To understand the political background of Edinburgh in Hutton’s day we must go back briefly to 1566 when Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587) gave birth to her son James (1566-1625) in a tiny room in Edinburgh Castle overlooking the black basalt cliff of the Castle Rock. In 1567, only thirteen months later, Mary was forced to abdicate and her infant son was crowned King James VI. (For general background see Lynch, 1991, and Smout, 1969. Tranter, 1991, is a more informal but eminently readable introduction. Tomkeieff, 1948, 1950, Macgregor, 1950, and McIntyre, 1963, touch on historical matters relating more directly to Hutton).
Mary’s grandmother, Margaret Tudor (1489-1541), was the Queen of James IV (1473-1513) of Scotland, the sister of Henry VIII (1491-1547) of England, and the daughter of Henry VII (1457-1509). Consequently, Mary’s father, James V (1512-1542) of Scotland, was a nephew of Henry VIII of England and first-cousin of Henry’s children Edward VI (1537-1553), Queen Mary (1516-1558), and Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603). Through Margaret Tudor’s second marriage (to Archibald, 6th Earl of Angus) she was also grandmother of James’ father, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (1545-1567). James VI could therefore trace his descent from Henry VII of England through both his father and mother [See genealogical tree 5].
Is the correct spelling of the name Stewart or Stuart? In answering this often-asked question I follow Antonia Fraser, who points out that although Mary Queen of Scots was born a Stewart (like her father, James V), she became a Stuart on her marriage to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Moreover as the Anglo-French spelling of her name – Stuart – was adopted on her behalf during her upbringing in France, and always used by her, it is reasonable to refer to James VI and his descendants as a Stuart dynasty (Antonia Fraser, 1969, p.5n).
Queen Elizabeth, the last legitimate descendant of Henry VIII, died about three o’clock in the morning on the 24th March 1603 (by the Scottish calendar). Some six hours later Sir Robert Cary slipped out of London to carry the news to Edinburgh. “He had ridden as never man rode before, spur and gallop, spur and gallop all the way, through that day and the next and the next, the two intervening nights hardly excepted; and here he is at Holyrood on the evening of the third day, – an incredible ride!“ (David Masson, 1892, p.61-75). Throwing himself on his knees, he told James VI of Scotland: “Queen Elizabeth is dead, and your majesty is King of England”. Ten days later King James VI & I left Edinburgh for London, where he told the English Parliament: “I govern Scotland with my pen – which my ancestors could not do by the sword”. Although the Court went with him, the Scottish Parliament remained in Edinburgh: one king and two nations.
James VI’s grandson, James VII of Scotland and II of England (1633-1701), succeeded to the throne in 1685 on the death of his brother, Charles II (1630-1685). In 1688 the actions of James VII, provoked concern that he would re-establish the Roman Catholic religion. The previous year he had appointed a commission to visit all universities “and to place only such persons in them as were agreeable to the King’s system of religion and government”. James VII, then aged 55, had, however, no male heir, and his daughters, Mary and Anne were Protestants. There was consternation, therefore, when the Queen gave birth to a son: Catholics claiming that their prayers had been answered; Protestants alleging that a child had been fraudulently substituted as the King’s son. Five months later, in November 1688, William of Orange (1650-1702) landed with an army backed by international finance. William’s claim to the throne was that he was both the King’s nephew and son-in-law; his mother was the King’s sister, and his wife, Mary (1662-1694), was the King’s elder daughter. A Scots army sent to oppose his landing went over to William’s side, and King James fled to France, no doubt remembering how Parliament had beheaded Charles I, his own father. His supporters were called Jacobites, Jacobus being Latin for James (Insh, 1952; Lenman, 1995).
England quickly accepted the Glorious Revolution’, welcoming William of Orange and his wife Mary. Scotland, on the other hand, was fiercely torn between the Jacobites – those loyal to the deposed Catholic King – and the supporters of Protestant William and Mary. In April 1689 the Scottish Convention met under the guns of Edinburgh Castle, which was commanded by the Jacobite Duke of Gordon, and offered the throne to William and Mary. John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, raised the Highland clans, and in June routed King William’s army at the Battle of Killiecrankie. But Dundee was killed, and without its victorious general, the Jacobite army was soon afterwards defeated at Dunkeld. The Catholic and Episcopalian cause was lost nine months after James’s departure.
In 1690 Presbyterianism was established in Scotland, and the General Assembly of the Kirk met in Edinburgh. William and Mary were offered and accepted the Scottish Crown, and a “Presbyterian Inquisition” was established. All kinds of Prelacy were outlawed; not only Catholicism but also Episcopacy. An Oath of Allegiance to William and Mary was imposed, and failure to comply with its letter was the excuse for the infamous Massacre of Glencoe in 1692. All Ministers of the Gospel were to pray for King William and Queen Mary or lose their positions – it was useless to plead illness or that the edict had arrived after the prescribed date. Episcopalian curates were literally dragged from their homes, and their furniture and books burnt. Those who fled from the violence were afterwards deprived of their positions “for deserting their charges”. The Presbyterian ministers who took their places were, for the most part, “grimly religious and bigoted”, believing that “to know the Lord’s word was worth all the pagan learning of the world” (Graham, 1928, p.267-277).
The Scottish Parliament passed an Act for the Visitation of Universities in 1690 (Bower, 1817-1830). It stated: “Our Soveraigne Lord and Lady, the King and Queen’s Majesties and the three Estates of Parliament considering how necessarie it is for the advancement of Religion and Learning and for the good of the Church and peace of the Kingdom that the universities, colledges, and schoolls be provided and served with pious, able and qualified professors, principalls, regents, masters, and others bearing office therein well affected to their Majesties and the established government of Church and State. Therefore ...from this time forth, no Professors, Principalls, Regents, Masters, or others bearing office in any university, colledge, or schooll within this Kingdome be either admitted or allowed to continue in the exercise of their saids functions but such as doe acknowledge and profess, and shall subscryve to the confession of faith ratified and approven by this present Parliament, and alsoe sweare and subscryve the oath of allegiance to their Majesties; ... and such as shall be found to be erroneous, scandalous, negligent, insufficient, or disaffected to their Majestie’s Government, or who shall not subscryve the Confession of faith, sweare and subscryve the oath of allegiance and submitt to the government of the Church now settled by Law to purge out and remove” (spelling as quoted by Agnes Grainger Stewart, 1901, p.55-57).
Alexander Monro (d.1715), Principal of the University, and five of the ten members of the Senatus Academicus were tried and dismissed. David Gregorie (1661-1708), the distinguished Professor of Mathematics (1681-1693), who taught Newton’s philosophy in Edinburgh many years before it was accepted in Cambridge, resigned rather than subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith. With Newton’s support, Gregorie (changing his name to Gregory) became Savilian Professor of Astronomy in Oxford, where the same ordinances were not enforced. (For a first-hand account of The Presbyterian Inquisition see Monro, 1691).
William and Mary died childless, Mary in 1694 and William in 1702. William was therefore succeeded by Mary’s sister, Anne (1665-1714), and one of Queen Anne’s early actions was to appoint a Commission to negotiate a Treaty of Union between Scotland and England (Donaldson, 1970, p.268-277). One of the Commissioners was 31 year-old [Sir] John Clerk (1676-1755), later second Baronet of Penicuik, the father of Hutton’s friends George Clerk-Maxwell (later the fourth Baronet), and John Clerk of Eldin, and grandfather of the brothers John Clerk (later Lord Eldin) and Will Clerk (Sir John Clerk, 1892, 1993; Ian Brown 1987). Votes in the Scottish Parliament were traded for personal advantage, bribery, and expectation of patronage, and in 1707 the Parliaments of the two countries were united (Daiches, 1977). Edinburgh became a capital without King, Court, or Parliament. The Treaty of Union (called in England an “Act of Parliament”), however, preserved the Law, the Church, and the Universities in Scotland. This is why lawyers, clergymen, and academics were prominent in Edinburgh throughout Hutton’s lifetime.
Henry Grey Graham has recounted that: “From 1690 to about 1725 there was a dreary stagnation of all intellectual life and destitution of scholarship in Scotland” (Graham, 1928, p.449). Hutton, born in 1726, entered the University in 1740, consequently escaping the worst excesses of the appalling educational system:
“To make the difficulty of learning as great as possible, and as if to make the whole system as useless as possible, the instruction was imparted in Latin. Many a poor boy who had in a village school just scraped enough knowledge to make him ambitious, and whose father had scraped enough of meal or money to keep him in food, came to the college and heard everything said in what was an unknown tongue; in it the professor prayed, lectured, examined; in that language boys barely acquainted with their own tongue were expected to repeat ponderously inept Aristotelian definitions, and to remember professorial prolixities on Grotius and Puffendorf. Their minds were strained by disquisitions they could not follow, crammed with terminology no dictionary could explain, and full of technical phrases no classical author had ever used.” (Graham, 1928, p.454).
It is, indeed, difficult to understand how, in the intellectual, religious, and political climate that obtained up to and through Hutton’s own childhood, even a genius like his could have blossomed. It should be no cause for surprise that Hutton’s contributions to a proper understanding of the history and development of this Earth were made in the second half of the eighteenth century – they could hardly have been made earlier, and even in the last decades of the century, Hume, Smith, Burns, and Hutton had to tread warily to avoid bringing down the wrath of Church and Government on their heads. To judge Hutton while ignoring his historical context, as revisionist historians too often do, is to condemn without hearing the evidence. (For a general history of the time, with much interesting information, see Craik, 1911).
In 1701 the English Parliament approved the Act of Succession, requiring all future sovereigns to be members of the Church of England, but no similar Act was approved by the Scottish Parliament which still met in Edinburgh.
Queen Anne died childless in 1714. She had given birth fifteen times, but none of her children had survived more than two years. The only living descendants of Charles I were Catholic. They were the son and grandsons of James VII; namely, the “Old Pretender”, James Stuart (1688-1766), and his two sons, Charles Edward Stuart (1720-1788), the “Young Pretender”, and Henry Benedict, Cardinal York (1725-1807), who on the death of his brother in 1788 (the year Hutton published The Theory of the Earth) assumed the title Henry IX. The Elector of Hanover was, however, a Protestant, and his grandmother, Elizabeth (1596-1662), Queen of Bohemia, was a daughter of James VI and sister of Charles I [See genealogical tree 6]. The Whig Government, representing the commercial as opposed to the land-owning interests, invited the Elector to London in 1714 as King George I (1660-1727), though he knew nothing of the language or the culture of his new subjects.
Though Scotland was forced to accept the Hanoverian Succession, many believed that Scotland retained the right to choose its own king, and in 1715-1716 a second Jacobite Rising took place, under the Earl of Mar (Baynes, 1970; Sinclair-Stevenson, 1971; Tayler, 1936). The Old Pretender was proclaimed James VIII, but he arrived in Scotland after the Battle of Sherrifmuir, when the prospect of regaining the throne was irretrievably lost.
A third Rising in favour of the Stewart cause took place in 1719, when a Jacobite force supported by Spanish soldiers was defeated in Glen Shiel. In order to subdue and police the Highlands, General (later Field Marshal) George Wade (1673-1748) was sent on a reconnaissance in 1724. Acting on his report, the Government appointed Wade Commander-in-Chief in Scotland, and in 1725 he began construction of his famous network of military roads. The lines attributed to William Caulfield, Inspector of Roads 1732-1767, are well known:
The formidable task of building a road from Dunkeld to Inverness, the route of the present A9, was accomplished by Wade between 1726 (the year of Hutton’s birth) and 1737 (Haldane, 1962, p.11; Mitchell, 1883; Salmond, 1938). Even after the road was completed, Lord Lovat, in 1740, took eleven days to go by coach from Inverness to Edinburgh, breaking an axle three times on the way! Even on horseback it took five or six days to ride from Morayshire to Edinburgh (Graham, 1928, p.40-41). Another road went from Stirling, Crieff, and Aberfeldy to join the main road from Dunkeld at Dalnacardoch. Another went from Fort William along the Great Glen to Inverness (Rogers, 1884, Vol.1, p.220-223).
Playfair reported that in 1764 Hutton made a geological excursion to the North of Scotland with George Clerk-Maxwell “a gentleman distinguished for his abilities and worth, with whom Dr Hutton had the happiness to live in habits of the most intimate friendship. They set out by the way of Crieff, Dalwhinnie, Fort Augustus, and Inverness; from thence they proceeded through Easter-Ross into Caithness, and returned along the coast by Aberdeen to Edinburgh” (Playfair, 1805, p.45). They were, in the main, following Wade roads.
At the age of sixteen, William Murray (1705-1793) (the future Lord Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice) set off for London on a pony which he had instructions to sell to meet his expenses at his journey’s end. In 1750 a weekly stagecoach service began between Edinburgh and London, the journey taking five days. By the end of the century the London coach, with four inside passengers and one outside, took only three days and two nights. Leaving Edinburgh in the morning, Glasgow could be reached in the afternoon of the following day, passengers spending the night at Shotts. A stagecoach service began between Edinburgh and Glasgow in 1749, the journey taking 12 hours. A coach service from Aberdeen to Edinburgh took only three days. (Rogers, 1884, Vol.1, p.219-223; Graham, 1928, p.41-44). We are told that, while in Glasgow, Adam Smith often “ran through by coach” to visit his Edinburgh friends, though before the road was improved the journey took thirteen hours (Rae, 1895, p.101).
Benjamin Franklin was surprised at the good roads found in England. In a letter written in June 1764, he wrote: “You wonder how I did travel 72 miles in a short winter day on my Landing in England. But the roads here are so good, with PostChaises & fresh Horses every ten or twelve Miles, that it is no difficult Matter. A Lady that I know has come from Edinburgh to London, being 400 miles, in three Days and a half” (Franklin, 1905-1907, Vol.4, p.382).
The great difficulty and hardships of eighteenth century travel must be appreciated when we remember that Hutton was a field geologist with a personal knowledge of British geology that few, if any, could have equalled.. If genius means, as Thomas Carlyle put it, a “transcendent capacity of taking trouble, first of all”, then Hutton well deserves the title (Thomas Carlyle, 1969, p.43). He travelled on foot, on horseback, and in a chaise from the English Channel to Caithness. Hutton’s problem was the wearing out of his breeches by long hours of riding (Jean Jones et al, 1994, p.648).
A fourth and more serious Jacobite Rising took place in 1745-1746 (Blaikie, 1975; Tayler, 1938; Tomassen, 1962; Youngson, 1985). On the 23rd July 1745, Prince Charles Edward Stuart (the Young Pretender) landed in the West Highlands with seven men, no arms, and no money. Ignoring informed advice, but appealing to romantic ideals, within two months the Prince had gathered an army, marched south, defeated General Cope at Prestonpans, and held court in Holyrood Palace (Brown & Cheape, 1996). Although it was a Highland army that occupied Edinburgh, the Jacobite Risings were totally opposed by the men of the Scottish Enlightenment, even by the native Gaelic speakers Colin Maclaurin and Adam Ferguson. Many of the ladies, on the other hand, wore the white cockade and paid court to Bonnie Prince Charlie at his Court in Holyrood Palace.
John Witherspoon (1723-1794) became famous as the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. Hutton was three years younger than Witherspoon, but as both were educated in Edinburgh, it is possible they knew each other. The number of students in 1768 (the nearest available year) is estimated to have been under 600; twenty years earlier the number would have been much smaller. After taking an MA in 1739, Witherspoon continued studies in theology until 1743, and so overlapping with Hutton who attended the University between 1740 and 1747.
Although Witherspoon was a parish Minister, at the outbreak of the 1745 Rising he marched at the head of a group of volunteers loyal to the government. They were captured by the rebels at the Battle of Falkirk in 1746 and imprisoned in Doune Castle. It is said that Witherspoon escaped, using a rope of knotted blankets. Later he was much in demand as a preacher, and in 1768 he accepted an invitation to become President of Princeton, New Jersey, a position he filled with great distinction, building up the College and its library, and introducing the Edinburgh system of instruction (Witherspoon, 1802; Collins, 1925; J.A.V. Butler in Kent, 1950, p.152-153; Stohlman, 1976). The Rev. John Home (1722-1808), the author of the highly regarded but controversial play Douglas, was another young clergyman who had volunteered to fight against the rebels (Henry Mackenzie,  1997, reviewed by Walter Scott, 1827.). Like Witherspoon, he was captured at Falkirk and imprisoned in Doune; he, too, is said to have escaped on the make-shift rope of blankets.
David Hume and John Home, who were distant relatives, disputed the spelling of their name (both pronounced "Hume"). David used to address John as "Mr John Hume, alias Home". When David suggested they should decide the issue by drawing lots, John said: "Nay – for if you lose you take your own name, and if I lose I take another man’s name". French claret was the traditional Scots drink, but after the Union Portuguese tariffs were reduced and port became the cheaper drink; hence John Home’s epigram (Lockhart, 1900, Vol.3, p.195):
A few days before David Hume died he added the following codicil to his will: “I leave to my friend, Mr John Home of Kilduff, ten dozen of my old claret at his choice; and one single bottle of that other liquor called port. I also leave to him six dozen of port, provided that he attests, under his hand, signed John Hume, that he has himself alone finished that bottle at two sittings. By this concession he will at once terminate the only two differences that ever arose between us concerning temporal matters” (Boswell, 1887, Vol.2, p.320n).
William Robertson, then minister of Gladsmuir, “carried a musket as a private in the Edinburgh Volunteers” (John Campbell, 1847, Vol.6, p.6). Along with Alexander Carlyle and other fellow ministers and University colleagues, Robertson had volunteered to serve in the “College Company” and was learning how to handle arms. Professor Maclaurin was in charge of strengthening the City Wall and generally organising the defence of the city. When the Jacobite army entered Edinburgh, Maclaurin fled to England, where he was the guest of the Archbishop of York. He returned to Edinburgh where he died in 1746 from an illness apparently brought on by exposure to extreme cold. The Lord Provost, Archibald Stewart, M.P. for the city and David Hume’s good friend and benefactor, had the misfortune to be jailed by the Jacobites for failing to co-operate, and then imprisoned for fourteen months in the Tower of London by the Hanoverian Government before being tried and acquitted of having surrendered the city. Hutton was a medical student, present in Edinburgh during these exciting times.
By the 4thDecember the Jacobite army was within 130 miles of London. But lack of support, and dissension within his own command, forced the Prince to retreat to Scotland. The Highland army was heartened by a January victory at Falkirk, but met its ultimate defeat at Culloden on 16thApril 1746. Although the purpose of Wade’s Military Roads had been to promote the "civilisation" and control of the Highlands after the 1715 and 1719 Jacobite Risings, it is ironic that in 1745 the Highland army, under Prince Charles and Lord George Murray, used the new roads to avoid the Government soldiers.
The seat of the Duke of Atholl is at Blair Castle, where the River Tilt meets the Garry. During the 1745 Rising, James Murray (the 2nd Duke) was for the Government while his older brother (William) and two younger brothers (Charles and George) were prominent supporters of Prince Charles. The Duke fled in 1745 and his exiled older brother, William, captured the Castle. The following year the youngest brother, Lord George Murray, Lieutenant-General of the Jacobite army, laid siege to the Castle – the last Castle in Britain to be besieged (Tomassen, 1958). The Duke later remodelled the building, removing the battlements and turrets, and transformed the castle into a house; so that in 1785 Hutton called it "the house of Blair". In 1868 the 7th Duke restored the Castle to something like its former appearance.
Lord George Murray’s son, John, succeeded his uncle as 3rd Duke. When Hutton and Clerk of Eldin visited Glen Tilt in 1785, their host was the 30-year old 4th Duke, John Murray (1755-1830) who had succeeded his father in 1774. It is interesting to reflect that on that geologically famous expedition to Glen Tilt in search of granite veins, Hutton and John Clerk of Eldin were entertained by the grandson of Prince Charles’ Lieutenant-General. Two years after Hutton’s visit, Robert Burns spent two nights at "Athole-House". The Duke was away, but Burns was welcomed by the Duchess. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and his sister Dorothy visited Blair Atholl in 1803, and rested on the same seat overlooking the Tilt where Burns had sat five years earlier.
After the Union of Parliaments in 1707, when patronage depended upon personal communication, the requirements of business made it essential for Scottish people to make themselves understood – in fact to disguise their speech – in London. David Hume was no Jacobite, but when he went to London in 1745 he was ashamed of his provincial speech. We must remember that by December, when Prince Charles’ army was only 130 miles from London, letters were censored and a “a Scottish accent might have proved dangerously provocative” (Mossner, 1954, p.187). Even twenty years later, Hume, writing to Adam Smith from London, reported that Scotsmen were hated.
The third verse of the National Anthem is not usually sung now, but it was popular at the time:
In 1770, Alexander Carlyle suggested that “to every Man Bred in Scotland, The English Language was in some respects a Foreign Tongue, the precise Value and Force of whose Words and Phrases he Did not Understand” (Alexander Carlyle, 1910, p.543; 1973, p.265); and Mossner has suggested that Edinburgh established the first chair of English in the British Isles because English was almost a foreign language! (Mossner, 1954, p.371). Because Scots needed to make themselves understood in London, considerable efforts were made in Edinburgh to teach “pure English”: Lists of Scotticisms to be avoided were drawn up; lectures were given; and Societies were founded to promote that aim.
David Hume and Adam Smith helped to found the Select Society in 1754. The Select boasted “of having for its members a set of the ablest men Scotland ever produced”. The Society set out to import teachers “qualified to instruct gentlemen in the knowledge of the English tongue, the manner of pronouncing it with purity, and the art of public speaking”. Thomas Sheridan (1719-1788) – father of the dramatist – gave intensive courses on the problems Scots have in speaking English correctly; several hundred "gentlemen" attended his lectures. In 1761, The Select Society sponsored a new “Society for Promoting the Reading and Speaking of the English Language in Scotland”. The Directors of this new Society included such notable Edinburgh figures as Kames, Robertson, Ferguson, and James Boswell’s father, Lord Auchinleck (McElroy, 1969, p.48-67).
The War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) was nominally about whether Maria Theresa (1717-1780) could succeed as heiress to her father, Charles VI (1685-1740), Archduke of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor, the last male heir of the Habsburg dynasty. When Frederick II of Prussia seized Silesia, however, all Europe took sides in the dispute, each country intent to further its own ends. Britain wanted the balance of power to be maintained, and entered the war because France had become Prussia’s ally. When George II (1683-1760), sword in hand, led the combined British and Hanoverian army to victory at Dettingen in 1743, it was the last time that a British monarch led his troops on the field of battle! At the Battle of fontenoy, in May 1745, Marshal Saxe (1696-1750) inflicted a severe defeat on the Duke of Cumberland (1721-65), George II’s son. It was at this battle that Adam Ferguson, the 22-year old Chaplain of the Black Watch, was said to have charged with his Regiment.
The previous year Marshal Saxe had been chosen to command a proposed invasion of England on behalf of James VII’s son, the Old Pretender. Prince Charles, taking advantage of the British army’s involvement on the Continent, began his own invasion, landing in the West Highlands just two months after the Battle of fontenoy. A year later, on the 16th April 1746, the Duke of Cumberland defeated Prince Charles’ army at Culloden (Jeremy Black, 1993). Throughout the Highlands the Duke’s savage orders of reprisal were obeyed to the letter (Speck, 1995; Youngson, 1973). The estates of those who had been ‘out’ in the ’45 were confiscated, and Hutton’s friend George Clerk-Maxwell was appointed to the Commission for Annexed Estates. John Clerk of Eldin, George’s younger brother, was appointed Secretary to the Commission in 1783 until the Commission was dissolved in 1784 (Jean Jones, personal communication). Both brothers visited the Highlands with Hutton himself.
Having failed to get the Moral Philosophy Chair in Edinburgh, David Hume accepted an invitation from General James St Clair [Sinclair] to become his Secretary, and in September 1746 Hume sailed to France with the General. The object of the expedition was to attack the port where the French East India Company kept supplies and stores, which suggests that the government used the war for commercial advantage. What is, however, called the “War of the Austrian Succession” came to an end with rejoicing at the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in October 1748, the occasion for which Handel composed his well-known Music for the Royal Fireworks.
The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) was an attempt by a broad European coalition to restrict or destroy the power of Frederick (1712-1786) "the Great" of Prussia. For Britain the war was a struggle with France for overseas territory; a struggle out of which the British Empire was born (Williams, 1966). There had, indeed, been undeclared warfare between Britain and France in the American Mid-West ever since 1754; so, instead of sending troops to the Continent, Britain blockaded French ports and destroyed French shipping.
General James Wolfe (1727-1759) and his troops sailed up the St Lawrence in 1759 with the intention of attacking the city of Quebec (Hibbert,1959b). Although only 32, he was an experienced soldier; among much else, he had served under Wade in Scotland and was on the Duke of Cumberland’s staff at Culloden (Findlay, 1928). John Robison, who later became the first Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, was with the fleet as a midshipman. He happened to be on duty in the boat in which the General visited some of his posts the night before the battle. Playfair, who wrote the biographies of both Hutton and Robison, and who in 1805 succeeded Robison as Professor of Natural Philosophy, recounts the story (Playfair, 1815): “As they rowed along, the General, with much feeling, repeated nearly the whole of Gray’s Elegy [Thomas Gray (1716-1771): Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, 1750], (which had appeared not long before, and was yet but little known,) to an officer who sat with him in the stern of the boat; adding as he concluded, that he would prefer being the author of that poem to the glory of beating the French to-morrow’”. Using a brilliant strategy, Wolfe’s men climbed the Heights of Abraham and surprised the French garrison. Both commanders were killed in the battle, but Quebec surrendered, the French withdrew to Montreal, and a year later all Canada was British.
To understand how members of Hutton’s circle of friends were involved in the great events of 1763 to 1783 we need to recognise the roles played on the world stage by men well known to them: particularly (in chronological order) Charles Townshend (1725-1767), Franklin, Wedderburn, George Johnstone (1730-1787), John Clerk of Eldin, and Adam Ferguson. We need also to understand why and how France helped to bring about American independence.
The War of the Austrian Succession had little to do with the Habsburg dynasty. The European countries were bitterly jealous of one another and unscrupulous in their enmities. Wars were fought and coalitions made for economic advantage and prestige. To further these goals, which were often personal as well as national, competitors were reduced and if possible humbled; treachery and corruption were normal; and countries were “divided like cheese”, without any consideration of the wishes of the unfortunate inhabitants. Big fish ate little fish, and any opportunity to foment unrest and rebellion in another country was taken as god-given. In Hutton’s time, the "auld alliance" between Scotland and France was a romantic notion; France supported Jacobite Risings in Scotland for down-to-earth reasons (McLynn, 1981).
To a large extent, the Seven Years’ War was a battle of competition between Britain, France, and Spain over the control of colonial markets. In their desire for a quick peace, France and Spain had ceded most of their American territories. At the Peace of Paris (1763), Choiseul (1719-1785), the French Foreign Minister, chose the rich West Indies over the cold barren wastes of Canada. France wanted revenge, and Choiseul foresaw that, without a French presence on their northern border, the American colonists would no longer need British protection: sooner or later they would demand independence. In order to encourage the break up of the British empire, Choiseul sent secret agents to the British colonies as early as 1764, and his successor, Vergennes (1717-1787), used his great diplomatic skill to ensure that American independence was achieved. Today Americans continue to express gratitude toward France, but it is naïve to imagine that France’s motives were altruistic (James B. Scott, 1926). Ever since the humiliating losses inflicted on her in 1763, France, with single-minded purpose, sought ways to get even with Britain. Vergennes was determined to weaken France’s traditional enemy by promoting American independence and thereby destroying the British stranglehold on American markets. Unrest in the American colonies was the signal France had waited for.
All this was, however, lost on George III (1738-1820, accession 1760) and his Ministers, who insisted that the Colonies must submit to the Mother Country, and that American independence would never be an alternative. (Mumby, 1923; Pemberton, 1938; Thomas, 1976; Valentine, 1967; Walpole, 1845; Whitely, 1996). For sympathetic treatments of King George and Lord North, see John Brooke, 1972, Chapter 5).
The population of the American colonies had increased five-fold in sixty years and most of the colonists had never seen Britain. The British Government, however, failed to appreciate how greatly circumstances had changed. The evidence is seen in the history of taxation imposed on the American colonies. Initially it seemed reasonable to expect the colonists to contribute towards the cost of their defence and support, but taxation on normal goods was seen as unfair taxation without representation. In response to strong protests, the Stamp Act of 1765 was repealed in 1766, but the Government continued to maintain it had the right to impose taxation on the Colonies. The “authority of the Mother Country” was not to be questioned. A few months later, William Pitt (1708-1778) again became Prime Minister, but, suffering from increasingly serious ill-health, he accepted a peerage and entered the House of Lords (For background see especially Ritcheson, 1954).
The witty, brilliant, but irresponsible Charles Townshend (1725-1767), a strong advocate of the recently repealed Stamp Act, was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in August 1766. His speeches are said to have been “unrivalled in parliamentary history for wit and recklessness”. Taking advantage of the Prime Minister’s absence from the Commons, Townshend – “like a schoolboy on a lark” – persuaded Parliament to pass the so-called Townshend Acts of 1767. These Acts imposed new taxes on items such as glass, paper, and tea. Aged only 42, Townshend died suddenly in September 1767 before the full consequences of the Acts were known. It was the year that Hutton left his Berwickshire farms and returned to Edinburgh.
The Townshend Acts took the Americans by surprise; they were furious at this arbitrary imposition of taxes; Boston merchants boycotted British goods, and British troops were sent to maintain order. After the Boston "Massacre" of 1770, most of the Townshend Acts were repealed, but the tax on tea remained as a symbol of Parliament’s right to levy tax on the Colonies. Pitt, in the House of Lords, said: “They [the Americans] must be subordinate. ... this is the mother country, they are the children; they must obey, and we prescribe”. The result was the Boston "Tea Party" in 1773. Townshend’s tea duty had in fact precipitated rebellion and it led ultimately to the loss of the American colonies. (For Townshend, see Fitzgerald, 1866; Namier & Brooke, 1964; and Thomas, 1987).
Charles Townshend was well known in Edinburgh. The Rev. Alexander "Jupiter" Carlyle (1722-1805) (a close friend of Robertson, Smith, Hume, and Ferguson) had met him in Leyden where they had been students together in 1745-1746 (Alexander Carlyle, 1973, p.86-88, 93-94). In 1754 Townshend married the Earl of Dalkeith’s widow, the eldest daughter of the 2nd Duke of Argyll (1678-1743), whose brother, the 3rd Duke (1682-1761), was the most powerful man in Scotland. Townshend received the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh in 1758, and in 1759 the Select Society suspended its rules for one meeting in order to hear him speak. Carlyle recorded: “[Charles Townshend] Silec’d us all with a Torrent of Colloquial Eloquence, which was highly Entertaining, for he Gave us all our own Ideas over again, Embodied in the finest Language and Deliverd in the Most Impressive Manner. Like a Meteor Charles Dazzled for a Moment, But the Brilliancy soon faded away and left no very strong impression” (Alexander Carlyle, 1973, p.199).
Townshend’s stepson, Henry Scott, 3rd Duke of Buccleuch (1746-1812), had succeeded his grandfather, the 2nd Duke, in 1751 at the age of five, three years before Townshend married the boy’s widowed mother. It might be said that Townshend, as a political operator, knew what he was about. “The universal tribute of Townshend’s colleagues allows him the possession of boundless wit and ready eloquence, marred by an unexampled lack of judgement and discretion”. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1929, Vol, 22, p.336). Horace Walpole (1717-1797), 4th Earl of Orford, said of Townshend: “A man endowed with every talent, who must have been the greatest man of his age if he had only common sincerity, common steadiness, and common sense” (Horace Walpole, 1845, Vol.3, p.72).
The Duke of Buccleuch was educated at Eton and had never been to his father’s home at Dalkeith since his infancy, because his stepfather was afraid “he would grow up too Scotch in accent and feeling”. In 1764 Townshend was so taken with Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments that he asked Smith to be tutor to the young Duke (then eighteen) and take him and his brother, the Hon. Hew Campbell Scott, to Europe on the Grand Tour. Hume, in a letter to Adam Smith dated 12th April 1759, wrote “Charles Townshend, who passes as the cleverest fellow in England, is so taken with the performance [Smith’s A Dissertation on the Origin of Languages, added to the third edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1767] that he said to Oswald [James Oswald of Dunnikier, 1715-69] he would put the Duke of Buccleugh under the Author’s care, and would make it worth his while to accept that charge” (Dugald Stewart, 1794, p.93). It was Carlyle’s view, however, that “Townshend had chosen Smith not for his Fitness for the Purpose, but for his own Glory in having Sent an Eminent Scottish Philosopher to travel with the Duke” (Alexander Carlyle, 1973, p.142). Smith and the Duke thereafter maintained the most cordial relationship and respect for one another. They both received the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh in 1770; and when the Royal Society of Edinburgh was founded (1783), the Duke of Buccleuch was named its first President and Adam Smith (along, of course, with his friend Hutton) was elected to the Society’s first Council.
Smith left London with his pupils at the beginning of 1764 and remained on the Continent for two years. They travelled in France, visiting Voltaire in Geneva, before returning to Paris. It has been thought that they arrived in time for a week or two with Hume before Hume left Paris with Rousseau in January 1766, but this is now thought doubtful (Ross, 1995, p.209). According to Rae, Hew Scott, Smith’s younger pupil, aged 18, “was assassinated in the streets of Paris” in October 1766, Smith and the Duke leaving for London immediately afterwards. No motive or explanation was given, and Ross has now provided evidence that Hew Scott died of a fever (Ross, 1995, p.218-219).
Hume had spent the previous three years (1763-1766) at the Embassy in Paris under Sir Robert Walpole’s (1676-1745) nephew, Francis Conway (1719-1794), Marquis of Hertford. Hume then left Paris to become Under Secretary of State in the Northern Department (1767-1769) on the invitation of Lord Hertford’s brother, General Henry Conway. The General, later Field Marshal, had been aide-de-camp to both General Wade and the Duke of Cumberland, serving at fontenoy, Culloden, and Flanders. His wife was a sister of the young Duke of Buccleuch’s mother (who married Townshend); the two sisters were daughters of the 2nd Duke of Argyll.
Hume returned to Edinburgh in August 1769, staying in James’s Court until his house in Edinburgh’s New Town was ready. In the Spring of 1771 he moved to St David Street, where his first guest, his friend Benjamin Franklin, stayed with him for three weeks. Franklin visited with many old friends, and later spoke of David Hume as one “who entertain’d me with the greatest Kindness and Hospitality”.
On the basis of letters written by the Governor and Lieutenant-Governor, the Massachusetts House of Representatives petitioned the British Government to remove these officials from office. “No legal action was involved: the petition did not ask for justice but for the exercise of wisdom” (Editor’s comment, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 1978, Vol.21, p.39). Franklin was summoned to appear before the Privy Council on 11th January 1774. (Accounts of the proceedings – which were not fully recorded – are given in Smyth’s Writings of Franklin, Vol.10, p.263-271, and in The Papers, Vol.21, p.19-23, 37-70). Believing that the matter was one of politics and not of law, Franklin appeared without Counsel; the agent for the defence, however, cunningly stated: “I well know Dr Franklin’s great abilities, and wish to put the defence of my friends more upon a parity with the attack; he will not therefore wonder that I chuse to appear before your Lordships with the assistance of Council [sic]” (The Papers, Vol.21, p.21). His Counsel was none other than Alexander Wedderburn, who believed in taking strong measures against American colonists. Wedderburn was now Solicitor General, an officer of the Crown, and “one of the most formidable lawyer-orators in Britain”.
The final hearing before the Privy Council was held on 19th January, only nine days after news of the Boston Tea Party reached London. Tempers were short; for the Government considered that advocacy of independence was sedition. Lord Gower (Granville Leveson-Gower, 1721-1803), the Lord President, was in the chair; Gower was all for “reducing the Americans to submission” (DNB). Lord North, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Shelburne, Lord George Germain, and Edmund Burke were among the unprecedented number of thirty-five members present, and there was a crowded audience (The Papers, Vol.21, p.43n; Writings, Vol.10, p.266). Wedderburn’s personal attack on Franklin lasted more than an hour. One observer said that Wedderburn “poured forth such a torrent of virulent abuse on Dr Franklin as never before took place within the compass of my knowledge of judicial proceedings, his reproaches appearing to me incompatible with the principles of law, truth, justice, propriety, and humanity” (The Papers, Vol.21, p.40n). Jeremy Bentham “was not more astonished at the brilliancy of his [Wedderburn’s] lightning, than astounded by the thunder that accompanied it ... The ear was stunned at every blow ... the table groaned under the assault” (Writings, p.269-270). Franklin said the mood was like that at a bull-baiting (The Papers, Vol.21, p.41, 112-115), but what hurt most was being called a man who had forfeited all respect – “a man of three letters: homo trium literarum” – the three-letter word fur being the Latin for thief (The Papers, Vol.21, p.49). Next day Franklin was deprived of his position as Deputy Postmaster-General of the Colonies.
Wedderburn played to his audience; the Privy Councillors laughed aloud, Lord North alone behaving with decorum. “When the Councilors [sic] applauded the speech and then threw out the petition, they took a stand that for all their laughter was no laughing matter” (Editorial comment: The Papers, Vol.21, p.42. Also Franklin, idem p.78-83, 86-96, 112-115). Wedderburn was undoubtedly a great advocate, superbly skilled in adversarial legal battle, but woefully lacking in diplomatic sense. The Privy Council was no better. Franklin, who remained standing throughout the proceedings, “was dressed in a full dress suit of spotted Manchester velvet, and stood conspicuously erect, ... his countenance as immovable as if his features had been made of wood” (The Papers, Vol.21, p.41). Until then Franklin had worked with all his power to maintain the unity of the British Empire, but on that day Wedderburn, and the Privy Council, turned him into an enemy. Wedderburn’s speech and its reception “must always be remembered as the critical incident which converted Franklin into a stubborn opponent of the British government, and changed the American sentiment toward him from lukewarm admiration to inflamed respect, enthusiasm, and affection” (Writings, Vol.10, p.271; see also Currey, 1978; Stourzh, 1969).
(I am indebted to Dr Iain G. Brown for pointing out that, as indeed the OED states, Sawney is a derisive term used in England for Scotsmen. In Scotland, Alexander is commonly shortened to Sandy and pronounced “Sawn-dy”.)
Franklin himself wrote: “When I see that all petitions and complaints of grievances are so odious to government, that even the mere pipe which conveys them becomes obnoxious, I am at a loss to know how peace and union is to be maintained or restored between the different parts of the empire. ... Where complaining is a crime, hope becomes despair” (The Papers, Vol.21, p.93-94).
Edmund Burke, who had been present, spoke of Wedderburn “laying on beyond all bound and decency” (Phillips Russell, 1927, p.195). Hume, torn between two friendships, wrote to Adam Smith expressing his concern about Wedderburn’s “most cruel” attack (David Hume, 1932, Vol.2, p.286-287; Adam Smith, 1987, No.140; Franklin, The Papers, Vol.21, 113n).
A year later, Lord Sandwich spoke bitterly in the House of Lords against a Plan presented by Lord Chatham, denouncing it as apparently the work of an American. “Turning to me”, wrote Franklin (who was present in the House), “he fancied he had in his Eye the Person who drew it up, one of the bitterest and most mischievous Enemies this Country has ever known. This drew the Eyes of many Lords upon me: ...[but] I kept my Countenance as immoveable as if my Features had been made of Wood”(The Papers, Vol.21, p.581).
George III and his Ministers failed to understand what was happening and were determined to “reduce the Americans to unconditional submission” (George III, 1927-1928; Namier, 1961). Among those who, for their various reasons, promoted this futile policy were Lord North, Prime Minister from 1770-1782; Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer (until his death in 1767); Lord Gower, President of the Privy Council; the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty; Alexander Wedderburn, Solicitor General; William Eden (1744-1814), head of the Secret Service (later Lord Auckland); George Johnstone, Governor of West Florida from 1763-1767; and others. Many of these had a relationship to Hutton’s friends.
As punishment for the Boston Tea Party, the Government in 1774 passed four Coercive or Intolerable Acts. When the Continental Congress responded in 1775 with an economic boycott, the King declared the Colonies to be in rebellion (Thomas, 1992). Advised by William Eden, Lord North appointed Admiral Lord Richard Howe (1726-1799) and his brother, General Sir William Howe (1729-1814) – then Commander of the forces in America – as a Peace Commission. Lord Howe and Franklin had been on friendly terms; indeed in correspondence, Franklin saluted Lord Howe with “affection” (Writings, Vol.6, p.457-466). But Franklin wrote with a sense of weariness: “I have not the Vanity, my Lord, to think of intimidating by thus predicting the Effects of this War; for I know it will in England have the Fate of all my former Predictions, not to be believed till the Event shall verify it” (Franklin to Lord Howe, July 20, 1776: Writings, Vol.6, p.460; Papers, Vol.22, p.520).
In June 1776 Lord Howe arrived in America, where he proclaimed himself and his brother Peace Commissioners and called on the rebels to return to their duty. With such a message, the mission was hopeless from the outset, but as the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia on 4th July and the Howes did not meet with Congress until September, the mission proved a disastrous failure. Franklin, one of the five committee members who drafted the Declaration, knew from bitter personal experience how adamantly the British government insisted that the Americans must do as they were told, and his treatment by the Privy Council, had greatly increased his standing with his colleagues in Congress.
In 1776, when taxation of the American colonies was being debated, Adam Ferguson accepted a commission to write a pamphlet supporting the government’s right to tax the Americans. His position was clear: “If [the colonies] will accept of no security below that of independency, and total separation of commonwealth; this I apprehend, they must acquire at the point of the sword. ... I am afraid the sword may strike as well as be raised; and till they exculpate themselves from the design of withdrawing their allegiance ... the wounds they receive will appear to come from the hands of justice …” (quoted by Fagg, 1968, p.152-153). His contribution doubtless helped to secure Ferguson a place as Secretary of the Peace Commission of 1778, though one might question the wisdom of sending negotiators who had already publicly expressed such uncompromising views.
Meantime Beaumarchais (1732-1799), a French agent in London (and author of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro), recommended that France should secretly supply the Americans with money and munitions, a plan approved by Louis XVI. Franklin arrived in France on 4th December 1776 to seek an alliance (Sparks, 1829-1830; Stevens, 1889-1898; Corwin, 1916; Stinchcombe, 1969, 1980; Wharton, 1889). This was a clear signal that the Americans had all but abandoned the prospect of reconciliation with Britain.
Events in America went from bad to worse for the British Government. General John Burgoyne (1722-1792) surrendered at Saratoga on 17th October 1777, a battle which “well might be ranked among the fifteen decisive battles of the world” (Bemis, 1935, p.61; but see Dull, 1975, p.90). The dramatic news took 46 days to travel, reaching London on 3rd December 1777 and Paris the next day. Vergennes was cautious: Britain had more ships ready and manned, and should the American rebellion collapse, France might be left standing alone against Britain (McKay, 1951). Yet he desperately wanted the rebellion to succeed, and he feared that the news from Saratoga might persuade Lord North to save the British empire by offering terms that Congress would accept – perhaps Home Rule as a Dominion. His concern was justified, because Lord North introduced a conciliatory bill in November 1777. Had it passed promptly, history might have been very different; but Parliament adjourned for Christmas holidays, not to resume until late January 1778 (S.E. Morison, 1965, p.254, Bemis, 1957, p.54-55).
Two days after the news of Saratoga reached London, Eden, head of the Secret Service, sent his right-hand man, Paul Wentworth, to negotiate with Franklin and his colleagues in Paris; and Franklin kept up the pressure on Vergennes by informing him of these meetings with Wentworth. At the same time, in this battle of intelligence and counter-intelligence, Dr Edward Bancroft, personal secretary and adviser to the Commissioners, was on Eden’s payroll, reporting everything that the Commissioners were doing. Remarkably, Bancroft retained his confidential position with Franklin throughout the war, even “assisting” him during the peace negotiations of 1782-1783 (Bemis, 1924; Einstein, 1933; Ritcheson, 1954, p.234-235; Dull,1982, Vol.72, p.33-34. For another kind of espionage, practised by French Engineers, see Bradley, 1992).
North was in despair, but the King refused to accept his resignation. Eden persuaded the Prime Minister to propose a plan for peace with all urgency. Ignoring the Cabinet, North relied on Eden, Wentworth, and Eden’s close friend Wedderburn, who produced drafts from which the final Conciliatory Bill was prepared for the House of Commons by Attorney General Edward Thurlow (1731-1806) (Burns, 1986, p.406). “North drove himself without pity. By late January, though near physical and mental collapse, he had at least a plan” (Ritcheson, 1954, p.260). North presented the plan to the Cabinet on 11th February, and next day Parliament approved it. North knew from Bancroft , however, that the Franco-American treaty of alliance had already been secretly signed, but Parliamentary procedure on the bills could not be completed until 9th March. In a desperate attempt to forestall ratification of the French treaties, a ship left for America on 14thFebruary with copies of Lord North’s proposal: North offered Home Rule within the empire, the details to be negotiated by a Peace Commission that would follow as soon as possible. (Ritcheson, 1954, p.258-263, 1969; Bemis, 1957, p.67).
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Channel, Vergennes, had no time to lose. By mid-December 1777, he knew that both Franklin and Deane had been contacted by British agents, and on 23rd December Noailles, the French ambassador in London, reported that Lord North was preparing a plan of reconciliation for the reopening of Parliament on 29 January 1778 (Dull, 1975, p.91). Vergennes, rightly, did not expect North to wait for Parliament before submitting his peace plans to the Americans (Dull, 1975, p.91n).
In this game of poker, Vergennes remained cautious; his dockyards were busy building the needed battleships (though there was a shortage of suitable timber), and he still hoped that Spain would join the proposed Franco-American alliance. On 8th January 1778 Gérard, Vergennes’ private secretary, asked the Commissioners what was required to stop them talking with British agents. They replied, “a treaty of amity and commerce”. Gérard agreed in principle and proposed that their countries conclude not only a commercial treaty but also a treaty of military alliance – this was necessary to preclude the Americans making a separate peace: American independence had to be a necessary condition for peace (Bemis, 1947, p.28; Dull, 1985, p.92).
Finally, on 6th February 1778, France secretly signed two treaties with the Commissioners: the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, and the Treaty of Alliance. It was a historic occasion: these treaties were the first formal agreements between the United States of America and a foreign power; here at last the United States of America received international recognition as an independent free state. It did not escape notice that as his country’s Ambassador, Franklin signed the articles of Amity and Alliance with France wearing “the identical Manchester cloak of velvet which he last wore when he stood under the pitiless storm of Wedderburn’s vituperation”. Without speaking a word, it was Franklin rather than Wedderburn who was justified in proclaiming virtute me involvo – I wrap myself in my integrity. (John Campbell, Lives of the Lord Chancellors, Vol.6, p.100, incorrectly relates this episode to the Peace Treaty of 1783; but see the story told by Edward Bancroft and Joseph Priestley quoted in Writings, Vol.10, p.267, 271-272; The Papers, Vol.21, p.41; Franklin, 1818, Vol.1, p.358-359n).
On 27th February 1778, Franklin wrote from Paris: “The King agrees to make common cause with the United States, if England attempts to obstruct the commerce of his subjects with them. ... The great principle in both treaties is a perfect equality and reciprocity; no advantage being demanded by France, or privileges in commerce, which states may not grant to any and every nation. ... In short, the King has treated us generously and magnanimously; taking no advantage of our present difficulties to exact terms which we would not willingly grant when established in prosperity and power” (Carl Van Doren, 1946, p.434). France, of course, encouraged American rebellion because to do so it was clearly to its own advantage!
Although British intelligence knew about the Franco-American treaties, Britain was not ready for war with France, and possibly with Spain as well (Dull, 1975, p101n). At the same time Vergennes waited in the hope of support from the Spanish navy; but the Spanish treasure fleet had not returned, and Spain was afraid that its own colonists might follow the example of the Americans and demand independence. By late February, knowing that North intended to offer conciliatory terms, Vergennes could wait no longer. The French frigate carrying the treaties was dispatched but delayed by weather and did not leave France until 27th February, six days after the British frigate left England with the proposed bills of conciliation (Dull, 1975, p.103; see also Ritcheson, 1954, p.274).
Vergennes sent a copy of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce (post-dated 7th March) to Noailles in London, who delivered it to the King on 13th March. Although the Treaty of Alliance was not disclosed by Vergennes, the Secret Service had delivered copies of both treaties to London within forty-two hours of their signing (Bemis, 1957, p.65-66). Stormont, the British ambassador to France, was recalled; Noailles returned to Paris, and war was inevitable. Both sides acted warily; neither was ready, and defensive treaties risked being invoked against the perceived aggressor. On 20th March 1778, Louis XVI received the American Commissioners as representatives of an independent nation. During all these negotiations, the Secret Service had supplied the British Government with every detail of meetings and decisions, and even of nearly every shipment of munitions (Bemis, 1957, p.65-66).
It took about two months for the two frigates to cross the Atlantic, and the French ship had to avoid interception by the British patrols. Lord North’s proposals arrived first, but Congress unanimously rejected them on 22nd April. Franklin commented that the terms offered were two years too late (Dull, 1975, p.104). Congress was debating whether or not to receive Lord North’s Peace Commissioners when they should arrive. Then, on 2nd May, Silas Deane’s brother, Simeon, arrived with copies of the treaties. Such was the enthusiasm that greeted the news of Franklin’s diplomatic success, that Congress ratified the treaties two days later (Bemis, 1947, p.31; Bemis, 1957, p.66-68; Dull, 1975, p.103-104; Ritcheson, 1954, p.273).
Lord North’s plan, drafted by Eden and Wedderburn, called for a Peace Commission to go to America to negotiate the Conciliatory Proposals. The idea was first urged on Lord North by Eden in a letter of 7th December 1777, and it was to Eden that North largely left the selection of Commissioners. Eden declared that he was ready to sacrifice himself in any service thought useful to the public, but he confided to Wedderburn (3rd March, 1778) that he wanted to divorce his own political fate from that of the North Government, which he reckoned was about to collapse. Eden fully intended to be the “efficient Commissioner”, the man making the decisions, and Wedderburn, who was in charge of drafting the Commission’s instructions “to treat, consult, and agree upon the means of quieting the disorders in the American Colonies”, kept in close contact with Eden (Ritcheson, 1954, p.264-265).
The commission was accordingly headed by Eden’s old school-friend, Frederick Howard (1748-1825), 5th Earl of Carlisle, then close to thirty years old and well-known as a “man of fashion and pleasure”, who was nevertheless a Knight of the Thistle (the Sovereign’s gift – the Thistle is the most ancient British Order of Chivalry) and son-in-law of Lord Gower, President of the Privy Council. Horace Walpole (1717-1797), 4th Earl of Orford, described Carlisle as “very fit to make a treaty that would not be made” (DNB, 1975, p.10). Richard Jackson (d.1787) was the next candidate approached. He was then Solicitor to the Board of Trade, and was so well informed that he was known as “Omniscient Jackson”. In 1765 Jackson had warned the House of Commons against imposing the Stamp Tax, and he now bluntly told Eden, Thurlow, and Wedderburn (29/30th March) that war with France would destroy the empire; American independence must be immediately recognised in order to forestall such an event. His position being totally at variance with the view held by Eden and Wedderburn, Jackson declined to serve on the Commission. (Ritcheson, 1954, p.263-266).
Eden then considered Sir William Johnstone (d.1805), who had assumed his wife’s name, Pulteney, and on his wife’s death had acquired her property and was reputed to be one of the wealthiest men in the Empire (Burns, 1986, p.406). But Pulteney was in Paris, vainly trying to negotiate with Franklin (Dull, 1982, p.53; Ritcheson, 1954, p.266). Eden and Wedderburn next turned to George Johnstone, Pulteney’s younger brother, a Dumfriesshire man and former Governor of West Florida. Johnstone had joined Burke in ridiculing Carlisle in the House as a man “fond of dress and gaming” – a poor basis for the close relationship that would follow. Moreover, as Johnstone had declared strongly against American independence (Fagg, p.158), it would be hard to imagine that he would be welcomed in America.
Governor Johnstone, as he liked to be called, had the faults of a bully. In 1757 a Court-Martial had found him guilty of insubordination and disobedience. For many years Johnstone had “confined himself to his favourite talent of haranguing in the house of commons” (Charnock, 1794-1798, Vol.6, p.494). This propensity led to a duel, and in 1770 he forced a duel on Lord George Germain (1716-1782), who from 1775 to 1782 was Secretary of State for the Colonies. On another occasion Johnstone killed his opponent.
As a vocal member of the House, and a man ready with a pistol, Johnstone was “useful to his party” and he had powerful friends – indeed in 1779 George III expressed interest in Johnstone’s promotion, and a month later Johnstone was named Commander-in Chief at Lisbon with the rank of Commodore. The naval historian John Knox Laughton (1830-1915) said that Johnstone was: “distinguished by his shameless and scurrilous utterances”, summing him up in these words: “He used to be commonly styled Governor’, though with very little reason; he is, even now, sometimes described as a politician, with even less. That he was commodore and had command of a squadron was unfortunately true; he seems to have had courage, but was without self-restraint, temper, or knowledge” (DNB, 1975, p.1092). Johnstone agreed to be a Commissioner only provided that American independence was not an option (Ritcheson, 1954, p.266-267). John Clerk of Eldin’s letters and notes suggest that he knew Johnstone well enough to correspond with him on naval tactics; but whether Johnstone gave Clerk assistance, or was qualified to give assistance on these matters is another question.
The fourth Commissioner, General Sir William Howe, was to join the others on their arrival in America. He, too, was opposed to American independence. It was therefore an unlikely collection of diplomats that sailed from England on 21 April 1778 to negotiate peace with Americans who were fighting for independence. (Bemis, 1957, p.66-68; Dull, 1975, p.104n; Dull, 1982, p.33-34). Moreover, the Commission set off in the face of the opinion of those who knew America best that the terms to be offered would surely be rejected (Ritcheson, 1954, p.267).
Eden had grandiose ideas: the Commissioners would be Privy Councillors with ambassadorial rank, and their ship, the Trident, would fly a Commodore’s pennant. George III, however, adamantly refused to make the Commissioners Privy Councillors: “Parade is not the object of the mission, but business” (Ritcheson, 1954, p.265-266). Eden had demanded and received permission to take Mrs Eden to America, and despite crowded conditions on the ship, Mrs Eden required one cabin for herself and another for her four female servants. In addition, Carlisle’s personal secretary, and a friend with no official position were also travelling. Yet Eden violently objected when Lord North proposed that the vessel should carry a passenger, even though this was Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805), 2nd Earl Cornwallis, who was travelling to take up his appointment as Second-in-Command of the British forces in America under Sir Henry Clinton (Ritcheson, 1954, p.265, 272).
It was into this bizarre company that James Hutton’s friend, “the quick-witted”, “quick tempered” – and “sometimes bad-tempered” – Adam Ferguson, was introduced as Secretary to the Commission (Fagg, 1968, p.60, 116, 165). His acquaintance with Johnstone was of long standing, which probably accounts for his appointment, though this had the King’s approval (Fagg, 1968, p.159, 168). Johnstone’s “intemperate disposition” was common knowledge, and Pulteney (Johnstone’s elder brother) “knew full well how hotheaded Johnstone could be”; Professor Fagg suggests that Pulteney may have felt that if anyone could restrain his brother, it was Ferguson, whom Pulteney had known since the early days of Edinburgh’s Poker Club (Fagg, 1968, p.160-161).
Ferguson himself was not an easy person. He quarrelled even with his old friend Adam Smith, and only when he learned that Smith was dying did he go back to visit him on friendly terms (Rae, 1895, p.433; Ross, 1997, p.191, 404). It seems remarkable that this boatload of touchy passengers survived the journey without a duel The Trident set sail for New York on 21st April and took 45 days to cross the Atlantic (Dull, 1975). It would be illuminating to know what they talked about, closely confined as they were in a space with few comforts. On his return, Ferguson must have had many stories to tell his Edinburgh friends. No doubt Hutton heard them; for he had a great interest in other people and their experiences.
On 27th May the Trident met a British man-of-war, which reported that both commanders-in-chief, Howe and Clinton, were at Philadelphia. Accordingly the Trident changed direction in order to meet them, little suspecting that Germain’s top-secret orders were for the British forces to withdraw from Philadelphia in preparation for a surprise attack on St Lucia (Ritcheson, 1954, p.253-254, 272; Dull, 1975, p.123; Dull, 1985, p.100).
The Trident arrived at the mouth of the Delaware on 5th June only to discover that the troop withdrawal from Philadelphia was already underway. Two days later they learned from Clinton that Germain’s orders were dated 21 March, more than three weeks before their own departure from England! Clinton insisted, moreover, that his orders gave him no discretion to delay his departure. Eden was furious; had he not been trusted, he wrote to his friend Wedderburn, with “the most sacred secrets of their unfortunate government” and the only secret which had ever been kept from him was this which sacrificed his public character. Eden never forgave Lord North for what he considered a gross betrayal – “North earned the vindictive spite of William Eden, whereby that harassed First Minister’s last years in office were rendered hell on earth” (Ritcheson, 1954, p.272-276).
A further shock was in store for the ill-fated Commissioners; for they learned that Congress had already ratified the copies of the Franco-American treaties that Simeon Deane (Silas Deane’s brother) had brought from France (Ritcheson, 1954, p.273-274; Dull, 1975, p. 104). Both treaties were ratified May 4, 1778, two days after they had been delivered (Bemis, 1957, p.67). While the British army was evacuating Philadelphia, the Commissioners boarded the Trident, and sailed for New York.
By this time, France had decided that its most effective strategy was to maintain a sufficient force in the Channel to require the British to keep a presence there, while sending Admiral d’Estaing with a squadron sufficient to crush the scattered British naval forces in North American waters (Jeremy Black, 1988; Tracy, 1988). Accordingly, d’Estaing sailed from Toulon on 13th April with twelve ships of the line and five frigates. With him was Gérard, Vergennes’ right-hand man during the Franco-American negotiations, and now appointed French Minister Plenipotentiary to the United States. British intelligence knew of the fleet’s departure but not of its destination. It could have been intercepted at Gibraltar, but the home fleet was not ready and, besides, Britain did not want to be blamed for starting hostilities. If the Toulon fleet was going no further than Brest, to attack it would, under the defensive alliance, prevent Britain calling on Dutch aid (Dull, 1975, p.109-112).
D’Estaing’s fleet arrived off Philadelphia a few days after the British had left. On landing in Philadelphia on 12th July, Gérard received an enthusiastic welcome; Congress “wined and dined him with the turtles and drinks which the British peace commissioners, by way of ingratiation, had recently caused to be sent to some of its members to prepare their digestions for Lord North’s peace offers” (Dull, 1975, p.123; Bemis, 1957, p.68). Finding that the British fleet had gone to New York, d’Estaing followed and blockaded the harbour with Howe trapped inside.
Everything the Commissioners tried to do went wrong. The Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), the young Frenchman of twenty who had volunteered his services to Washington, took offence at a remark made by Johnstone about the French and challenged Carlisle to a duel (DNB, 1975, p.1013; Fagg, 1968, p.187). More seriously, Johnstone brought the wrath and contempt of Congress on the Commission by foolishly trying to bribe two Members of Congress. Johnstone, indeed, was forced to withdraw from the Commission and return to England. As Howe had never served as a Commissioner, the Commission was now reduced to Carlisle and Eden. The British peace manoeuvre had been an utter failure. On 27th November, Carlisle, Eden, and Ferguson embarked for England leaving behind them “an unsuccessful, embarrassing, and distressing Task” (Ritcheson, 1954, p.283). They reached Plymouth on 19th December, 1778 (Ritcheson, 1954, p.283; Fagg, 1968, p.188, 190), and on 29th May 29, 1779, Ferguson wrote his last letter as Secretary of the Commission (Fagg, 1968, p.198), and returned to Edinburgh in July, having been away from his teaching duties for over a year.
On 13th March 1778 Noailles, the French Ambassador, informed the British Government that France had acknowledged the independence of the United States by signing a treaty of commerce; the treaty of alliance was not mentioned. Although this meant war, both sides were reluctant to strike the first blow. The Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, knowing that the navy was not ready for battle, persuaded the King to appoint Admiral Augustus Keppel (1725-1786) – a Whig and therefore a political enemy – Commander-in-Chief of the Channel fleet; which the King did in person on 22nd March 1778.
It was not until 9th July 1778 that Keppel was able to lead 24 ships of the line into the Channel to encounter the French fleet of 32 ships. Battle was joined on 27th July off Brest (Ushant), but the rear of the British fleet, under Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser (1723-1796), failed to obey Keppel’s signal to close with the enemy, and the French fleet escaped. (Charnock, 1794-1798).
Dull’s account is brief: “Luckily for France, fleet actions in the eighteenth century were seldom decisive. D’Orvilliers met Keppel 65 miles off Ile d’Ouessant and on 27 July the two fleets fought a general engagement which resulted in over 1,000 casualties and considerable damage to both fleets, but not the capture of any ships. Both fleets then returned to port” (Dull, 1975, p.122). Creswell devotes a chapter to the battle (Creswell, 1972, Chapter 8). News of the activities of the fleet, and letters from the principals, appeared in the Edinburgh Evening Courant and the Edinburgh Advertiser from 1 July onwards, keeping Edinburgh citizens informed of the developments week by week (Hannay, 1898-1909).
After the fleet returned to port, a newspaper report accused Palliser of not following orders. Palliser angrily demanded that Keppel should publicly contradict what Palliser regarded as a scandalous report. This Keppel refused to do, with the result that he was court-martialled on the charge of misconduct and neglect of duty. A letter from Palliser published in the Edinburgh Evening Courant on 11 November was read in Edinburgh with great interest, and by none more carefully than by John Clerk of Eldin, who wrote about it to his brother-in-law Robert Adam on 5 December and to his sister-in-law Miss Peggie Adam a few days later.
“Since we have had Sir Hugh Pallisers letter about the Naval Engagement – and not at first understanding it I have taken some pain in following him thro [sic] his description, which led me on to draw plans according to his description ... and to Conclude Adam Ferguson when he comes home is of the Best to Consult upon this head [namely, to whom should the drawings be shown] ... I hold it a truth – that it is as easy to construct a plan of a Naval Battle as of a Battle on dry land – Upon all Occasions we have hundreds of plans for every land Battle – But I have never seen one that ought to be considered at all for a Sea Battle” " ... as you must know I have a violent Passion for all such pieces of knowledge. I fell to work upon his [Palliser’s] letter and drew, following him step by step till I made myself master of the Subject (SRO GD 18/4209/1-2 with permission from Sir John Clerk of Penicuik).”
So opened John Clerk of Eldin’s research into Naval Tactics, which occupied him so intensely during all the years while Britain was at war with France, and which concentrated his geological activities into the decade of Peace from 1783 to 1793 (Moffatt, 1974).
In his biography of Hutton, Playfair says this about John Clerk of Eldin: “Though not bred to the sea, he is well known to have studied the principles of naval war with unexampled success; and though not exercising the profession of arms, he has viewed every country through which he has passed with the eye of a soldier as well as a geologist” (Playfair, 1805, p.97). We see the truth of Playfair’s words in these letters Clerk wrote to Robert and Peggie Adam.
With a “violent passion” (as he himself admits), Clerk involved all his friends in this project, so vital to the conduct of the war with France: Playfair reviewed Clerk’s ideas in a paper to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and Adam Smith’s notes on Clerk’s Naval Tactics demonstrate his interest.
Keppel’s court-martial began on 7th January 1779 on board ship in Portsmouth and lasted for five weeks. There were three charges, each capital offences for which, in 1757, Admiral John Byng (1704-1757) had been court-martialled and shot on the quarter-deck of a ship-of-the-line – and to add to the drama, Keppel had been a member of the Court that found Admiral Byng technically guilty. Keppel’s chief prosecutor was none other than Sir Hugh Palliser himself, and the Earl of Sandwich had packed the Court. There were thirteen judges. Tom Erskine, in this his first big case, argued the defence. Almost every captain in the fleet was called to testify, and the newspaper accounts were read avidly in Edinburgh. The result was overwhelming: the charges were pronounced “malicious and ill-founded” and Keppel was honourably acquitted. On hearing the news, the mob rioted, the admiralty gates were torn down; windows of official buildings smashed; Palliser’s house burnt down, and his sister, who escaped, went mad. Keppel was acclaimed a hero, and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) painted Keppel’s portrait six times.
The American war came close to home when, from August to October 1779, John Paul Jones (1747-1792) – the “founder of the American navy” cruised round the British Isles (Johnson, 1947; John Paul Jones, 1972, 1979; S.E. Morison, 1981; Thursfield, 1920). He scared the citizens of Edinburgh when he appeared off Leith. John Paul Jones grew up on the Solway and knew the coast well. While there he attempted to abduct Dunbar Douglas (1722-1799), 4th Earl of Selkirk, who fortunately was away from his home on St Mary’s Isle. The Earl’s silver was taken, but John Paul Jones returned it.
It was at the Earl of Selkirk’s table in 1793 that Burns gave the famous extempore Selkirk Grace. The Earl’s 2nd son, Basil Lord Daer (1759-1794) was a friend of Burns; and it was with the fifth son, Thomas Douglas, later 5th Earl of Selkirk (1771-1820), who outlived all his brothers, that Sir James Hall of Dunglass, the father of experimental geology, made the first circuit of a granite pluton. Sir James Hall married Dunbar Douglas’ daughter Helen. The 5th Earl was a remarkable philanthropist and developer, founding settlements on Prince Edward Island, the Red River Colony, and elsewhere in Canada, primarily for the benefit of families evicted from their homes in the Scottish Highlands.
Admiral de Grasse left France on 22nd March 1781 with a bigger booty in mind than the Earl of Selkirk’s silver (James, 1926). Through Rochambeau, the French commander in America, General Washington knew that Admiral de Grasse was on his way to the West Indies, but on 11th June 1781 a letter, written at sea on 29th March, brought the exciting news that de Grasse expected to arrive in American waters before the end of July and wanted pilots and military intelligence. On 20th June a ship carrying the pilots and information that de Grasse needed left for a rendezvous in the West Indies. So began what Dull has called “the major phase of the most important and most perfectly executed naval campaign of the age of sail” (Dull, 1975, p.238-249).
On 3rd August Admiral Hood, off Antigua, learned that thirty American pilots for Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware had arrived in French Santo Domingo. He immediately sent a sloop to carry the news to Admiral Graves in New York, but the sloop was captured and taken to Philadelphia, and the significance of the pilots was lost (Adams, 1931, p.37). On 14th August Rochambeau received word from de Grasse that his destination in the West Indies was a feint, and that he was bringing his entire fleet to the Chesapeake. It was a brilliant strategy. Washington was overjoyed to hear the astonishing news, and immediately prepared to send all the troops at his disposal to meet de Grasse in Virginia.
Cornwallis was at that time engaged in fortifying Yorktown, Virginia, close to the mouth of Chesapeake Bay where de Grasse was heading. Lord Cornwallis had been one of the few peers opposed to the measures that had led to the rebellion – a fact that would not have endeared him to Carlisle, Eden, and Johnstone on that long voyage to America – but he was a loyal soldier and, despite his political views, had been appointed second-in-command to Sir Henry Clinton, Howe’s successor as Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in America. Protesting what he perceived to be the incompetence of both Howe and Clinton, Cornwallis submitted his resignation, but the King refused to accept it Although he had protested to Clinton that his force was not strong enough to hold Yorktown, he had express orders to fortify himself there. Clinton was in New York Little did Cornwallis know that Washington was making haste to besiege him, and that de Grasse would arrive on 30th August with French troops, siege artillery, and supplies, supported by 28 ships of the line! (For critical studies of the relationships between Generals Cornwallis and Clinton see Adams, 1931; Wickmire, 1971; and Willcox, 1964).
Hood had joined Graves in New York, and on 31st August they put to sea to take on what they believed was Barras’ little fleet which had left Rhode Island. On that same day Cornwallis learned that between thirty and forty ships had entered Chesapeake Bay. It was only on 1st September that the British commanders realised what had had happened – they faced the entire French West Indies fleet of battleships (Adams, 1931, p.41-44).
In the meantime, Admiral Hood with 14 ships of the line had joined Admiral Graves in New York, and had persuaded Graves to sail to the Chesapeake to protect Cornwallis. On 5st September de Grasse drove off the smaller British fleet, allowing Commodore Barras to take seven ships of the line laden with supplies and siege artillery into the Bay. Washington and Rochambeau joined de Grasse on 17th September on board the 110-gun Ville de Paris, the largest battleship afloat, where they planned the capture of Cornwallis’ army. Because of Clinton’s failure to intercept Rochambeau and Washington, and because of Graves’ failure to intercept Barras or dislodge de Grasse, Cornwallis was doomed (Dull, 1975, p.246).
American Independence was assured when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown on 19th October. At midnight on 25th November 1781 (for it took 37 days for the news to reach London), Lord George Germain received General Clinton’s despatch warning that the surrender of Cornwallis was imminent and inevitable. Together with Stormont and Thurlow, Germain went at once to the Prime Minister, who threw up his arms as though hit in the breast by a musket ball and cried out “Oh God! It is all over”, understanding the significance of the news he had dreaded to receive. (Whiteley, 1996, p.195). He was right, and the news from Yorktown also brought an end to the King’s system of personal government. George III wrote a declaration of abdication, but for some reason never sent it. (For sympathetic treatments of George III and Lord North, see John Brooke, 1972, Chapter 6). Ferguson knew Cornwallis well: not only had they travelled together to America, but while there Ferguson “dined out of Town at Lord Cornwallis’s” (Fagg, 1968, p.184). The news of his surrender must have been received with dismay by Hutton and Ferguson’s other friends in Edinburgh.
By 9th February 1782, Germain was no longer Secretary of State for the American Colonies. His successor lasted only a month; the Rockingham Ministry took office on 27th March and there was never again need to fill the position. With the fall of Lord North’s Government, the Tories were swept out of every level of government, their places taken at last by their Whig enemies. Keppel was made a peer and appointed to succeed the Earl of Sandwich as First Lord of the Admiralty.
Battleships were built to carry guns rather than to be either fast or manoeuvrable. Because their fire-power had to be delivered as broadsides, the fleets went into action in “line of battle”. Consequently naval tactics commonly involved opposing fleets sailing past one another in parallel lines (Macintyre, 1979; Mahan, 1890, 1897, 1913, 1991; Warner, 1971, 1976, 1979). John Clerk of Eldin, however, after studying all the great engagements of the British fleet during the eighteenth century, concluded that it would be better to “break the enemy’s line”. He published his analysis in a privately printed Essay on Naval Tactics dated 1st January 1782 (Clerk of Eldin, 1782, 1790, 1804).
Clerk made strenuous efforts to bring his conclusions to the attention of the authorities; though he was greatly frustrated in doing this. Adam Ferguson, William Adam (now an influential politician – who wounded Fox in a duel before becoming his staunch ally), and others were Clerk’s agents, and apparently (though this has been questioned) brought his ideas to the attention of Admiral Rodney (1719-1792) before the fleet sailed for the West Indies on 16th January 1782. Lord Rodney’s copy of Clerk’s book, with the Admiral’s detailed notes in his own hand, is preserved in the Clerk family archives. On 12th April Rodney won a great victory over the French fleet near the small islands called “the Saints” between Guadeloupe and Dominica in the Windward Islands. Rodney captured Admiral de Grasse in his flagship, the Ville de Paris. (Hannay, 1891; Macintyre, 1962; Spinney, 1969; Thursfield, 1920; Welch, 1964)
John Clerk had recommended that the British fleet should break through the French line, firing broadsides down the length of the adjoining enemy ships as they went through. The enemy line would be in confusion; the ships in the van would be unable to turn back, and those in the rear would be overwhelmed. Although Clerk’s role has been hotly debated, there is no doubt that Rodney took the Formidable through the enemy’s line, as recommended by Clerk. (Anon., 1821, 1830, 1934; Jeffrey, 1830; Mundy, 1830 &1836; Playfair, 1821; Southey, 1897, Appendix H; Thursfield, 1920).
Rodney wrote an account of the Battle in his own hand for his friend General Robert Clerk, Clerk of Eldin’s kinsman, and this historic document is included in the Clerk of Penicuik family papers (SRO GD18/4243). A key passage describes the encounter of the two opposing fleets – two parallel lines firing broadsides while sailing past one another. Rodney wrote: “ ... the British Admiral’s ship the Formidable reach’d the Enemys forth [sic] ship from their van and began a very close action within half Musquet shot and continued such action close along the Enemy’s Line under an easy sail till an opening appear’d at the third ship astern of the Enemys Admiral which gave an opportunity of breaking their line and putting their Rear in the utmost confusion”.
Just eight days after the Battle, though the news of it had, of course, not yet reached London, the new Whig Government wished to recall Rodney, who was not only a Tory but Lord George Germain’s friend. Accordingly, on 18th May, Pigot. an officer with less experience, sailed from Plymouth to replace the country’s most successful commander. On the very day that Pigot set sail, Lord James Cranstoun (1755-1796), Captain of Rodney’s flagship, arrived in England with Rodney’s despatches and the news of the greatest British victory of the entire war. Pigot was pursued in vain.
John Clerk recorded: Lord Cranstoun “did me the honour to seek me out, and was so kind as to furnish a number of sketches, and even to assist with a great part of the description. Lord Cranstoun, “being perfectly master of the whole transaction” told Clerk that “ the Formidable had fired near eighty broadsides”. George Cranstoun (d. 1850), (the judge Lord Corehouse) long afterwards wrote an account of Lord Cranstoun’s visit.
George Cranstoun, whose sister Helen became Dugald Stewart’s second wife (Chambers’ DES), was John Clerk, Lord Eldin’s colleague, but it was through Will Clerk, John’s brother, that Cranstoun became Walter Scott’s early and intimate friend and literary confidant. It was to George Cranstoun and William Erskine (1769-1822) (Lord Kinneder) that Scott read the opening stanzas of the Lay of the Last Minstrel. Scott dedicated the Third Canto of Marmion to Erskine and wrote the epitaph for Erskine’s wife – who was John Robison’s daughter.
The Battle of the Saints has been recognised as one of the twelve most interesting naval battles in history (Creswell, 1972, Chap.12; Chatterton, 1975, Chap.5; Mahan, 1980, Chap.9). It prevented France from sending another fleet to North America for months, and allowed British warships to control American coastal waters. By giving Britain command of the sea, it provided Britain with one of its few bargaining points in the negotiations culminating in the Treaties of Paris. De Grasse’s nephew, also a naval officer and ex-prisoner of war, arrived at Versailles on 17 August. He brought the extraordinary news that Lord Shelburne, who was now Prime Minister, had asked Lieutenant-General de Grasse to convey to France Shelburne’s own terms of peace (Dull, 1975, p.293). The Treaties between Britain and America, and between Britain, France, and Spain, were signed at Versailles on 3rd September 1783, little more than two months after the Royal Society of Edinburgh held its first general meeting.
As evidence of how small the eighteenth-century world was, it is interesting to note that on 1st October 1768 Franklin and Rodney sat at the same dinner table, though not immediately next to one another. They were guests of King Christian X of Denmark on his visit to London. The seating arrangement of the 18 people at the table is recorded (Carl Van Doren, 1946, p.182-183).
Thirty-five years after the Battle of the Saints, Walter Scott paid a personal tribute: “The late John Clerk of Eldin; a name never to be mentioned by Britons without respect and veneration, since, until his systematic Essay upon Naval Tactics appeared, the breaking of the line (whatever professional jealousy may allege to the contrary) was never practised on decided and defined principles. His suavity, nay, simplicity of manner, equalled the originality of his genius. This trifling tribute is due from one, who, honoured with his regard from boyhood, has stood by his side, while he was detailing and illustrating the system which taught British seamen to understand and use their own force, at an age so early, that he can remember having been guilty of abstracting from the table some of the little cork models by which Mr Clerk exemplified his manoeuvres; unchecked but by his good humoured raillery, when he missed a supposed line-of-battle ship, and complained that the demonstration was crippled by its absence.” (Walter Scott, 1827, p.101n).
On 17th April 1790 Benjamin Franklin died. The French Constituent Assembly mourned for three days.
The Bastille fell on 14th July 1789. Louis XVI was guillotined on 21st January 1793, and on 1st February 1793 the French revolutionary government declared war. (For Scotland and the French Revolution see Meikle, 1912, Cockburn, 1888). Except for the time between October 1801 and May 1803, the two countries were at war for the next 22 years. Britain, however, retained command of the sea, and Nelson’s victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805 kept Napoleon (1769-1821) on the Continent. Napoleon was, of course, finally defeated by the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) at Waterloo in 1815.
When the Bastille fell, many advocates of liberty, having sympathised with the Americans in their struggle against what was perceived to be a tyrannical government, found it natural to support the cause of freedom. Wordsworth, who as a Cambridge undergraduate arrived in France on the eve of 14th July 1790, described in well-known words how the Revolution appeared to an enthusiast at its commencement:
With “not less than Gallic zeal” burning in his heart, he returned to France at the end of 1791 in order to share in the radiant happiness of the Revolution. He thought high purpose was sufficient qualification and considered putting himself forward as a leader of the Girondist party. But lack of money (an unglamorous reason) forced Wordsworth to leave France at the end of 1792, leaving behind his French daughter, who was born in December. It was well that he did so; three weeks later the King was executed, and many of Wordsworth’s friends went to the guillotine a few months afterwards.
Wordsworth returned to England a “patriot of the world”. He had a new loyalty and he glowed in the ardour of one newly converted. When war came, he felt driven to choose between his country and liberty, and like his friend Coleridge (1772-1834) he had no doubt which claim was higher.
James Watt (1769-1848), the son of Hutton’s friend the great engineer, went to Paris in 1789 and was another enthusiastic youth who became caught up in the Revolution. Indeed in March of 1793, after war had been declared, Burke censured him in Parliament for having carried the British Flag into the hall of the Revolutionary Assembly. Young Watt, who apparently had no hesitation in becoming embroiled with the French leaders, on one occasion intervened to prevent a duel between Danton and Robespierre. Robespierre, thinking he might be a British spy, assailed him in the Assembly, and although Watt gave a spirited rejoinder he was forced to return home to Birmingham (Crowther, 1962, p.151).
In July 1793 Watt senior wrote to his friend Black: “Young men will presume to think for themselves and of all their father’s possessions set least value upon their experience. I much dread the consequences of the opinions on Government which have been propagated of late with so much industry. The Rabble of this country are the mine of Gunpowder that will one day blow up and violent will be the explosion” (Robinson & McKie, 1970, p.195)
To idealists such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and young Watt, the cause of Freedom excused even the frightful excesses of the Reign of Terror. Unfortunate though these horrors were, they were transient, and seen as apparently necessary in the struggle for human Freedom:
Consequently these men had sympathy only with the French: “When with open war Britain opposed the liberties of France” (Wordsworth – forgetting that it was France that declared war). It was not, indeed, until French armies invaded Switzerland in 1798 that Wordsworth and Coleridge recoiled in horror as they saw the very foundations of their moral world uprooted.
On a visit to Paris in 1790, Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was presented with the key to the Bastille, which he was to pass on to Washington. Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution came out in November, and while Paine was still in Paris he began writing his reply to it: The Rights of Man, dedicated to Washington and published in March 1791. Back in England in September 1792, Paine gave an address to the Friends of the People which his supporters knew would not easily be forgiven by the authorities. He sailed for France only twenty minutes before the warrant for his arrest arrived from London, and in December he was tried for treason in his absence.
Paine retained Clerk’s friend, Tom Erskine, who felt obligated as an advocate to defend his client to the utmost of his ability. The Prince of Wales (the future George IV), apparently not understanding the fundamental principle of the legal system that guarantees a fair trial to every accused person, put very improper pressure on Erskine, but to Erskine’s credit he resisted. In his defence of John Horne Tooke a year later, Erskine referred publicly to the incident. “I assert”, he said, “that there was a conspiracy to shut out Mr Paine from the privilege of being defended: he was to be deprived of counsel, and I who now speak to you, was threatened with loss of office if I appeared as his advocate. I was told in plain terms that I must not defend Mr Paine. I did defend him, and I did lose my office”.
The Reign of Terror in France, following the King’s execution, produced the violent reaction of those in authority, especially in Edinburgh, where advocacy of universal suffrage was deemed seditious, all innovation treasonable. Standing tall above the graves of Hume and Playfair in the Old Calton cemetery is a tall obelisk, the grim reminder of the political trials of the “martyrs of parliamentary reform”, 1793-1794. Advocates of universal suffrage were derided from the bench and sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay. Their treatment by Lord Braxfield was so outrageous that protests were made in Parliament, but to no avail. In 1795, the year that Hutton’s two-volume Theory of the Earth was published, Robert Watt (unrelated to the famous engineer) was publicly beheaded in the High Street of Edinburgh – his head was raised by the Executioner who exclaimed “Here is the head of a traitor! Before the executioner raised his axe, George Baird – who had succeeded William ”Robertson as Principal of the University – stood at the prisoner’s side and “prayed in a devout and ardent manner, singularly adapted to the mournful occasion” (Blanchard, 1795, p.85-93). Walter Scott came to town for the spectacle (Lockhart, 1900, Vol.1, p.195-198).
In 1793 Braxfield gave Thomas Muir fourteen years in Botany Bay for lending a friend a copy of The Rights of Man (Cockburn, 1888, Vol.1, p.144-183; Logue, 1976, p.13-37; Bewley, 1981).
When Joseph Gerrald defended himself on a charge of sedition in 1794, asked that Braxfield, the Lord Justice Clerk, be disqualified because he had publicly prejudged the case. Gerrald also objected to the presence of William Creech (Burns’ publisher) on the Jury, on the grounds that before the trial he had stated that he would convict the prisoner. Both objections were overruled. Robert Burns (who had sent guns to France) must have narrowly escaped punishment for verses such as “But while we sing God save the King, We’ll ne’er forget the people!” (Burns, 1986, p.537-538).
Since the use of the innocuous word unconformity in its modern geological sense was not introduced until 1829 (John Phillips), Hutton used a circumlocution; e.g. “after the vertical strata had been broken and erected, the horizontal strata had been deposited upon the vertical strata, then forming at the bottom of the sea” (Hutton, 1795, Vol.2, p.432). Summarising what Hutton showed him at Siccar Point, Playfair spoke of revolutions: “An epocha still more remote presented itself, when even the most ancient of these rocks, instead of standing upright in vertical beds, lay in horizontal planes at the bottom of the sea, and was not yet disturbed by that immeasurable force which has burst asunder the solid pavement of the globe. Revolutions still more remote appeared in the distance of this extraordinary perspective” (Playfair, 1805, p.72-73). “Here, then, we have a series of great natural revolutions in the conditions of the earth’s surface, of which, as the author of this theory has remarked, we neither see the beginning nor the end” (Ibid, p.55) [Italics added].
Hutton published his two-volume Theory of the Earth in 1795, in the very time and place of the notorious sedition trials of 1793-1797. In it he argued that as a farmer rotates his crops, so revolutions are necessary in order to maintain a habitable planet. This could have been dangerous doctrine. To appreciate the risk in proclaiming that revolutions were natural in the history of the Earth, we need to remember how legal process was abused in Edinburgh, and used against anyone suspected of disturbing the status quo. Leonard Wilson rightly said “The danger to religion and morality seemed particularly serious to [Hutton’s critic] Kirwan because the French Revolution has severely shaken the whole basis of social order in Europe. The church was central to the social order in Great Britain and any idea which undermined its doctrines seemed to endanger society itself and threatened the interests of the governing and landowning classes” (Wilson, 1972, p.72-73). The Americans may have won their freedom under the banner of No Taxation Without Representation!, but in Edinburgh, twenty years later, Lord Braxfield asserted from the Bench that in this country it is “the landed interest, which alone have the right to be represented”, and to deny it was sedition or even treason (Cockburn, 1888, Vol.1, p.177).
Revisionist historians, judging Hutton on the basis of his theological references, may not appreciate the delicate situation that obtains when speech is not as free as we may innocently think it is and always has been. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Hutton’s contemporary Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) used irony “with consummate art and felicity” in his discussion of Christianity because “an attack on Christianity laid a writer open to prosecution and penalties under the statues of the realm (9 and 10 William III c. 22 still unrepealed). Gibbon’s stylistic artifice both averted the peril of prosecution and rendered the attack more telling” (John B. Bury, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1929, Vol.10, p.331-332).
A hundred years earlier half the Professors of Edinburgh University were dismissed for refusing to sign the Westminster Confession of Faith, and 150 years after Hutton’s death, Professors at the University of California were dismissed for refusing to sign an Oath. What would a Senator Joseph McCarthy and a House Committee on Un-American Activities make of the claim that revolutions were inevitable and necessary? In the early 1950s McCarthy “rooted out” subversives and destroyed the careers and reputations of thousands of patriotic Americans, yet he had a country-wide following. The historian Samuel Elliot Morison said “Nobody who did not live through that period will ever believe what a sound and fury [it] made up” (Morison, 1965, p.1076); and so it was with Hutton’s Edinburgh.
Hutton enjoyed highly productive activity during a decade of peace, but when war broke out John Clerk of Eldin’s main concern once again became naval tactics, geology taking second place. Clerk’s Essay on Naval Tactics was first issued privately, fifty copies being “handed out among friends”, and the edition generally referred to as the first was not published until 1790. Only Part 1 was issued at that time: the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s copy belonged to James Clerk-Maxwell, great-grandson of Sir George Clerk-Maxwell, 4th Baronet and brother of the author. Parts 2-4 were published in 1797, the year Hutton died. A second edition was published in 1804, in time for Nelson to use it at Trafalgar. Nelson attacked in two lines of battle, cutting the allied fleet into three pieces. (Nelson, 1845, Vol.6, p.89-92; Bennett, 1977, p.137-149; Howarth,1969, p.131-210; Terraine, 1976).
Philip Durham (1763-1845), later Admiral Durham, was Captain of the Defiance at Trafalgar. Despite being wounded and his ship badly damaged, Durham wrote to Clerk eight days after the battle. Durham enclosed his own copy of Nelson’s Memorandum (signed by Nelson and countersigned by his second in command, Admiral Collingwood) instructing the Captains how the battle was to be fought.
"Captain Durham sensible of the many advantages which have accrued to the British Nation from the publication of Mr Clarke’s Naval Tactics, & particularly from that part of them which recommends breaking through the Enemy’s line, begs to offer him the enclosed form of Battle which was most punctiliously attended to in the very brilliant and glorious Action of the twenty first of October – Mr Clarke [sic] will perceive with great pleasure that the present form of Battle is compleatly [sic] accordant with his own notions, and it is now sent as a Token of respect from Capt. Durham to one who has merited so highly from his Country.
off Cadiz, 19th October 1805"
There is a considerable literature on Clerk’s contribution to naval tactics, and the bibliography gives the principal references. Chatterton says that no important book on naval tactics had been published before John Clerk’s in 1782:
“This book had a great influence on the imparting of sound principles, and such distinguished admirals as Rodney, Howe, Duncan, St, Vincent, and Nelson, owed much to the lessons therein exhibited. In a letter, for instance, dated 1806, Sir T.M. Hardy [Commander of the Victory, who was with Nelson when he died] wrote these words: ‘Our departed friend, Lord Nelson, read Mr Clerk’s works with great attention, and frequently expressed approbation of them in the fullest manner; he also recommended his captains to read them with attention, and said that many good hints might be taken from them. He most approved of the attack from to windward, and considered that breaking through the enemy’s line absolutely necessary to obtain a great victory’” (Chatterton, 1975, p.154).”
Thursfield gives this evaluation:
“It is certain that, in his grasp of tactical principles and of their application in action, Nelson was as far ahead of the ideas in vogue at the time as he overtopped all others in his consummate genius for war. He was, as we learn from Beatty’s narrative [Dr William Beatty was Nelson’s surgeon on the Victory], a frequent reader of Clerk of Eldin’s Naval Tactics, and it is certain that the Memorandum we are considering was not a little indebted to that famous and illuminating work, though, as I shall hope to show hereafter, it greatly improved on Clerk’s methods and suggestions” (Thursfield, 1920, p.16).
It seems that by giving up geological studies for naval tactics, John Clerk of Eldin may have helped to keep Napoleon’s armies on the continent.