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Reference group
Society of Gentlemen Supporters of the Bill of Rights [Bill of Rights Society] (act. 1769–1775) was a political association formed for the purpose of supporting John Wilkes after his expulsion from parliament in February 1769. Wilkes had been expelled on the grounds that a prisoner could not sit in the House of Commons. He had been elected as one of two members of parliament for Middlesex in March 1768, but in June was sentenced for two libels published in 1763, in the North Briton and the Essay on Woman; he had been convicted five years earlier but had fled to France to evade arrest.

The decision to form the society was taken at a public meeting, chaired by John Glynn, serjeant-at-law, Wilkes's counsel, at the London tavern, on 20 February 1769, three days after it had been declared that Wilkes had not been constitutionally capable of being elected to the parliament of 1768 and four after he had successfully been elected at a by-election following his first expulsion. The inaugural meeting of the society itself was held the following Saturday, 25 February, at which time the full title of the Society of Gentlemen Supporters of the Bill of Rights was adopted. It was often referred to simply as the Bill of Rights Society. The aim of the society was to support the cause of Wilkes, in the belief that the political injuries he had suffered infringed the rights of all freeholders to elect an MP of their choice. However, Wilkes was heavily in debt and unless his debts could be repaid by the date of his release from the king's bench prison he would be rearrested and his political grievances would become irrelevant. The main purpose of the society was to raise sufficient funds to achieve this aim and to render Wilkes financially capable of continuing his fight.

The driving force behind the formation of the society was John Horne [see Tooke, John Horne], the Brentford parson who had already played a prominent role in organizing Wilkes's Middlesex election campaign. Working closely alongside Horne was Glynn, who had been elected as Wilkes's colleague as member of parliament for Middlesex, on a Wilkite platform, in December 1768. Also prominent in founding the society were James Townsend, Shelburnite MP for West Looe, and John Sawbridge, MP for Hythe and brother of the radical historian Catharine Macaulay. Townsend and Sawbridge had proposed Wilkes at the Middlesex by-election. Other founding members included Sir Joseph Mawbey, a wealthy distiller and MP for Southwark who had presented Wilkes's petition to the House of Commons on 14 November 1768, Richard Oliver, a West India merchant who had opened an earlier subscription on Wilkes's behalf, Sir Cecil Wray, MP for East Retford, Sir John Molesworth (1729–1775), MP for Cornwall, and Brass Crosby, MP for Honiton.

In keeping with the financial purposes of the society the membership consisted principally of men of substance. In addition to the six members of parliament, the society boasted a number of former MPs including Sir Robert Bernard, Sir William Baker (1705–1770), and Sir Francis Blake Delaval. Professionally the society consisted predominantly of lawyers and merchants. Among the most active members were such lawyers as Glynn, Townsend, Robert Morris, James Adair, and George Bellas, who chaired the meeting of Middlesex freeholders on 14 February. At least a dozen members were merchants, among whom were wealthy men like the brothers Richard and Thomas Oliver, whose fortune derived from plantations in Antigua. The Wilkite movement had its nucleus in and around the City of London and, even in advance of their takeover of the City corporation, attracted the support of a number of prominent City politicians. Sawbridge's father-in-law Sir William Stephenson, and Baker and William Bridgen (d. 1779), both aldermen, were all members. None of the society's own records has survived and the exact size of membership is uncertain; however, over 150 names can be associated with the society. Membership was fluid and a figure of about 100 at any one time, with an active membership of around 60, would seem to be a reasonable estimate. The most active members of the society had strong links with the City of London or the nearby counties of Middlesex, Surrey, and Kent and were professional men in their thirties.

The society held fortnightly meetings on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month at the London tavern, where a meal was provided at four o'clock. The meetings were organized by a committee consisting of the secretary, treasurer, and chairman. Initially the treasurer was William Tooke (d. 1802), patron of John Horne, and for the first eighteen months the secretary was Robert Morris. The chairman was appointed for one meeting only and meetings were regularly chaired by all the leading members of the society. Reports of these meetings appeared regularly in the London press. As the basis of the society was financial, it was set up as a trust. There were thirty-five trustees and Richard Oliver, Samuel Vaughan (1720–1802), and John Trevanion (1740–1810) were appointed treasurers to the trust. The society also set up a subcommittee of accounts, and of correspondence and subscriptions, which met at the London tavern at one o'clock on the first and third Tuesdays of the month. As with all radical societies of the time, the Gentlemen Supporters of the Bill of Rights were vulnerable to allegations of disloyalty to the crown; a resolution was therefore passed ‘that no member be admitted, but those who are of known loyalty to his Majesty’ (Public Advertiser, 13 March 1769).

Once formed the society set to work with great vigour to sort out the financial affairs of Wilkes. At the first meeting £3340 was subscribed. A committee was established to assess the state of the demands on Wilkes and £300 was sent to him for his personal use. Glynn managed to compromise £10,800 of debt at a rate of 25 per cent and by 6 June £7000 had been spent on Wilkes, including the first of his £500 fines. By the summer of 1769 the rate of donations had slowed and the committee of correspondence and subscription, chaired by Glynn, with Sawbridge, Townsend, Bellas, and Horne as members, made a nationwide appeal for funds by means of a circular letter sent to those perceived to be sympathetic. Although this did not produce a rush of donations it did find its way to the American colonies where it elicited a gift of £1500 from the assembly of South Carolina. In January 1770 Wilkes's financial state still prevented his release from prison. The society had spent £4199 compromising debts and £1705 had been contributed to Wilkes's Middlesex election expenses, but the second £500 fine and £5445 of debt were still to be paid. Only £776 remained in the accounts and a race began to meet Wilkes's obligations before he was due to be released on 18 April. Leading members of the society met daily to receive subscriptions. By 17 April the society had £2201, not enough to clear Wilkes's debts completely but enough to satisfy his most pressing creditors and to secure his release from prison. The society now decided that membership should no longer be by donation but by ballot, and, on 8 May, Wilkes was elected unanimously by this method.

The society's support for Wilkes went beyond the mere financial. Its members were very active in the petitioning campaign that was undertaken on Wilkes's behalf in the summer of 1769. Individual members worked hard to secure petitions not only in the metropolitan area but from any place where they had personal influence. It was frequently Bill of Rights Society men who took the initiative and the petitions in which they played a leading role were more radical and extensive than those of other opposition groups. They asked not merely for the redress of the grievances of the Middlesex electors but also of a number of additional complaints ranging from general warrants to the mismanagement of the American colonies. In order to promote the causes espoused by the society more widely a letter was sent out inviting the establishment of corresponding societies around the country. It evoked limited response, although short-lived societies were formed in Norwich, Newcastle, Bristol, and Worcester.

In the spring of 1771 the Society of Gentlemen Supporters of the Bill of Rights split acrimoniously in two. The cause of the split lay in conflicting views concerning the purpose and future direction of the society. To one faction, led by Wilkes, the primary objective was the payment of Wilkes's debts and the redress of grievances specifically related to his case. The other group, led by Horne, saw Wilkes as an important cause but not an exclusive one. They wished to develop the society as a vehicle for wider reform and had concerns from the earliest days that it was in danger of becoming merely a benefit club for Wilkes. While Wilkes remained in prison the contradiction between these aims lay dormant, but following his release, with his debts largely settled and no immediate possibility of reviving the Middlesex election issue, the tensions within the society rapidly surfaced.

Animosity between Wilkes and Horne grew during the later months of 1770 and in December, disillusioned by Wilkes's exploitation of the society, Horne moved to have a final tally of Wilkes's remaining debts drawn up so that the matter could be settled once and for all. Horne now sought to establish the wider public purpose of the society by securing, at a meeting on 12 February, a £500 subscription for a printer, William Bingley, who had been imprisoned for libel. It was a short-lived victory which Wilkes overturned at the meeting of 26 February by successfully proposing that no new subscriptions be raised until all his debts due at the foundation of the society had been paid. Having been outmanoeuvred, Horne hatched a plan to settle the matter. The Bill of Rights Society, using the power base it had recently acquired on the corporation of London, was challenging parliament's refusal to allow the reporting of parliamentary debates. The campaign had resulted in the arrest of several printers and Horne called an extraordinary meeting of the society, on 19 March, at which it was agreed to send rewards of £100 to three of the printers. At the society's next scheduled meeting, on 9 April, Wilkes called into question the legality of the extraordinary meeting, at which he and his supporters had not been present. There was a heated altercation between Wilkes and Horne, and Horne moved that the society be dissolved. The motion fell by 26 votes to 24 but Horne and his supporters scratched their names out of the society's membership book and adjourned to another room where they formed the Constitutional Society. Among those who seceded from the Bill of Rights Society were its wealthier, better connected, and more ambitious members, who saw themselves as genuine reformers. They included the bulk of its MPs and aldermen, among whom were Sawbridge, Townsend, Bernard, Delaval, and Bellas, as well as Oliver, the society's treasurer, and Thomas Boddington, its secretary. Nevertheless the Bill of Rights Society survived the split and had soon more than recovered its numbers. The American Arthur Lee (1740–1792) became the new secretary and Frederick Bull (d. 1784) the treasurer. The split in the society was followed by an acrimonious correspondence between Wilkes and Horne in which Horne publicly attacked Wilkes's character. The episode rebounded on Horne as Wilkes's public popularity made him immune to criticism, and served to deepen the divide amongst the City radicals.

Once he was in full control of the society Wilkes felt able to allow it to pursue a more extensive reforming agenda. In June 1771 the Bill of Rights Society published a declaration for parliamentary candidates binding them to support shorter parliaments, a Place and Pensions Bill, and a fair and equal representation of the people. The following month the society published a more extensive political programme, drawn up primarily by Arthur Lee, which extended the candidates' declaration to include a bribery oath, an inquiry into the civil list, impeachment of ministers over the Middlesex election and the massacre in St George's Fields, and the redress of the grievances of the Irish and Americans. The radicals had some limited success in securing the agreement of election candidates to subscribe to such engagements during the 1774 general election campaign.

The causes espoused by the society largely grew out of events of the time or followed the vein of older radical campaigns. They believed the cause of their current grievances to be court and ministerial corruption and thus their aim was to restore the mythical ancient constitution that had supposedly guaranteed the liberties of the English freeholder. Even their most radical demand, for shorter parliaments, was taken, it was believed, from some remote glorious past. The long-term significance of the Bill of Rights men was their political methodology. They organized a highly effective election machine which they used in both parliamentary and London corporation elections and their use of the press to publicize their cause was unprecedented. For six years their activities were reported in almost every edition of the London papers and the Bill of Rights Society published its own pamphlet, the Freeholders Magazine, or, Monthly Chronicle of Liberty. The radicals fully recognized the importance of the press and their most lasting legacy was the establishment of the right to publish parliamentary debates.

The last recorded meeting of the Bill of Rights Society was held on 24 October 1775. Radicalism fell on lean times once the American crisis deteriorated into war. The society's sympathies lay with the colonists and in March 1775 it resolved to send £500 to help the people of Boston. However, the radicals were out of tune with public opinion and their popularity waned sharply. For a few the interest in reform survived. John Sawbridge continued to propose his annual motion for the shortening of parliaments, Horne was imprisoned for treason in the wake of the French Revolution, James Adair became active in Wilberforce's campaign against the slave trade, and a number of former Bill of Rights men, including Sawbridge, Crosby, Mawby, Wray, and Sir Watkin Lewes (1736–1821), joined John Cartwright in the Society for Constitutional Information, founded in 1780.

Nicola Jones

Sources  

P. D. G. Thomas, John Wilkes: a friend to liberty (1996) · N. C. Davies, ‘The Bill of Rights Society and the origins of radicalism in Britain’, MA diss., U. Wales, 1986 · G. Rudé, Wilkes and liberty: a social study of 1763 to 1774 (1962) · W. P. Treloar, Wilkes and the City (1917) · H. W. Bleackley, Life of John Wilkes (1917) · J. Almon, ed., The correspondence of the late John Wilkes (1805) · J. Almon, ed., Controversial letters of John Wilkes, esq., the Rev. John Horne and their adherents (1771) · A. Stephens, Memoirs of John Horne Tooke, 2 vols. (1813) · The correspondence of William Wilberforce, ed. R. I. Wilberforce and S. Wilberforce, 2 vols. (1840) · The life and correspondence of Major Cartwright, ed. F. D. Cartwright, 2 vols. (1826); repr. (1969)