J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, July 08, 2019

A Wilkes Cufflink from Brunswick Town

Just a few hours after I posted about the archeological discovery of a tavern in Brunswick Town, North Carolina, a tweet from Warren Bingham alerted me to a new announcement from that team.

One artifact when cleaned up turned out to be a cufflink ornamented with a pea-sized blue glass bead. And etched on that bead are the words “Wilkes and Liberty 45.”

John Wilkes was the London radical who used his magazine The North-Briton to attack the Earl of Bute, a Scotsman, and his supposed corruption of the royal family. Bute stepped down as chief minister in April 1763 and never returned to politics, but Whigs in Britain and America kept him in the public mind as a scapegoat and focus of conspiracy theories.

In issue number 45 of The North-Briton, published late in April 1763, Wilkes came very close to attacking George III as well as Bute. That would be sedition, and the government brought Wilkes and his printers up on charges. He fled to France for several years, returning in 1768 to be both reelected to Parliament and arrested for obscenity.

American Whigs adopted Wilkes’s cause, making his name and the number 45 emblems for political reform across the British Empire. The Boston Whigs corresponded with Wilkes in the late 1760s, trying to make common cause. His domestic popularity lasted until the Gordon Riots of 1780. Later generations looked askance at Wilkes’s sexual activity and writing, letting them overshadow his political significance.

There are lots of physical manifestations of Wilkes’s popularity in America: prints, china, and ornaments like this one. In 2013 a member of the TreasureNet bulletin board with the handle sscindercoop reported finding a seal with the same slogan and similar design at a “colonial fort site,” possibly in central New York. A London mudlark called Chill Bill found a glass “Wilkes and Liberty 45” cufflink in the Thames, as he shows on this 2017 video.


Bill Harshaw said...

Notably Wilkes Barre PA, founded 1769.

Anonymous said...

There are 45s on the hat of the Liberty Boy tarring and feathering a loyalist in the engraving A NEW METHOD OF MACARONY MAKING AS PRACTICED IN BOSTON. I knew who Wilkes was but not the significance of 45. Thank you.

Mike said...

My first thought was Newtown Battlefield (a hill overlooking Elmira NY), although not technically a fort. Could be Oswego or Stanwix, too.

J. L. Bell said...

By 1774 or 1775, when the “New Method of Macarony Making” was published in London, most of the audience for that cartoon must have known “45” was a symbol for radical politics. I’m curious about whether people actually wore hats as in the picture, or whether it was a label as we see in more recent political cartoons telling us what that figure signified.

J. L. Bell said...

There are a lot of smaller forts that could qualify. And I’m guessing about central New York since that’s where the person posting about the seal came from, but that doesn’t mean he or she found the artifact close to home. Maybe that person will see the news from North Carolina and bring his or her find forward again.