An 18th Century Champion
A Name to Remember
by Ralph Heller
ore than a little alarmed by everything from so-called asset forfeiture laws to judicial insistence on seeing what former Senator Bob Packwood had written in his personal, private diaries, today's Americans wonder just how far government should be permitted to go in violating personal privacy. It is instructive to review the story of an 18th Century Englishman, John Wilkes, whose valiant and successful battle against royal intrusion into his private papers inspired our own Fourth Amendment banning "unreasonable searches and seizures" of "persons, houses, papers and effects."
Indeed, Wilkes was so admired by the Sons of Liberty in Bostona group that included John Adams and John Hancockthat the organization asserted that "the fate of Wilkes and America must stand or fall together."
Yet Wilkes was an unlikely candidate for hero status. Elected to Parliament in 1757, he was once described by Samuel Johnson as "one of the ugliest men" he had ever met. Mindful of his own unattractiveness, Wilkes once boasted that it took him "only half an hour to talk away [his] face," and he was widely known as a compulsive and very active womanizer.
He belonged to a secret society known as the Hell-Fire Club whose members held orgies in a secret chapel decorated with an enormous sculpture of a phallus. But what got him in trouble with the crown in 1763 was a scandal sheet he founded called the North Briton, sort of an 18TH Century tabloid whose politics, although leaning toward Whig sentiments, would be difficult to reconstruct today.
In several issues the Secretary of State, Lord Bute, was accused of having an affair with King George III's mother, but what especially annoyed His Majesty was North Briton No. 45 which contained a bitter attack on a speech of the king in praise of an obscure German peace treaty. Lord Halifax, the royal prosecutor, issued a general warrant authorizing arrest of the "printers, publishers and authors" of North Briton No. 45, but without identifying them by name.
Wilkes was arrested at his home and taken to the Tower of London while the king's agents searched his home, forcing open the drawers of his writing desk and seizing his diaries and private papers. At his subsequent trial Wilkes objected strenuously:
"My house has been ransacked and plundered; my most private and secret concerns divulged. Such inhuman principles of star chamber tyranny will, I trust, by this court be extirpated."
The presiding judge, Lord Camden, sided with Wilkes and ruled that unless private papers were protected from leering government officials, "the secret cabinets and bureaus of every subject in this kingdom will be thrown open to the search and inspection of a messenger."
In two subsequent cases juries agreed, awarding Wilkes substantial punitive damages of 1,000 pounds and 4,000 pounds respectively.
Cheering Americans celebrated Wilkes' victory and Lord Camden's opinion by honoring both men, which is how the cities of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and the assorted Camdens in New Jersey, South Carolina and elsewhere got their names. For several generations countless Americans also named their infants after Wilkes.
That the revered Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution should have been inspired, in part, by an ugly, compulsive womanizer who belonged to the orgiastic Hell-Fire Club is one of those ironic twists that make the study of history so fascinating. And not all American youngsters named after Wilkes turned out to be heroes, of course, as the memory of John Wilkes Booth serves to remind us.
But it's hard to ignore the likelihood that if men of the caliber of John Wilkes and Lord Camden occupied certain sensitive positions in Washington today, maybe the ATF, FBI and IRS wouldn't be so completely out of control.u
Ralph Heller, is Senior Consulting Editor of Nevada Journal.