Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Item of the Day: John Wilkes' The North Briton (1770)

Full Title:

The North Briton. From Vol. I to No XLVI. Complete. With several useful and explanatory Notes, Not printed in any former Edition To which is added, a copious Index to every Name and Article. Corrected and Revised by A Friend to Civil and Religious Liberty. Vol. II Printed in London.

Number XLV. Saturday, April 23, 1763.

The following Advertisement appeared in all the Papers on the 13th of April.

[John Wilkes' famous essay Number 45 outraged George III, resulted in his arrest for seditious libel under a general warrant (in which the crime but not the criminal was named) and landed forty-nine other people in jail. The arrests incited Wilkes to bring a counter-suit against his arrestors for trespass, forcing the courts to examine the legality of Wilkes' seizure as a member of the House of Commons. The court vindicated Wilkes but more importantly the incident signaled a "momentous shift in the locus of power in government from the privileged to the masses." Colonists idealized the radical Wilkes as their champion of liberty whose cause celebre demonstrated to their great satisfaction that the British government was all too eager to curtail freedom of the press and the people's lawful rights.]


The King's Speech has always been considered by the legislature, and by the public at large, as the Speech of the Minister. It has regularly, at the beginning of every session of parliament, been referred by both houses to the consideration of a committee, and has been generally canvassed with the utmost freedom, when the minister of the crown has been obnoxious to the nation. The ministers of this free country, conscious of the undoubted privileges of so spirited a people, and with the terrors of parliament before their eyes, have ever been cautious, no less with regard to the matter, than to the expressions of speeches, which they have advised the sovereign to make from the throne, at the opening of each session. They well knew that an honest house of parliament, true to their trust, could not fail to detect the fallacious arts, or to remonstrate against the daring acts of violence committed by any minister. The speech at the close of the session has ever been considered as the most secure method of promulgating the favourite court-creed among the vulgar; because the parliament, which is the constitutional guardian of the liberties of the people, has in this case no opportunity of remonstrating, or of impeaching any wicked servant of the crown.

. . .


This week has given the public the most abandoned instance of ministerial effrontery ever attempted to be imposed on mankind. The minister's speech of last Tuesday is not to be paralleled in the annals of this country. I am in doubt, whether the imposition is greater on the sovereign or on the nation. Every friend of his country must lament that a prince of so many great and amiable qualities, whom England truly reveres, can be brought to give the sanction of his sacred name to the most odious measures, and to the most unjustifiable public declarations, from a throne ever renowned for truth, honour, and unsullied virtue.

. . .

A despotic minister will always endeavor to dazzle his prince with high-flown ideas of the prerogative and honour of the crown, which the minister will make a parade of firmly maintaining. I wish as much as any man in the kingdom to see the honour of the crown maintained in a manner truly becoming Royalty. I lament to see it sunk even to prostitution. What a shame was it to see the security of this country in point of military force, complimented away, contrary to the opinion of Royalty itself, and sacrificed to the prejudices and to the ignorance of a set of people, the most unfit, from every consideration, to be consulted on a matter relative to the security of the house of Hanover!

. . .

The King of England is only the first magistrate of this country; but is invested by the law with the whole executive power. He is, however, responsible to his people for the due execution of the royal functions, in the choice of ministers, &c. equal with the meanest of his subjects in his particular duty.

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