Public opinion was still in its infancy, but it had already played a part in English history. It had compelled Walpole to withdraw his excise measure, had forced him into the War of Jenkins's Ear, had demanded the execution of Admiral Byng, had placed Pitt in the ministry, and, finally, had denounced the treaty of Paris. The men who were taking part in the great work of winning the empire were feeling that they ought to have some share in governing what they had won, and were becoming discontented with the narrow, selfish, and corrupt methods of the House of Commons. This body was largely composed of men who had bought their seats, who sold their votes to the highest bidder, and who were constantly abusing the privileges their predecessors had gained in the days of Elizabeth and the Stuarts. They refused to allow their debates to be printed, and, with an exaggerated sense of their own importance, had become oversensitive to criticism, and only too ready to punish any one who affronted their dignity. As the king governed through parliament, and was able at this time to instigate its policy, the policy of the one was in large part the policy of the other.
On April 8, 1763, Lord Bute resigned, and Grenville took his place as secretary of state. Grenville's first act was to prosecute John Wilkes for attacking the king's speech made at the prorogation of parliament, on April 23, 1763.
A CHAINED BIBLE ON THE READING DESK OF A PARISH CHURCH.
Wilkes had published his article in the North Briton, a paper he had founded for the express purpose of attacking Bute and now used as a means of attacking Grenville. The government determined to crush Wilkes, and caused a general warrant to be issued; that is, a warrant directed against no one in particular, for the arrest of author, printers, and publishers of the North Briton. Wilkes became at once a popular hero, and when Lord Chief Justice Pratt (Lord Camden), held that the warrant was illegal, there was great rejoicing. Then the House of Commons took the matter in hand and expelled Wilkes,—a despotic act, which was followed by popular demonstrations that amounted almost to riots. Personally, Wilkes was not a specially estimable man, for he was loose in morals and an adventurer in politics; but in the eyes of the people his persecution by parliament was an attack on the liberty of the subject and the freedom of the press, and the expressions of popular disapproval showed how little sympathy existed, on the part of the, people, for the men who were supposed to represent them.
For five years Wilkes continued to suffer at the hands of the government, and popular discontent increased. The parliament of 1768 was composed of men notoriously bribed . This shameless purchase of a whole body of representatives led to a famous protest. The county of Middlesex elected Wilkes as its representative by a large majority (1768). The House of Commons refused to allow him to take his seat. Again Middlesex returned him (February, 1769). Twice (March and April, 1769) was this repeated, amid an excitement that stirred southern England to its depths. Meetings were held in cities and counties, expressing want of confidence in parliament, and opposition to the coercive policy of the government. In 1769, “Junius" published his scathing indictment of the administration, and his “letters”
had great popularity. In the end, public opinion won the victory, and in the next general election, 1774, when Wilkes was for the fourth time elected, he was allowed to take his seat. In 1782, parliament erased from its journal the resolution passed against him.