31 August 1793
On 31 August 1793, Thomas Muir, ‘the father of Scottish democracy’, was sentenced to be ‘transported beyond the seas… (to a penal colony in Australia) for the space of fourteen years’. He was convicted of ‘wickedly and feloniously exciting… disloyalty and disaffection to the King and the established government.’1 Specifically he had dared to demand universal suffrage, Scottish independence and yearly parliamentary elections and to distribute ‘seditious’ publications, including the loan of a copy of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man to a near relative.
The majority of the jury were personal friends of the judge, Lord Braxfield, also known as the ‘hanging judge’, and all but one of them had been selected from a notoriously reactionary Tory organization, the Life and Fortune Men.2 Addressing the jurors, Braxfield declared that ‘a government of 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.’ He explained that Muir had attempted to persuade ‘ignorant country people’ that the constitution must be changed in order to attain their liberty, ‘which , if it had not been for him, they would have never have thought was in danger.’3
Muir, who conducted his own defence, countered that ‘this criminal libel against me is false and injurious. So far from exciting the people to riot and insurrection, it can easily be proved by a numerous list of witnesses, that upon every occasion, the panel exhorted them to pursue measures moderate, legal, peaceable and constitutional.’4 He continued to defend himself with a similar passion and eloquence for another seventeen hours until he concluded his closing statement, attesting that he was ‘careless and indifferent to my fate… Nothing can deprive me of the recollection of the past, nothing can destroy my inward piece of mind, arising from the remembrance of having discharged my duty.’ As the defendant sat down the crowd in the gallery rose to their feet and applauded.
When a few hours later Lord Braxfield pronounced the sentence, he blamed its severity on the standing ovation which Muir had received, explaining that ‘the indecent applause which was given to the panel last night convinced him that a spirit of discontent still lurked in the minds of the people, which circumstance (his Lordship said) had no little weight with him, when considering the punishment Mr. Muir deserved.’5
- ‘Trial of Mr. Muir for Sedition in the High Court of Justiciary,’ The Kentish Gazette, 6 September 1793, p. 4.
- Thomas Muir cited in Peter Mackenzie, The Life of Thomas Muir, esq, Advocate, Muir, Gowans and Co, Edinburgh, 1837 p. xxiv.
- Lord Braxfield cited in Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1869, Vintage Books, London, 2003, pp. 176-177.
- Thomas Muir cited in Peter Mackenzie, op. cit., p. xxiv.
- Lord Braxfield cited in Peter Mackenzie, op. cit., p. xxx.
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