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Le crime, le châtiment et les écossais

Jean Berton
Bill Findlay

V – The People and Justice / La justice du peuple

The Porteous Riots and the Gordon Riots: the Reactions to Crime and Punishment of Allan Ramsay Father and Son

Michael Murphy

Texte intégral

1The Porteous Riots concern the wounding or killing by the Edinburgh City Guard of bystanders at an execution in April 1736, the subsequent condemnation to death of the Captain of the Guard, John Porteous (1695- 1736), his stay of execution by Queen Caroline, then his lynching. For the latter, perceived in London as an attack on royal and state authority, and in the absence of convictions despite two trials, Parliament excluded from office the Provost of Edinburgh and made the city pay £1,500 in favour of Porteous’ widow. The Gordon Riots in London in June 1780 followed a mass lobby of Parliament in favour of the repeal of the Papists Act (1778), which had reduced official discrimination against Roman Catholics in England and Wales: rioting led to hundreds of deaths and costly damage to religious and public buildings and homes. Rioters were punished, as was the Lord Mayor, but the leading lobbyist Lord George Gordon (1751-1793) was found Not Guilty of treason. These two riots, the first lasting some three hours in Edinburgh, the second lasting six days in London, were major events in the history of the respective capital cities. Both had an important Scottish aspect: the Porteous Riots had implications for post-Union Anglo-Scottish relations, while the London riots were associated with Edinburgh-born Gordon who led the London opposition to the Papists Act, having led with success an earlier campaign in Scotland against the introduction of similar legislation. Both riots led to extrajudicial death and to judicial punishment. Both concern popular and elite reactions to official decisions or actions.

2The events leading up to the Porteous Riots and those which followed the Gordon Riots were commented on respectively by Allan Ramsay father and son. The first sent a six-hundred-word eye-witness account of the actions of Porteous, to Duncan Forbes of Culloden (1685-1747), the Royal Advocate who led the case against Porteous. Forbes was the first cousin of Ramsay’s cultural patron Clerk of Penicuik (1676-1755), a long-term supporter of Ramsays’ enterprises. Ramsay’s son, Ramsay of Kinkell, wrote Observations upon the Riot Act, a thirty-one-page anonymous pamphlet, finished in “London, July 10, 1780”, and printed in 1781, in which he proposed changes to the legislation on riotous events. The pamphlet concerns the Riot Act (1714), in use until 1919. Concerning these two cases of public disturbance, what were the reactions to the crimes committed, and to the punishments imposed, as expressed by two members of the Scottish Enlightenment, namely Ramsay père a minor master of the little-studied first generation, and his son a leading light of the better-known second generation? Ramsay the Elder seeks the punishment of Porteous in the interest of justice for his victims; he admires the executed smuggler and implies that he is an innocent victim of an injustice, in a wider post-Union context; he finally seems to suggest that he himself might be a suitable candidate as an officer of the City Guard, perhaps as compensation for the effects of the forthcoming Licensing Act on his theatre. Ramsay the Younger, philosopher-like, takes the Gordon Riots as exemplary of the defects of the Riot Act and is therefore less interested in the details of specific crimes against life and property and does not emphasise the religious motives of the rioters, or demonstrate anti (or pro-) Catholic sentiment; he proposes that the Army should be able to intervene autonomously in riotous disturbances - not fearing potential military dictatorship, since Parliament, and no longer the monarch, is the paymaster of the troops; finally, he strongly supports parliamentary sovereignty against attempts by the “democratic” majority to intimidate the law-makers.

3RAMSAY THE ELDER (c. 1684-1758) published 17,000 lines of verse, much of it in an invented poetic language that made the essential link between Middle Scots and the language of Robert Fergusson (1750-1774) and Robert Burns, 1759-1796 (Murphy, 2015). A sociable member of the first generation of the Scottish Enlightenment, he co-founded the first club in Scotland and was a member of the country house circle of Clerk of Penicuik. An innovative editor (the first anthology of Scottish Renaissance poetry, the second printed book of Scottish music, a renowned collection of poems and songs, a collection of proverbs), he also created cultural institutions: a bookshop, the first British circulating library, one of the first Scottish periodical journals and the first purpose-built theatre in Scotland. Belonging to Edinburgh’s middle ranks, valuing education, he planned, promoted and financed or procured finance for the training of his son in Edinburgh (co-founding the first art academy in Scotland, in which his son trained), as well as in London and Italy. What were his reactions to crimes committed, and to the punishments?

4Ramsay wants Porteous punished to render justice to the nineteen victims killed or wounded. “A true and faithfull account of the Hobleshaw [riot] that happened in Edinburgh, Wednesday the 14th of Aprile 1736 at the hanging of Wilson, housebreaker” (all relevant quotations hereafter are from this text) opens and closes with publically-known elements: the admired way in which Wilson permitted his associate to escape, the fear of the authorities that this “hero” might therefore be rescued, which explains the large body of muncipal guards present (the Guard employed 90 to 120 men) and the soldiers held in reserve: “the criminal was conducted […] by […] a strong party of the City Guard [... and] 150 of the Regement […] were all drawn up in the Lawn Market”; the anger of the crowd, “them that had lost friends & servants [...] demanding justice [... and] fix [ing] the guilt upon [Porteous]”; the decision of the city authorities to jail Porteous in the Tolbooth prison, since otherwise the crowd “would have torn him, Council and Guard all in pices” (the original spelling is respected). Ramsay provides elements which explain the force and efficacy of the public reaction. Certain of those killed, wounded or bereaved, were of the middle and higher ranks: artisan-burgesses, a gentleman, a relative of a Presbyterian minister, servants to the middling sorts. Ramsay also mentions the youth of a boy, a son, and the death of a woman. Further details given may have been related to him: Porteous’s order to fire a second time, his apparent insouciance as he marched his men away. The contextual elements mentioned tend to aggravate Porteous’ crime: the innocent citizens belonged to the respectable social orders, included the vulnerable, and were the contrary of a dangerous mob.

5 Ramsay’s “true” eye-witness account, contained in the body of the text, states that before and during the execution there was little noise except prayers and hymns: “All was hush, Psalms sung, prayers put up for a long hour [...] and the man hang’d with all decency & quietnes”; that when the body was being cut down, a few boys threw “a stone or two [...] at the hangman, which is very common”, but which “hurt no body”, suggesting they were off target or too small to do damage; that for this reason only, Porteous opened fire and then ordered his men to open fire: “on which […] Porteous [...] let drive first himself [.... then] commanded his men to folow his example”; that he ordered a second volley “[for] no more provocation than [...] a stone or two that hurt no body”; that the people killed or injured were “inocent”, onlookers, some sitting indoors or on balconies, some of the higher social ranks who did not threaten public disorder. Again, Ramsay emphasises elements which signal the innocence the guilt of Porteous: the context was peacefully Christian until after the hanging when a few minors threw stones at the hangman, a typical reaction, but without causing serious injury; this stone throwing was the only cause of Porteous’ fatal commands; the stone throwers were not killed or injured, but certain victims of higher ranks were shot while sitting in private spaces separate from the crowded street. The accusation is that Porteous’s actions were unjustified, indiscriminate and disproportionate. Ramsay also judges the character of the man. Porteous acted impetuously - “he took it in his head [to order a second volley of shots]”; he was “brutal” in being the first to shoot, and acted like a “crazy brute” in leading his men away “as if he had done nothing worth noticing”. Thus Porteous is judged as being animal-like, reacting without thought, as if he were mad. Lacking sang froid, moved too quickly by his animal spirits, he is therefore unfit to lead an armed militia policing the straitened spaces of Edinburgh Old Town - 57 hectares for 25,000 citizens (Ehrlich, n.d., n.p., Sinclair, 562-64). Ramsay indicates his proximity to events: “I was ane eye witness and within a yard or two of being shot as I sat with some gentlemen in a stabler’s window oposite to the Galows”. His account ends with the solemn statement of truth words: “[I] believe this to be true”; his signed account might thus serve as a statement of witness.

6During the trial, most witnesses were in general agreement with Ramsay’s account, and the argument used by Forbes against Porteous was fairly similar: Porteous was said to have fired and to have caused his men to fire, without sufficient reason: the hanging of Wilson was over and with it the reason for which the Guard had been mobilised; thereafter, since no-one was in danger from the stones thrown, there was no reason for the Guard to intervene. Thus, Porteous acted without sufficient reason, outside the orders given by the authorities before the execution, and beyond any duty to uphold peace and order with respect to the aftermath. That the unanimous verdict contained contradictions - accepting that guards were wounded, but not accepting this as sufficient justification for shooting (Howell, 985) - permitted a successful petition to Queen Caroline (the King was in Hanover). Porteous was granted a Royal stay of execution. But Ramsay’s account had anticipated his fate, “torn to pieces” by a well-organised mob on the night of September 7. Ramsay’s account also implies some sympathy for the man whose execution preceeded Porteous’ actions.

7Andrew Wilson appears in Ramsay’s account as a hero of sorts and a victim of a form of injustice. This injustice can be placed in a post-Union context. In January 1736, three men robbed £200 of Excise taxes - over £300,000 in today’s earnings value (Anon, “Measuring worth”, n.p.) - from a collector staying at an inn in Pittenween, Fife; he had been supervising a sale of goods seized for non-payment of excise (Roughead, 24). The accused were tried in March at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh for “Stouthrief [stealth with violence], Housebreaking and Robbery” (ibid., 27). One turned King’s Evidence and avoided execution. Two were sentenced to be hanged, but one escaped thanks to his associate. While they were in Tolbooth Kirk for the final sermon of the condemned, Ramsay writes that Wilson, “a very strong fellow [...] threw [his partner...] out of the seat”, and held three members of the armed escort – “held a soger fast in each hand and one of them with his teeth” - until his partner got away, aided by townspeople. Wilson was thus seen as a hero by many and “gaind [...] so much pity” that the authorities feared “a great mob would rise on his execution day to relieve him”, which explains the hundreds of armed men on duty.

8Ramsay agrees with this sympathetic view of Wilson: he “had the best character of them all”, meaning of the three men put on trial. However, Ramsay writes that Wilson’s “foly made him seek reprisals at his own hand”, referring to evidence given at the trial. Indeed, Hall (who turned King’s Evidence) said that Wilson had planned the robbery, contacted his associates and led them; “that this design [to rob the Excise Collector] had been framed [...] by Andrew Wilson [...] at the preceding [excise] collection at Ely [Elie in Fife]” (Roughead, 43), which had been “six weeks before [the robbery]” (ibid., 48). The raid was a reprisal in that Wilson and Robertson “had been losers by brandy” (ibid., 50-51), meaning these participants in illegal trading of French alcohol had lost the battle with the Excisemen and sought to recoup their losses. Thus, in the Pittenweem hostelry, “Wilson having asked the landlady if she could lodge any casks of brandy for him, she desired him to speak low because the Collector was in the house” to which “Wilson answered that he had lost a great deal of money by the public [Excise officers], and understood that there was some of it there, and was resolved to have it back again” (ibid., 53-54). In other words, Wilson’s raid, near his home at Pathhead village, was to recover monies taken six weeks earlier at Elie, five kilometres along the coast. In Chapters 1-6 of Mid-Lothian (1818), Scott recounts the Porteous Riots. Here he gives the context to the trial of Wilson:

The county of Fife, bounded by two firths on the south and north, and by the sea on the east [...], was long famed for [...] a contraband trade [...]. Wilson, originally a baker in [...] Pathhead, [...] succeeded in baffling [...] the king’s officers; but [...] at length he was totally ruined by repeated seizures [...]. He considered himself as robbed and [...] took it into his head that he had a right to make reprisals [...]. Wilson learned that the Collector of the Customs at Kirkcaldy had come to Pittenweem [...] with a considerable sum of public money [...]. Wilson [...] resolv [ed] to reimburse himself for his losses, at the expense of the Collector and the revenue. (28)

9Ramsay describes Wilson as a “housebreaker”, a summary of the accusation under Scots Law, but omits the aggravating circumstances underlined by the King’s Advocate (State prosecutor) - that the victims were “public officers having in their possession money belonging to the public” (Anon., “Trial”, 1818, 2). Under Ramsay’s pen, the crime becomes the generic one of stealing property after breaking and entering a private house (or, in this case, a private room in a public house). Ramsay almost omits thereby Wilson’s implication in smuggling brandy and seeking to take back money he considers to have been unjustly confiscated by excisemen (as fines or in the form of seized contraband). Smuggling was a reponse to taxation introduced in Scotland after 1707. The British Crown imposed increasing duty on imports, particularly alcohol: “Britain moved [...] to [...] indirect taxes [...]. Land taxes [...] declined steadily. Alcohol taxes, meanwhile, provided a [...] growing share of revenue, making up half of all excise receipts in the late 18th century” (Thorndike, n.p.). Thus, excise duties represented less than one quarter of taxes in 1700, but almost half by 1750: £3.45 million out of a total of £7.47 million (Hartwell, 1981, n.p.). Fife was well situated to take advantage of the illegal import trade from France and Holland, and there was both widespread opposition to excise duties and active support given to smuggling by elite members of society: “Fife was particularly notorious for smuggling […] brandy, wine, gin, tobacco and linen […]. Many of the smugglers had high positions in society […]. Most Scots […] abhorred paying the exorbitant taxes […] imposed by the English Government” (Milne, 2014, 222). Indeed, the two most serious riots in Scotland in the 18th century concerned taxes on alcohol. In 1725, a new tax on malt in Scotland, where it was used in beer and whisky, led to riots in the Lowlands and especially at Shawfield, Glasgow, where nine died when troops opened fire without the municipal authorities having read the Riot Act. The Porteous Riots can also be related to post-Union alcohol tax: “The Porteous Riots [… were] triggered by the execution of a smuggler and by resentment over indirect taxes” (Herman, 603). Thus, Wilson’s reprisal enters a context of opposition to post-Union taxes.

10That Ramsay described the raid as “foly” suggests he did not support Wilson’s theft, seen as irrrational (and partly fuelled by the alcohol the robbers had been drinking). However, his description of Wilson as a “housebreaker” may suggest that he respected private property, but did not accept the judgement of Wilson as a threat to the State, attacking its agents and finances. Riots and smuggling represented two important challenges to the new British State. A third one was Jacobitism, which certain in London saw behind the Edinburgh mob in 1736. Ramsay had doubts about the Union into the 1730s and beyond. Thus, Mount Alexander’s Complaint [...] and Joy [...] Imitated from the Latin Ode (1732) celebrates the return to Scotland of Alexander Robertson of Struan (c. 1670-1749), a Jacobite chief exiled in France since 1716. Ramsay opposes those who would restore the “golden Reign” of “my MASTER”, “J [ames] Our Royal Sun”, to partisans of the enslaving regime of Orange and Hanover (Works 6, 135-36). Written in June 1736, the Epistle to John Wardlaw evokes the origins of the Stuart dynasty, said to begin with Fergus I in 330 B.C., and refers to the Old Pretender as James VIII of Scotland: “I charge ye by these royal names / Frae Fergus Furst, to Octave James” (Works 3, 238). Ramsay may have expressed no clearer support for Wilson because his correspondent and friend Forbes had been the prosecutor at the smuggler’s trial; it might have been awkward to question the justice of post-Union taxation. Besides, Ramsay may also have been seeking to protect himself from a forthcoming injustice.

11It seems likely that Ramsay was looking for justice for himself as a cultural entrepreneur likely to suffer from new government legislation on theatres. His account of the 14th of April shootings was probably enclosed with a missive sent to Forbes the next day. Ramsay writes therein that he is underemployed, badly-paid, and needs “some small commission” (15 April 1736, Works 4, 203). This may be related to the conclusion of his account of Porteous’ actions: “I could have acted more discreetly had I been in Porteous’s place”. Was Ramsay looking for a place in the Town Guard? He had financial worries at the time. Besides the cost of his son’s art training and that of his new house near Edinburgh Castle, he had invested in Edinburgh’s first purpose-built theatre, the New Theatre, 1736-1739 (Murphy, 2001). During the period covered by the Porteous shootings and the later riots (April-September) Ramsay was preparing his 300-place theatre for its November opening: “Your Petitioner [...] being encouraged thereto by many of the Best Rank did on his own charges & credit Erect a new Theater Provided proper Scenes & Dresses & c hoping soon a sufficent retrobution of his money” (Letter to the Earl of Islay, 8 Dec. 1737, Works vol. 4, 208-209). Ramsay’s ambitious project was threatened by widely announced legislation censuring theatre plays. The case for censorship was being made strongly in London from 1735 onwards and the Licensing Act (1737) put it into effect (Thomas, 28-29). The Address of Allan Ramsay asks for a suspension of the new law in Edinburgh until he has paid his theatre-related debts, or else a government sinecure or financial compensation (Works vol. 3, 141-143). In 1737 he also asked for the Scottish sincecure as Master of Revels (Letter to the Earl of Islay, 8 Dec. 1737, Works vol. 4, 208-209). Ramsay’s theatre closed and final debts exceeded £200 (Letter to the Honorable John Murray, 30 July 1739, Letter to Clerk of Penicuik, 25 Sept. 1739 Works vol. 4, 215-216). This represents over £300,000 by today’s living standard (Anon, “Measuring worth”). In compensation for the losses he feared from the announced Act, Ramsay might therefore have been looking for Forbes to intercede in order to obtain a place in the Guard, perhaps as one of the better-paid officers; the duties were part-time and compatible with other work.

12At Porteous’ trial, it was emphasised that the Riot Act had not been read before the Guard fired. Porteous said that a town council member had: “sent for a dozen of the act to a bookseller’s shop, [...] to distribute them among the proper officers [...]; but [... n] either of those proposals were put in execution; nor [...] did any officer of the law [...] attend with [Porteous] ” (Howell, 1816, 942-43). Thus, “he was abandoned and left to [...] his own discretion” (ibid., 958). When Porteous was lynched, “[Town] officers went before [the rioters...] to read the riot-act […]. They were received with [...] stones, and […] pikes, bayonets, and Lochaber-axes […]. The magistrates [...] were constrained to abandon the field to the rioters” (Scott, Heart, Chap 6, 64). Obeying the Riot Act, the commander of the regiment extra muros refused to enter Edinburgh without written instructtions from the authorities, unable to contact him. The 1725 Malt Tax Riots had also seen the unauthorised use of force: a Glasgow Council charge of murder against the commanding officer fell through. Ramsay fils wrote about The Riot Act.

13RAMSAY THE YOUNGER (1713-1784), Principal Painter in Ordinary to George III, participated in Enlightenment sociability, for example as founder of the Edinburgh Select Club, joined by his friends Hume and Smith, and in the Johnson-Boswell circle. He published a dozen important texts on art, politics and the law. Ramsay’s Observations upon the Riot Act, With an Attempt Towards the Amendment of it. By a Dilettante in Law and Politics (1781) was triggered by the Gordon Riots (1780), which followed petitioning to repeal the Papists Act (1778). This law had reduced official discrimination against Catholics in order to attract more into the British Army, fighting the American War of Independence (1775-1784). On 2 June 1780 some 60,000 supporters of the Protestant Association of London, Westminster and Southwark marched to Parliament with a petition to abolish the Papists Act. Presented by Lord George Gordon, only nine MPs voted to receive it. A riot then began outside Parliament and continued until the 9th of June against Catholic targets, then against Law Courts, the private houses of Judges and supporters of the new law, and prisons, finally against the Bank of England. The Privy Council then permitted the army to fire without magistrates first reading the Riot Act. The Lord Mayor was convicted for failing to read the Act and fined £1,000. Three hundred rioters were shot dead and nineteen were executed (Sherwood, 1997, 25). A hundred Roman Catholic homes and religious buildings were destroyed, besides costly damage to public buildings. Total cost was near £100,000 (about £16 million in today’s values; Anon, “Measuring worth”, n.p.).

14Lord George Gordon (1751-1793) was President of the Protestant Association at the time of the riots. 29 years old, the former naval lieutenant, MP for a Buckinghamshire constituency, was the youngest son of the Duke of Gordon. He argued that the Papists Act might lead to absolute monarchical rule, as under the Stuarts, since British Catholic soldiers might turn against Britain, arguments repeated by his fictional self in Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty (1841). Gordon had successfully led Scottish opposition in 1779 to the extension of the Papists Act to Scotland. Rioting had incited Catholics there to ask (with success) Prime Minister Lord North to withdraw it. Thus, E.C. Black describes the Gordon Riots as “merely the climax of organized agitation which had [...] already achieved singular success in Scotland” (1963, 183). Gordon expected to succeed in England (and Wales) too. The Scottish background was explicit in Gordon’s speeches in Parliament. For example, on 25th November 1779, he declared the Scots “are convinced [...] that the King is a papist” (Cannon, 1964, n.p.). On 8th March 1780 he said “he had 160,000 men in Scotland at his command, and that if the King did not keep his coronation oath [...] they were determined to cut off his head”. In the House of Commons Lobby Gordon told the crowd that “the Scotch [...] had no redress until they pulled down the mass-houses” (White, 2011, n.p.). He offered Lord North his aid to end the riots, but was tried for high treason. His lawyer Thomas Erskine (1750-1823), son of the Earl of Buchan, pleaded: “we are not trying whether he might or ought to have foreseen mischief, but whether he wickedly and traitorously preconcerted and designed it” (Cannon, n.p.). He was found Not Guilty.

15The Riot Act became effective in 1715 in the context of the Coronation Riots of 1714, the 1715 General Election riots and the Jacobite Rising thoughout Britain. This Act of the recently created British Parliament, passed during the first year of the reign of the first British Hanoverian, was aimed at “preventing tumults and riotous assemblies” and provided for “more speedy and effectual punishing” of rioters. Its twelve clauses gave the conditions of use of the legislation: number of persons assembled (at least twelve); their behaviour (unruliness); an authorised officer (a justice of the peace in all places, but also a mayor, bailiff or other head officer in an incorporated town or city, and the sheriff or under-sheriff in non-incorporated areas); an oral warning to the assembled persons ( “Our Sovereign Lord the King [...] commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse [...] upon the pains contained in the act [...]. God Save the King!”); a time period to disperse (one hour); a riposte in case of non-compliance (intervention by law-enforcement officers who might enroll the aid of bystanders); indictment for felony in case of non-compliance (meaning a serious crime, not a simple misdemeanour); a punishment (an automatic death sentence, fines for the local inhabitants in case of damage to houses, agricultural property, or places of religious worship). Over time, a belief arose that the precise conditions and wording of the Act had to be respected to make its use legal; the word rather than the spirit of the law came to dominate public understanding. This problem is addresed by Ramsay fils. What were the reactions of Ramsay the Younger to crimes committed, and to the punishments?

16First, following a somewhat philosophical method, Ramsay sees the Gordon Riots as an example of the general defects of the Riot Act, and therefore shows no interest in the details of the crimes committed during the London riots, or the specific punishments, and makes little reference to their religious motives. His argument is well organized in three parts: the defects of the Act, the principles upon which it may be amended, the amendments themselves. He condemns a problem of method in the unclear “Order and arrangement” of the Act, which should start from “what is solid and undeniable, and then proceed [...] to what is [...] more slight, uncertain, or arbitrary” (6), rather than the opposite. He prones a common sense approach: “the plain road of sense and experience; and not […] metaphysical cobwebs, or […] chimerical dangers” (27). In part, this is justified by the need to make the law relatively clear to all; that it was brilliantly explained by Ramsay’s uncle-in-law Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, is not pertinent as “the Act was not made to regulate the conduct of such men” (4). Ramsay has a conservative attitude to law; since laws restrain liberty, they are only justified by real, present needs: “Laws are not the offspring of choice, but of necessity. They are always restraints, and always [...] evils […]. It is sufficient for us to relieve ourselves from the inconveniences we actually feel; leaving future disorders to be remedied by future Acts of Parliament” (30-31). He avoids a more theoretical and universal approach; perfected and stable codes of law are inappropriate for human nature: “To guard against every mischief which imagination may suggest, is what I do not attempt; not will it ever be attempted by any man who has seriously reflected upon the imperfect and fluctuating nature of human affairs” (30). Thus Ramsay seeks to solve only existing problems, in a practical, experience-based, common sense manner, rather then hypothetical problems, using abstract theory. This suggests the conservative, evolutionary attitudes of Edmund Burke (1729-1797), but also the Scottish School of Common Sense represented by other contemporaries such as Thomas Reid (1710-1796) and Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), whose realism was a reaction to the epistemological scepticism of Hume (1711-1776).

17Presenting himself as an amateur “Dilettante”, and thus a gentleman, addressing himself to others interested in constitutional “Law and Politics”, within the framework of a divinely instituted Law and Government (3), Ramsay proposes a “general cause” (1) for the Gordon Riots and similar disorders, which is: “the errors and defects of […] the RIOT ACT” (3). He emphasises its lack of clarity, as “not universally intelligible” in its function “as a guide to Rioters, Soldiers, and Justices of the Peace; men […] not […] endowed with an extraordinary share of legal knowledge” (4). In general terms, he condemns the “late horrid outrages” (1), the “disorder” (3), associated with “envy”, “hate”, and the many other motives of the rioters, who included (according to Ramsay) militant Protestants, French spies, opponents of the Tory government (Whigs, radicals, et cetera), looters, and supporters of the hostile American colonists (1). However, he shows no interest in the details of the crimes committed by the rioters or the punishments meted out. He makes little reference to the religious motive behind the Gordon Riots. Indeed, he discusses religion very little. He mentions “militant protestants” among the rioters, and the general sectarian tendency for the least genteel followers of each Christian branch to hate other Christians: “the vulgar of one religious persuasion will always hate those of another” (2). He declares that the tenth and ultimate clause of the Riot Act, concerning religion in Scotland, should be rescinded. It protects Episcopalian places of worship from attack, notably by Presbyterians and others who see prayers for the Royal Family as Erastinian acceptance of temporal above religious powers: “this act shall extend to all places for religious worship, in [...] Scotland, [...] where his majesty […], the prince and princess of Wales, and their issue, are prayed for in express words” (The Riot Act, Clause X). However, Ramsay sees this clause as demonstrating the limited vision of the legislators: “it seems to imply a power permitted by law to the rabble to pull down places of worship of a certain description; a permission inconsistent with every principle of civil government; and which discovers […] the narrow and temporary views of those who […] fram [ed…] it” (27). He thus notes the law might suggest that Catholic places of worship, where the Royal Family is not explicitly prayed for, might not be protected. This might indeed give tacit permission for their destruction by a mob. Ramsay indicates neither pro nor anti-Catholic sentiments. Given his many years in Catholic Italy, he was probably tolerant with respect to British Catholics. In short, Ramsay devotes little space to the religious aspects of the Gordon Riots and the Riot Act. However, he proposes a key role for the Army.

18Ramsay proposes that the Army should be able to directly read the Riot Act where the civil authorities are unavailable or unwilling. This entails no risk of military dictatorship since Parliament, and no longer the monarch, is the paymaster of the troops, its armed force. The form of the law has gained precedence over its substance: “the minds of those who read this Act are […] impressed with the idea that these […] formalities are the essentials of it; and that […] an exact observance of these formalities was to be followed” (8). This erroneous formalist interpretation of the Riot Act is proven by “the actual language and conduct of rioters and soldiers” (8). They all believe that “without the presence […] of a Justice of the Peace, a military force […] cannot be legally applied in preventing any band of ruffians from burning houses” (9). This widely-held belief is based on a “misunderstanding”: military and civilians believe there is “some positive law”, some “legal liberty”, “some supposed authority”, that gives rioters rights. Thus, during the Gordon Riots, it was argued that “Lord MANSFIELD’s house was burnt under the sanction of the Riot Act” (9). Since army intervention is supposed illegal without the public reading of the Riot Act by a civil officer, the latter is seen as the cause of army action. The mob is inclined to take revenge on any civil officer causing the army to shoot rioters. Thus the said officers often refuse to play their role for fear of reprisals on their lives and property:

[…] the peace officers [...] have shrunk from that duty, upon many occasions [...]. In the late horrid riots, they expressly declared it was a task [...] they [...] would not undertake [...]. After a Justice of the Peace has given orders to the soldiers to fire upon an insolent and mischievous rabble, the soldiers march off [...], leaving the helpless justice to be murdered, or to have his house pulled down, or burned. (11-12)

19Ramsay therefore proposes that “the law should delegate the reading of it [the Riot Act] to such persons as there is reason to believe will actually perform what the law requires of them [...]. We know of none but the military officers” (12).

20Ramsay acknowledges that many readers will be frightened by the idea of giving such powers to the army. Many “well-meaning people” will see the innovation as a milestone to military dictatorship. Used to “liberty and military set in opposition to one another [... they] will be startled at seeing a military officer introduced into an act of parliament as a substitute for a peace officer; and will [...] call it a dangerous innovation, tending to introduce, by degrees, a military government” (27-28). However, he suggests he is just returning to the long-established practice before 1715: “a restauration of the Common law, and ancient practice [...]; when our Kings, in preserving the peace, employed [...] military force [...] by the intermediation of the officers, like the Sheriffs, who were both civil and military” (28). He points out that the military are already subject to law: “a military officer, acting [...] as a Justice of Peace is [...] equally menable to the civil courts for any abuse of the authority” (13-14), while the ordinary soldiers “are [...] equally punishable with other citizens, by the ordinary courts of justice, in case of their committing any acts of illegal violence” (14). They are therefore subject to Parliament and in that respect are its servants: “Soldiers [...] are excellent servants, but bad masters; for which reason I wish to see their duty in quelling riots, both authorised and limited by the supreme legislative body, and to have as little left to their own discretion as the nature of things will permit” (29). Servants of Parliament, they are therefore also the “assistants” of the civil officers of the State, proving themselves indispensable, obedient and well-behaved: “the assistance of soldiers is always required upon such occasions [of riot]. [E] xperience has proved them to be, not only the most effectual, but the most orderly, sober, and manageable assistants a magistrate [...] can find” (14).

21To assuage fears that his proposed changes would give excessive power to the Army, Ramsay insists that Parliament is the paymaster of the Army and therefore its only master. He underlines the financial power of the Commons, representing British property owners; the monarch no longer pays the Army directly and thus can no longer command it: “While the House of Commons is alone, intrusted with the power of raising money for the payment of the Army, the Army must always continue to be the servant of that House, and of [...] the proprietary people; and can never be used as an instrument [...] of a King” (29). This supports the regime established in reaction to James II and VII by the Bill of Rights (1689), which notably asserted that the peacetime army should be maintained only with Parliament’s consent and that taxes (including those that pay the military forces) should be levied only with the authority of Parliament. Ramsay’s insistence on the House of Commons (rather than the Lords) reflects the rise of the representative body of British tax-paying land and property owners, including a Scottish electorate of some 4,000 to which Ramsay belonged. Finally, Ramsay supports Parliament against unelected crowds and their leaders.

22 Indeed, he strongly supports parliamentary sovereignty against those who attempted to intimidate the law-makers in 1780. For Ramsay, Parliament is the sovereign power; the non-enfranchised majority is not legitimate. Indeed, he sees the real potential for dictatorship in extra-parliamentary “associations”, “cabals” and “combinations”. Cabals refers to secret groups (that of the celebrated ministry of Charles II), associations may suggest groups with a shared criminal purpose (cf. the case against Wilson and his “associates”), while combinations evokes the later Combination Laws “to prevent Unlawful Combinations of Workmen”, which prohibited trade unions and collective bargaining during fears over Jacobin activity in Britain. Ramsay uses the epithets, suggesting secret, criminal, worker associations, with reference to the “undistinguished people”, those of lowly rank. He sees such extra-parliamentary collective action as a step towards dictatorship. He situates the Gordon Riots in this context of a threat to the parliamentary regime by self-proclaimed alternative authorities:

The real steps towards the establishment of military government are those which have been lately taken to undermine, or to overset, the authority of parliament, by setting up asssociations and cabals of the undistingushed people to overrule its proceedings; and it is to guard against those dangerous combinations, of which we have lately had a most frightening experience, that is particularly aimed at in the foregoing remarks. (30)

23His general reference may be to the extra-parliamentary radicalism emerging at the time of the American War (1775-1783) and demanding an extension of the franchise, notably. He opposes popular to parliamentary government: “If there are any persons who, notwithstanding their late experience, are still fond of popular government, in contradiction to what is parliamentary, they will certainly disapprove of some of the most important of my amendments” (31). Again, he seems to attack the nascent radicalism of the 1770s and defend the property-based parliamentary regime instituted by the Bill of Rights.

24Ramsay’s amendments to the Riot Act thus underline the authority of Parliament - a crowd cannot legally evoke as a reason for its public actions any political project, notably that of presenting a petition to the monarch or Parliament. He sees this as an attempt to frighten or to influence the sovereign body and thereby reduce its independent decision-making powers:

[…] if [...] twelve or more, shall unlawfully, riotously and tumultuously assemble together [...] under pretence of petitioning the King, or either of the houses of Parliament [...], or on any other pretence tending to overawe or to abridge that independency in which the happy constitution of these realms has placed all the members of its legislative body: That it shall be lawful for any Justices of the Peace, or the Sheriff of the county, or [...] head officers [...] of any city or town [...], or for any officer bearing a military commission [...], to command such an illegal and tumultuous Assembly, by Proclamation to be made in the King’s name.
20-21; Ramsays’ italics

25 Ramsay highlights political riot by large groups of organised persons aiming to change the minds of the lawmakers. His amendments would promote freedom, essentially linked to the parliamentary regime: “these amendments [...] operate in preserving our freedoms, and in preventing a military government [...]. Whatever [...] preserve [s] the independency and authority of Parliament, tends [...] to the preservation of Liberty, and such are the express purposes of the [se] amendments” (28-29). Thus Ramsay summarises the debate as one about the preservation of liberty, by means of a “free government”, which he identifies with “parliamentary government”. The popular movements are seen as dangerous to freedom. Ramsay’s other writings form an enlightening context. Thoughts on the Origin and the Nature of Government (1766) approves the military suppression of the Malt Tax riots; British Americans should thereby learn to obey and pay stamp tax (56-59). A Plan of Re-Union between Great Britain and her Colonies (1778) advocates harsher measures against American colonists. A Letter to Edmund Burke (1780) defends the parliamentary system. A Succinct Review (1782) recommends “universal terror and anxiety” for the colonists who have formed “a Government, the most popular imaginable” (14, 27). Right of Conquest (1783) favours colonial conquest. Letters on the Present Disturbances (1777) worries that:

We have seen everything relating to Public Law or Government turned [...] upside down [...]. The American disclaims the authority of the British Legislature, and insists upon the Right of taxing himself [...]. The Coalheaver [...] insists on the right of regulating his own wages. The [...] judge [...] is forced to plead before the criminal. (14)

26Be it for the colonies or for Britain, Ramsay defends a stable, hierarchical society based on a constitutional order over which parliament is sovereign. Sebastian Mitchell provides an essential link between Ramsay’s writings and his portraits:

[…] his writing and painting [...] [are] opposite sides of the same coin: rebellious colonists, domestic rioters, parliamentary reformers, truculent employees and criminals who won’t acknowledge the authority of the courts, are the obverse of the propertied, emotionally tempered [...] individuals who populate his paintings. His political writings [...] can [...] be understood to have a complementary defensive role to his art, endeavouring to sustain that harmonious elegant vision of the United Kingdom by identifying those forces which threaten the constitutional settlement and recommending the necessary measures to repel them.
Mitchell, 90

27 In conclusion, what were the respective reactions of the Ramsays to the crimes committed, and to the punishments? Ramsay the Elder reacts to the Edinburgh events by focussing on an immediate and just solution to the particular case, while quietly implying that the hanged man was another victim of post-Union fiscal policy imposed by a London Parliament (to which his theatre will also fall victim). He reacts in an emotional way to a very recent event concerning fellow citizens in a close community. His tone is practical, personal, down-to-earth. He seeks justice for innocent “respect table” people. He demands punishment for Porteous only (not the Guards), culpable of misjudgement of the situation, and of inappropriate and illegal behaviour – angry, precipitant, failing to read the Riot Act. Ramsay therefore reacts as a concerned citizen, a respectable member of Edinburgh society, doing his civic duty by reporting an event prejudicial to the public peace, while also making a “patriotic” comment on the deleterious economic effects of the Union and asking for help as a self-made man, an entrepreneur, but also a (future) victim of legislation.

28While Ramsay père, within hours, dashes off his reaction to a recent event, before its denouement, his son takes the relative leisure of writing carefully and publishing well after the events. He appears emotionally distant from the rioters and victims. He seems more concerned by the general than the particular and the Gordon Riots are taken as a salutary example. The dominant value expressed is not justice but order: in the context of political riot, Ramsay considers how to support Parliament as the apex of the post- 1689 regime. He would forbid lobbyists who use crowds or force to intimidate the sovereign lawmakers; large numbers are not a legitimate argument against the representatives of the property owners, the minority. While the eye-witness account by the father is roughly in line with the other eye-witnesses cited by the Scottish Lord Advocate, the reaction of the son to the London riots is less typical, drawing attention to the political motives rather than the religious ones, in the years of British and American radicalism before the French Revolution.

29Ramsay the Elder reacts as an Edinburgh citizen, a Scot, a reluctant Briton, whereas Ramsay the Younger writes as a convinced Briton, not drawing attention to Scottish elements concerning Gordon or himself, for example. In the 1730s, the father still harboured doubts about the Union, still wrote Jacobite poems. During the same period, his son may have had similar doubts - he painted the only portrait of the Young Pretender in Scotland during the 1745 Jacobite Uprising (Lax, “A New Portrait”). However, by the 1780s Ramsay the Younger is clearly a member of the British Establishment. The father reveals the Edinburgh roots of Enlightenment, while his son exemplifies the more British outlook of the second generation of Enlightened Scots. In their respective reactions to crime and punishment, together the Ramsays represent a Janus-like Scotto-British vision typical of the Scottish Enlightenment.



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Université du Littoral, HLLI, Dunkirk.
Université du Littoral, HLLI, Dunkerke, France.
Michael Murphy is Senior Lecturer in British Studies at the Université du Littoral (ULCO) since 2003, researching the Enlightenment, Scotland, and British educational systems. He’s a member of HLLI research laboratory, EA 4030. He’s the author of “Buckingham : un palais impérial britannique ?”, Li Ma (dir.), Cité Interdite, Palais impériaux et cours royales, comparaison entre les symboles du pouvoir en Orient et en Occident, Paris, CNRS Éditions, 2018, 91-102. ACL ; and “Allan Ramsay’s Poetic Language of Anglo-Scottish rapprochement”, Études Écossaises n° 17, 2015, 13-30. ACL.

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