The title of this article is mischievous, as of course Scotland did not become a republic. Yet the story of the man whom many Scots hoped would become their first president is one worth telling in reasonable detail.
Thomas Muir was born in Glasgow in 1765, the only son of a successful merchant. He was afforded the best education that was available, and after matriculating at Glasgow University at the age of twelve he took up a study of Divinity. He graduated M.A. in 1782 aged seventeen, and subsequently came under the influence of John Millar of Millheugh, Professor of Civil Law. The next year, abandoning Divinity, he was accepted as a student in Millar's classes on Law and Government.
John Millar deserves far wider fame today than he enjoys. A pupil of Adam Smith, David Hume and Lord Kames, he was regarded in his day as Scotland's supreme public lecturer, and this in an age where Scotland did not lack men of genius. In politics Millar was a Republican Whig and one of the most scathing critics of the so-called ‘benevolent despotism’ of Henry Dundas. His profound influence on the young Thomas Muir is quite evident.
The young Muir's fiery democratic leanings first came to notice in 1784, when Muir excluded himself from the University on principle, over the mistreatment of an esteemed member of staff.
At the beginning of the new academic year, Muir with the assistance of Professor Millar, obtained a place at Edinburgh University under the Whig Professor of Law, John Wylde. Here he completed his studies and having passed his Bar examinations was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1787 at the age of 22.
After championing his local congregation in Cadder, who resented the efforts of the local landowner to install his own choice of minister, Muir acquired a reputation as a 'man of the people' a man of principle who would willing adopt the cause of the underdog against the powerful elites in Scotland, especially those within government.
The year 1789 saw the outbreak of the French Revolution, and Thomas Muir like so many Britons of a liberal persuasion had great hopes that in time all of Europe's monarchies would follow the course first established in America and become popular democracies. Clubs and societies were born across the country to promote the cause of political reform, and a broad-based movement was established. In Scotland, Thomas Muir helped to draw up a framework for an umbrella organisation to bring these groups together, and in July 1792 the Scottish Association of the Friends of the People was born. On the 21st November, Muir, having been elected Vice-President of the movement at the Edinburgh monthly meeting, called for a General Convention of the corresponding societies of England and Ireland to be held there in December. This development troubled the British government deeply; the Edinburgh General Convention was seen as a direct threat to the established order in Britain. Government spies were directed to penetrate the proceedings, and only days after the Convention closed Thomas Muir among others was arrested on a charge of sedition.
Muir refused to answer the officiating magistrate's questions and was bailed, and then journeyed to London to report on the plight of the Scottish radicals to their colleagues there. It was at this point that word arrived of the planned execution of Louis XVI, and Muir agreed to journey to Paris as part of a delegation aimed at dissuading the French revolutionaries from their course. Arriving too late to prevent the king's death, Thomas Muir was nevertheless welcomed and toasted by the leading members of the Convention. Word of his whereabouts had obviously reached the Scottish Lord Advocate, Robert Dundas, for Dundas now forwarded the date for Muir's trial by two months, making a timely appearance impossible for him. On his return to Scotland he was arrested at once, and became the principal victim of a series of show trials in Edinburgh that became notorious examples of the political abuse of the judicial process.
Before the Scottish version of Judge Jeffries, the cynical Lord Braxfield, and a carefully chosen jury of fervid anti-reformers (their selection was possible under Scots law), the outcome of the trials were never in doubt. Muir's crime was that he had dared to suggest that there might be ways to improve the British system of government, namely by widening the franchise to include men of less privileged classes than Braxfield's own. Muir's eloquent and thoroughly convincing defence was dismissed, and he was sentenced, with others, to fourteen years deportation to New Holland, virtually a death sentence at that time.
In a disgraceful show trial in Edinburgh in 1794, radical leader and spokesman Thomas Muir of Huntershill was found guilty of the charge of sedition and sentenced to fourteen years transportation to New Holland. Muir was moved temporarily to a Royal Navy vessel, for fear of attempted rescue, before being sent on to the notorious prison hulks at Woolwich and then the even more infamous Newgate. In May he and other Scottish radical 'martyrs' were embarked upon a vessel named 'Surprise' (no, not that one) and sent on the six month voyage to Australia. Arriving in reasonable health, Muir managed to avoid the worst of the dreadful conditions there by obtaining a small holding of land away from the main colony, where disease carried so many away. Muir did not lack supporters worldwide, and his status enabled him to escape in February 1796 by boarding an American trading vessel, the 'Otter'.
It is sometimes speculated that the Otter's presence at new Holland was no coincidence, and even that it was there on President Washington's express instructions. Whilst there has been no evidence found to support these claims, it is certainly true that the vessel's master, one Ebenezer Dodd, put himself at risk in taking him away. A Royal Navy frigate, from which the slow-sailing Otter would not have been able to escape, was at Port Jackson.
Muir's escape and subsequent adventures read like something from the pages of Forrester or O'Brian. By night, Muir and his two convict servants paddled a dinghy silently past the frigate, under the noses of the watch, and then at length to the Otter. A long voyage across the Pacific followed, to Nootka Sound near Vancouver Island, an area then claimed by Spain. Encountering a Spanish vessel there, Muir learned from her captain that another Royal Navy vessel, the Providence, was in those waters, actively searching for him. He persuaded the Spaniard to take him aboard, and arrived eventually at Monterrey in Mexico, then another Spanish possession, where the Governor welcomed him and housed him in his own palace. However, Muir's request to be permitted to pass through Spanish territories to the United States was turned down by the Viceroy, who no doubt feared creating an international incident. Instead, he was led away to Mexico City, where he was detained under guard. The Viceroy decided at length to send Muir to Spain, so that the responsibility for any decision made would not be his.
Muir reached Vera Cruz on Mexico's east coast in October 1796, and was taken to Havana, Cuba, to await transportation. Here he attempted to escape into the hands of visiting American ships, but was discovered and imprisoned in the dungeons of the military fortress for three months. Eventually he was put onto a Spanish ship, the Ninfa, bound for Cadiz in Spain. Reaching that port in March 1797, it was discovered that it was being blockaded by a detachment of British men o' war, who quickly confronted the Ninfa. After a three hour chase, during which a companion Spanish ship was deliberately scuttled in order to avoid its cargo of bullion falling into British hands, Muir's vessel was forced to turn and fight. the Ninfa was badly damaged in the battle and was forced to strike its colours, and in the action Muir was severely wounded by a cannonball which shattered his face and damaged both his eyes. The British ships, learning of his presence, hunted for Muir among the survivors, but perhaps because of his injuries he was not recognised and he was allowed ashore with the other wounded seamen.
Thomas Muir, badly injured and disfigured by an English cannonball whilst he was aboard a Spanish ship taking him to Europe, was put ashore at Cadiz in April 1797 and spent months languishing there, awaiting word from the Spanish authorities on his fate. Eventually, in September, they acceded to representations from the Directoirethat he be allowed to travel to revolutionary France. Weakened by his injuries, he travelled overland via Madrid, reaching Bordeaux in early November. His arrival there was celebrated with great enthusiasm, for by now news of his survival after so many adversities had reached the radical liberals and democrats of Europe, who hailed him as a 'Hero of the Revolution'. He reached Paris in the following February, where public acclaim and celebrations reached new heights.
When word of Muir's arrival in Europe reached Scotland, the effect in his homeland was electrifying. By now the Scottish radicals, and especially the virulent and growing clandestine radical organisation the United Scotsmen, had come to regard him as their movement's most prominent and able leader, and their most famous martyr. 1797 was the year the Scottish radicals conspired with the republican leaders of Europe in a scheme that might have changed European history had it come about. The plan was for nothing less than the landing of 50,000 troops of the Batavian Republic in lowland Scotland. The Dutch fleet assembled in the Texel was ready to transport them, and with the Royal Navy in disarray at that time, the subject of mutinies at the Nore and Spithead, there were high hopes of their getting across the North Sea to the Firth of Forth. The troops were to land and seize the capital, initiating a general rising across Scotland, a very realistic prospect with the Militia Act of that year creating outbreaks of resistence in even the country districts. The United Scotsman planned to create a Scottish Republic with Thomas Muir as its first President, and the Revolution would be carried into Ireland and then England thereafter. Bad weather delayed the scheme, and in the event the Royal Navy under Admiral Duncan defeated the Dutch fleet, against all the odds, at the Battle of Camperdown in October 1797, and the invasion plans were placed on hold.
Learning of the strength of radicalism in Scotland after reaching Paris, Muir began consulting with Scottish exiles and emissaries there. However, his health had never recovered from the devastating injuries he incurred off Cadiz. He fell into decline, and died suddenly in Chantilly on 26 January 1799, alone in his cottage whilst awaiting his political colleagues.
A monument to Thomas Muir and the other Scottish radical 'martyrs', so notoriously victimised in a series of rigged show trials in the 1790s, was erected in the Calton cemetery in Edinburgh in
1844 and can be seen there today. The other men celebrated there are Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot and Joseph Gerrald.
© Colin Macaulay 2011