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A History of the Four Georges and of William IV, V

The next step was to arrest Wilkes himself


hope that Wilkes may have entertained of a reformation of the Ministry was dispelled by a talk which he had with Temple and Pitt at Temple's house, where Temple showed him an early copy of the King's speech. Wilkes, Pitt, and Temple were entirely in agreement as to the fatal defects of the speech, and Wilkes went promptly home and wrote the article which made the forty-fifth number of the _North Briton_ famous.

In itself the number forty-five was no stronger in its utterances than many of the preceding numbers. If its tone be compared with the tone of journalistic criticism of ministers or their sovereign less than a generation later, it seems sober and even mild. Wilkes's article started with a citation from Cicero: "Genus orationis atrox et {58} vehemena, cui opponitur genus illud alterum lenitatis et mansuetudinis." Then came Wilkes's comment on the speech. He was careful not to criticize directly the King. With a prudence that was perhaps more ironical than any direct stroke at the sovereign, he attacked the minister who misled and misrepresented the monarch. "The King's speech has always been considered by the legislature and by the public at large as the speech of the minister."

Starting from this understanding, Wilkes went on to stigmatize the Address as "the most abandoned instance of ministerial effrontery ever attempted to be imposed upon mankind," and he doubted whether "the imposition is greater

upon the sovereign or on the nation." "Every friend of his country," the writer declared, "must lament that a prince of so many great and amiable qualities, whom England truly reveres, can be brought to give the sanction of his sacred name to the most odious measures and to the most unjustifiable public declarations from a throne ever renowned for truth, honor, and unsullied virtue."

The article was not intemperate and it certainly was not unjust. But when it appeared the King was still new flushed with his idea of his own personal authority in the State, and the slightest censure of his policy goaded him into a kind of frenzy. Had Wilkes endeavored with his own hand to kill the King in his palace of St. James's he could hardly have made the monarch more furious. He had long hated and his ministers had long dreaded the outspoken journalist. King and ministers now felt that the time had arrived when they could strike, and strike effectively. The King commanded the law officers of the Crown to read the article and give their opinion upon it. The law officers did the work that they knew the King expected from them. They found that the paper was an infamous and seditious libel tending to incite the people to insurrection. They declared that the offence was one punishable in due course of law as a misdemeanor. Upon this hint the ministers acted, rapidly and rashly. A general warrant was issued for the apprehension of the authors, printers, and publishers of the _North Briton_. The printer {59} and the publisher were arrested and brought before Lord Halifax and Lord Egremont, to whom they gave up the names of John Wilkes and Charles Churchill as the authors of the _North Briton_. The next step was to arrest Wilkes himself.

[Sidenote: 1763--Arrest of Wilkes]

The King's messengers came upon Wilkes in his house in Great George Street, Westminster. It is honorably characteristic of the man that in the moment of his own danger he felt more concern for the danger of another. While he was arguing with the officials that they had no power to arrest him, as he was a member of Parliament and therefore privileged against arrest, Churchill came into the room on a visit to Wilkes. Churchill, Wilkes knew, was as certain to be arrested as he was. Churchill could plead no privilege. It was probable that the messengers were unfamiliar with Churchill's face. Wilkes, with happy good-nature and happy audacity, immediately hailed Churchill as Mr. Thompson, clasped his hand and inquired affectionately how Mrs. Thompson did and if she was going to dine in the country. If Wilkes was clever in his suggestion Churchill was no less clever in taking the hint. He thanked Wilkes, declared that Mrs. Thompson was at that moment waiting for him, and that he had merely called in to inquire after the health of Wilkes. Saying which, Churchill swiftly bowed himself out, hurried home, secured all his papers, and disappeared into the country. The King's messengers, who were promptly at his lodgings, were never able to discover his whereabouts.

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