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Scottish Desire for Union 1707: William Seton




Few topics have been as popularly mis-represented by the Scottish nationalists as the Parliamentary Union of Scotland and England! In this series by John Provan, who has an MA (Hons) in History, we give voice to those Scots who were for the Union, in order that they can be heard again.


William Seton of Pitmedden (1673-1744) in Aberdeenshire, was one of the most vocal champions of Union in the Scottish Parliament which passed the Act of Union in 1707.

 

He was a critic of the establishment of his own day, and became a thorn in the side for the ruling Court party as he railed on behalf of the Country opposition. Such principles ran in his family, for his own father had been forced to abandon public office for opposing the policies of Charles II.

 

Within the context of his time, William Seton was very much a progressive; he advocated for restraints on the power of the monarchy, as well as for agricultural improvement, free trade and religious tolerance.

 

It was these principles that led to Seton becoming one of the earliest and most consistent advocates for Union in the early Eighteenth Century. In 1700, he published a collection of articles titled 'The Interest of Scotland in Three Essays', which was soon followed by a plethora of smaller pro-union tracts.

 

In his 'Three Essays', Seton made a comprehensive case for the many advantages that full political Union would bring to all the people of Britain.

 

Firstly, it would reflect the common language and culture which the people of Scotland and England shared, and build upon the common interest already established by the Union of the Crowns of 1603.

 

Moreover, it would usher in an era of domestic peace, as well as allow the Britons to resist the military might of their more powerful neighbours on the continent.

 

Scotland's trade would flourish with access to England's vast domestic and colonial markets, while the corruption and factionalism which permeated politics at Edinburgh would be done away with for good.

 

And perhaps most importantly for all, it would put an end to the religious strife which had blighted Scotland, and secure a settlement that would ensure religious freedom for Presbyterians, Episcopalians and dissenters.

 

This was very much a moderate's case for Union.

 

DEEP AND MEANINGFUL UNION

Some people nowadays may try to portray the Union of 1707 as a rather artificial arrangement – where any common British identity which has since developed is presumed to be a later product of this merging.

 

But for Seton and many of his contemporaries, Union was viewed as being the natural result of the very deep cultural and political ties which had already developed between Scotland and England over the preceding centuries:

 

There's an Union already betwixt both Nations in Language, Customs, Religion, and in Subjection, which cannot last, unless both Governments be united into one Body Politick. (p41)

 

Far from being an attempt to engineer an artificial sense of unity, Union was regarded as a safeguard against sliding back into the old divisions.


Seton was quick to note that the concept of political union itself had very deep roots, and even had widespread support in Scotland a century before his own time, when the Scottish King James VI succeeded to the throne of England and proposed a full political union of the parliaments:

 

King James...never gave a greater Testimony of his Affection to them, than in the year 1604; when he proposed to the English Parliament, an union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England: Which Motion was at first embraced by the general applause of both People as the only Mean to extinguish the Memory of all former Animosities. (p38)

 

It is not surprising that the idea of Union gained such support amongst Scots after the Union of the Crowns in 1603. After all, it was a Scottish king who then ruled all Britain from his London throne.

 

A score of pro-union tracts of the time attest to just how popular the idea was in James' native kingdom, with Scotsmen such as John Russell, Robert Pont, Thomas Craig, and David Hume of Godscroft all publishing writings arguing fervently for an incorporating Union.

 

However, as Seton notes, their hopes were frustrated by the more reactionary English Parliament, which would only allow for a much more limited form of legal union:

 

To bring that Union to a good issue, the Parliaments of both Nations, at his Majesties desire, did nominat Commissioners to meet at Westminster, which accordingly they did: and agreed on several Articles, to be presented to King and Parliaments, for their Ratification. But in the year 1608, the English Parliament would approve only the Article for abolishing all Hostile Laws, that had been in use against either Nation, before King James his Arrival in England. (pp38-39. Editor's note: This usage of "his" is the correct quote.]

 

Far from bringing in some new innovation, Seton regarded himself as building upon these foundations when he advocated for incorporating union in 1700.

 

It was on these grounds that he made his case for a Union which would encompass the political, economic, legal and ecclesiastical spheres. Of all these, a common parliament was the greatest priority for allowing British democracy to flourish:

 

The First is, That the Parliaments in Name of both Kingdoms, may consent to joyn together for making up one Parliament of Great Britain. (pp41-42)

 

To secure an enduring Union, this political unity was to be bolstered by a plethora of measures to create a united British state. The names of Scotland and England were to be put to rest, and the new kingdom known as Great Britain. There would be one imperial crown, one great seal, one common market, one law, one privy council, and an Erastian settlement which would secure freedom of worship for both Presbyterians and Episcopalians under a tolerant state church.

 

THE MANY BENEFITS OF UNION

Seton believed that the above foundations would usher in a golden era of peace and prosperity for all Britain, but especially for his native fledgling kingdom of Scotland.

 

Recalling the horrors that centuries of Anglo-Scottish wars had brought to the inhabitants of both kingdoms, he observes that dynastic union alone had already secured a far greater degree of peace within the British Isles:

 

OF Old, this Island of Great Brittain was divided into several distinct Governments, amongst which there have been many bloody and fatal struglings, in Defence of their respective Interests and Liberties. And no doubt, but, untill this Day, it had continued a Theater of Cruelty and Barbarity, if all its Inhabitants had not been United in Subjection, by the happy Succession of King James the Sixth of Scotland, to the Crown of England in the year 1603. (pp37-38)

 

Full political union would ensure that there was never a return to those dark days of the past, as well as put an end to the dynastic and religious controversies that persisted in causing conflict throughout Britain.

 

If such a peace could be secured, Seton believed that Scotland's economic fortunes would improve dramatically – and as he laments throughout his writings, Scotland's financial situation had never really recovered after the disastrous failure of its Darien Colony in the late Seventeenth Century.

 

Access to England's huge domestic market, as well as its vast colonial empire, bearing all sorts of exotic goods, may just provide the catalyst that the Scottish economy needed to reinvigorate itself:

 

The Advantages, which Scotland will reap by an Union with England, are

FIRST, its Trade will increase, having as free a Trade over the whole World, as England. Which would inable it, not only to Contribute the more for the Safety of the Publick; but to improve all its Barren Ground, to the great Satisfaction and profit of Land-proprietars.

2dly, Its Poor would no longer be a Charge to the Nation; Because, they could be employed in Manufactories and Fisheries.

3ly, The Highlanders could be brought to foresake their Ancient Customes and Language, and to apply themselves to Virtue and Industry. (p57)

 

Beyond the benefits of free trade, Seton argued that Union would provide particular benefit to the poorest segments of Scottish society.

 

He was a very vocal critic of the establishment of his own day, and berated those politicians who were willing to back government policy purely to secure a healthy pension or to gain the highest public offices. In particular, he criticised the political system in Scotland, which was rife with corruption and factionalism, and represented the interests only of a tiny elite, rather than the common people.

 

If the Edinburgh establishment could be removed, a great burden of oppression would be cast off from Scottish society:

 

Lastly, Courtiers would no longer be a Grievance to the Nation; The Multitude of Nobility to the Gentry: nor them all together to the poor Husband Man. (pp57-58)

 

The prospect of a British Parliament based in London was far more appealing to a progressive like Seton. After all, the nobility at Edinburgh were greatly overrepresented in relation to the common folk when compared to Westminster.

 

Scotland's underdeveloped economy continued to sustain an oppressive feudal class of powerful nobles, while in England a middling-sort of artisans and merchants were thriving. The ordinary Scot, Seton argued, would be far better represented by a socially diverse parliament at London, than a noble-dominated cabal at Edinburgh.

 

But the benefits of Union were not limited to Scotland.

 

England, as well as Great Britain as a whole, would reap its rewards. Seton was well aware of England's past ambivalence towards Union, and public support would have to be won to its cause in England as well as in his native kingdom. As England became increasingly involved in costly foreign wars, Seton noted that it could never be secure so long as a potentially hostile power sat on its northern frontier:

 

Lastly, England would be secure within it self, which can never happen, so long as the Interests of England and Scotland are different. (p55)

 

If the Scots and English were willing to unite, they would finally be able to rest secure within themselves as a powerful island nation, able to resist the tyrannical monarchies on the continent like France and Spain.

 

Speaking of Great Britain, he said:

 

It would be in a Capacity to oppose it self to France, in Defence either of its own Interest, or of that of its Allies; without being in danger of any Domestick, Convulsions. (p59)

 

Seton thus makes a case for Union that would benefit both Scotland and England individually, as well as Great Britain as a whole.

 

A UNION BASED ON TOLERANCE

The religious conflicts between competing denominations had devastated Britain in the century leading up to 1707.

 

Even when the old Anglo-Scottish conflicts ceased after 1603, there were brutal wars throughout Britain between Presbyterian Covenanters, Episcopalian Royalists and Puritan Parliamentarians.

 

Indeed, religious differences had been at the heart of the British Civil War, which ravaged the three component kingdoms from 1638 to the Restoration of 1660:

 

that ever since the Reformation in this Island, there have been two Parties which have set up for different Schemes of Church-Government, the one called Presbyterian, and the other Episcopal, and that either of them hath been so zealous for establishing its Government, that nothing will please either of them, if its Government be not of Divine Institution; by which the one Party can damn the other. (pp10-11)

 

The Revolution of 1688 had secured a Presbyterian Kirk in Scotland and an Episcopalian Church in England, both of which forced rival denominations to submit to their authority. The status of these two churches was a major point of contention surrounding the union debates, and amidst such striving, Seton exhorts both parties to remember their Christian duty to love their neighbour and show charity to all people.

 

Criticising the tendency "to hate and destroy our Neighbour, for Zeal to God's Worship" (p82) he reprimands them for failing to follow: "the Fundamental Rule of Christian Religion, to Love the Lord our God with all our Hearts, and our Neighbours as our Selves:" (p82)

 

Seton's call for tolerance is quite remarkable considering the dogmatism which was so prevalent amongst his contemporaries. Eschewing the often populist radicalism which other politicians attempted to stir up amidst the union debates, Seton instead argued for the creation of a unified Christian society, where Presbyterian, Episcopalian and dissenter could worship freely under a tolerant state church:

 

So every Church-Government ought to sympathize with that Civil Government it meets with, to make up one Christian Society. (p23)

 

Indeed, it is easy to see how this call for religious tolerance and unity fits with Seton's wider call for national unity amongst Britons.

 

The call for harmony between Scotsman and Englishman, between Presbyterian and Episcopalian, is the hallmark of his unionist thought, and lays the foundations for his very measured approach to the issue.

 

Throughout his writings, Seton clearly advocates for a thoroughly progressive form of Union – one which would secure peace throughout the British Isles, produce economic prosperity and free the ordinary Scot from the corrupt Edinburgh regime.

 

In doing so, Seton provides an example of the genuine unionist discourse which was prevalent throughout Scotland in the years leading up to 1707, and indicates the enthusiasm with which some Scots were eager to embrace their identity as Britons. There can be no doubt that Scots like Seton were very much willing partners in Union.

 

Source: William Seton, The Interest of Scotland in Three Essays (London, 1700). Page numbers are from the reproduction by Early English Books Online.



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