George III ascended to the throne in 1760, just as the fortunes of war were shifting in favor of Great Britain. In 1762, George III appointed as prime minister of Great Britain his former tutor, Scottish nobleman John Stuart, Lord Bute. It was Bute who was responsible in 1763 for negotiating the peace in the Seven Years' War, known in America as the French and Indian War. Critics, including Wilkes, charged that Bute conceded too much to the vanquished French and Spanish.
When Bute established a pro-government newspaper called The Briton, Wilkes — with poet and playwright Charles Churchill — began publication of The North Briton. "North Briton" referred to Scotland and was a clear reference to Bute. It was not a compliment. "The principal part of the Scottish nobility are tyrants and the whole of the common people are slaves," Wilkes declared. Historian Linda Colley in her book, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837, calls it "Scottophobia." Scots were, in Wilkes' eyes, aliens who could never become integrated with true Englishmen.
The year 1745 — still fresh in English memory — gave Wilkes additional ammunition for his published assaults. That was the year that Charles Edward Stuart — known as Bonnie Prince Charlie — led the Highland clans in a rebellion designed to overthrow the Hanoverian, King George II, and return the Stuart line to the thrones of Scotland and England. The rebels were known as Jacobites. The North Briton attacked Bute as a Jacobite — traitor to the throne — and accused him of having an affair with the queen mother. The newspaper was an instant sensation — circulation skyrocketed. Bute became a national villain and was forced to resign as prime minister.
The resignation did not stop Wilkes' attacks on the government. In an infamous issue of The North Briton — No. 45 — Wilkes asserted that the insidious Jacobite influence over the government continued. Jacobites, Wilkes said, were intent on destroying English liberty and enslaving the people of Britain. He attacked King George III's speech before Parliament. Criticizing the king directly could lead to a charge of seditious libel and so Wilkes tried shifting the focus to the recently resigned Lord Bute by saying, "The King's Speech has always been considered by the legislature, and by the public at large, as the Speech of the Minister." The king's address lauded the peace settlement of 1763 as an accomplishment. For Wilkes, it was a travesty. "What a shame was it to see the security of this country … sacrificed."
And who was to blame? Wilkes implied it was Bute and the Jacobites influence in government. Then he went on to say, "The King of England is ... invested by law with the whole executive power. He is, however, responsible to his people for the due execution of the royal functions, in the choice of ministers, &c. equally with the meanest of his subjects in his particular duty."
George was furious. The government issued general warrants to arrest those involved in the publication of The North Briton on charges of seditious libel. General warrants gave officers of the king broad discretionary power to seize property and arrest individuals. Also called "writs of assistance," the general warrants represented the kind of arbitrary power that ardent Whigs deplored. This was particularly true in America, where general warrants gave customs officials broad powers to search property and seize goods in the hunt for smugglers. Wilkes' arrest launched a saga of court trials, acquittals, additional publications, more arrests, exile, imprisonment and popular protest. It made Wilkes famous.