This anonymous print from 1768 is an example of news reporting — and political propaganda — from the years shortly before the rise of the modern political party and the modern social movement in England. The politicized mob can’t vote, but it is beginning to have an impact on electoral politics. Here is a reading of the image, some background on England’s radical politics, the libertine and radical free-speech hero John Wilkes, and, incidentally, the artist William Hogarth’s uncharacteristic foray into politics.
The unknown artist reports on an important election campaign for the House of Commons. Hired thugs are breaking up a campaign meeting (“hustings”) of an ally of John Wilkes, the radical spokesman for the disenfranchised (only about 5% of the population could vote). Wilkes himself is in prison for his political journalism, charged with seditious libel against the King, but while in prison he wins election to parliament three times, each time his victory revoked by the government. Wilkes was a hero to the “mob” for his defense of speech and press freedom, wages and working conditions for weavers and coal miners, and his attacks on the King’s ministers, their abuses of power and incompetence. This was a period before the emergence of the modern political party in England— “whig” and “tory” designated tendencies and labeled individuals, but the Whig and Conservative (“Tory”) political parties hadn’t yet formed.
The illustration shows the detailed composition common in satirical prints of the time. The hired thugs, who came armed with long staffs, were attacking women, even one with a baby in arms. At the lower right, a woman with a food stall is about to be clubbed, while a grinning well-dressed gentleman to the right reaches in to steal from her wares. The flag above reads “Liberty and P…r [Proctor],” a satirical appropriation of the opposition slogan, “Wilkes and Liberty.”
In this period there were many violent demonstrations supporting Wilkes by “the mob” — the laboring poor but also artisans and tradesmen; Wilkes was supported also by wealthy London merchants and even government officials opposed to arbitrary royal power. Wilkes stood for the disfranchised and the extension of suffrage, against royal authority, for press freedom and freedom of assembly, for the Bill of Rights and the rights of Englishmen, for the ideal of popular sovereignty. He also supported the American colonists during the Revolutionary War.
Wilkes used the mob, but the mob used Wilkes also. Without a party or an organization of their own, they could coalesce around Wilkes, who became a standard-bearer for their inchoate rebellion in a time before the emergence of the modern social movement — and the modern political party. Few could vote, but the working poor could mob campaign meetings and intimidate voters, mob the officials carrying Wilkes off to prison, mob the captains of coal boats and the owners of the textile workshops, mob the carriages of the wealthy and break their windows. Direct action in labor disputes spilled over into Wilkes demonstrations, and the crowds frightened respectable people with cries of “Damn the King, damn the Government, damn the Justices!”
Two great historians of social movements on Wilkes:
For E.P. Thompson, “the Wilkite crowd was in fact at a half-way house in the emergence of popular consciousness.” But he emphasizes Wilkes’ management and manipulation of the crowd, calling them out to further “the interests of the wealthy tradesmen, merchants and manufacturers of the city who were Wilkes’s most influential supporters.”
More recently, Charles Tilly placed Wilkes and his mob in the near pre-history of the modern social movement.
“Wilkites pushed the boundaries of previously permissible public assemblies. They not only expanded electoral processions and public meetings into mass declarations of support for their hero but also converted delegations and petition marches into opportunities to fill the streets insteado simply sending a fw dignified representatives to spak humbly on behalf of their constituents. They pioneered the synthesis of crowd action with formal appeals to supporters and authorities.”
Below: Wilkes as seen by respectable society, in a caricature by William Hogarth. Hogarth had been a friend, but Wilkes the “free speech” hero warned Hogarth not to publish a print he was working on which attacked William Pitt and promoted the King’s ally, the Earl of Bute. Hogarth was furious and not only published the print, “The Times,” but drew Wilkes into it. Then he got further revenge with his portrait of Wilkes (below). Note Wilkes’ wig with devil horns, the leer, the cross-eyes, the Liberty cap which looks less like a cap than like an upside down chamber pot, and the issues of Wilkes’ newspaper the North Briton, for which he was prosecuted for seditious libel against the King. Wilkes reportedly laughed at the portrait and said that it was “an excellent caricatura of what nature had already caricatured.” Thousands of the print were sold … to Wilkes’ supporters.