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Today In Charleston History: November 21

1773- American Revolution – Foundations … Club Forty-Five

Club Forty-Five, which included the Rutledge brothers, John and Edward, met at the Liberty Tree where they swore to defend against the tyranny of Great Britain. The tree was decorated with forty-five lights and forty-five skyrockets were fired. Forty-five men then paraded from the Liberty Tree down King Street to Broad to Dillon’s Tavern. Forty-five lights were placed on the table, along with forty-five punch bowls and forty-five bottles of wine … all of which were consumed.

wilkesThe number “forty-five” became an important symbol to the American Patriot movement, and was associated with John Wilkes. Wilkes, a member of Parliament, political agitator, friend of freedom, demagogue, wit, libertine, pornographer, and shameless self-promoter. He belonged to the Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe, better known as the Hellfire Club or the Monks of Medmenham Abbey. The members of this secret society dressed in Franciscan robes and parodied Roman Catholic rituals to engage in ribaldry and drunken orgies, often with prostitutes dressed as nuns. Wilkes in particular was noted for his wicked humor. When the Earl of Sandwich, a sometime friend, told him that “you will die either on the gallows, or of the pox,” Wilkes said, “That must depend on whether I embrace your lordship’s principles or your mistress.”

On April 23, 1763, Wilkes wrote his most vicious essay yet. The North Briton No. 45 appeared April 23, 1763. In No. 45 Wilkes overtly attacked and mocked King George III: 

A despotic minister will always endeavour to dazzle the prince with high flown ideas of the prerogative and honour of the crown. I wish as much any man in the kingdom to see the honour of the crown maintained in a manner truly becoming Royalty. I lament to see it sunk even to prostitution.I am so ignorant that I cannot tell a King from a knave.

Wilkes was arrested and claimed parliamentary privilege: as a member of the House of Commons, he was immune from arrest for anything short of treason or breach of the peace.Emboldened by his popularity, Wilkes reprinted No. 45 and began printing a pornographic poem he wrote with his friend Thomas Potter, An Essay on Woman. Twelve incomplete copies were struck, and those have been destroyed, but fragments survive. This parody of Alexander Pope’s dignified Essay on Man, loaded with attacks on prominent politicians, was extremely obscene . The government again decided to prosecute him, but the ministers had learned a lesson: since they could not proceed against a member of Parliament, they expelled him from the House of Commons before charging him with blasphemous libel. He fled the country, living in exile for four years on the donations of wealthy Whigs.

StatueOfJohnWilkes

Statue of John Wilkes, London. Photo by author

Colonial newspapers buzzed with information about the persecuted friend of liberty. American support was not universal—Benjamin Franklin said Wilkes was “an outlaw . . . of bad personal character, not worth a farthing”—but to many Americans he was a hero. Petitions and letters in his favor were signed by John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock. 

When news of Wilkes’s release from prison reached Charleston, Club Forty-Five met at 7:45, drank forty-five toasts, and adjourned at 12:45. They also recited Britannia’s Intercession for the Deliverance of John Wilkes, Esq., from Persecution and Banishment which was an imitation of the Apostle’s Creed:

I believe in Wilkes, the firm patriot, maker of number 45. Who was born for our good. Suffered under arbitrary power. Was banished and imprisoned. He descended into purgatory, and returned some time after. He ascended here with honour and sitteth amidst the great assembly of the people, where he shall judge both the favourite and his creatures. I believe in the spirit of his abilities, that they will prove to the good of our country. In the resurrection of liberty, and the life of universal freedom forever. Amen.

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