Muir, Thomas (DNB00)

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MUIR, THOMAS (1765–1798), parliamentary reformer, was born at Glasgow on 24 Aug. 1765, being the only son of Thomas Muir, a flourishing tradesman, who in 1753 published a pamphlet on England's foreign trade. He was educated at Glasgow grammar school and at the university, intending at first to enter the church, but ultimately deciding on the bar, for which he prepared himself under John Millar. In the session of 1783-4 he was charged with writing a lampoon on professors who had quarrelled with their colleague, John Anderson (1726-1796) [q. v.], and was expelled with twelve other malcontents. Migrating to Edinburgh he completed his studies there, and on 24 Nov. 1787 was admitted into the Faculty of Advocates. He was an elder of the church at Cadder, Lanarkshire, sat in the general assembly, and had good prospects at the bar, where he sometimes pleaded gratuitously for those whom he thought oppressed. The formation of the London Society of the Friends of the People led to a meeting at Glasgow, 16 Oct. 1792, for the creation of a kindred society for obtaining parliamentary reform. Muir took part in it, and being a good speaker attended similar meetings at Kirkintilloch and Milton, as well as the convention of delegates held at Edinburgh. At one of the sittings of the latter he read an address from United Irishmen, transmitted to him by Archibald Hamilton Rowan, which expressed satisfaction at seeing that 'the spirit of freedom moves on the face of Scotland, and that light seems to break from the chaos of her internal government.' On 2 Jan. 1793 Muir was arrested on a charge of sedition, declined (as he had always advised his clients) to answer the sheriff's questions, and was liberated on bail. Shunned or insulted by his brother advocates, he immediately started for France, was entertained on the way by the London Society, and commissioned by it to remonstrate against the execution of Louis XVI, but he did not reach Paris till the day before that event. While enjoying the 'friendship of an amiable and distinguished circle' in Paris, he was outlawed at Edinburgh, his recognisances were estreated, and he was struck off the roll of the Faculty of Advocates. After some months he returned to Scotland, was arrested at Port Ettrick, and on 30 Aug. was tried before the high court of justiciary at Edinburgh. He was accused of exciting a spirit of disloyalty and disaffection, of recommending Paine's 'Rights of Man,' of distributing seditious writings, and of reading aloud a seditious writing. He had asked Erskine to defend him, but had declined Erskine's very natural stipulation that the case should be left entirely to him, and he consequently defended himself. He objected to the first five of the fifteen jurors summoned as having prejudged the case, for they belonged to the so-called Goldsmiths' Hall Association, which had offered a reward for the discovery of persons circulating Paine's works. The objection was overruled, and a naval officer who demurred to being juror in a government prosecution was required to serve. The elder Muir's maid-servant and other witnesses deposed to his conversation and speeches and to his qualified approval of Paine's works, one of which lie had given to an applicant. Muir called witnesses to prove that he had always deprecated violence, and he denied that he went to France on any mission but that of saving life. The trial, conducted in a tone of partisanship which shocked Romilly, a spectator, lasted till 2 a.m., and at noon on 31 Aug. Muir was convicted. He was sentenced to fourteen years' transportation. The jury were in consternation, and would have petitioned for a commutation had not one of them received a threatening anonymous letter, and a juror long afterwards told Sir J. Gibson Craig, in explanation of the verdict, 'We were all mad' (Preface to Allen, Inquiry into the Prerogative, 1830). The legality of a sentence of transportation for sedition was ineffectually disputed in both houses of parliament, and in March 1794 Muir, with T. F. Palmer, Skirving, and Margarot, was despatched to Botany Bay. He purchased a small farm, which he called Hunter's Hill, after his Scottish patrimony, and which is now a suburb of Sydney. His case excited sympathy in the United States, and the Otter, Captain Dawes, was sent out from New York to rescue him. On 11 Feb. 1796 this was effected. After a variety of adventures, shipwreck in Nootka Sound, captivity among the American Indians, hospitable treatment in Mexico, and imprisonment at Havannah, Muir was sent in a Spanish frigate to Cadiz. The frigate was attacked off Cadiz by two English vessels. Muir had one eye and part of his cheek shot off, and was lying senseless among the dead, when an old schoolfellow is said to have identified him by the inscription in the Bible clasped in his hand and to have sent him ashore with the rest of the wounded. The Cadiz authorities, though he had fought for Spain, detained him as a British subject and prisoner of war, but the French Directory obtained his release, offering him hospitality and citizenship. After a public reception at Bordeaux Muir reached Paris 4 Feb. 1798, and was welcomed by the Directory, but his wound proved incurable, and he expired at Chantilly 27 Sept. 1798. A monument to Muir and other Scottish political reformers was erected on Calton Hill, Edinburgh, in 1844.

[Life by P. Mackenzie, Glasgow, 1831; Histoire de la tyrannie exercée contre Muir, Paris, 1798; Moniteur Universel, 1797–9; Lives of Scotch Reformers, 1836; Mem. of Political Martyrs of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1837; G. B. Hill's ed. of Boswell's Johnson, i. 467, London, 1887; Lord Cockburn's Trials for Sedition, 1888; Heaton's Australian Dictionary of Dates, p. 148; Massey's Hist. of England, 1863; Adolphus's Hist. of England; Howell's State Trials and other reports of the trial.]

J. G. A.