23 March 2011

Glasgow University riots of the 1700s...

Mischief is afoot in my old alma mater, the University of Glasgow. Martin Williams of the Herald makes the extravagant claim this morning that ...

"Mr Muscatelli came under increasing pressure last night as a band of nearly 100 outraged academics signed a joint statement condemning the university’s actions, which sparked the scenes of anarchy unprecedented in its 560-year history."

Not so unprecedented, really. Reading Ian Ross's The Life of Adam Smith (2010) soon disabuses you of the impression that the recent stramash has any claim to precedence. Indeed, compared to the mischief of the early 1700s, this week's single broken window seems positively tame. Like the incumbent, former Principal John Stirling had his troubles. Describing the 1726 Commission of Visitation to the University, Ross writes...

"In the first instance, the Commission saw a need to correct problems caused by Stirling antagonizing some colleagues and the students through insisting on his own decisions and the advancement of adherents in defiance of what were claimed to be the normal procedures.  A case in point was the election of the rector, in Scotland as in many European countries the titular head of a university. Principal Stirling excluded students from the electoral body, and his action became a focus for discontent. While Glasgow students were mostly boys in their early teens, there was a sizeable number of Irish Presbyterian students and graduates, who were older and ready to be more politically active because of the struggles of Dissenters in their homeland to secure civil and religious liberties. Responding to encouragement by professors opposed to Stirling, their rhetoric painted him as a tyrant and their cause as the vindication of rights. These efforts sustained a tradition of political discourse that was to influence Smith in his stand for natural liberty. Student turmoil in Glasgow must have helped to form his outlook as well as instruction from Francis Hutcheson and his prescribed and independent reading.

In 1722, a group of Smith's predecessors among the student body lit a bonfire opposite the college gate to celebrate a mistaken report that the Irish peer, Robert 1st Viscount Molesworth, had become MP for Westminster as a result of the general election. Leader of the Old Whig party in Ireland, as well as bring a friend of Locke, Shaftesbury, and Swift, also of Hutcheson, then teaching at a Presbyterian academy in Dublin, Molesworth sympathized with the student radicals in Glasgow and corresponded with them. The Senior Regent, Gershom Carmichael, sought to have the bonfire quenched and was assaulted by one of the student leaders, John Smith, an Irish divinity student at Glasgow. He was expelled but later in the year published in Dublin a pamphlet dealing with the affair: A Short Account of the Late Treatment of the Students of the University of Glasgow. The students raised an action in the Court of Session, and planned to petition the House of Commons for restoration of their right to vote in the rectorial election, confident that Molesworth would be their champion.  Carmichael, who had a role in the development of Scottish philosophy as a teacher of the natural law tradition associated with Grotius and Pufendorf, had inflamed the students in 1717 with a "noble Harrangue ... in praise of Liberty", but he had abandoned the students' cause in return for a favour to his son by Principal Stirling. In 1725, rebellious students attacked the house of the Rector, Sir Hugh Montgomerie of Hartfield, manoeuvred into office by Stirling..." (Ian Ross [2010] The Life of Adam Smith pp. 36 -7).

Plus ça change, eh?


  1. Indeed. When a rather prominent protest leader was interviewed by the BBC in the Hetherington building, he was asked precisely what message he wanted to send out. Rather than saying that it was illogical to close an extremely well-regarded and profitable nursing department, or emphasising the absurdity of trying to run a major European research university while planning to close much of the modern languages department, he said we are fighting to send a message to the government on fees. He clearly meant Westminster. Sadly, many of these people are misguided, ill-informed attention seekers with too much free time.

  2. Anonymous,

    One of the benefits of not owing a telly is that I miss such nuggets of wisdom. Sounds like a real pity and an opportunity missed, that. The proposed closure of DACE seems to me to be particularly disappointing. Surely a virtuous University should go beyond inchoate good intentions - and actually strive practically to be part of their broader community, rather than being satisfied to be an insular sites of privileged knowledge.