He might be more recognizable today as the namesake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, but eighteenth-century English politician John Wilkes was himself an important figure in American history.
By 1763, Wilkes had been in Parliament for seven years and was already becoming known as an outspoken voice for reform and critic of royal power. Wilkes published a scathing attack on King George III’s speech at the end of the Seven Years’ War and faced charges of seditious libel.
He was arrested, thrown in jail and put on trial, where he was able to escape criminal charges by arguing parliamentary privilege.
However, merely having his charges dismissed was not enough to provide justice for Wilkes. He filed a civil lawsuit against the official who arrested him. That case, Wilkes v. Wood, named Robert Wood as the defendant on the premise that he had unlawfully intruded into Wilkes’ private affairs, but it was clearly more than just Wood himself on trial.
The Modern Equivalent of $1 Million
The King’s absolute authority was what had taken action against Wilkes, and his authority was what was being challenged as well. Wilkes v. Wood ended in a jury verdict in Wilkes’ favor for one thousand pounds. This was the modern equivalent of $1 million, making it the first million-dollar verdict in history.
This was a personal victory of John Wilkes, of course, but it also had massive ramifications for the future United States. For example, Wilkes v. Wood was an important part of the legal background for the Fourth Amendment, concerning search and seizure. Rather than giving the government absolute power to enter people’s homes, that power would be restricted to require probable cause.
The Introduction of Exemplary Damages
Just as significantly, Wilkes v. Wood demonstrated that the power to award damages was in the hands of the jury and invented a new category of damages to provide proper compensation for Wilkes.
The defense argued that any damages awarded should only reflect the actual damage to Wilkes’ physical property, which was slight, but the plaintiff’s counsel argued for much greater damages in order to make an example.
The jury agreed, awarding “exemplary damages,” which are today called “punitive damages” in most American jurisdictions.
It’s telling that a few decades later, the right to a trial by jury was enshrined in the Seventh Amendment, and the right to award damages in civil cases was given, not to a judge appointed by government leaders, but to a jury of your peers.