Wilkes, the Chevalier D'Eon and ‘the Dregs of Liberty’: an Anglo-French perspective on ministerial despotism, 1762–1771
English Historical Review, 120, (489), . (doi:10.1093/ehr/cei331).
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In the immediate aftermath of the Seven Years' War, both the British and French regimes underwent a crisis of confidence. Unable or unwilling to criticise Louis XV and George III directly, critics targeted ‘favourites’ and ‘ministerial despots’, accusing them of adopting unconstitutional measures in an attempt to regain lost financial and political credability. Efforts to locate this travestied constitution, however, found notions of parliamentary sovereignty and ‘fundamental law’ to be equally elusive, and could be distracted by the charms of a patriot alternative to traditional models of rule. The aim of this piece is to explore this debate by focusing on two individuals: the journalist John Wilkes and the Chevalier D'Eon, a diplomat and spy. Thanks to their criticism of ministers and ministerial diplomatic and financial policy, both faced government persecution, which they sought to evade by fleeing to each other's country. Rather than serving to diminish their fame, exile saw them win new allies and audiences. The skill with which Wilkes and D'Eon could translate what was a popular cause in London into a cause célèbre in Paris and Versailles (and vice versa) suggests that the two regimes had more in common than their mutual historiographical isolation would indicate.
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