An irascible English journalist of the 1760s offers a lesson for our times, as we think about the federal government’s mass surveillance of phones and online communications, Rep. Morgan Griffith, R- Salem, told fellow members of Congress.
Griffith hearkened back to his days as a history student at Emory and Henry College to tell the tale of the journalist John Wilkes.
Wilkes was a bit of a upstart, a bit of rake and a hellion, and somewhat of a radical. He had temerity to print in his paper, The North Briton, that King George III was wrong in urging the peace treaty that ended the Seven Years War (aka the French and Indian War) in 1763.
The king ordered the issue of general warrants — writs that gave officials sweeping powers to seek out Wilkes and his paper. Officers of the King went door to door, arresting roughly 50 people before they nailed Wilkes. Wilkes challenged the warrants in court, and though he was released because he was a member of parliament and therefore immune from arrest, the same judge would two years later hold that such general warrants were illegal. It was one of the most important protections of individual rights to come before our own Bill of Rights.
“He was a hero of liberty,” Griffith said.
And, he added, there are unsettling parallels between the general warrants and the sweeping power the government has exercised to listen in on millions of us.
(Here at Blue Ridge Caucus, we’re fans of Wilkes, for all his faults, too. He fought for freedom of the press — and for the independence of the United States.)