University of Tasmania
Final Thesis - BADCOCK.pdf (1.81 MB)

John Wilkes and war: popular politics, empire and identity in Britain, c. 1756‑1787

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posted on 2024-06-24, 02:09 authored by Luke BadcockLuke Badcock

John Wilkes was the notorious squinting anti-hero of eighteenth-century British politics. Since his death in 1797, historians have tended to emphasise his colourful personal life at the expense of his political significance. However, more recent research has shown that Wilkes was highly influential to the evolution of popular politics and reform in the period, which was an important time in the development of the Westminster system of government and the rise of ‘out-of-doors’ politics. Moreover, a range of influential studies have recently demonstrated the impact of war on almost every aspect of eighteenth-century Britain. Yet both topics – Wilkes and war – have not been systematically investigated together. The aim of this thesis is to analyse both phenomena, focusing on Wilkes’s responses to the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and the American Revolution (1775-1783), which he saw as a British Civil War in north America.
This thesis focusses on Wilkes’s public discourse, including various publications and speeches. The principal findings are that Wilkes had a jingoist position on the Seven Years War that was driven by his commitment to a ‘blue-water’ foreign policy approach that emphasised expanding Britain’s empire overseas rather than its power on the continent. This was aimed at destroying France as an imperial competitor. Prima facie, Wilkes’s stance on the British Civil War in America seemed radically different. He opposed it as a ruinous civil war between Britons on both sides of the Atlantic, sympathised with the colonists, and appealed for conciliation. Yet there were themes that remained constant. First, he maintained his ‘blue-water’ imperial maximalism; the difference was in how this was to be achieved. During the Seven Years War it was imperial expansion through conflict with France, while during the British Civil War in America it was imperial maintenance through avoiding conflict and promoting conciliation, on the basis that Wilkes believed the war would lead to the loss of the colonies. Second, Wilkes advocated for the rights of Britons on both sides of the Atlantic guaranteed by the ‘Country Whig’ ideal of the balanced constitution of monarchy, aristocracy and the House of Commons, which guaranteed the rule of law and protections for freedom of speech, conscience, and property. Third, he promoted governmental accountability and representation. Fourth, Wilkes maintained a proto-libertarian view of the British state and its empire. Beyond these themes, for Wilkes, war and empire were inseparable concepts. Much of what he stated about one was in the context of the other.
Traditional studies of Wilkes focussed on domestic politics, while this thesis shows the significant role of war in his politics, and how his political career illustrates the significant impact of war on the development of late eighteenth-century Britain. Finally, this thesis demonstrates that Wilkes was an important figure not only for democratisation of politics in latter eighteenth-century Britain, but also for the democratisation of the politics of war..



  • PhD Thesis


vii, 276 pages


School of Humanities


University of Tasmania

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