The Scottish political system at the start of the 18th century was one of privilege and right. If someone wanted to be a member of parliament or wanted to vote they had to be within the ranks of the landed aristocracy. Those with little money - or no title - were not allowed to vote or become a member of parliament. These rights were jealously guarded by those who had them. With the forward thinking people who arose at this time - spurred on by the French and American revolutions - they contested this "right", leading to Thomas Paine's Rights of Man to be published in the early 1790's. this, and other similar literature is what became the basis of Scottish - indeed British - radicalism.

Although this race for equality was started with the rising middle classes wishing to gain a vote it quickly became a struggle of the poor and unemployed who also wished to have a control over their economy. The literature and official documents from this time show some conflicting views as to the nature and purpose of the radicals, a difference intended to be addressed and examined.

The Existing system

It is necessary to look at the system at this time to understand the views of all parties within society at this time. To the aristocracy it was a system within which they could gain prestige and power. With offers of patronage, money or power they would vote for a local candidate. Often they would vote for their friends. Other methods such as intimidation were used, this was effective because, at the time, voting was open where everyone could see the vote cast. This system allowed for a great system which benefited the upper classes. The lower class did not have a say as to whom would govern them, the ruling classes did not see them as fit. The distribution of votes at this time was also unfair, with towns such as Glasgow being forced to share an MP with smaller towns even though it had a population of over 20,000. This was common across Scotland; a small number of people controlled the majority of the population, the system was set up with the aristocracy in mind. In some places a single landowner could send a member to parliament. In these so called "rotten burghs" a landowner only had to be in residence at the time of polling and they could send their friend or whomever decided to bribe them, to parliament.

The Influences on Scottish Radicalism

After the American revolution people began to see that there was a way in which all men could be equal and contribute to their own society.

“With the establishment of the United States, reformers now had a concrete example of how a more socially progressive society could be constructed” - (BBC, Scottish History)

It was a model people were eager to follow. The French revolutionary spirit was also taken on by the Scots who planted “liberty trees” in their town centres. Within this time Thomas Paine wrote his book “Rights of Man” which was in itself an argument as to whether people should be allowed their rights or indeed wanted them.

“There never did, there never will, and there never can, exist a Parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controlling posterity to the "end of time," or of commanding for ever how the world shall be governed, or who shall govern it; and therefore all such clauses, acts or declarations by which the makers of them attempt to do what they have neither the right nor the power to do, nor the power to execute, are in themselves null and void. Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generations which preceded it.” - (Thomas Paine, rights of man)

In this he shows the belief, one held strongly in Scoland, that all should rule themselves, not a select number. This statement was, however a reply to Burke’s assertion

"that the people of England utterly disclaim such a right, and that they will resist the practical assertion of it with their lives and fortunes." - (Thomas Paine, rights of man)

In quoting the “Mr Burke” with whom he was arguing, Thomas Paine showed an instance of how many of the upper classes did not understand the reasons or principles of those who wished equality.

" ‘We have seen," says Mr. Burke, "the French rebel against a mild and lawful monarch, with more fury, outrage, and insult, than any people has been known to rise against the most illegal usurper, or the most sanguinary tyrant.’ " - (Thomas Paine, rights of man)

In these just few statement within Thomas Paine’s booklet we can see the basics structure which was echoed in Scoland. An aristocracy which did not understand those who wanted reform, the beliefs that people should have equality and be able to govern themselves and (yet again) an aristocracy who did not believe in their ability to do so.

Another outcome of the American revolution was the rising of the United Scotsmen. The Friends of the People were to form at the beginning of this century and their wishes for even moderate change were objected to greatly. The leaders of this group, such as Thomas Muir were sentenced to be deported so as not to spread their views. Thomas Muir was tried and sentenced to deportment, the Judge Braxfield telling those in the court 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.”

The Effects on Scotland

With views such as these being expressed another group arose in secrecy after The Friends of the People had been dispersed. This group took up the cause. It was a mainly underground group which consisted of an executive of seven members and others who were lead by them. Not much of their activities were known to the government who was trying to stamp them out. They were working towards tearing down the old system of patronage, unfair voting rights and the aristocracies dominance over the peoples lives.

It can be seen from these sources, all by intelligent men at the time, that there was a great rift in society, the aristocracy who believed theirs was the right to rule and the middle and lower classes who campaigned for equal rights. The upper classes, though, were still in power, and a another show of this they declared the United Scotsmen illegal in 1797. The group may have been declared over but none of the members lost their spirit, with one member - James Wilson - who was to come back in the 1820’s to fight for his principles. A man of common background, and a firm believer in the right of the revolutions and liberty for all at this time, was Robert Burns. In his Poetry and prose, he wrote of how it was better to be

“a man o’ independent mind”

than one of the -as he saw it - puppeted aristocracy. The surge in Radicalism was to die for several years after the government had dispersed the main group, resurfacing violently in the marches and mass demonstrations of the Radical Wars in 1820. There has been much debate as to the validity of some claims that the whole of the Scottish people moved in this war because of political beliefs. Smout, in his history of the Scottish people explains the other reasons for some of the riots.

“In Lanark the occasion for the riot was the enclosure by the magistrates of part of the burgh moor which had formerly lain open to the people. In Berwickshire the occasion was unpopular turnpikes . . . at Dundee and possible other places was related to the scarcity of meal and the unjust working of the corn laws.”(T.C.Smout, History of the Scottish People)

So was the whole set of riots merely a coincidence on the part of various happenings at the time ? Smout states

“Yet in the towns at least, the political overtones of these riots were not at all imagined.” (T.C.Smout, History of the Scottish People)

The records of the Yeomanry also suggest that many of these uprisings were in force, with their records showing how one section were to be “at arms” for ten days because of threats from the townspeople. The riots also did not bring together as many as were predicted. Numbers of 70000 were expected but although strike action may have been taken, the number who actively participated was much lower. At Peterloo, however, the government was to stop this surge of insurrection, with several killed and a number arrested. The Radical sources died out as the strikes and conflicts were subdued and the leaders of the main riots were hung for their efforts.


Although it may be said that the riots were overestimated it can still be seen that the force of will amongst the Scottish people to be able to take more control over their lives can be shown by their striking for any cause. The conflict of many sources from this time can be seen as conflict within the groups who wrote them, most were biased towards the views of their group and unlikely to show any failings which the other group might see in their thoughts. There was an unwillingness to compromise at this time, though, and the literature of the Scottish radicals was slowly eliminated in the country which had been their biggest battleground.

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