Letter to Samuel Johnson

John DICKINSON   |   John WILKES   |   Samuel JOHNSON

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"THERE CAN BE NO DOUBT, WILKES' HISTORY LAY BEHIND THE GUARANTEES OF A FREE PRESS, THE RIGHT TO PRIVACY, THE FREEDOM FROM UNREASONABLE SEARCHES AND SEIZURES… KING GEORGE III CALLED HIM 'THAT DEVIL WILKES'": A GREAT RARITY, JOHN WILKES' LETTER TO SAMUEL JOHNSON, 1770, AN EXCEPTIONAL ASSOCIATION COPY SIGNED BY FOUNDING FATHER JOHN DICKINSON

(DICKINSON, John) (WILKES, John). A Letter to Samuel Johnson, L.L.D. (London): J. Almon, 1770. Slim octavo, original tan wrappers, original stitching as issued, uncut; pp. (3-5), 6-54, (1) 2-8.

First edition of England's John Wilkes' fiery Letter to Samuel Johnson in opposition to his False Alarm, declaring Johnson would scandalously permit "a wicked minister to defeat the whole constitutional establishment of representation"—this rare association copy belonging to preeminent Founding Father John Dickinson, with his owner signature above the title page—issued anonymously the same year as the Boston massacre, with the imprisoned Wilkes a "symbol of liberty" who championed Dickinson, earlier praising his Farmer's Letters for having "perfectly understood and ably defended… the cause of freedom," uncut in original wrappers.

In 1770, the year this Letter to Johnson was published anonymously, the British opened fire on Americans in the Boston Massacre. Pivotal to both the English and their rebellious Americans, it was authored by England's John Wilkes who, that year, stood in Parliament to denounce "the American War as 'unjust' since it originated from attempts to tax the colonists without their consent" (Thomas, John Wilkes, 169). Wilkes' Letter, attacking Johnson's False Alarm (1770), must have been particularly significant to John Dickinson, whose owner signature is above the title page. Dickinson would have known of Wilkes' status as "a symbol of liberty… Wilkes' every move was followed in the American press, and his victories over government celebrated in the colonies" (Cash, John Wilkes, 2). In 1768, the year Dickinson's famed Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, known as the Farmer's Letters, was published, Wilkes had just returned to England from exile, where he had been sentenced in absentia with seditious libel for a work attacking George III. That same year Wilkes, who had just been elected to Parliament, sat in prison while demanding his parliamentary seat. It was then that "the Boston Sons of Liberty opened a correspondence with him by a letter of June 6, 1768," which included a copy of the Farmer's Letters (Thomas, 161). In that core work Dickinson boldly called the 1765 Stamp Act "pernicious to freedom" and attacked "Parliament's power with greater acuity than any writer had shown before" (Bailyn, 215). Wilkes quickly replied to the Sons of Liberty, declaring that in Dickinson's Letters: "the cause of freedom is perfectly understood and ably defended… Liberty I consider as the birthright of every subject of the British Empire, and I hold Magna Carta to be in as full force in America as in Europe'" (Thomas, 161).

Dickinson would again be on Wilkes' mind when the Englishman responded to the Continental Congress' Olive Branch Petition of July 5, 1775. That momentous work, its first draft by Jefferson and final draft by Dickinson, was, to Wilkes, pivotal. He believed England took a "fatal step" when it refused "to respond in the autumn of 1775 to the Olive Branch Petition from the American Congress… The only way 'to save the empire,' Wilkes urged, was 'to recall our fleets and armies, repeal all acts injurious to Americans passed since 1783 and restore their charters'" (Thomas, 171). By then, Wilkes was well known as "a fighter for freedom who suffered imprisonment for his beliefs" (Alexander, Samuel Adams, 61), widely championed as a powerful voice for the American cause with his "fiery writing and his daring taunts to people in power" (Cash, 3).

Wilkes' Letter was written in response to Samuel Johnson's False Alarm (1770), the first of four works in a series that concluded with Taxation No Tyranny (1775), the latter one that Americans found especially offensive. Here Wilkes disputes Johnson's claim that the House of Commons had the authority to deny Wilkes, or anyone, his parliamentary seat and thereby disqualify the votes of those who elected him. Wilkes argues that the privileges of Britain's House of Commons are simply "what THE PEOPLE for their own benefit have allowed them" (emphasis in original). He calls False Alarm "the unwieldy exhibition of the gambols of a Colossus" and targets Johnson's willingness "to build the power of the House of Commons on the subversion of the rights of their constituents (italics in original). To Wilkes, False Alarm endorsed a principle that would "enable a wicked minister to defeat the whole constitutional establishment of representation." Wilkes' position and his broader influence were expressly "felt at the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. Madison, using the very argument Wilkes had used, convinced the Convention to fix in law the requirements for candidacy in an election to Congress… Wilkes established for Great Britain and subsequently the U.S. two closely related principles: within the simple limits of constitutional law, the people can elect as their representative whomever they please regardless of the approval or disapproval of the legislature; and they have a right to be represented by someone they have elected… Moreover, the first ten amendments of the American Constitution, the Bill of Rights, were written by men to whom Wilkes was a household word. There can be no doubt, Wilkes' history lay behind the guarantees of a free press, the right to privacy, the freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the prohibition of nonspecific arrest warrants… Voltaire told him, 'You set me in flames with your courage, and you charm me with your wit,' and King George III called him 'that devil Wilkes'" (Cash, 3 4). Title page with "[Price One Shilling]"; bound without half title. ESTC T38186. Rothschild 2563. Courtney, Bibliography IV:114. See Sowerby 2742.

Text very fresh with only light foxing mainly to title page and rear leaf. A singular near-fine copy of a distinctive work in Anglo-American revolutionary history with a most desirable association.

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