Thomas Muir of Huntershill On Slavery: A Rediscovered Legal Thesis, by Professor Gerrard Carruthers

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Blog author: Craig Conner



Image of Thomas Muir of Huntershill living in exile in Revolutionary France in the late 1790’s.
Source held by Musée de la Révolution française

On Thursday 26th November 2020, The Centre of Scottish and Celtic studies, in collaboration with the National Library of Scotland held the 3rd Annual Thomas Muir lecture, a series named after and dedicated to the study of the life and works of the late 18th century advocate and democratic political activist (1766-99). This year’s talk was given by Centre’s own Prof. Gerrard Carruthers based upon his collaborative research with Mr Martyn Jones into the ‘rediscovered’ Latin thesis on the slavery written by Thomas Muir in his application for entry to the Faculty of Advocates in 1787. The text was considered lost only because it had been overlooked by Muir’s commentators who have focussed exclusively on his political activism, neglecting to study his earlier legal career and so have failed to investigate the text thoroughly. The image of Muir which has been inherited within the popular culture has been a fundamentally romantic one which has focussed exclusively on his integrity, his advocacy for radical political and social reform through revolutionary means and his daring escape from a sentence of transportation to Botany Bay in 1793. This dashing image of Muir both simplifies the complexity of his own views and smooths away the rougher edges of his character. By examining his early academic and legal career alongside his thesis, Carruthers argued that we can build a much more complete understanding of Muir’s influences, relationships, motivations and identity.

Prof. Carruthers began the talk proper by outlining Muir’s career as a student, noting that his M.A was in Divinity at the University of Glasgow rather than Law, which he later studied at the University of Edinburgh. This would point to an early intention of Muir’s to enter the Presbyterian Ministry, which is indicative of Muir’s personal piety and Calvinist ethos which later commentators have largely overlooked. Several of his favourite lecturers at Glasgow, including John Millar and John Anderson, were ‘Auld Licht’ Presbyterians; religiously orthodox and conservative Calvinists at odds with the ‘New Licht’ moderate Presbyterian elements within the university’s administration and faculty. Muir’s tutoring under these figures, as well as his involvement in the prosecution of moderate Presbyterian William McGill for Heresy in 1789-90, are indicative of a man of strong, often controversial religious convictions which have been hitherto side-lined in favour of his radical politics. Yet when these are considered in relation to his thesis text, Muir’s early religious influences and convictions informed his stances on political and social issues, not least of all about Slavery.

Sketch of a younger Thomas Muir by David Martin, a contemporary in 1790. Source in the Public Domain

Carruthers moved on to his analysis the ‘rediscovered’ thesis itself. These written texts formed part of the final examination for those applying to join the Faculty of Advocates and therefore practice Scots Law in the 18th century. Their format was based upon discussions of Roman (i.e. Civil) Law, namely extracts from Justinian’s digests, quotations of which were given to applicants to discourse upon. Muir’s Justinian extract related to the legal responsibilities and liabilities of a slave owner if one of their slaves was accused of theft. This extract provoked a sharp critique of the contemporary institution of slavery from Muir, which reveals a great deal of both his own views and the depth and range of his influences. Caruthers focussed his discussion of this lengthy treatise into a few key areas. Firstly, Muir’s insisted on defining slavery as ‘a physical state, where power is exercised’ by one person upon another, which rooted his criticism in real dynamics of slavery rather than basing his discussion in a purely technical legal terminology. In this, he echoed the writings of Adam Smith, a faculty member at Glasgow, who characterised slavery in very similar terms, though his own critique of the institution was largely based on its economic inefficiency.

Secondly, Carruthers went on to note that Muir had outright condemned slavery as ‘repugnant to proper law, unjustifiable under any set of moral principles’; a strident statement which firmly rooted his arguments on the moral case against slavery, rather than in a strict legal one. Finally, in connection to this condemnation, Muir is noted to have argued that the presence of slavery within Roman law was ‘a horrendous spectacle’ and that the continued presence of these digests within Scots law ‘kept alive that spectacle’. In this Muir not only damned the modern institution of Slavery, he also criticised the presence of what was very archaic legal theory being used to justify slavery in contemporary Scotland, objecting therefore to the entire premise of his examination.

Carruthers noted that Muir’s critique is especially significant given the divided opinions on slavery in late 18th century Scotland and the strength of opposition to abolition present within the Scottish (and British) establishment. It is also significant that his writings show direct influence from contemporary enlightenment thinkers like Smith, Millar and Anderson, who were all critics of slavery. Prof. Carruthers observed though that these earlier critiques stood within an older tradition from the 17th century Scots Law jurists such as Stairs and Mackenzie, all these writers had opined that the practice of slavery would be eradicated indirectly, through the influence of Christian principles or in Smith’s case through its own economic inadequacy. Given that neither economics or Christianity had yet abolished slavery in Muir’s day, it is significant that his own opposition was couched entirely in persuasive arguments based on the morality of the issue, cutting through the obfuscating legal arguments which had predominated in recent court cases. Successfully accepted by the Faculty in 1787, the thesis stands as evidence of Muir’s radical desire to change the public conversation around slavery, but when put in the wider context of Muir’s early career, it also reveals the importance of his own religious beliefs in driving him towards more radical positions on social and political issues.  In concluding his talk, Prof. Carruthers argued that in order to gain a fuller picture of Thomas Muir as an individual, beyond the predominant romanticized portrayals of his character, there is a strong need for modern scholars to grasp the connection between Muir’s radical political career and his religious identity as an orthodox Presbyterian.

Modern bust of Thomas Muir of Huntershill by Alexander Stoddart.

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