John Wilkes was born on October 17, 1725, in Clerkenwell, London, the second son of Israel Wilkes, a wealthy London brewer, and his wife, Sarah Heaton. The other Wilkes children were Israel (b. 1722), Sarah (b. ca. 1723), Mary (b. ca. 1724), and Heaton (b. 1727). John Wilkes was educated in Hereford and attended the University of Leiden from 1744-1746. The next year, he married Mary Mead (ca. 1715-1784), an heiress ten years his senior, whose dowry was the manor of Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. The marriage produced one daughter, Mary (known as Polly; b. 1750), but ended in a separation in 1756. Thereafter, Wilkes gained a reputation as a rake, and fathered several illegitimate children. He also became increasingly involved in a notoriously bawdy gentlemen's club, the Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe, also known as the Hellfire Club.
In 1754, Wilkes stood unsuccessfully for Parliament, and was instead appointed high sheriff of Buckinghamshire. He was elected to Parliament for Aylesbury in 1757 and again in 1761, but rarely spoke and proved himself a poor debater. He instead relied on his writing talents to express his political ideas. He wrote a pamphlet and several essays for The Monitor, and then founded a satirical newspaper, The North Briton, in June 1762. In issue 45 of the serial, published on April 23, 1763, Wilkes lampooned King George III and Prime Minister George Grenville, after the kinpraised the 1763 Treaty of Paris in a session of Parliament. The King took personal offence to the attack, and on April 30, issued general warrants which led to Wilkes' arrest for seditious libel. Wilkes was freed on grounds of parliamentary privilege on May 6, but not before crowds of supporters had taken to the streets with shouts of "Wilkes and Liberty!" Several months later, Wilkes came under scrutiny for a raunchy poem he had written with Thomas Potter, entitled An Essay on Woman. He fled to France and was expelled from Parliament, found guilty of libel, and outlawed.
After five years in exile, publishing anti-government polemics and supported financially by friends, Wilkes returned to England. He entered the 1768 election, standing for London; he was defeated, but was returned for Middlesex. Government attempts to block Wilkes from taking his seat and imprisonment for blasphemy and libel made Wilkes a hero with London's lower classes. In America as well, "Wilkes and Liberty" became a rallying cry against unconstitutional Crown authority. Elected alderman in 1769, Wilkes became the center of a radical party in London which was pro-American and advocated parliamentary reform. His influence in the city continued, with his election as lord mayor in 1774 and as city chamberlain in 1779. Although he continued to sit in Parliament until 1790, his influence gradually declined. He died in 1797.