The Grenville Ministry and the Wilkes Scandal
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
Earl of Bute's Ministry
The Peace of Paris was very unpopular, and Bute's personal unpopularity was still greater, partly because he was a Scot, partly because be was looked upon as a "favourite," partly because he had ousted Pitt, and partly because his statesmanship was regarded as pusillanimous. A couple of months after the Peace of Paris he resigned, although for some time to come the public at large continued to believe that he was the real director of the government. The king had got rid of Pitt and of Newcastle, but he had not got rid of the domination of that strong section of the Whigs, which disliked equally the personal ascendency of Pitt and Newcastle's monopoly of patronage, George found himself compelled to submit to the tyranny of this group, headed by George Grenville and the Duke of Bedford, because the only alternative was to recall Pitt himself, and Pitt would only return upon impossible terms.
Moreover, except in the desire to break up the Whig connection, the king's political views were diametrically opposed to those of the fallen minister, and were in agreement with those of the Bedford group; the trouble lay in the fact that the chiefs of the Whig group made themselves personally intensely obnoxious to the king. For two years he had to bear the yoke, though he was restive enough under it; and at the end of two years he could only free himself by calling to office, without Pitt himself, a group of Whigs whose most earnest wish was to serve under Pitt, and who sought to carry out a policy to which the king himself was intensely antagonistic.
The Grenville Ministry
George Grenville, who became the real head of the administration on, Bute's retirement, was a capable official, but at the same time an incarnation of official pedantry, to whom the letter was everything and the spirit nothing. His absorption in details entirely prevented him from taking comprehensive views, or from realising the existence of forces which could not be tabulated in Blue Books. He was wholly devoid of that tact which is born of a sympathetic understanding of divergent points of view, and he lacked also that sense of perspective which distinguishes between the importance of what is trivial and the importance of what is fundamental Consequently during his administration the trivial blazed into prominence and the fundamental was overlooked, with disastrous results. An unscrupulous adventurer was enabled to pose as the martyr of Liberty in order to salve the susceptibilities of the Government and the House of Commons, while the vital question of the relations between the mother country and the colonies was dealt with offhand as a mere byway of official routine.
The Wilkes Scandal
John Wilkes was a clever scamp, with the loosest of morals and a passion for notoriety, which was not satisfied by a wide reputation for reckless and indecent dissipation. Wilkes had started a paper called the North Briton chiefly devoted to abuse of Bute, the Scots, and the Government, The king's speech at the opening of parliament claimed applause for the Peace of Paris, and, with a singular audacity, for the satisfactory terms obtained by Frederick. Wilkes in "Number 45" of his paper very justly stigmatised this profession as a lie put into the mouth of the king by his ministers. George and the ministers were alike furious. A general warrant was issued for the arrest of the author printers and publishers of the paper, without mentioning the names of the parties. Wilkes was arrested, and his papers were searched without the formality of obtaining formal proof of the authorship, and he himself was rigorously confined and forbidden the use of pen and ink.
But when the matter came before Chief Justice Pratt, he ordered the release of Wilkes on the ground that members of parliament were immune from arrest, except for treason, felony, or breach of the peace, categories under which Wilkes's offence could by no means be brought. Moreover, the Chief Justice pronounced that general warrants were illegal. The ministers, not content to let ill alone, went on to demand in the House of Commons that Number 45 should be burnt by the public hangman as a "false scurrilous and seditious libel"; and the House of Lords carried an address praying that Wilkes should be prosecuted as the author of a certain obscene work entitled an Essay on Woman, which was produced by one of his old partners in debauchery and iniquity, Lord Sandwich, although the thing had never been published at all. Meanwhile Wilkes had betaken himself to France to escape the consequences of a duel; in his absence he was outlawed and the House of Commons expelled him.
Consequences of the Wilkes case
At the same time the courts awarded him heavy damages for false imprisonment, and riots attested his popularity with the mob. The whole of the proceedings gave Wilkes an entirely fictitious importance, and at the same time brought into prominence the arrogant claims of the House of Commons, or of a temporary majority in the House of Commons, to assert' its own authority as overriding that of the common law. The privileges of the Commons, the rights of the electorate, and the right of free criticism outside the House of Commons, were again a few years later to provide a battlefield between the champion of liberty and the champions of privilege. For the moment the victory rested with the Commons, because it was not safe for the outlaw to reappear in England; but it was at the cost of their dignity and credit, and at the second encounter five years later they were very thoroughly worsted.