depictions are represented in our art subseries of the John Wilkes collection. The subseries includes engravings, prints, portraits, heraldry of John Wilkes, and historical scenes from his life. The art provides a glimpse into how he was perceived by certain groups and nationalities, and it demonstrates how the modern perception of the figure may have been tainted by a grudge.

The most distinguishable trend featured in John Wilkes portraits is how unflattering they are to his appearance, with the majority of them depicting him as severely cross eyed and with crooked teeth during his entire career to some extent. This can likely be attributed to one very famous caricature made in 1763 by an individual that was at one time friends with Wilkes; William Hogarth.

Hogarth was King George II’s portrait painter, and after deciding to delve into political cartoons the figure set his eyes on William Pitt and Earl Temple; two friends of Wilkes. After hearing about this and confronting Hogarth over the cartoon, an argument broke out between the two resulting in Hogarth adding Wilkes into the cartoon. Unfortunately for Wilkes, Hogarth took this feud to his grave in 1767 and his exaggerated portrayal would become the most well known and copied portrait recreated by artists for decades after.

The above item from our collection is a French copy of Hogarth’s print from 1763, the same year that the original was created. The characteristic cross-eyedness and crooked teeth of Wilkes can be seen in full effect within this caricature, with his facial features exaggerated due to the feud between the two figures. This portrait circulated in the public sphere and as a result, influenced other artists to depict him this way as well. Below are several examples within our collection of other artists’ depictions of Wilkes, such as in the portrayal of Wilkes in an engraving from an unknown date and artist and a political cartoon from an unknown year and artist that take influence from this portrayal.  

This portrayal by an unknown artist portrays Wilkes in a negative light, as beneath the image the phrase ‘“Dents loup” can be seen, most likely referring to Wilkes’ teeth as seen in the influential Hogarth portrait, as it is French for “wolf teeth”.
 In this portrayal of Wilkes, it seems to refer to a dispute that occurred between John Wilkes and Lord Bute, King George III’s prime minister. The dispute occurred when Wilkes accused Bute of bribery and corruption. Interestingly, it also features two characters noted as Temora and Fingal on Bute’s shoulder, in reference to the two poems published by James MacPherson in 1763 and 1762 respectively, likely very close to when this image was published. This inclusion is quite confusing however, as it seems to be a reference to the lands of Temora beating down upon the character of King Fingal, an important figure in both poems. What this means in relation to the dispute between Wilkes and Bute, I cannot say for sure.

As decades passed, his portrayal in portraits became less exaggerated, with his facial features becoming softer. This became very noticeable when comparing portraits created near the end of Wilkes’ life to those made around Hogarth’s caricature, however his portraits consistently remained somewhat cross eyed. There are certainly outliers to this, yet there are some pieces that still took heavy inspiration from Hogarth’s portrayal later in his career such as the following picture below, which was published in 1775, the same year that the most favorable portrait of Wilkes we have in the collection was published.

This particular portrait is especially nasty in its portrayal of Wilkes, exaggerating his facial features even more than Hogarth’s. Unfortunately the artist is unknown, though they must not have had a very high opinion of Wilkes.

The pieces below show some examples from the collection of how Wilkes’ portraits evolved after Hogarth’s was published.

A portrayal of Wilkes by Johann Sebastian Müller published in 1763. The artist also portrayed Wilkes several other times, with the portrayals staying relatively similar to his image here. An interesting aspect of Müller’s career in relation to Wilkes is that he also collaborated with John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute on a work titled Botanical Tables (1785), and as previously mentioned Wilkes had accused Bute of bribery and corruption causing a dispute between the two. Unfortunately, not much information can be found regarding the relationship between Wilkes and Müller.
An image of Müller reproduced by C.F. Maillet originally featured on Wikimedia. The figure originated in Germany, however he moved to London in 1744, eventually going under the moniker of Miller around 1760. This is the name that we have on the works by him contained within the collection. John Miller.” Wikimedia
A portrayal of Wilkes published in 1768 which shows the figure surrounded by two figures, who we currently do not know who they are portrayals of. The phrase seen underneath the portrait is most likely in reference to his reassurance of his loyalty to doing right to his country and people during his imprisonment, which is noted in the newspaper, “I will live and die in your service”. This image can be found adorning a newspaper article written by Wilkes which is surrounding the topic of his imprisonment in King’s Bench Prison in 1768, and unfortunately we do not know who the artist is.
A portrayal of Wilkes by the Political Register published in 1771, Wilkes is the figure on the right. This political cartoon depicts a fight between the figure and Horne Tooke which happened in 1766 over the letter that Wilkes can be seen stepping on in this image. Unfortunately the artist who created the picture is unknown.
A portrayal of Wilkes by Freeman published in 1804 that is based on a painting of the figure done by John Zoffany. The painting that this portrayal of Wilkes is based on is one of the more famous portrayals of the figure, and it shows the figure looking up at his daughter Mary Wilkes. This adaptation of the painting by Freeman gives Wilkes much softer facial features than Zoffany’s, making it one of the most “normal” and appealing versions of the figure that I have seen in my research, however the cross eyedness still remains.

One of the most interesting pieces that I was able to take a look at within the collection is a John Wilkes letter that was written eleven years after his death; though this is truly remarkable as dead men are unable to write. The letter is dated by “J. Wilkes” in 1808. This in itself sparks many questions about this letters’ origins, however the large and somewhat sloppy handwriting contained within this letter sparks even more, as it is in stark contrast to Wilkes’ extremely clean and condensed penmanship. 

Is this a forgery? Perhaps. However, a more logical explanation that we may have for this letter from beyond the grave may be that it was indeed written by a John Wilkes, but not the one our institution is named after. Upon digging through records surrounding the Wilkes lineage, I was able to stumble upon another John Wilkes from Essex, Britain who was alive, albeit in his mid-teens, during this window of time. He was born sometime around 1794, although the exact date is unknown quite similarly to his death date, which occurred sometime after the 1871 census.

The reason why I believe it to be possible that this letter was written by this John Wilkes and was just simply mistaken for a letter by the politician is because of the location noted beneath the signature within the letter; Essex, the same location that the teenager hailed from. Although this is merely speculation, this little mystery made this piece truly stand out from the rest, giving me an opportunity to put on a detective cap for a few minutes, as I attempted to piece things together in this interesting little outlier.

These pieces that I have pointed out are only a few examples of what is contained within the collection. Every piece within this subseries of the McClintock Collection tells an intriguing story, with each one providing another piece of the puzzle towards a fuller understanding of the life of John Wilkes. Hopefully after reading this article you have a fuller understanding of the life of Wilkes, why he was chosen to be the University’s namesake, and that perhaps when you pass by the statue of him on campus you think of the man behind the bronze. It is important to note Gilbert Stuart McClintock when referencing this collection, as after all he is the one who found it important to collect and preserve these very documents, and without his passion for this collection, I would not be writing this today. 

Gilbert Stuart McClintock ca. 1957 at the Stark building dedication.

One thought on “Our Namesake: Processing the John Wilkes subseries, 1763-1805, of the Gilbert Stuart McClintock collection, 1549-2015

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