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John Wilkes

Review by: Susan Somers University of Texas at Austin

John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty, Arthur H. Cash (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 496 pages

As a native of rural Wilkes County, North Carolina, I was particularly interested to discover more about the namesake of my hometown in Arthur Cash’s John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty. The biography has much to recommend it. It proves to be an accessible and engaging work, intended for the interested public as well as the academic. It is also timely: Cash presents Wilkes’ revolutionary ideals for a post 9/11 audience, one that faces some of the same threats Wilkes did, such as unwarranted surveillance and cronyism in government agencies. Cash casts Wilkes as a flawed man with a great idea, one who should be admired for his political causes if not emulated for his personal proclivities. Cash wholeheartedly endorses Wilkes’ political project. He makes his admiration for Wilkes’ ideas plain by prefacing the book with a short but inspired manifesto on the merits of democracy: “If you think that blue-collar workers should not be allowed to vote, this book is not for you. If you think that the police have the right to arrest forty-nine people when they are looking for three, shut it now” (xii). As one might imagine, a biography of a civil libertarian that begins with such a polemic is largely laudatory.

Cash’s obvious affection for Wilkes does not, on the whole, skew his analysis. Though Cash notes in his afterword that the text does not intend to be the “definitive” biography of Wilkes, his research certainly proves copious. His knowledge of the literary culture of the time is particularly apparent in early chapters, where he discusses Wilkes’ scholarship and authorship of the “Essay on Woman” and the North Briton. Furthermore, Cash’s conversational prose style increases the pleasure of the text, though it sometimes verges on the colloquial. It is a lively read; Cash manages to construct suspense even when recounting Parliamentary debates that would seem dry when handled by a lesser scholar. As might be expected in a work intended for a popular audience, Cash seems careless at times with his footnotes. On multiple occasions Cash uses footnotes to qualify interpretations presented in the text as fact. The footnotes unveil that speculation plays a major role in some of these conclusions.

These problems, however, do not negate the importance of Cash’s reinterpretation of Wilkes. Indeed, Cash’s esteem for Wilkes seems less problematic than his vilification of many of Wilkes’ contemporaries, who often come across as evil individuals out to subvert the cause of democracy. In particular, Cash’s presentation of women on the periphery of Wilkes’ life is sometimes troubling. One woman who refused Wilkes’ advances “lost her place in history” (263). Another deluded individual was “indiscreet, poor woman, in encouraging the courtship [with Wilkes]… she felt rejected from polite society and unloved in her family in a manner not at all uncommon, she compensated by allowing herself the fantasy of love” (346). But Cash’s treatment of women should not be surprising given the limited sources he consulted on gender and sexuality in the eighteenth century. In fact, Cash’s only source on gender, sexuality, and masculinity for the period is Randolph Trumbach’s Sex and the Gender Revolution, despite a lively recent literature on these subjects. Cash, who frequently discusses topics like manliness, honor, and sexual mores, could benefit from further reading in this field.

Despite these flaws, Cash’s biography introduces a new generation of readers to Wilkes’ revolutionary ideals. One can only hope that the denizens of Wilkes County would not, as my mother suggested after perusing the book, change the county’s name upon discovering that its namesake wrote dirty poems.

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