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In 1831 and again in 1833, Waugh and Innes of Edinburgh published a history of Liberia by ‘Minister of the Gospel’ William Innes.
In his Liberia: Or, The Early History & Signal Preservation of the American Colony of Free Negroes on the Coast of Africa, Innes describes the founding, structure, and struggles of this West African colony, founded in the early 1820’s as a haven for free and previously enslaved people of African descent and for ‘recaptives’ rescued from the newly illegal transatlantic slave trade. Innes was an alumnus of the University of Edinburgh, an ‘independent’-minded Presbyterian and then Baptist minister, one-time chaplain of Stirling Castle, missionary, bookseller, and author of over two dozen books and other publications, mostly on religious topics. The titles of his publications, such as Reasons for Separating from the Church of Scotland (Dundee, 1804), Christianity, the Only Effectual Support Under the Afflictions of Life (Edinburgh, 1810), Domestic Religion, or an Exposition of the Precepts of Christianity Regarding the Duties of Domestic Life (Edinburgh, 1822), and Instructions for Young Enquirers (Edinburgh, translated into Gaelic 1827) indicate why this otherwise mostly theological writer decided to write a history of a colony. As we shall see, this reform-minded man viewed Liberia as a worthy project within the larger goal of uplifting lives as well as souls.
Although Innes’ account includes some discussion of the hardships faced by the colonists trying to build a community in and wrest a living from this unfamiliar and somewhat hostile territory, he presents a generally positive view of the experience and prospects of the Liberian colonization project. Indeed, Innes seems anxious to convince his readers that the colony could not only exist and thrive, but that it should. As we shall see, Liberia is, to Innes, a project of community-building in line with ordered nature and with American beliefs in democracy, self-sufficiency, and the sense of social harmony necessary for a united and healthy political community. In interrogating this text, then, we are led to ask: how are ideas about citizenship and belonging implied and described in Innes’ history of Liberia, how do they relate to the lived experiences of Amero-Africans in the United States and Liberia, and how are these ideas challenged?
Innes commences his history with a discussion of the historical conditions in which this colonization movement arose. The American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded in November of 1816 as a benevolent institution dedicated to the long-conceived but as yet unsystematic scheme of colonizing black inhabitants of the United States to Africa, the continent of their ancestral origin. As Innes and many others saw it, including many abolitionists and proslavery advocates alike, black people could never live peacefully side by side with white Americans. Innes writes that all black persons are ‘branded by their colour as an inferior caste.’ He argues that so long as they live as an ‘inferior’ class within the general community of free persons, both black and white will suffer the ill effects of living in a mixed-race society, made up as it is of people with necessarily disparate natures and irreconcilable interests. So long as people of African descent live within the mainstream white American community, the majority of the former will remain ‘idle, ignorant, vicious’ as a result of their disfavor, and cites as an example of this that ‘in many cases the free negroes are a great annoyance to the community, often living by pilfering the property of their neighbors.’ Therefore, Innes explains, the only way that people of African descent can create communities to which they naturally belong is to form them separately from white communities, and the best place to do so is by establishing their own communities in the continent of their ancestor’s origin. In doing so, they can enjoy the rights and privileges of citizens with others who share their place in the racial hierarchy.  In his majority opinion for the United States Supreme Court 1856 decision in the Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford case, which exacerbated the divisive political issues of slavery and race that helped spark the United States’ Civil War, Chief Justice Roger Taney agrees with Innes’ theory of natural racial separation. He likewise believes that human beings are manifestly and naturally separated into inferior and superior races that cannot form a united political community. Ideas such as Innes’ and Taney’s permeated political debate and policy in the United States for decades to come, widely disenfranchising black Americans and relegating them to second-class citizenship throughout the nation.
Yet the colonization scheme as described above is a manifestation of paradoxical ideas about belonging and citizenship rather than a straightforward, across the board rejection of the rights or abilities of black persons to enjoy political power, despite Taney’s assertions to the contrary. According to Innes, Taney, many in the ACS, the U.S. government, and so many Americans, people of African origin who were brought to American shores to labor, to raise crops and buildings and in every other way contribute to the economy and to the material well-being of United States citizens nevertheless do not belong within the political community nor could ever be citizens themselves. Yet advocates of colonization such as Innes believed that people of African descent were or could become citizens in Africa even if they were not born there. This was and continued to be believed by many of African descent as well. W.E.B. DuBois, African-American historian, racial theorist, and proponent of the pan-Africanist ‘vision’ of Africa as the natural homeland for all people of African descent, describes Africa as ‘fatherland,’ and ‘motherland.’ DuBois concedes that he has only a ‘tenuous’ connection to Africa ‘in culture and race’, like most people colonized to Africa in Innes’ time. African scholar M.B. Akpan points out that Amero-Africans (acculturated Americans of African descent who settled in Africa) who went to Liberia were vastly different from native Africans in about as many ways as they could be, in dress, language, religion, taste in food, clothing, housing, art, and so on. Yet some, like DuBois, perceived themselves as bound to Africa by an essential ‘kinship.’ For Innes and others, this kinship is entirely racially based; for DuBois and many pan-Africanists, ‘the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery; the discrimination and the insult; and this heritage binds [us] together…’
Innes and proponents of Amero-African colonization, Taney and other racial hierarchists, and pan-Africanists like Dubois share a belief that there is something about a common African descent and shared experiences, however combined with ethnic descent and acculturation from elsewhere, which creates a natural community. Such natural communities, in turn, create opportunities for citizenship that cannot be enjoyed at all, or at least not fully, in any other context. These ideas are in tension throughout Innes’ account of how West African colonies came to be and the way they persisted despite significant challenges and hardships. These challenges arose within the colonies themselves and from conflicts between colonists and the ecology, and between colonists and their native African neighbors. Innes’ account of the difficulties faced by the Liberian colonists differs significantly in many respects from later scholarship and from other contemporary accounts. In Innes’ account, these difficulties are relatively minor compared to the benefits the colonists enjoyed as citizens of a new community to which they rightly belonged. The contrast between Innes’ account and other contemporary accounts backed up by later scholarship imply that Innes’ driving concern to use Liberia as a positive example of how racially-based communities are formed biased his very favorable presentation of the colony.
Regarding their prospects for acceptance and inclusion within the mainstream American social and political community, Innes describes his perception of the state in which non-enslaved people of African descent find themselves:
…[T]roughout the non-slaveholding states, the negroes form a distinct race, branded by their color as an inferior caste; regarded with a species of loathing when thought of as companions, and for ever shut out from the privileges of the white men by whom they are surrounded. Be it prejudice, or founded on reason, the feeling of dislike mutually exists… .No matter what may be their industry and sobriety; no matter what their attainments in science, or their character for morality, they can never hope to pass the broad line of demarcation, or assume a station of equality with the other members of the community.
Racial hierarchists like Taney share the ‘species of loathing’ which Innes describes. Today, Innes’ and Taney’s descriptions of race relations are difficult to read, especially Taney’s. For one, they conflict with contemporary thoughts and sensibilities about race which are, in the main, orders of magnitude more optimistic about the likelihood that people of various races and ethnicities can meaningfully share and participate in communities as social and political equals. For another, they don’t ring true, especially in Taney’s harsh Dred Scott account of the social and political issues of race in America. After all, there were many mixed-race communities in which black Americans lived relatively safely and peacefully alongside their white neighbors even given the national tensions over issues of race. Leading black abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass settled in one such community, New Bedford, Massachusetts, following his escape from slavery in Maryland in 1838. Taney’s opinion reads very much like a partisan political document and presents a wholly dismal picture of both the capabilities and prospects of people of African descent. Innes’ commentary, on the other hand, presents a more mixed though still racially hierarchical view. On the one hand, he implies in the selection above and makes clearer elsewhere that he believes people of African descent are fully capable of ‘industry and sobriety,’ of morality, of worthy and admirable attainments, of being ‘provident’ and ‘respectable,’ of conducting ‘affairs of empire,’ and so on. Yet Innes does not believe they are capable of this, on the whole, so long as they live in communities among their white racial ‘superiors.’ Removal from white society and colonization with others of their own racial heritage, then, is the answer.
Yet all the qualities that Innes enumerates as making people belong within communities and which he characterizes as those of good citizens, he already ascribes to Americans of African descent. We can see this most clearly in the passages in Innes’ history where he describes the contrast between Amero-African colonizers and the beneficial and ‘civilizing’ influence that they exert on their native Africans neighbors. In matters of language, religion, dress, morality, ability, education, and so on, they are in turn, deems Innes, superior to their native African neighbors and the latter, recognizing this, wish to emulate them. We can also recognize Innes’ conflicting views in the terms he chooses to refer to the Amero-African colonists and the native African peoples in their territorial conflicts. When describing the participants and victims of battles, Innes refers to Amero-Africans and their native African allies in such terms as ‘woman’, ‘men,’ ‘persons,’ ‘mother’, ‘the people’, and so on. By contrast, Innes refers to native Africans primarily by terms such as ‘barbarian,’ ‘savage’, ‘enemy’, and ‘wretches’, characterized by ‘moral deformity.’ This implies that for Innes, civilization can depend on culture, virtues, religious beliefs, and modes of comportment rather than race. The very qualities that make people belong to a community and become good citizens can and are often held by Amero-Africans whatever side of the Atlantic. As we can see in the selection above, Innes concedes this even as he explains why black people cannot belong within American white communities. He allows that black individuals can and do ‘rise above their degraded brethren’ and exhibit such good-citizenship qualities as ‘character for morality’ and ‘industry and sobriety,’ capable of ‘mak[ing] attainments in science’ and so forth. Innes, then, presents two very distinct conceptions of belonging, citizenship, and race which are, if not in direct conflict, at least in tension with one another.
Perhaps Innes resolves these conflicting ideas about race and belonging to his own satisfaction through his appeal to divine approval. Innes, as a ‘Minister of the Gospel,’ looks for and finds signs of God’s will that the Liberian colony survive. He argues that God must approve of removing black people to Liberia because the preservation of Liberian colonies is unlikely otherwise given the obstacles they faced, which in turn shows divine approbation of this racial separation. The idea of divine arrangement of peoples into natural types and nations which pervades Innes’ history resembles such racially hierarchical theories as Taney’s. However, Innes’ view of racial ordering displays more divine benevolence for the black race even as it is extremely patriarchal. Innes perceives a divine will that all people of African descent be redeemed through their separate political and religious institutions. This will best be brought about first by separating the races into naturally sympathetic racially divided communities, and then locating those communities in places where they can spread the gospel of Christ to others of the same race who have not yet received it through the establishment of colonies. The colonizers were then placed in a position to help bring about the divine will in the world such as providing a Christian example to their African neighbors and helping to end the ‘evil’ and ‘dreadful malady’ of the slave trade.
Yet Innes’ overall sunny take on the lived experience of the Liberian colonists contrasts with contemporary and later accounts of the Liberian experiment. Douglass, for example, is skeptical of the glowing accounts of the colony’s success as well as of its prospects of helping to end the slave trade; he questions the motives and therefore the accuracy of those offering glowing accounts of the colonization effort’s success. Innes’ account is one which invites such skepticism. He considers the ‘signal preservation’ of the colony a sign of God’s approval but does not consider the severe hardships that he chooses to cite such as supply shortages, attacks from neighboring tribes, difficulties raising crops, the fact that they had to wrest the colony’s land concession from Dei ‘King Peter’ at gunpoint, and the high rates of disease and death as signs of God’s disapproval. Innes seems to minimize the hardships in Liberia as he follows every mention of them with an immediate qualification or comparison, such as citing the early American colonies’ struggles or remarking that the Liberian colonies could have suffered worse. He goes so far as to dismiss symptoms of illness as mere climatic adjustment reactions of healthy bodies, though he does admit that many died. According to historian Claude Andrew Clegg, however, the colonists often suffered extremely high rates of hunger, disease, privation, and mortality. Clegg also cites many examples of the colonists’ difficulties, including the telling example of Emily Hooper, a young colonist who, after an extraordinarily difficult and expensive effort on her father’s part to obtain her freedom and fund her journey to Liberia, decided to return to slavery rather than further suffer the hardships of the colony. This episode was a great embarrassment to the ACS.
In addition to the evidence of hardship and mortality in many reports, accounts like Innes’ are roundly challenged by argument and even ridicule. One particularly scornful and influential critic of the colonization scheme was Douglass. Indeed, except for the fact that he actually refers to [news]paper accounts in his ‘Persecution on Account of Faith, Persecution on Account of Color’ address delivered in Rochester, New York in 1851, it would be reasonable to assume that Douglass was referring to Innes’ history when he observed: ‘Papers that never speak of colored men in this country but to abuse and slander them, speak in the most flattering terms of …Liberia.’ To Douglass, arguments such as those offered by Innes and American statesman Henry Clay, who recommend the removal of black people from American society due to idleness, lawlessness, and other perceived flaws invite a counter-question: ‘Suppose we should admit… that we are degraded and dissolute, as a class; are there no other degraded and dissolute people?… Who talks of their expatriation?’ to which he answers: ‘No one.’ Douglass also mocks the idea that colonization movement will weaken slavery as an institution. It’s the presence of free black people in slave states that help weaken slavery by demonstrating to the enslaved that there is another way they can live in America. Removing free black people to Africa, argues Douglass, removes this constant and substantial threat to slaveholders’ desire to rule unchallenged over a docile, resigned slave population.
Throughout his early history of Liberia, Innes wavers but does not stray far from his theme of Liberia as a natural home for Americans of African descent. His explanations for how and why Amero-Africans, acculturated to the United States in language, morals, religion, dress, and overall ways of life nevertheless belong in a land which most have never seen are not, as we have seen, entirely consistent. Why Amero-Africans can only successfully gain a sense of belonging and engage as citizens in a place where they are outsiders in every way except skin color is also not satisfactorily explained; indeed, Innis presents Liberia as if it were the only alternative to black Americans continuing to live in a state of political and social exclusion and oppression in mainstream white American society. Innes offers the ‘signal preservation’ of the Liberian colony as proof of its value to God and humankind as well as of its eventual success, but glosses over any consideration that the terrible hardships and dangers that the colonists had to face were evidence to the contrary. Others such as Douglass, however, perceive the flaws in the explanations and evidence that Innes offers, and presents both counterevidence and counterarguments that helped undermine support for the colonization project over the decades of its existence.
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Akpan, M. B. “Black Imperialism: Americo-Liberian Rule over the African Peoples of Liberia, 1841–1964.” Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue Canadienne Des études Africaines 7, no. 2 (1973): 217-36.
Clegg, Claude Andrew. The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia. 2004.
Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies. New York: Library of America, 1996.
Douglass, Frederick, and John R. McKivigan (project director). Frederick Douglass Papers: Digital Edition. Accessed 20 March 2018 at http://frederickdouglass.infoset.io/
Douglass, Frederick, and John W. Blassingame. The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series 1, Speeches, Debates and Interviews; John W. Blassingame, Editor. Vol.1, 1841-46. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1979.
Du Bois, W. E. B., and Herbert Aptheker. Dusk of Dawn. 1975.
Scott, Hew. Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae: The Succession of Ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation, Vol. IV: Synods of Argyll, and of Perth and Stirling. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1923.
Geiss, Imanuel. The Pan-African Movement. London: Methuen, 1974.
Innes, William. Liberia: Or, The Early History & Signal Preservation of the American Colony of Free Negroes on the Coast of Africa. Waugh & Innes; M. Ogle, etc., 1833. Accessed 20 March 2018 at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044051050987
Staudenraus, P. J. The African Colonization Movement, 1816-1865. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.
United States Supreme Court, Roger Brooke Taney, John H Van Evrie, and Samuel A Cartwright. The Dred Scott decision: opinion of Chief Justice Taney. New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1860. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, Accessed 21 March 21, 2018 at https://www.loc.gov/item/17001543/
West, Richard. Back to Africa: A History of Sierra Leone and Liberia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.
 Innes, William. Liberia: Or, The Early History & Signal Preservation of the American Colony of Free Negroes on the Coast of Africa. Waugh & Innes; M. Ogle, etc., 1833, frontispiece
 Clegg, Claude Andrew. The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia. 2004 p. 37
 Staudenraus, P. J. The African Colonization Movement, 1816-1865. London: Oxford University Press, 1961 p. 51
 ‘William Innes’ in Scott, Hew. Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae: The Succession of Ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation, Vol. IV: Synods of Argyll, and of Perth and Stirling. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1923 pp. 325-326
 West, Richard. Back to Africa: A History of Sierra Leone and Liberia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971 p. 93
 Clegg p. 3-4, Staudenraus pp. 2-7
 Ibid. p 102
 Innes pp. iv-v, 101-103
 Ibid. p. iv
 Ibid. pp. 102, 106-107
 Clegg pp. 174, 195-196
 United States Supreme Court, Roger Brooke Taney, John H. Van Evrie, and Samuel A. Cartwright. The Dred Scott decision: opinion of Chief Justice Taney. New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1860 pp. 18-19
 Geiss, Imanuel. The Pan-African Movement. London: Methuen, 1974 p. 5
 Akpan, M. B. “Black Imperialism: Americo-Liberian Rule over the African Peoples of Liberia, 1841–1964.” Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue Canadienne Des études Africaines 7, no. 2 (1973) p. 219
 Du Bois, W. E. B., and Herbert Aptheker. Dusk of Dawn. 1975 pp. 116
 Ibid. p. 117
 Innes pp. 87-89
 Clegg pp. 226-229
 Ibid. p. 102
 Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies. New York: Library of America, 1996 pp. 353ff
 Taney pp. 17-18
 Innes pp. 77, 86-87, 91
 Ibid. pp. 101-102, 176
 Innes p. 83, 86-89
 Ibid. pp. 57-65
 Ibid. p 102
 Ibid., frontispiece
 Ibid. pp. vi-vii, 37-38, 62, 64, 72, 91
 Ibid., pp. 112-115
 Ibid., pp. 9-10, 108-112
 ‘Persecution on Account of Faith, Persecution on Account of Color: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on 26 January 1851,’ North Star, 30 January 1851, in Douglass, Frederick, and John R. McKivigan (project director). Frederick Douglass Papers: Digital Edition, pp. 300-302
 Innes, pp. v-vi, 16-21, 38-39, 93-95, 101, 108-111; Clegg, p. 37; West pp. 114-115
 Innes., pp. 91-92
 Ibid., p. 93
 Clegg, see descriptions and figures in chapter 7 of The Price of Liberty, ‘To Live and Die in Liberia,’ pp. 201-248
 Ibid., pp. 187-188
 Douglass, ‘Persecution,’ p. 302
 ‘Henry Clay and Colonization Cant, Sophistry, and Falsehood: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on 2 February 1851, North Star, 6 February 1851, in Douglass, Frederick, and John R. McKivigan (project director). Frederick Douglass Papers: Digital Edition, p. 323
 Ibid., p. 322
 Staudenraus, pp. 249-250
In honor of David Hume‘s birthday, May 7, 1711, let me share anew my history of ideas travel series and other pieces I’ve written in honor of my favorite philosopher if I was pressed to chose only one. I fell in love with his native Edinburgh when I originally visited in the spring of 2014 but even so, I wouldn’t have predicted I would now be living here furthering my education at his alma mater, the University of Edinburgh. It would have been even more impossible to predict that the window of my flat would be located directly across the narrow square from the University’s David Hume Tower. I was moved to observe one day, and still am whenever I think or tell of it, that the windows of that glassy tower often reflect the light of the rising sun into my window. I could imagine no more poetic image than that of how this great Enlightenment thinker has influenced my life.
Here they are in the order I wrote them, starting several years back. Perhaps you’ll find, as I do when I return to old pieces from time to time, that my thinking has developed and my mind has changed, to various degrees, on some things:
First Day in Old Edinburgh: Hume Sites and Monuments
Hume’s New Scene of Thought, and, It’s Good to Be Able to Say ‘I Don’t Know’
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 2
The Consolations of Philosophy, and A Death Free from Fear
Happy 303rd Birthday, David Hume!
The Debate Over Government and Freedom
The Tale of the Magic Toe – Superstition? Or What?
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 3
Water of Leith
Last Day in Edinburgh, May 13th, 2014
Hume, Aristotle, and Guns
A memory quilt I created for my Edinburgh trip:
A Hill and a Wall in Edinburgh, 2015, 102″ x 69″
Enlightenment Scotland: Site of James Boswell’s Home in James Court, Edinburgh
Enlightenment Scotland: Advocates Library, Edinburgh
Chirnside and Ninewells, Scottish Borders, Childhood and Summer Home of David Hume
Enlightenment Scotland: Edinburgh’s Select Society
Photobook: Robert Adam, Architect of Edinburgh
Photobook: Letter from David Hume to James Balfour, Mar 15, 1753
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In 1754, the portrait painter and antiquarian Allan Ramsay had an idea. He took it to his friends David Hume, philosopher and historian, and Adam Smith, moral and political philosopher, and they liked it. Together, they founded the Select Society, first a discussion club then shortly thereafter a debating club for the intellectual elite of Edinburgh. Besides these three eminent figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, other members who attended that first meeting in the Advocates’ Library on November 12th, 1754 were gentry, clergy, advocates (lawyers), eminent physicians and lawyers, professors, and distinguished well-known men of letters. Yes, men, they were all men, as was customary in eighteenth-century Scotland. Later on, as the Society grew, it welcomed bankers, merchants, and other men of diverse talents who had gained prominence in their fields.
The purpose of the club, according to Rev. Alexander Carlyle, was ‘philosophical inquiry and the improvement of the members in the art of publick speaking.’ The latter, especially, was an important skill for these men, all leaders in academia, religion, business, professional bodies, or public life. Rosalind Carr writes in Gender and Enlightenment Culture in Eighteenth-Century Scotland,
In March 1755, ‘An Account of the Select Socieit [sic] of Edinburgh’ was published in The Scots Magazine, informing the public that: ‘The intention of the gentlemen was, by practice to improve themselves in reasoning and eloquence, and by the freedom of debate, to discover the most effectual methods of promoting the good of the country.’
As the Society grew, it gained renown, though with each growth phase they kept it small enough to remain exclusive. While it never lost its requirement that all members be from the upper crust of society, especially by 1755 they could afford to be very choosy. Being a member of the Select Society gave you instant cachet, and men building a career and establishing a place in society were keen to join. So having a title, money, or an important post wasn’t enough: prospective members had to demonstrate that they were talented and better yet, adept at public speaking and interesting conversation.
To make the Society seem extra-Select, I suppose, the rules were very formal; historian Roger L. Emerson describes them as ‘cumbersome.’ Young up-and-comer James Boswell, who joined in the late 1750’s, approved of the ‘politeness’ in such systems of rules, but Hume preferred the ‘plain roughness’ of the Poker Club, another of the gentlemen’s societies he belonged to. Over time, it seems that many of the Society’s members leaned towards Hume’s view. Attendance began to slip considerably throughout the later 1750’s, and by the end of 1758 the Society had dwindled to a very low and not nearly so distinguished membership. Only the most dedicated members, it seems, were willing to travel to meetings and put up with the old formalities.
By the time of decline and last recorded meeting in early 1764, the Select Society had helped many men build their social and professional circles and establish their reputations as learned and able men. Other clubs and societies directly branched off from this club or were formed by some of its members separately or after this Society ended as well. One was the aforementioned Poker Club, a political group dedicated to establishing a Scottish militia. Others had similar structures and aims as the Select Society but were more dedicated to the arts, the sciences, or general improvement of Scottish life.
As I am wont to do, I decide to follow the Select Society to their meeting places in Edinburgh. All opportunities to poke my nose into interesting buildings, closes (narrow lanes or passageways between buildings), and archives are worth creating, I think, especially those related to the Scottish Enlightenment! So I begin with the Advocates Library in the old Parliament House, their first meeting place. I’ve been to the current Advocates Library, designed by William Henry Playfair in 1830 and completed with Robert Matheson’s alterations in 1856. (Playfair was one of Edinburgh’s most important architects, and his name and image are to be found all over this city). In response to my inquiries, Senior Librarian Andrea Longson met me at the current Advocates Library door and escorted me under Parliament Hall to Laigh Hall. She told me that this was the home of the Advocates Library during the period I’m looking into, which is when Ramsay, Hume, Smith, and the other members of the newly formed Select Society first met in 1754. Hume was the keeper of the Library at the time, so no doubt it was on his suggestion that the Society meet here, at least at first. The Advocates Library was founded in 1689 and housed in a rented house near Parliament Hall, but as it was with the United States’ Library of Congress and its original collection, the original library building burned down, reducing some of the collection to ashes and leaving some of the surviving books scorched. ‘Laigh,’ Andrea informs me, is Scots for ‘low.’
After she shows me around the old hall and its stacks, I ask Andrea about two neighboring sites I’m looking for. She’s able to help me most with one of them, doing so by introducing me to a neighbor, James Hamilton, Research Principal at the Signet Library next door. This is perfect: seven of the advocates which belonged to the Select Society were ‘writers to the signet.’ Then, they were senior members of the Court of Session. According to The Society of Writers to the Signet’s website,
Today, most Writers to the Signet are solicitors in law firms or in-house within the public or private sector. Writers to the Signet take a special oath before an officer of state, the Keeper of the Signet, signifying a personal commitment to the exceptional standards of competence and integrity expected of those associated with the historic seal of Scotland’s kings and queens, known as the Signet. Writers to the Signet belong to Scotland’s College of Justice along with the nation’s senior judges, known as Senators, and its advocates, the equivalent of barristers.
The Signet Library’s lobby is reached by a communicating door at the northwest corner of Parliament Hall, which opens to a receptionist desk. Once a lady at the desk confirms that Mr. Hamilton has an opening in his schedule to see me, I’m taken through a handsome, very large and grand hall that now appears to be used as a daytime tea room, and dining and meeting area. Turns out, it’s now called the Colonnades and can be rented as a venue for special occasions; weddings are often held here.
The receptionist takes me to an upstairs office lined with books and filled with worktables and desks, where I meet Mr. Hamilton. I tell him of my quest and I’m glad to see he’s interested. In fact, I spend nearly two hours with him. He speaks enthusiastically of the history of Edinburgh and of the library, its architecture and collection. Hamilton finds old maps and records for me, takes me on a tour of the Signet Library rooms upstairs and down, discusses the history of the buildings and closes in and around Parliament Square, helps me find online resources, and even makes me a cup of hot white coffee. What a gracious host!
The handsome Signet Library was built in 1810. Its lobby, into which I first entered from Parliament Hall, rests on the site of the old Laigh Council House. The Select Society held meetings in a room over Laigh Council House after that initial meeting in the Advocates Library, leading to more than a little confusion when I first asked around in the course of my search. Remember, the Select Society held its first meetings in the old Advocates’ Library which is now called Laigh Hall. The room over Laigh Council House where the Select Society met was called St Giles’ Hall, the meeting hall of a Freemasons’ Lodge.
The Signet Library holds at least tens of thousands of volumes and documents, I’ve forgotten exactly how many. In the lower archive rooms, there are session books by the hundreds, among which we find a plan for a proposed new close in Parliament Square, and rows upon rows of other old books of every description. I wish I had hours to dig through them.
Later, as we tour the library, Mr. Hamilton points out that where the colonnaded central hall of the Signet Library had to be redesigned in parts because of an early design flaw: its upper windows, which let in plenty of necessary light, also didn’t allow much space there for books! Above the interior balconies, I can see the somewhat awkwardly, partially obscured upper windows by the re-designed book alcoves and shelves around them. However, seeing it all with a non-architect’s eye, I wouldn’t have thought much of it. The room looks graceful to me.
At the time that the Select Society met here over the old Laigh Council House, Parliament Square was much more densely built up than it is today. The Old Tolbooth prison and place of torture, once an early meeting place of Parliament, narrowed the Royal Mile where it passed near St Giles and Parliament Square. Today, you can see the outline of the horrible Old Tolbooth marked out in the cobblestones in metal squares, and a heart outlined in stone indicates the spot where criminals were executed first by guillotine, then by hanging. Tenements crowded the winding closes, and little wooden booths and makeshift shops were built right up against the sides of old St Giles.
We also discuss the likely location of John’s Coffeehouse at Parliament Square, a favorite haunt of many of the Select Society’s members and meeting place for the committee devising and discussing its aforementioned ‘cumbersome’ bylaws. I have not yet been able to nail down its exact site. I’ve found many, many references to it, including in primary sources from that time and not long afterward. Without exception, however, these sources refer to the coffeehouse as if everyone already knows where it is. According to Robert Chamber’s Traditions of Edinburgh page 112, it was ‘situated in the north-east corner of Parliament Close,’ which would place it somewhere across from the east end of St Giles. According to my sources, it was not only a popular social hangout, it was also a meeting place for advocates to discuss cases and arrange for the public sales of estates lost to debt.
John’s Coffeehouse may have moved to the Royal Exchange, now the City Chambers, which was completed in 1760; some sources list a John’s Coffeehouse at that nearby location just across the High Street after the time the Select Society committee would have met there. I suspect that many of its later and former members would have continued to hang out at John’s if it did indeed move to that location. Or, perhaps, the proprietors of that later John’s just wanted to lend the historical pastiche of its predecessor to their establishment.
UPDATE: Joe Rock, Edinburgh historian, helpfully referred me to the painting The Parliament Close and Public Characters of Edinburgh, Fifty Years Since, painted by or in the style of John Kay. James Hamilton and others had referred me to the painting as well, but the image published online at ArtUK. org is not high-resolution enough to see what Rock identified in the painting: the sign indicating the location of John’s Coffeehouse in one of the arched doorways to the right of the painting. The view is looking north at St Giles, across the square and the pedestrian statue from the colonnade of Parliament House. This agrees with what I learned about the location of John’s Coffeeshop from Chambers’ Traditions. Since the image of the Kay painting is credited to ‘City of Edinburgh Council, I contacted them. Curator of Fine Arts Dr. Helen Scott let me know that the painting is now at the Museum of Edinburgh and kindly gave me permission to share the images here. Here’s the painting:
and here’s the relevant section of the painting:
The next morning, I go to one more Select Society meeting place, which Emerson identifies in his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article as the ‘Mason’s Hall (Mary’s Chapel) in Niddry Wynd.’ I find that Niddry Wynd is no longer there, but Niddry Street is, which follows the line of the old Wynd a little to the east. The overpass of the South Bridge, built 1785-1788, made it necessary to move it over that way, which explains why St Cecilia’s Hall crowds the narrow street on its east side.
Most of the information I find about Mary’s Chapel and Mason’s Hall is in entries about St Cecilia’s Hall. It was built as a concert hall for a musical society who met in one of the rooms adjoining Mary’s Chapel. Joe Rock, consult historian for Scottish material culture, writes in his ‘Analysis of the Timeline for St Cecilia’s Hall,’
St Cecilia’s Hall was built from 1760 for a group of wealthy gentlemen and aristocrats, members of the Edinburgh Musical Society. The Society dates officially from 1728 but research for this article has shown that they met in Mary’s Chapel, a building a few yards north of the Hall owned by the Incorporation of Wrights and Masons, from April 1725.
When I initially read Emerson’s article stating the Select Society met in Mason’s Hall, I immediately thought, ‘Oh, Freemasons!’ since they met in the Freemasons’ room over Laigh Council House. But as we see here, this was a room where builders in stone met.
Thus ends my hunt for the Select Society’s haunts in the mid-eighteenth century, at the height of the Scottish Enlightenment. For more about the Select Society and other Scottish clubs and societies, I especially recommend Carr’s book. You’ll find this and other excellent resources listed below. In all, they contain a wealth of detail about the history, the beauties and rich culture of this ancient city from its birth on a rocky hill. Enjoy!
~ Special thanks to Dawn Webster at the Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service; Andrea Longson, Senior Librarian of the Advocates Library at Parliament House; and James Hamilton, Research Principal of Signet Library, for your time and assistance with my site research!
Sources and inspiration:
Barker, Robert. Panorama of Edinburgh from St Giles (exact title unknown) late 1700’s-early 1800’s
Campbell, Donald. Edinburgh: A Cultural and Literary History, Signal Books, 2003
Carr, Rosalind. Gender and Enlightenment Culture in Eighteenth-Century Scotland. 2014.
Chambers, Robert. Traditions of Edinburgh. New ed. Edinburgh; London: W. & R. Chambers, 1955.
‘Edinburgh, 315 High Street, Writers’ Court.‘ Canmore: National Record of the Historic Environment by Historic Environment Scotland
‘Edinburgh, High Street, Tolbooth.’ Canmore: National Record of the Historic Environment by Historic Environment Scotland
Emerson, Roger L. ‘Select Society (act. 1754-1764)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Fleischacker, Samuel, ‘Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Grant. James. Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh: Its History, its People, and its Places. London: Cassel, Petter, Galpin, & Co. 1880’s.
Hannay, R. K. and G.P.H. Watson. ‘The Building of the Parliament House.’ Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, 1924, 13
Ingamells, J. ‘Ramsay, Allan, of Kinkell (1713–1784), Portrait Painter.‘ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Longson, Andrea. ‘The Advocates Library.‘ Legal Information Management, 9(1), 2009, 35-37
Masson, Rosaline, and John Fulleylove. Edinburgh. New Edition, Revised and Entirely Reset.. ed. London: A. & C. Black, 1931.
Palmer, Claire. ‘Edinburgh Vaults‘, The History Magazine by Historic UK (online)
‘Parliament Square, Advocates’ Library, Including Wall and Railings.‘ Historic Environment Scotland website
‘Parliament Square, Signet Library, Including Railings.‘ Historic Environment Scotland website
Rock, Joe. ‘Analysis of the Timeline for St Cecilia’s Hall‘ and ‘St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh – Chronology of the Building History‘, Joe Rock’s Research Pages (online)
Sher, R. ‘Poker Club (act. 1762–1784).‘ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
‘Who We Are,’ The WS Society website by The Signet Library
‘William Henry Playfair.‘ Dictionary of Scottish Architects (online)