The first HCJ lecture of Semester two was focussed on the topic of liberty and liberalism. Liberty began as an attempt to limit the powers of the government through bills of right and emphasized the importance of individual liberty. Liberals prioritise freedom over equality and adopt a ‘laissez faire’ attitude to economics, favouring private property and free trade.
The three key figures we looked at on the topic of liberty were John Wilkes, Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill. Wilkes introduced and helped promote the idea of freedom within the press, Woolstonecraft was dedicated to women’s freedom and Mill looked at liberty as a political ideal.
John Wilkes was born 17th October 1725 in London. Wilkes led a somewhat colourful life and was well known for his radical journalism and for being an advocate in civil liberties.
Wilkes’ private life was notorious; he was a member of the Hellfire Club, strictly for London’s elite, where they could do just as they pleased from taking drugs to arranging sex parties. Wilkes was known to be a most unattractive man, however he had many mistresses throughout his life and one failed marriage to Mary Meade.
Wilkes’ journalism career helped to establish many laws which benefit journalism today. His newspaper ‘The North Briton’ was an attack on the government and the Scottish cabal and was filled with scandal, rumour and insults. King George III tried to prosecute Wilkes, threatening him with lawsuits over the newspaper but as it was written anonymously, it could not be proven that Wilkes was the author.
Wilkes published a graphic article detailing an affair between the King’s mother and the Prime Minster at the time John Stuart. Stuart was so humiliated by the article and the attention from it, he eventually stepped down from his position.
Wilkes steadily became more outrageous. In issue 45 of The North Briton, Wilkes called King George III a liar over his speech concerning the Paris Peace Treaty of 1763 and a general warrant was issued for his arrest. Wilkes sued the government for invasion of privacy and false arrest, he won his case, establishing those rights for the first time and putting a stop to general warrants.
In further attempts to bring Wilkes’ down, his political opponents obtained a copy of his pornographic poem ‘Essay on Women’ and proceeded to read it aloud in the House of Commons. The poem caused a huge scandal and Wilkes was prosecuted for obscenity.
Wilkes fled to France for four years and upon his return to England was arrested. Wilkes re-won his seat in Parliament from prison but the House voted him incapable of being elected. City officers instead voted him alderman and Mayor of London soon after.
Wilkes was also responsible for allowing reporting of Parliament, to enable the public to see an accurate illustration of those representing them. Wilkes also put forward the first bill for complete male suffrage in 1775, enabling all males to vote regardless of class.
Wilkes worked his final years as a magistrate and died 26th December 1797.
For further information on Wilkes, click the link below to view the Times Online article on Wilkes’ life.
As the seminar next week will be focussed on Mary Wollstonecraft, I will just give a brief overview in what was covered in the lecture, with a more detailed blog on her work to follow.
Wollstonecraft was born 27 April 1759 and had a difficult early life. She was born into a middle class family but her drunken, violent father soon brought the family into poverty. Wollstonecraft took it upon herself to become the matriarchal figure of the family and tried to protect her mother and her two sisters from her father. She was however, often critical of her mother for not being more forceful.
Wollstonecraft was forced to work as a governess in Ireland, where she was very poorly paid. She soon became obsessed with education, as she believed it was a way of accessing freedom and liberty. She published her first book, ‘Thoughts on the Education of Daughters’ in 1787. Wollstonecraft argued that the education that was given to women was superficial and promoted an obsession with appearance, rather than giving them knowledge beyond their social constraints.
On her return from Ireland, Wollstonecraft set up residence in London, in Stoke Newington, where she set up a school. She became a rational dissenter (applying rationality to religion) and a Unitarian.
Wollstonecraft was both inspired and aggravated by the work of Rousseau. Her book ‘Mary: A Fiction’ was a direct response to Rousseau’s ‘Emile (On Education.’ In book five of Emile, ‘On Sophie,’ Rousseau portrays the ideal woman, Wollstonecraft strongly objected to this, believing women could be more than society’s stereotypes.
In response to Edmund Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft published a quickly written book in 1790 titled ‘The Vindication on the Rights of Men,’ in which she claimed ideas of aristocracy were mistaken. Following this in 1792Wollstonecraft published ‘The Vindication on the Rights of Women.’ This became one of her most influential works, with the central theme being a diagnosis of the current state of female manners, with little to say on the civil rights of women. She stated that women had a false sense of themselves and too willingly accepted the role society gave them.
Without knowing of Wollstonecraft’s private life, The Vindication on the Rights of Women may appear prudish and cold but Wollstonecraft was a passionate woman. She attempted suicide twice following failed relationships. Wollstonecraft married a philosopher named William Godwin in 1797 and they had a child together, Mary Shelley.
After her death 10th September 1797, Godwin published a biography about her in which he was very frank about her views and her life. She was seen as a champion of women’s rights but the book damaged her reputation for over a century, until the Suffragettes recognised her as a key philosopher and feminist, restoring her reputation and making her work relevant.
John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill was born 20th May 1806. He was son of the philosopher James Mill, who with the aid of fellow philosopher Jeremy Bentham educated Mill from a very early age. John Stuart Mill was taught to read Greek by the age of three. His father educated him only on what he thought was important from a utilitarian point of view, leaving out the teaching of poetry and sport.
At the age of twenty Mill suffered a nervous breakdown and during this time he began to educate himself on poetry and he found a particular admiration for William Wordsworth. From then on he became interested in freedom of speech.
‘‘All silencing of opinion is an assumption of infallibility.’’
Mill believed the freedom of speech was absolute and highlighted the fact that both Socrates and Christ were put to death for being dissenters.
Mill dismisses the social contract (see Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) but agreed individuals must follow society’s rules, however he also enforced the idea that the majority are not always right and he stood against uniformity.
Mill also emphasized the importance of educating children, stating it is a moral crime to withhold education. Mill also saw the education of women and women’s rights as important and he introduced the first bill to give women the right to vote.
Mill died on 8th May 1873.
For more in depth information on John Stuart Mill and link to his books ‘Utilitarianism’ and ‘On Liberty,’ click the link below.