‘What then has been my crime? Having dared to be, according to the measure of my feeble abilities, a strenuous and active advocate for an equal representation of the people – in the House of the People … It is a good cause. It shall prevail. It shall finally triumph.’
Extract taken from Radical Scotland: Uncovering Scotland’s Radical History from the French Revolutionary Era to the 1820 Rising
By Kenny MacAskill
Published by Biteback Publishing
And so, on 30 August Thomas Muir the radical advocate appeared in court as the accused. Choosing to represent himself, he was supported by his friend and solicitor William Moffatt. Five judges were on the bench with Lord Braxfield as senior judge. From the outset it was clear that this was not a trial but a state inquisition. As Peter Hume Brown has described, Muir’s trial was ‘prejudiced by the very atmosphere of the court, for almost to a man the members of the Bar shared the panic of the classes’. The outcome was clear and only the sentence was unknown.
The jury was handpicked by the court, thus ensuring that all were members of the Goldsmiths’ Hall Association. There were three main charges facing Muir. Firstly, exciting disaffection by seditious speeches. Secondly, circulating Rights of Man by Thomas Paine and some of his other subversive works. Finally, reading and defending the Society of United Irishmen’s address at the First National Convention of the Scottish Friends of the People.
The first two charges were particularly weak although this did not trouble the court, nor did it unduly worry the jury. The alleged seditious speeches were references to reports from spies who had attended meetings at which Muir had spoken across the central belt of Scotland. The tone and tenor of his addresses emphasised that he was clearly arguing for parliamentary reform rather than sedition. Evidence that he had been circulating Paine’s work came from a servant at Huntershill who looked suspiciously like an informant and whose evidence was flimsy to say the least. However, the final charge relating to the address from the United Irishmen did have substance, which explained the nervousness and concern of some individuals who attended the convention.
The evidence provided varied from factual reports, through jaundiced remarks to frankly absurd statements that simply attempted to paint a picture of a dangerous revolutionary. Unsubstantiated and prejudicial comments were permitted which stated that he was a ‘French emissary’, a member of an Irish society that was involved in radical activities in Ireland that were similar to those of the London Corresponding Society in England, and that he had a seal inscribed with the words ‘Ça ira’. Most of these comments were not relevant to the specific charges but this did not matter and the court was willing to give the Lord Advocate a free rein. When addressing the jury, Robert Dundas described Muir in a variety of terms, the least offensive being ‘demon of mischief ’ and ‘pest of Scotland’. Both the court and the jury seemed to lap it up.
However, when it came to his own speech to the jury, Muir came into his own. His address has gone down in history and has been admired by lawyers and radicals alike. It was a veritable tour de force that lasted some three hours, despite the hostility of the court and the pressure that he was under. If Muir only returned to publicly defend himself in court, he certainly rose to the occasion and utilised his rhetorical skills to passionately argue the cause that he believed in. Despite being certain that he would be convicted he bravely stood his ground and prepared to accept his fate, before finally concluding:
‘This is now perhaps the last time that I shall address my country … of crimes, most foul and horrible that I have been accused. Of attempting to rear the standard of civil war, and to plunge this land in blood, and to cover this land with desolation. At every step, as the evidence of the Crown advanced, my innocency has brightened … What then has been my crime? Having dared to be, according to the measure of my feeble abilities, a strenuous and active advocate for an equal representation of the people – in the House of the People … It is a good cause. It shall prevail. It shall finally triumph.’
Muir went on bravely to add:
‘I am careless and indifferent to my fate. I can look danger and I can look death in the face, for I am shielded in the consciousness of my own rectitude. I may be condemned to ascend the scaffold. Nothing can destroy my inward peace of mind, arising from the remembrance of having discharged my duty.’
When his speech ended there was applause and the stamping of feet, such was its impact on all who were in the courtroom. However, this only seemed to harden the heart of Lord Braxfield. After Muir’s address it was then up to the judge to give the charge to the jury, which are directions on points of law. Lord Henry Cockburn, a leading legal commentator, later described how it was an abuse to say that this was a judicial charge. Instead it was an incitement if not a demand to convict made by the judge, even if the jury was already in agreement. Braxfield stated:
‘I leave it for you to judge, whether it was perfectly innocent or not in Mr Muir, at such a time, to go about among ignorant country people, and among the lower classes of people making them leave off their work, and inducing them to believe that a reform was absolutely necessary to preserve their safety and their liberty, which, had it not been for him, they would never have suspected to have been in danger.’
The judge’s prejudice was obvious, but he also made it clear that he was protecting the position of the establishment and the interests of the landowning elite, by adding:
‘A Government in every country should be just like a corporation: and, in this country, it is made up of the landed interest, which alone has a right to be represented. As for the rabble, who have nothing but personal property, what hold has the nation on them? What security for the payment of their taxes? They may pack up all their property on their backs, and leave the country in the twinkling of an eye. But landed property cannot be removed.’
The judge went on to accuse Muir of ‘poisoning the minds of the common people and preparing them for rebellion’, before finally concluding, ‘I leave it with you and have no doubt of your returning such a verdict as will do you honour.’ By then it was well into the early hours of 31 August, as the courts in Scotland at that time normally sought to conclude business in one day. However, given the lateness of the hour and the importance of the case, Braxfield adjourned until later that same day. Therefore, it was early afternoon on 31 August that the court reconvened and Muir returned to learn what his fate would be.
With the courtroom packed with Muir’s friends and supporters, the jury and the judges filed in. Muir impassively sat in the dock as the jury was asked for their verdict and the foreman unsurprisingly stated that they had found him guilty. The judge thanked them, and once again demonstrated his complete disdain for judicial impartiality by saying that ‘the court highly approves of the verdict you have given’ after previously whispering to a juror who passed by him and imploring him to convict ‘ane o’ thae damned scoundrels’.
Radical Scotland: Uncovering Scotland’s Radical History from the French Revolutionary Era to the 1820 Rising by Kenny MacAskill is published by Biteback Publishing, priced £20.00.