Theory and Society

, Volume 41, Issue 6, pp 581–601

Popular sovereignty and the historical origin of the social movement


DOI: 10.1007/s11186-012-9180-x

Cite this article as:
Rudbeck, J. Theor Soc (2012) 41: 581. doi:10.1007/s11186-012-9180-x


This article seeks to explain why the social movement had its historical origin in the 1760s. It argues that the rise of the social movement as a particular form of political action was closely linked to a new interpretation of sovereignty that emerged within eighteenth century British politics. This interpretation, which drew inspiration from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s social contract thinking, not only resonated with the radicalism of John Wilkes and his followers’ struggle to promote civil liberties to Englishmen of all classes, it also spurred a transformation of the repertoire of popular contention. The article traces the evolution of the concept of sovereignty in British political thought from the Restoration to the Wilkites and discusses how this evolution informed the contentious actions of the Wilkites as they formed the first mass movement to promote a specific political issue.


Social contract theory Political Protest John Wilkes Jean-Jacques Rousseau 

The first social movement

In the early months of 1768, when silk-weavers, sailors, coal-heavers, watermen, coopers, hatters, glass-grinders, sawyers, tailors, and other members of the lower classes began to mobilize publicly and repeatedly behind John Wilkes’s campaign for equal civil liberties to Englishmen of all classes, no one knew exactly how to describe what was taking place. The British mob had mobilized in collective action against political authorities on countless occasions, but a sustained campaign over several months involving demonstrations, strikes, petitions, pamphleteering, public meetings, and other forms of contentious performances in a concerted effort to promote a specific political issue was something new, and labelling it caused some confusion among contemporary politicians and political commentators. Pointing to the violent clashes between supporters of Wilkes and the king’s soldiers at St. George Field on May 10, 1768, which left between six and eleven protesters dead, a member of parliament retreated into a well-known vocabulary accusing the Wilkites of insurrection and rebellion. The 40,000 protesters had, after all, shouted insults, made threats, and hurled stones at the soldiers before the fatal shooting.

While the Massacre of St. George Field thus resembled previous patterns of interaction between authorities and ordinary people, which were usually described as rebellion or insurrection, an anonymous letter published in the North Briton, a newspaper founded by Wilkes in 1762, denied the allegations. Refuting the claim that Wilkes’s supporters were “guilty of such a horrid crime” the letter goes on to ask, “is every little tumult of the people, every little riotous assembly, to be branded with the odious and dreadful epithet of rebellion? If it is, I will venture to affirm, that there have been, I do not say one, but 20 different rebellions in England within these 4 months.” The anonymous commentator then made an attempt to capture what people were actually doing. Call “the rising of the people a mob, a tumult, a riot—anything but a rebellion: for, with all thy artifice and address, thou wilt never be able to persuade the public, that it is actually a rebellion” (North Briton no. 57, July 16, 1768).

The vigorous denial of rebellion was more than wordplay to escape responsibility for the tragic events at St. George Field, for although the public support for Wilkes’s campaign was massive and had the potential of rebellion, the Wilkites had been careful to avoid an armed and violent uprising with the intent to overthrow the king or dispose of the parliament. Quite to the contrary, backed by the mobilized crowd, Wilkes was continuously challenging authority through extra-parliamentary activities and by appealing to existing laws (Cash 2006). Such a form of political struggle was new and innovative; its current name only entered the English vocabulary 80 years later. Wilkes and his supporters were unknowingly laying the ground for a form of contentious politics that today is commonly referred to as the social movement (Tilly 2004; see also Tilly and Wood 2009).

This article argues that the historical origin of the social movement in the 1760s was closely linked to a new interpretation of the concept of sovereignty within British politics. Since the Glorious Revolution, Tories and Whigs had struggled incessantly over the question of where sovereignty ultimately resides, with Tories claiming the authority of the crown while Whigs, based on the writings of John Locke, supported the idea of parliamentary sovereignty (Dickinson 1976). The rise of the Wilkite movement marked the beginning of a new phase in British politics where the notion of sovereignty was recast to embrace the idea of popular sovereignty and the notion of the people was to include members of all classes (Redlich and Hirst 1903; Roddier 1950; Bredvold 1951; Tilly 1996; Cash 2006; Dew 2009). This interpretation of sovereignty shared many similarities with the ideas expressed in Rousseau’s Social Contract. Although Rousseau never described this form of political participation, three elements of his social contract thinking were particularly conducive to the invention of the social movement. First, he suggested that the social contract should be an instrument to reach a free and just society. Second, freedom stems from people’s active and direct participation in the formulation and continuing renewal of the laws that constitute and regulate the political community. Third, for the system of rule to be just, the social contract should express the general will or common interest of the people, not the vested interests of particular individuals or groups. Together, these ideas transformed the old notion of political rights, first instituted by the Magna Carta, into the modern doctrine of popular sovereignty whereby the whole body of people including “all ranks of men in the kingdom, from the first peers of the realm down to the meanest peasant” (North Briton no. 48, May 14, 1768) were to take part in the political decision-making process.

To be sure, Rousseau was far from the only political philosopher to make an impact on the political activities of the Wilkites (Dew 2009), nor were John Wilkes’s actions exclusively motivated by a desire to promote the public good; in fact, critics have suggested that Wilkes was an opportunist and publicity-seeker who used the mobilized crowd to further his own political ambitions (Redlich and Hirst 1903; Turner 1999). Still, if we trace the evolution of the concept of sovereignty in British political thought from the writings of Thomas Hobbes to Whig apologists such as John Locke and on to Rousseau, it becomes clear why the social movement as a particular way for ordinary people to engage in politics only began to emerge after 1762, the year that Rousseau published Social Contract. In Rousseau’s social contract thinking the political participation of the people was no longer limited by the rights extended by the king or the parliament; instead, sovereignty itself resided with the people and they—that is, the people—had to participate directly in the making of the law because only the general will of the people, which is expressed through the law, can bind the will of the individual members of the society. Representative democracy, as it was practiced in England, was, according to Rousseau, incapable of advancing popular sovereignty as it left no room for the people to influence the parliament except around the time of elections (since the Septennial Act of 1716 that meant every seven years). Instead, he envisioned a political system based on popular assemblies where people regularly would meet face to face to deliberate issues of public interest (Rousseau 1973).

It is in Rousseau’s criticism of the British political system based on parliamentary sovereignty, his emphasis on the law as the expression of the general will, and his attempt to spell out ways for the people to exercise popular sovereignty that Wilkes and the Wilkites found inspiration. Not only is there “conclusive evidence that the adherents of Wilkes were so enthusiastic over the Contract Social because they could find in it theoretical support for this particular political battle and moreover that they interpreted Rousseau’s political theory in light of their own conception of the English constitution after the Revolution” (Bredvold 1951, p. 93: see also Roddier 1950), there is also, this article argues, substantial empirical material to suggest that the changes in the repertoire of contention that emerged with the Wilkites were made meaningful and politically justifiable through the lens of Rousseau’s social contract thinking. The idea of popular sovereignty was by no means new to British political thought when Wilkes launched his civil liberty campaign in 1763. It had been at the core of the Levellers’ agenda as far back as the 1640s and had remained part of the public debate ever since (Bradley 1990). What was new about the Radicalism of the Wilkites, and what distinguished it from previous debates over popular sovereignty, was the attempt by the people to exercise pressure on political authority through extra-parliamentary associations and collective action (Rudé 1995; Brewer 1981; Tilly 1995). Rather than seeking influence through the established political system based on the two parties, “Wilkitism functioned both outside and in opposition to conventional sources of political authority. While it would be wrong to argue that there was no tradition of popular politics before Wilkes, the late 1760s and early 1770s saw the development of a new, independent political culture among those ‘out of doors.’ The framework of this culture was provided by a network of clubs, societies which ranged from the high-profile and expressively Wilkite like the ‘Bill of Rights Society’ (formed on 25 February 1769) to the host of smaller Masonic and tradesman’s societies which might, on occasion, act as bases for Wilkite feeling and organization” (Dew 2009, p. 251). It was this new approach to political participation—inspired by Rousseau’s writings—that gradually transformed the repertoire of contention, thereby giving rise to the social movement.

Before examining the “conclusive evidence” that connects the Wilkites political actions to Rousseau’s political writings, two issues concerning the evidence are in need of clarification. As suggested by George Rudé, “Rousseau’s writings were for a literacy élite only and were only likely to reach the plebeian reader at second or third remove” (1995, p.28). In the search for empirical material that supports the argument the focus is therefore predominantly on Wilkes’s speeches and newspaper articles as it was through these that the general public was exposed to the political ideas that underpinned the movement’s activities. What we find here is a series of polemics tied to Wilkes’s personal conflicts with particular members of Parliament and his legal struggle with the authorities more generally. Although he repeatedly called upon the people to remonstrate against the corrupt practices of the parliament, he never laid out a political philosophy based on popular sovereignty that could serve as a guide to how the people should act when they remonstrated. Nowhere in his writings or in his speeches did he express direct support of Rousseau’s principle of popular sovereignty, indeed he “resisted diversion of the discussion from his own grievances” (Tilly 1995, p.15). As a result, the conclusive evidence that supports the argument presents itself indirectly in statements in which Wilkes criticized the existing political system, defended his own actions (especially his criticism of the peace treaty that ended the Seven Years War), and called on the people to support his political agenda rather than in explicit discussions of Rousseau’s political philosophy. The second issue concerns the causal relationship between ideas and convictions, on the one hand, and motivation and actions on the other hand. One thing is “to trace the development of thought; it is quite another to measure and verify the effect of ideology in terms of human behavior” (Bradley 1990, p.40). There is no easy answer to this methodological challenge. What we can do is to trace the timing of when the changes to the ideas occurred and compare it to the timing of changes in the behaviour of the Wilkites and then explore whether the new behavior was consistent with the logic of the new ideas. In the case of the Wilkites, clear evidence that Wilkes began to incorporate Rousseau’s ideas into his own writings can be found around 1764, and from 1768 Wilkes began to make clear statements in support of universal suffrage. It is at this time that a transformation in the repertoire of the Wilkites occurred, a transformation that would give rise to the social movement.

The next section describes how grounding the historical origin of the social movement in the political philosophy of sovereignty adds to our understanding of the causal dynamics that gave rise to this particular form of public politics. The article goes on to explore the evolution of the concept of sovereignty from Thomas Hobbes to John Locke and to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and discusses how particular understandings of sovereignty infused certain forms of contentious politics with meaning and legitimacy. The final section examines how the writings and speeches of John Wilkes incorporated the idea of the people and discusses how the notion of popular sovereignty shaped the repertoire of contention of the Wilkites.

Explaining the origin of the social movement

There is general consensus about locating the historical origin of the social movement in the latter half of the eighteenth century (Tarrow 1998; see also Tarrow 2011; Tilly 2004; see also Tilly and Wood 2009). No one has yet come forward to identify the exact date when this political phenomenon first occurred, but Charles Tilly suggests that somewhere “between the 1760s and the 1830s, a distinctive new form of popular politics came into being on both sides of the North Atlantic, [which] became a vehicle for a wide variety of claims, and brought the term ‘social movement’ into widespread use” (2008, pp. 118–119). In tracing the genealogy of this new form of popular politics, Tilly points to a series of alterations in the way that ordinary people expressed their dissatisfaction with, and made claims on political authorities that gradually emerged from the 1760s onwards. The shift took place as the old repertoire of contention involving rough music, festivals, field invasions, grain seizure, charivari, pulling down houses, and forced illumination was transformed and replaced by new forms of collective action relying on the protest march, demonstrations, and public meetings. Whereas the older repertoire had been parochial and particular in the sense that contention most often addressed the specific issues and interests of a community, and “varied greatly from group to group, issue to issue, locality to locality,” the new repertoire was, in contrast, cosmopolitan, modular, and autonomous (Tilly 1995, p. 45). Cosmopolitan because it addressed issues that were of interest to many localities and often targeted political institutions with power and authority stretching across many communities; modular because the repertoire could be applied in various settings and political contexts; and autonomous because it could be activated on the claimants’ own initiative without support from local power-holders (ibid.).

The new forms of protest were put into practice to great effect in a number of contentious confrontations in the United States and England in the 1760s; with the rise of the Boston Tea Party and the Wilkites’ struggle for civil liberties they began to crystallize into a new form of popular politics characterized by “1) a sustained, organized public effort making collective claims on target authorities…, 2) employment of combinations from among the following forms of political actions: creation of special-purpose associations and coalitions, publics meetings, solemn processions, vigils, rallies, demonstrations, petition drives, statements to and in public media, and pamphleteering…; and 3) participants’ concerted public representations of WUNC: worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment on the part of themselves and/or their constituencies” (Tilly 2004, pp. 3–4).

This definition of the social movement, with its emphasis on the particular form of repertoire that protesters engage in, excludes the use of violence and, hence, draws a distinction between the social movement and the revolutionary movement. Nothing in Tilly’s definition of the social movement per se prevents the mobilized crowd from overthrowing a government by peaceful means with the intent to introduce a new form of regime, but in terms of seeking to date the historical origin of the social movement as a particular form of political action, Tilly’s definition carves out a space that sets the social movement apart from other forms of collective, contentious action that usually involve widespread violence such as, e.g., insurrections, insurgencies, peasant uprisings, rebellions, and revolutions. In this context, Tilly hesitated to describe the Wilkites and the Boston Tea Party as social movements in their own right as they, to a significant degree, relied on the old repertoire that was prone to violence. He did, however, go so far as to acknowledge that, “their innovations moved popular public politics towards social movement forms” (Tilly 2008, p. 129).

Other scholars have been less concerned about distinguishing between violent and non-violent forms of protest as the basis of the social movement. Instead, they have stressed the importance of organizational aspects (McCarthy and Zald 1977), shared collective identity and social networks (Della Porta and Diani 2006), and the role of popular sovereignty (Sewell 1996), which in some cases have led to a different understanding of when and where the transformation of the repertoire of contention first occurred. Linking the notion of popular sovereignty to the changes in the repertoire of contention that emerged with the rise of the social movement has led William H. Sewell to point to the French Revolution rather than the Wilkites as the major catalyst, which transformed the nature of collective violence (Sewell 2005, p. 91). While this article is sympathetic to Sewell’s emphasis on the rise of popular sovereignty as the transformative dynamic behind the emergence of a new repertoire of contention it will show that this transformation began with the Wilkites’ campaign to promote civil liberties for Englishmen of all classes and not with the uprising of the Parisian crowd on 14 July 1789.

If we side with Tilly’s account of when and where the transformation in the repertoire initially began, a number of factors have been put forward to explain why the social movement began to emerge in England in the 1760s. Among the most prominent of these factors were wars (especially the end of the Seven Years War), parliamentarization and state centralization, capitalization and proletarianization, industrialization, urbanization, and the revolution in print technology (Tilly 1995; Rudé 1962; Tarrow 1998, see also Tarrow 2011). Some of these were directly causally linked to the rise of the social movement by enabling the coordinated mobilization of a large number of people in the new repertoire of contention, whereas other factors coalesced into more complex socio-political processes that sum up most of Western Europe’s early modern history. While these processes locate the origin of the social movement somewhere between the seventeenth and nineteenth century, the literature has been less clear on why the 1760s became the decade when these large-scale historical processes accumulated enough critical mass to give rise to the first campaigns that could reasonably be said to carry the embryos of what would eventually develop into full-scale movements. The question of exact origin becomes, of course, to some extent less relevant when emphasis is put on the incremental emergence of the social movement over a period of 70 years, as such a lengthy time-span blurs the distinction between the many preludes to the social movement like the Wilkites and the Boston Tea party and the actual complete formation of the phenomenon itself. However, if we are interested in why these preludes began to take form in the 1760s, inserting political philosophy as an explanatory factor into the genealogy of the social movement will complement our current understanding of the dynamics of its origin in at least two ways.

Bringing in political philosophy provides an explanation capable of determining the timing of the origin with much greater accuracy. Several influential works on political philosophy, which redefined the notions of the people, sovereignty, and justice, were published in the years immediately prior to the rise of the Wilkites, including Adam Smith’s A Theory of Moral Sentiment (1759) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762). We know that John Wilkes was a voracious reader who collected “famous (and infamous) books” (Deane 1973, p. 85). During his studies in Leiden (1744–1746), his father provided him with as much money as he pleased so, Wilkes confessed, I had “three or four whores; drunk every night. Sore head morning, then read. I’m capable to sit thirty hours over a table to study” (Thomas 1996). By 1764, when he had to auction off his library to cover debt, it consisted of more than 1,700 books; among them we find Oeuvres de Rousseau, 4 vol. as well as works by Montesquieu, Voltaire, Helvétius, Hobbes, Hume, Locke, and Adam Smith (Baker 1764). A catalogue for an auction in 1802 revealed that Wilkes had the complete works of Rousseau on his bookshelves (Deane 1973).

In Leiden, Wilkes also met and developed a close friendship with Paul Heinrich Dietrich, later known as the Enlightenment philosopher Baron d’Holbach. Both men were fascinated by the political and philosophical ideas of their time and they often walked along the Rhine in deep conversations, “sometimes talking until morning” (Cash 2006, p. 15). Even though Wilkes never became “anything like the creative philosopher d’Holbach … he … put into practice those Enlightenment ideals the philosophers talked about but never suffered for. They called him Gracchus, after two brothers of classical Rome who had united the plebs and equities against the senate” (ibid., p. 166). After Wilkes won the seat in the House of Commons for the county of Middlesex in 1768, Diderot, who had been a close friend of Rousseau before Rousseau’s break with the Encyclopaedists (Damrosch 2007), was among the first to congratulate him with the words, “I received, with the greatest pleasure, the news of your election…. How pleasing it is to reign in the hearts of men! You reign in those of your fellow citizens—you deserve to reign in them: you have supported their rights; and, genuine sons of freedom, as they are, they have crowned with applause, the champion of their liberties” (Almon 1805, p. 243).

Bringing in political philosophy also offers an insight into why people found the new repertoire of contention meaningful engagement. The social movement arose as an instrument to express people’s shared beliefs and common interests in a changing political arena, but it was in itself an expression of a shared understanding of how ordinary people were to participate in politics. In the same way that framing processes attempt to render social movement activism meaningful to a wider audience (Benford and Snow 2000), the social movement repertoire, as a political phenomenon, had to have been made meaningful for people to engage in this form of politics. Like the crusades and the processions of medieval flagellants of the thirteenth century found legitimacy and meaningfulness in the religious beliefs at the time, the social movement, as a distinct form of political participation that not only set itself apart from these medieval forms of claim-making, but also from struggles such as the revolution and the peasant rebellion, had to resonate with people’s concept of legitimate, meaningful, and justifiable political action in the second half of the eighteenth century. Humans, even members of the lower classes, are, after all, rational beings who reflect upon, interpret, and justify their actions. Usually they refrain from acting in ways that are meaningless, especially if such actions potentially come with high costs, as was the case for the Wilkites.

When ordinary people gathered in large crowds carrying banners and shouting slogans such as “Wilkes and Liberty,” “Wilkes, Liberty, and No. 45,” or “Wilkes, Liberty and Coal Heavers Forever” as they walked through the streets of London, the meaning and justification of this behavior drew from a frame of reference or an interpretation of a narrative of how people could and should participate in politics. Even when protests and the making of claims failed to bring about the intended outcome, the way that claims were delivered was deemed justifiable, perhaps even heroic, although not necessarily always legal, by protesters. The interpretation of what was meaningful and justifiable collective behaviour obviously reflected previous experiences of interaction with political authorities, the law that regulated such interaction, and protesters’ perception of the legitimacy of authorities, but since the social movement was a new form of popular politics and because it signified a break with the older repertoire of contention, the interpretation must have drawn from political principles that were new too.

In political terms, the most important innovation of the social movement as a form of contention was the use of lawful popular collective actions to negotiate political change with power holders on behalf of the people. Up until the Wilkites, contention aimed at challenging the authority of the crown or the parliament had usually carried an inherent threat of a violent uprising if demands went unmet; with the rise of the social movement protesters began to make a deliberate effort to avoid violations of the law. The strength of the people’s claim-making rested with the idea of popular sovereignty, not in their potential for exercising violence. When Wilkes, on rare occasions, gave a speech to the crowd “he always accompanied his words with a plea to hold down their violence” and whenever he could, he did “his best to hold down election riots” (Cash 2006, p. 220). The ability to demonstrate strength through violence did not translate into a right to influence the policy making process. The only legitimate foundation for governance was the law and this law should express the will of the people. Violence or the threat of violence was, of course, always latent in mass protests, but as the social movement repertoire evolved it was to become a distinctive way to express the will of the people in a peaceful and lawful manner. Reform rather than revolution became the hallmark of the social movement.

The underlying political ideas and principles that shaped the emergence of this new form of political action, reflected a transformation of the idea of sovereignty within British political thought. To explain why the 1760s marked the origin of the social movement, the next section explores the evolution of the concept of sovereignty from Thomas Hobbes to John Locke and to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and discusses how particular understandings of sovereignty infused certain forms of contentious politics with meaning and legitimacy.

Sovereignty and contentious politics

A brief encounter with the idea of popular sovereignty, culminating in the Putney Debates in 1647, was firmly laid to rest by the Restoration. Over the next century, the British debate about sovereignty revolved around two opposing views: sovereignty resides with the king, which would find support among Tories, or sovereignty resides with the whole legislature, a view that Whigs advocated. Of the two views, the former dominated the debate in the decades prior to the Glorious Revolution while the second view would eventually win the day after the Septennial Act of 1716. This evolution of the concept of sovereignty within British politics reflected both the dramatic changes that occurred to the political institutions in this period as well the political philosophy of the time.

As for the first view, there is little doubt that the Scottish Revolution in 1640, the Irish Revolution in 1641, and the Second Civil War in 1648–49 leading to the execution of Charles I had “convinced almost all educated men that in order to preserve stability in the state it was essential to have an authority whose actions were unquestionable and irresistible. The majority of the gentry and virtually all of the clergy of the Church of England were convinced that such power could only be exercised by the crown” (Dickinson 1976, pp. 190–191). Among the many books and pamphlets that were published on the issue of royal sovereignty in the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, a work that took the idea of the social contract as its starting point, made the strongest and most convincing argument for the absolute rule of the crown.

For Hobbes, the social contract was an instrument to lift humans out of a state of nature and into a political community where the perpetual warlike conditions of the former would give way to the pursuit of a common good in the latter. The pre-political state of nature was transcended once a group of people agreed to establish a social contract to regulate the interaction between members of the group and empowered an authority to uphold the rules and regulations specified in the contract. Through the contract, people would “forswear unilateral action in the defence of one’s rights provided all others forswear such action as well” (Shapiro 2003, p. 114). Instead of pursuing rights individually, contractors would authorize a sovereign body to protect the rights of every individual member of the political community. The contract, uniting a community under one political authority, was thus exclusively a contract between the individual members of the community undertaken for the sake of self-interest, leaving the Leviathan purely as the contract’s enforcer. After the initial consent had been given to this arrangement all parties to the contract were to comply with the decisions of the sovereign.

As the sovereign stood outside the contract he was also above the law (Lessnoff 1986). This led to the logical conclusion that the people were prohibited from mobilizing against the sovereign “because he that protestth there [in the sovereign assembly], denies their sovereignty” (Hobbes 1998, p. 152). If a person within a community could not conform to the rules laid down by the crown he had to return to the state of nature where “he might without injustice be destroyed by any man whatsoever” (ibid., p. 117). There were circumstances under which subjects were entitled to protest but they were few. Disobedience was only justifiable “if the sovereign command a man …. to kill, wound, or maim himself; or not to resist those that assault him; or to abstain from the use of food, air, medicine, or any other thing, without which he cannot live” (ibid., p. 144). The protection of life, limbs, and conscience were absolute entitlements, which the sovereign could not lay a claim on, as no one would have entered the contract in the first place if it came with an obligation of self-mutilation, starvation, or suicide. Still, the right to disobey authority was limited to the absolute entitlements; it certainly did not translate into a right to collective protests. The single most important objective of the social contract was to create the social order that was lacking in the state of nature and social order was, to Hobbes, incompatible with any form of claim-making involving mass mobilization. Once agreed upon, the contract was nonnegotiable, regulated by law, and biased towards status quo.

Whereas Hobbes’s support for the absolute sovereignty of the crown had been formulated against a background of religious wars and revolutionary uprisings, the Whigs’ view of sovereignty, a view that found its most sophisticated expression in John Locke’s second Treatise of Government, was shaped by the Exclusion Crisis of 1679–81. For the Whigs, the most pressing political problem was to come up with an argument in support of blocking King Charles II’s younger brother, James, from ascending to the throne after Charles’s death. James was a Catholic and there was widespread fear among members of parliament that once in power, James would overturn Protestantism and restore Catholicism (Rawls 2007). Locke, who also based his political philosophy on the idea of a social contract, found the solution to the question of when people may legitimately challenge their king in England’s systems of mixed constitution. Under this form of rule, sovereignty was shared among the crown, the aristocracy (represented in the House of Lords), and the people (represented in the House of Commons). By having a direct say in the legislation through their right to select representatives, Locke argued that the social contract became an agreement between the community and the government, thus making the crown accountable to the ruled for “supreme execution of the law made by a joined power of him with others, allegiance being nothing but an obedience according to law, which, when he violates, he has no right to obedience” (Locke 1978, p. 193). When sovereignty rested in the whole legislature a deliberate violation of the law by the crown would justify an armed revolution, in extremis (Edwards 2002).

Locke was cautious not to extend this right to every group who felt mistreated or misrepresented by the king. Once the social contract had been established, people were prohibited from challenging the sovereignty of the crown unless the sovereign repeatedly and deliberately violated the contract. Patience and resilience were the virtues of the populace for:

great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the slips of human frailty will be borne by the people without mutiny or murmur. But if a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whether they are going, it is not to be wondered that they should then rouse themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected (Locke 1978, p. 231).

In cases of blatant abuse the removal of the king from the throne was meant to re-establish the broken social contract without which there would be no foundation for the civil society.

Revolution was also, Locke believed, “the best fence against rebellion, and probablest means to hinder it. For rebellion, being an opposition, not to persons, but authority, which is found only in the constitutions and laws of the government” (ibid.). While revolution was an option of last resort, it was preferable to rebellion because rebellion could undermine all forms of authority and bring back the state of war, which would dissolve the social contract. In summary, parliamentary sovereignty introduced the possibility of legitimate collective contention in the form of revolution, but Locke insisted that the right to hold the crown accountable to the law through revolution was restricted to instances of gross violations or abuses and it only allowed for the removal of the sovereign. No other forms of contention were legitimate.

The consolidation of the Glorious Revolution and Locke’s rise to fame could give the “impression that the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty won almost universal approval in the 1690s and went virtually unchallenged in the 18 century” (Dickinson 1976, p. 193). That was not the case. In the decades following the publication of Two Treatises of Government, Tories vigorously challenged Locke’s perspective on how to interpret the social contract of the English people, criticizing his view for undermining political stability and promoting public unrest. Despite Locke’s defence of revolution as the lesser of two evils, the most controversial and unacceptable principle in Locke’s argument was the right of resistance that he derived from locating sovereignty in the parliament. There was a small step, Tories feared, from recognizing this right to the rise of mob rule, which would unquestionably descend into pure anarchy. The Tories’ challenge of Locke’s conceptualization of the social contract only petered out with the Septennial Act of 1716, which, with the support of both parties, solidified the principle of parliamentary sovereignty by putting into law “that no power or rights could limit the exercise of parliament’s authority” (ibid., p. 201).

Locke’s idea of parliamentary sovereignty was also challenged from within the Whig party when a small group of supporters of popular sovereignty argued for extending political rights beyond freeholders. These claims, though, never won broad backing because many of the most influential Whig figures including Algernon Sidney, James Tyrell, and Daniel Defoe stood firm on the principle that the country belonged to owners of land, and political rights were a privilege exclusively enjoyed by heads of families with an income or fortune that could secure economic independence. Surely, the social contract rested on the consent of the people, but the exercise of sovereignty rested with the legislature and once the people had established the legislature they had little direct power over the parliament. Right up until the Wilkites entered the political scene, political commentators “were less concerned with challenging the sovereignty of parliament and more preoccupied with increasing the influence of the electors on parliament. They therefore concentrated their attacks on the corruption of the House of Commons by the executive” (ibid., p. 204). With the rise of John Wilkes’s campaign to extend civil rights to Englishmen of all classes, which challenged the established views of both the Tories and the Whigs, we begin to see a gradual change in this approach. The more inclusive view of the people expressed by the Wilkites coincided with the publication of Rousseau’s Social Contract, a work that made a persuasive argument for the sovereignty of the people.

Like Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau’s starting point was the social contract where, as in all contracts, obligations are undertaken voluntarily that, inter alia, meant that the obligations arising from the law accordingly had to be freely chosen. But contrary to Hobbes and Locke who saw “the contract as a historical event, Rousseau’s innovation was to see it as unconnected with history” and instead of transferring a group of people from a state of nature into a political community when contractors consented to place sovereignty in the hands of one authority, the social contract was “an implicit understanding that exists continuously, here and now, as the shared commitment without which no system of any kind can be legitimate” (Damrosch 2007, pp. 346–347).

By stipulating that the social contract rests on freely chosen obligations and that contractors never transferred sovereignty to an authority, sovereignty for Rousseau ultimately had to rest with the people, or to be more precise, “the social contract gives the body politics absolute power over all its members also; and it is this power which, under the direction of the general will, bears, as I have said, the name Sovereignty” (Rousseau 1973, p. 186). It also meant that every individual member of the community had to be actively involved in the making of the law, as only self-imposed obligations were binding within a contract framework. Of course, once laws were in place, people were obligated to obey them, or better yet, they had a shared interest in obeying them, because the laws were an expression of the general will and “the general will alone can direct the State according to the object for which it was instituted, i.e. the common good” (ibid., p. 182). This led to the somewhat paradoxical revelation that the individual’s freedom to participate in the legislative process came with an obligation of obedience to the law, or as Rousseau elegantly put it, “obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty” (ibid., p. 178).

Rousseau was sceptical about using a system of representation to come to an understanding of the general will dismissing it as coming “to us from feudal government, from the iniquitous and absurd system which degrades humanity and dishonours the name of man” (ibid., p. 240). He was, therefore, highly critical of the English parliamentary system, which only offered a sliver of freedom “during the elections of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing” (ibid.). To understand Rousseau’s resentment of representative democracy it is important to remember that members of the British House of Commons “did not think they had any responsibility to the people who had elected them other than to provide all the liquor the voters wanted on election day. True, if the candidate were the 21-year-old son of a nobleman, he had a particular obligation to the people: he had to stand in the hustings bowing to the voters as they threw rotten vegetables and eggs at him. That done, his obligation to the voters was complete” (Cash 2006, p. 278).

In light of this, Rousseau argued that to participate truly in the legislative process, people had to convene face to face and deliberate the issues in front of them in the same way that citizens had assembled in ancient Greece. Although face to face popular meetings would allow the individual citizens to express their interests in relation to a particular issue there was still a risk that these conventions wouldn’t lead to an expression of the general will for, according to Rousseau “there is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills: but take away from these same wills the pluses and the minuses that cancel one another, and the general will remains as the sum of the differences” (Rousseau 1973, p. 185). And so, [w]hen in the popular assembly a law is proposed, what the people is asked is not exactly whether it approves or rejects the proposal, but whether it is conformity with the general will, which is their will. Each man, in giving his vote, states his opinion on that point; and the general will is found by counting the voting (ibid., p. 250).

To outline theoretically how a political system based on popular sovereignty could work was one thing, to overcome the practical problems involved was infinitely more complicated. For one, the size of the population and geographical territory of most countries made it impossible for people to meet in person. Another problem, which was especially salient for the British, was the weather because “for half the year your public squares are uninhabitable,” Rousseau complained. To make matters worse for the British “the flatness of your languages unfits them for being heard in the open air…” (ibid., p. 241). Adding to that, the deliberations of political issues are so time consuming that the Greeks had to have slaves to make the system work and the whole idea of popular sovereignty becomes so terribly complicated and fraught with obstacles that “a true democracy has never existed, and never will” (ibid., p. 217). We can only strive to aspire to the ideal of popular sovereignty.

What Rousseau didn’t have the imagination to foresee in 1761, when he was working on the Social Contract, was how public negotiations and deliberations could find many diverse manifestations. Instead of meeting in open places to give speeches individually people could demonstrate their common interest by carrying banners, shouting slogans, and show their support for leaders who could speak publicly on their behalf. Whereas the older repertoire of contention was designed to express claims that were parochial and particular, the cosmopolitan, modular, and autonomous nature of the modern repertoire of contention enabled people in large numbers to give voice to what they considered the general will. Protest marches, demonstrations, public meetings, vigils, petition drives, pamphleteering, and rallies were all performances through which the people collectively could voice their opinion on any issue of interest to the whole population. These forms of contention were also capable of expressing the will of the people without resorting to the violence or physical intimidation that had characterized the older repertoire. While “the national social movement grew out of [the] older sorts of organized challenges to political authorities,” Rousseau’s philosophy reshaped the notions of the people and of sovereignty so that “when states pressed their subject populations for greatly increased contributions (in the form of taxes, conscripts and requisitioning) to war-making efforts, political entrepreneurs discovered that they could turn the essentially conservative idea of ancient popular rights into a progressive doctrine of popular sovereignty” (Tilly 1996, p. 41).

When John Wilkes in the early 1760s set out to contest the established power structures that governed British politics, he chose a platform that challenged both the Tories’ and the Whigs’ concept of sovereignty. Instead of seeing sovereignty emanating from the crown or the parliament, Wilkes gradually came to embrace the idea that sovereignty originated with the people. The next section explores how the writings of John Wilkes incorporated the idea of the people and discusses how the notion of popular sovereignty shaped the repertoire of contention of the Wilkites.

John Wilkes, the people, and protests

There is good reason to believe that “if a date is to be found for the beginning of the democratic movement, the historian will choose the years of Wilkes’s election and rejection, 1768–69” (Redlich and Hirst 1903, p. 66). However, situating the origin of the first modern social movement in 1768–69 would ignore the events that took place in 1763, events that in many ways served as a precursor for the subsequent rise of the movement. That year, “John Wilkes became what in English history is called a Radical” and as a radical “[h]e wanted radical change in laws and institutions so that they would protect all people and give them a voice in government” (Cash 2006, p. 118). It was also the year that Wilkes was charged with seditious libel and thrown in the Tower of London for publicly criticizing the peace treaty ending the Seven Years War between France and Great Britain. In the months following his arrest, Wilkes published a series of articles and commentaries in the North Briton in which he discussed the circumstances under which public display of dissent are legitimate, what forms of contention he encouraged, and his view of the people. Together, these writings provide the first glimpses into Wilkes’s understanding of the role of the people and popular protest in British politics.

These glimpses reveal that Wilkes’s ideas about popular contention, at this point, mainly drew inspiration from the philosophy of Locke but contrary to Locke, who had sought a solution to the abuse of power by the crown, the issue for Wilkes was the corrupt practices of the parliament, which tended “to alienate the affections of the People from their Obedience to the laws of the realm, and to excite them to traitorous insurrections against his Majesty’s government” (North Briton vol. III, 1772). The reasons behind this alienation were the parliament’s growing infringements and frequent violations of the rights of the people. Under such circumstances “[i]t is not only lawful” Wilkes asserted:

but laudable to contend with ministers who aim at the destruction of our liberties, and to struggle against measures which tend to turn those powers into a national evil, that were created only for the good. Resistance is there a duty. The safety of a whole nation—the safety of posterity—every motive that can fire a patriot breast—call upon a people, thus injured, to vindicate the rights of mankind, and transmit to succeeding generations, those inestimable sentiments of government, which are consistent only with public Liberty. (North Briton no. 48, June 11, 1763)

With sovereignty residing in the legislature it was unclear how people were supposed to resist except for petitioning; most forms of collective protests were forbidden though recognized groups such as parishes and guilds had the right to walk in procession through the city to deliver their petition. Other groups such as military units, funeral parties, and fraternal orders enjoyed the right to assemble collectively, but as Tilly has pointed out “the word “demonstrate” in this sense referred chiefly to displays of military power and discipline” (2008, p. 73).

Wilkes was careful to spell out that he only supported lawful forms of contention. In response to Lord Bute’s accusations that Wilkes had incited rebellion when he published his attack on the peace treaty, Wilkes responded, “[t]hey … know no difference between rebellion, and a just discontent at a most inadequate peace, and a most abandoned minister. Remonstrating against laws that levy taxes against the privileges granted by Magna Charta, and the rights of Englishmen, is, with them, impeaching the understanding of the most August assembly on earth, though I believe never parliament yet laid claim to infallibility” (North Briton no. 59, August 7, 1763). If the parliament was not infallible how was the people to express their dissatisfaction with its failures? While Wilkes articulated his dismay for rebellion and stressed adherence to protests that were strictly legal and peaceful he left the question unanswered. Clearly, the existing legal forms of remonstration such as the procession by recognized groups excluded a large number of people, especially the lower classes, from bringing their dissatisfaction before the parliament through legal means. As Wilkes began a public campaign to promote civil liberties to Englishmen of all classes, “from the first peers of the realm down to the meanest peasant” (North Briton no. 48, May 14, 1768), a campaign which would mobilize people in unprecedented numbers, finding an answer to the question became increasingly pressing.

The trial that followed his arrest and 48 other persons involved in the publication of the North Briton no. 45 became the immediate launching pad for the civil rights campaign. Up until May 1763, the North Briton had served as the main forum for Wilkes to communicate his political ideas; with trial he got an audience that vastly outnumbered the North Briton’s readership. The public interest in the case was so intense that the Duke of Newcastle warn that “…. the whole city of London will attend Mr. Wilkes to Westminster Hall when he comes up to be bailed or to be discharged” (Cash 2006, p. 111). In his testimony before the Courts of Common Pleas Wilkes linked his own legal struggle directly to the civil rights of all Englishmen when he claimed that, “[t]he liberty of all peers and gentlemen, and what touches me more sensibly, of all the middling and inferior set of people, who stand most in need of protection, is in my case this day to be finally decided upon: A question of such importance as to determine at once, whether English liberty as a reality or a shadow” (Wilkes 1767, p.41). The charges against Wilkes were eventually dropped and as he left the courtroom a free man, he was greeted by a huge crowd shouting “Wilkes, Liberty, and Number 45,” referring to the issue of the North Briton in which the now infamous critique of the peace treaty and King George III had been published.

At this point, the campaign for extending civil rights to Englishmen of all classes combined with the repeated public displays of collective support might have escalated into something that bore significant resemblance with the modern social movement. Unfortunately, Wilkes got involved in a pistol duel leaving him with a bullet in the groin (Sainsbury 2006). To make matters worse, the parliament revoked his political immunity arguing that MPs’ privileges did not include the writing or publication of seditious libel. Faced with potential imprisonment and fearing for his life, Wilkes decided to flee the country for Paris. He had hardly set foot on French soil before he headed to his dearest friend’s house where he was welcomed into the world of the Parisian intellectual elite. The d’Holbachs were renowned for hosting a long list of distinguished guests including Diderot, Helvétius, d’Alembert, Condorcet, and, at one point, Rousseau, who met daily to discuss the entries into the great Encyclopédie, which was published underground. Over the next couple of years, Wilkes became a regular guest in the d’Holbachs’ home (Thomas 1996).

During his exile in Paris, Wilkes began to work on a book on his favorite topic, British politics. In a letter written in June 1764, he described how it would open:

with the general idea of political liberty; then proceeds to examine the sentiments of the European nations on this head, as distinguished from the almost universal gross despotism of the rest of the world. The third part is a criticism on the various governments of Europe. The fourth and last, is entirely on the English constitution, the various changes it has undergone, the improvements made in it by the glorious Revolution, and the no less happy than timely accession of the house of Brunswick. There are a few hints of some remedies of the defects still subsisting in this noble, and, if my prayers are heard, this eternal fabric. (North Briton vol. III, 1772)

This book on political liberty, the merits of the Hanoverian period, and the remedies that Wilkes envisioned for contemporary British politics could have thrown a great deal of light on his view of the people and of popular sovereignty. Sadly, the manuscript, if it ever existed, has been lost.

It is around the time when he announced that he had begun work on a book on political liberty that evident traces of Rousseau’s Social Contract emerge in Wilkes’s writings. Despite the fact that the Social Contract was banned in France a substantial number of the 20,000 copies in print circulated illegally among the French intellectual elite (Damrosch 2007). Whether the Social Contract was among the Oeuvres de Rousseau, 4 vol. in Wilkes’s possession at the auction in 1764 is unknown, but a letter from Wilkes to the worthy Electors of the borough of Aylesbury, in the county of Bucks, proves that he was familiar with Rousseau’s scepticism of representative democracy as a means to promote the public good. In the letter, Wilkes argued that “Vox Populi, vox Dei ought to be understood of the universal bent and current of a People, not of the bare MAJORITY of a few Representatives; which is often procured by little arts, and great industry and application….” The letter goes on to elaborate:

that public Conventions are liable to all in the infirmities, follies, and vices of private men—therefore when we sometimes meet a few words put together, which is called the Vote or Resolution of an assembly, and which we cannot possibly reconcile to prudence or public good, it is most charitable to conjecture that such a vote has been conceived, and born, and bred in a private brain, afterwards raised and supported by a obsequious party, and then with usual methods confirmed by an artificial MAJORITY (North Briton vol. III, 1772).

Wilkes did not follow Rousseau all the way to suggest an alternative to the representative system, though he did make a strong argument for resisting a parliament that limits the freedom of the people as long as this resistance is strictly legal (ibid.). What seems clear from Wilkes’s writings in exile is a growing emphasis on the importance that he attributed to the people in curbing the corrupt practices of the British parliament.

Back in England, the years following Wilkes’s exile were times of widespread mass mobilization. With the end of the Seven Years War, war-generated demand for ships, canons, coal, and uniforms fell drastically throwing a number of industries into recession with unemployment, poverty, and discontent as a result. Aside from some 60 recorded riots in 1766, “there were strikes, machine breaking, and crowd activity among silk-weavers (1763, 1765, 1768–71), pitmen (1765), sailors, coal-heavers, watermen, coopers, hatters, glass-grinders, sawyers and tailors (all c.1768–70)” (Brewer 1981, p. 18). Up until 1768, most of these protests had little in common with the cosmopolitan, modular, and autonomous repertoire that would later come to characterize the social movement, nor did they make any appeal for civil liberty or popular sovereignty. Only on one occasion, in February 1765, as John Williams, Wilkes’s publisher, was being pilloried for republishing the North Briton no. 45, did Wilkes’s name return to the lips of the London crowd as “[a] mob of 10,000 men and women gathered at the pillory and cheered Williams without cessation for the hour he was exposed. They put into his hand a nosegay of laurel and myrtle. They shouted, ‘Truth in pillory,’ ‘Number 45 forever!’ ‘Wilkes and Liberty’” (Cash 2006, p. 179). Aside from this display of support, the campaign for civil liberty to Englishmen of all classes had by all accounts come to a halt.

It was only with Wilkes’s return to England in early 1768 that popular protests began to take on new dimensions “that foreshadow[ed] the social movement repertoire” (Tilly 2004, p. 17). Workers started to link their struggle for employment and better wages to Wilkes’s campaign for political freedom. In March 1768, weavers protesting wage cuts paraded down Piccadilly distributing pamphlets proclaiming “Wilkes and Liberty.” A month later, dissatisfied coal heavers marched down the Ratcliff High carrying banners with the inscription “Wilkes and Liberty and Coal Heavers Forever.” On April 20, 1768, “Westminster-hall, and all the places near it, was very full of people of all ranks who assembled in great crowds; but behaved in a very peaceable and orderly manner” (North Briton vol. III,1772). And when Wilkes was imprisoned in late April, a huge crowd gathered daily at St. George Field where they called “for lighting up of houses as well as ritually burning a boot and a bonnet” (Tilly 2004, p. 17).

The old repertoire of contention had by no means been discarded altogether, as Benjamin Franklin’s eyewitness report illustrates. After the Massacre of St. George Field on May 10, the capital was “a daily scene of lawless riot and confusion” Franklin tells us. “Mobs patrolling the streets to noonday, some knocking all down that will not roar for Wilkes and Liberty; courts of justice afraid to give judgement against him; coal-heavers and porters pulling the houses of coal merchants that refuse to give them more wages; sawyers destroyed saw-mills; sailor unrigging all the outward bound ships, and suffering none to sail till merchants agree to raise their pay; watermen destroying private boats and threatening bridges” (quoted from Cash 2006, p. 223). Still, despite the violence, the intimidation, and the use of old forms of protest, we begin to see the contours of a campaign take shape, a campaign that increasingly relied on a cosmopolitan, modular, and autonomous repertoire.

Based on the quickly growing popular support, Wilkes decided to run for the House of Commons. After receiving the nomination, he gave a speech to a large gathering in London, in which he said, “I stand here, gentlemen, a private man, unconnected with the great and unsupported by any party. I have no support but you: I wish no other support: I can have none more certain, none more honourable” (quoted from Cash 2006, p. 207). The crowd burst into a roar of “Wilkes and Liberty” echoing the cry for civil liberties of 1763. By combining a campaign for political office with a call for popular support, it was becoming increasingly clear that, for Wilkes, legitimate political power was to “emanate from below, not percolate down from above” (Brewer 1981, p. 191). The campaign was no longer merely a matter of extending rights to groups that had previously been excluded; by appealing for the support of the ordinary man in an electoral race, it was gradually embracing the idea of popular sovereignty.

As the crowd mobilized behind Wilkes, several influential civil society organizations threw their support behind him too. Whether these organizations actually shared the Wilkites’ view on civil liberties and democracy is debatable, but “… in the corrupt machinery of local government there was still enough of a popular instinct left to provide powerful assistance to the cause of Wilkism. The Common Council of the City of London, Guilds, Municipalities, and even, in some instances, the County Benches forwarded their petitions and remonstrance’s [sic], urged on by Radical merchants, constitutionalists like Burke, or Whig squires with democratic sympathies” (Redlich and Hirst 1903, p. 67). Some 60,000 people petitioned the king in support of Wilkes’s candidature for the House of Commons. The support of such a large proportion of the London population signalled that a transformation of the idea of the people was taking place with the populace “functioning as an active political presence (attending hustings and demonstrations, and attacking the persons and property of prominent MPs) in numbers and with a vociferousness unknown 30 years before” (Dew 2009, p. 247).

In February 1769, the movement took on a more organized form when 400 men gathered in the London Tavern to form the Society of the Supporters of the Bills of Rights, taking their name after the 1689 Bills of Rights, which had repealed the doctrine of the divine right of the monarch. One of the first actions of the Society was to denounce the Septennial Act of 1716, which had solidified the principle of parliamentary sovereignty and had extended the period between general elections from 3 to 7 years, “as a gross breach of the constitution” (Redlich and Hirst 1903, p. 68). Showing as little respect for the British parliamentary system as Rousseau the Society also declared that they would “refuse obedience” to the House and put their “trust to the laws of the land” (Cash 2006, p. 278). The idea that law should reflect the sentiments of the people was certainly not foreign to British political thought; indeed, the law of the land had deep roots in English legal tradition and Britain’s constitutional arrangements were to be found partly in conventions, customs, and in statutes and not in abstract legal principles of a written constitution. But in combination with the denouncement of obedience to the House the Society of the Supporters of the Bills of Rights was expressing a much more radical interpretation of the political role of the people of England. Only by introducing genuinely democratic ideals based on popular sovereignty could the people eradicate the corruption of the parliamentary system.

Taken together, the many protests, political events, and expressed political ideas that characterized the Wilkite movement in the 1760s are evidence of new ways of both thinking and acting politically. British politics had since the time of Charles II been a “contest for control of the state between the king and his ministers on one side and the privileged gentlemen of Parliament on the other. Now the common folk had entered into the play” (ibid., p. 162). As the common folk mobilized behind John Wilkes’s campaign for civil liberties to Englishmen of all classes and, later, his electoral campaign for the House of Commons, the first features of what would eventually become the social movement began to take shape. This signalled the beginning of a fundamental change in British politics. Before the Wilkites resorted to the use of extra-parliamentary actions in order to put pressure on British rulers “parliamentary representation, however restricted its franchise, provided the sole legitimate channel for popular voice. No electorate, much less any popular assembly, had the right to instruct members of Parliament in their specific duties…. From the later 18th century onward, however, British radicals claimed the people’s right to address their rulers directly, even to instruct them” (Tilly 2008, pp. 73–74). The new repertoire of contention that the Wilkites engaged in to address members of Parliament directly, and which eventually came to define the social movement, was “an implicit claim to popular sovereignty—the right of ordinary people to voice their preferences and thereby shape the system of rule” (ibid., p. 74).


The simultaneous origin of the first social movement and the publication of Rousseau’s social contract theory was more than an interesting historical coincidence. Both events reflected the emergence of a new understanding of sovereignty that involved a transformation of the political role of the people. Since the Septennial Act of 1716, both Whigs and Tories had supported the idea that sovereignty resided with the parliament, a view that was becoming increasingly untenable given the widespread corruption of the House of Commons (Thomas 1996). Deeply sceptical about the parliament’s ability to promote the common good, Wilkes sought to promote new forms of political participation that made the liberty of the people of all classes the core political principle. In the 1760s, such ideas were radical and no one knew exactly how to turn abstract principles into concrete actions. No one set out to invent the social movement repertoire for the purpose of influencing the legislative institutions but over the course of the decade the older repertoire of contention slowly began to morph into new forms of contention, which would eventually become the basis for the social movement.

Like Rousseau, who discouraged the use of force in politics because “force does not create rights” (Rousseau 1973, p. 168), Wilkes went to great length to encourage peaceful and legal protests. Only following the Massacre at St. George Field, a time when Wilkes was locked up in jail, did the Wilkites resort to a violent repertoire of contention on a scale that made King George III threaten to abdicate (Cash 2006). Perhaps taking Rousseau’s advice that a revolution “cannot happen twice to the same people, for it can free itself as long as it remains barbarous, but not when the civic impulse has lost its vigour” (Rousseau 1973, p. 198), the Wilkites never sought to stage a revolution. Britain had seen her Glorious Revolution in 1688–89 and the people of England enjoyed a freedom unrivalled by most countries in the world (Dickinson 2002). In this context, a repertoire of contention that promoted the will of the people without overthrowing the political system seemed both legitimate and rational. To be clear, while the Wilkites took significant steps in the direction of creating the social movement, they far from perfected the job. Over the next decades, popular campaigns would adopt and further develop contentious performances that would gradually crystallize into a more cosmopolitan, modular, and autonomous repertoire.

In one of history’s curious twists, Wilkes and Rousseau never met, neither during Wilkess’ 4 years in exile in France nor during the 3 years that Rousseau spent in England. From his refuge on Ile Saint-Pierre, Rousseau did take initial steps to arrange a meeting between the two. In a letter dated August 15, 1765 Rousseau wrote to a Mr. Loitard explaining that “I have seen a lot of Englishmen lately but as far as I know Mr. Wilkes was not one of them.” Then 10 days later, he wrote to Mr. Loitard asking him to “come alone, unless it is so incredibly pleasant to him to come with Mr. Wilkes.” A week later, Mr. Loitard responded, “I was thinking I would visit you with Mr. Wilkes but I can understand from a passage of your letter that you would rather not see him” (Seeber 1964, pp. 542–543, my translation). One reason for the convoluted invitation, which evidently never reached Wilkes, could have been that Rousseau “en philosophe, [applauded] Wilkes’ boldness and at the same time, [knowing] of his cynicism and notorious lechery, [would] regard a visit from this political agitator as highly indiscreet” (ibid.). Even if Wilkes had received Rousseau’s invitation, it is doubtful that he would have accepted it. Although, Wilkes and Rousseau shared political views, Wilkes had little respect for Rousseau, which he made unmistakably clear in a letter published in the North Briton, “… I am frequently and grossly abused by a ridiculous fellow at Bouillon, because I am known to hate the other family, and his master, the Duke, married the sister of the Pretender’s wife, a princess of Poland, of the house of Sobieski. This scribbler is one Rousseau, who by a wretched Journal does all he can twice a month to degrade a name made illustrious by one of the best French poets, and by the great philosopher, though in these times no longer a citizen, of Geneva” (North Briton vol. III, 1772). These personal disputes aside, the ideas and actions of Rousseau and Wilkes ushered in a new era in which the liberty of the people emanated from their active participation in formulating the social contract.


The author would like to thank participants at the Politics and Protest workshop at CUNY for their helpful comments on a draft version of the article. He would also like to express his gratitude to Mr. J. Fernando Peña, librarian at the Grolier Club, New York City. The Grolier Club has a unique collection of original book sale catalogs, which includes three catalogs covering John Wilkes’s library during the period 1764 to 1802.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Global AffairsNew York UniversityNew York CityUSA

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