Student Politics – Choosing the Rector in Glasgow, 1716-1726

The post of Rector in the University of Glasgow dates back to 1452. Today the Rector is elected for a term of three years by the matriculated students of the University of Glasgow, with an election taking place this year (2017)1. Though the Rector was always supposed to be selected by the students, in the past this didn’t always happen. In the 1690s the annual election of the Rector was taken over first by the faculty and then by the Principal and his inner circle.

In Praise of Liberty – Francis Hutcheson

In 1716, the faculty outside the Principal’s circle urged the students to regain their voting rights, including Gershom Carmichael who made a speech to the students “in one of the publick Halls in Praise of Liberty”2 A Royal Commission was held but it was dominated by the university’s managers and found against the students. The rebel staff secured lawyers and when the Principal pushed through the appointment of a new Rector later in 1716 a committee of six divinity students and three undergraduates collected signatures and brought the university to court. The committee included two from Ireland: Peter Butler from Waterford and Francis Hutcheson from Down. Two of the students (including Butler) acted as litigants: the university reacted by refusing their readmission to the divinity school. Further court action to ensure their reinstatement ensued with Francis Hutcheson appearing as one of the witnesses3.

The divinity students were reinstated and in 1717 the students elected their own rector. (There doesn’t appear to be a record of who he was.) However, the imposed rector refused to step down and the rector selected by the students declined to accept the position. Agreement was brokered within the faculty in 1718 allowing all faculty the right to vote. As a result the student campaign lost most faculty support. Each year they continued to petition for the right to select the Rector, and each year the “temporary” legislation securing this right to the faculty was renewed 4.

Enemies to the Powers of the Clergy: John Smith and James Arbuckle

This was the year that John Smith (probably born in Belfast to a merchant family) arrived at the University of Glasgow. Unlike other Scoto-Hiberni (Presbyterian students from Ireland who often studied most of the degree course in academies), he took the entire philosophy course under Gershom Carmichael and “very early interested himself in the the Liberties of the College”5. He also became a member of the Trinamphorian Club, a college literary club with “no other Design in the World than to discourse upon Matters of Learning for their Mutual Improvement.” The club, with members drawn from those finished the philosophy course, met weekly in a tavern outside the university. Smith’s childhood friend James Arbuckle was also a member6.

In 1721 the students decided to apply to the House of Commons for support. (The faculty were not amused.) Some members of parliament were sympathetic but the most consistent support came from Robert Molesworth. This support resulted in correspondance between members of the Trinamphorian Club (notably Arbuckle) and Molesworth. Molesworth was also elected as rector by the students in 1721. In the spring of 1722 when (false) news came that Molesworth had been successfully re-elected to parliament, a bonfire was lit in celebration by students. Carmichael stepped in to stop this, Smith intervened and the resulting scuffle resulted in his expulsion. Smith was successful in court action against the university but the university ignored the decisions. Smith abandoned the legal battle and turned to public opinion. He had already gone to Dublin delivering a letter to Robert Molesworth from the students of Glasgow. That autumn (possibly with the help of Arbuckle), Smith wrote and published A short account of the Late Treatment of the Students of the University of G—–w. 7.

The pamphlet shows that voting rights were not the only problems students faced in Glasgow. For example, Smith had intended to study medicine after finishing his arts degree. However there were no lectures given since the professor of anatomy Thomas Brisbane “through a natural Aversion to the sight of objects of Pity and Horror” (referring, one assumes, to dissections) refused to give any. The university found him within his rights in November 1721, and the rector condemned the faculty for receiving a petition from the medical students in the first place. Forced to take divinity lectures, Smith found his lecturer John Simson to be “studiously serious in Vagaries” being equally unimpressed with Simson’s metaphysics and his Christmas exhibition of lighting a clod of turf through a piece of ice8.

Smith also writes of the experiences of Arbuckle and the Trinamphorian Club. Despite it meeting outside the university the Faculty tried to ban the Club which they saw as a source of subversion and a hotbed of “Latitudinarians, Free-thinkers, non-subscribers, and Bangorians, and in a Word, Enemies to the Jurisdictions, Powers, and Divine Authority of the Clergy” 9. They also attempted to stamp out student amateur dramatics after the production of two Williamite plays, Addison’s Cato and Rowle’s Tamberlane. Arbuckle almost found himself expelled due to a prologue to Tamberlane that he wrote contrasting constraints on the Dublin theatre with the British ideal of liberty. The Principal saw this as a veiled attack on himself and only the intervention of (ironically) Carmichael saved Arbuckle10.

Tumultuous Insult: William Robertson

Smith’s pamphlet was seized when shipped to Glasgow so received limited circulation. While Smith settled in Dublin becoming a bookseller and printer the dispute over the Rectorship rumbled on in Glasgow. It came to a head once again in March 1725 with the expulsion of William Robertson, who had come to Glasgow from Francis Hutcheson’s Dublin academy. Robertson was one of two student delegates chosen to present a petition of sixty student names to the principal John Stirling. When he rejected it, the students went to the house of Hugh Montgomery (the appointed rector) and Robertson shouted the student protest up to his windows. He was the only one expelled for the “tumultuous insult”, and several Irish students left the college in protest.

Returning to Dublin, Robertson obtained support from Robert Molesworth who sent an account of the affair to Bishop Benjamin Hoadly, who then forwarded it to the king. Robertson himself went to London and applied to the Duke of Argyll and the Earl of Islay putting forward the case of the students. Islay obtained a Royal Commission and after visiting Glasgow rescinded (4 October 1726) the expulsions of Smith and Robertson and restored the students’ right of electing the rector, along with other measures reorganising and regulating the university 11

The politics of protest

This story might not seem relevant to philosophy, Irish or otherwise. However it may explain the growth of unorthodox opinions among some young Presbyterians whose orthodox parents (such as John Hutcheson or James Bruce) sent their sons to Glasgow. This longrunning campaign threw up questions of liberty and rights, and also (particularly in the 1720s) exposed students to ideas not approved by university authorities.

In a letter to Molesworth (31 October 1722), Arbuckle describes his transition from seeing the election rights as a feather in the students’ caps, to seeing it as a conflict between liberty and arbitary power. Smith’s pamphlet draws parallels between the British and the university’s constitution: “both founded on the generous old Gothic rule, governing all by all”12. He extends this beyond legal right into natural justice, outlining a political philosophy where every right must be preserved to hold back creeping tyranny (in effect, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance)13:

Arbitrary Power in any Society is not a Thing to be suddenly erected. Slavery has too ugly an Aspect to be offered to a Man’s embraces, til by varnishing over her Deformities, has been drawn in so far that he can find no means of retiring, without coming to an open Rupture; which is what some Men have not the Courage to do , but tamely sitting down under their Wrongs, receive all the loads their Oppressors have been pleased to lay on them.

This language is the language of political grievance. In Ireland, unlike Scotland, Presbyterians faced restrictions on marriage and on entry to public office. Toleration guaranteeing free worship and permitting dissenting academies was passed in Ireland as late as 1719. The language also reflects the Commonwealth views of Molesworth, who suggested the reading of his own pamphlets along with Harrington and Shaftesbury to his Scottish correspondents. The University were aware of their students acquiring “foolish notions”, and their suspicions regarding leanings among some students towards non-subscription and Bangorianism were not unfounded.

In Ulster the non-subscription movement predated the student’s voting campaign, but a commonwealth focus on liberty harmonised with the convictions of the non-subscribers (ie. those who rejected the requirement for ministers to subscribe to a creed). In the 1720s Arbuckle defended the Belfast non-subscribers Haliday and Kirkpatrick. Earlier (1718), Hutcheson wrote of a “Hoadly mania” among young minsters, many of whom must have been educated in Glasgow. Benjamin Hoadly, Bishop of Bangor in Wales, had preached for the right of private judgement in matters of religion in 1717 14.

Hutcheson’s letter suggests he personally was unimpressed. However, at some point between 1718 and when his first writings were published in 1725 (by John Smith in partnership with William Smith) he embraced the principle of private judgement. His Inquiry also uses classical republican ideas, particularly those of Harrington. Coincidentally or otherwise, he had moved to Dublin in the interim, coming into contact with Molesworth most likely through Arbuckle.

The campaign changed not only the students but the university. Not only was the regent system abolished, but during the years of student agitation a group of faculty emerged sympathetic to the student aims and interested in the type of reforms advocated in Shaftesbury’s writings. Five faculty protested Smith’s expulsion, and in 1725 John Loudon and Alexander Dunlop wrote in support of William Robertson to his father. When Carmichael died in 1729, it was Dunlop who ensured Hutcheson was elected to the chair of moral philosophy. This altered the balance of power within the faculty, a shift that became decisive with the election of Hutcheson’s friend William Leechman to the divinity chair in 1743, carried by the rector’s casting vote15.

Who says nothing comes of student politics?

An 18th-century printing shop Wikimedia, Public Domain
An 18th-century printing shop
Wikimedia, Public Domain

John Smith – at the sign of the Philosopher’s Head

By 1724 John Smith was in partnership with William Smith, the son of a Belfast merchant, in the Dublin book trade. William had entered the university in Glasgow to study divinity in 1714 graduating with Thomas Drennan, and came to Dublin in the early 1720s. Robert Wodrow says he was assisted by Richard Choppin in Wood St in setting up the business and that he was friendly with nonsubscribers. William left for the Netherlands in 1725, acting as continental bookbuyer for the Dublin firm. After he left John Smith became a licenced trader and took on William Bruce as partner. 16

The first work published by John Smith was Inquiry into…ideas of beauty and virtue (1725) by Francis Hutcheson (with William Smith). John Smith and William Bruce operated from the sign of the Philosopher’s Head at Blind Quay (now Lower Exchequer St). They printed and sold a variety of books on religion, philosophy and foreign literature. They printed Hutcheson’s later Essay on…the Passions and Affections (1728) and reprinted Toland’s edition of Harrington’s Oceana by subscription in 1737. Other authors included Hoadly, Shaftesbury, Bolingbroke, Hume and Fielding. Unusual in both being university educated they acted as the bookseller of choice to the “Non-subscribing Presbyterian intelligentsia”17.

William Smith remained in contact with the partnership. He married into the Wetstein printing family in the Netherlands, remaining there until his death in 1741. Though Hutcheson and John Smith, he reviewed Hume’s Treatise in his journal in 174018.

In 1737 Bruce left to become tutor to the son of a Dublin banker. John Smith continued alone, compiling and publishing the Collection of the parliamentary debates in England 1668–1744 in twenty-four volumes between 1739 and 1749. His friendship continued with Bruce, witnessing his will in 1755. Smith wound up the printing business in 1758. A petition seeking a place due to poverty addressed to the lord lieutenant in 1764 mentions Smith’s wife and eight children. He was appointed agent to the Hiberian Silk Warehouse in 1764 and died in Dublin in August 1771 19.
Featured Image: University of Glasgow, 1650. The university would have looked much the same in the early 18th century. Wikimedia/Public Domain [/caption]

Further Reading

University of Glasgow Library: UofG 2017 Rectorial Elections Reopen!

M. A. Stewart (1987) “John Smith and the Molesworth Circle” in Eighteenth Century Ireland, Vol. 2, pp. 89-102.

M. A. Stewart (1996) “Rational Dissent in early 18th-century Ireland” in Knud Haakonssen (ed) Enlightenment and Religion: Rational Dissent in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Cambridge University Press, pp. 42-63.

James Moore (2012) “Presbyterianism and the Right of Private Judgement: Church government in Ireland and Scotland in the time of Francis Hutcheson” in Ruth Savage (ed) Philosophy and Religion in Enlightenment Britain, Oxford University Press, pp. 141-168

Mary Pollard (2000) A Dictionary of Members of the Dublin Book Trade 1550-1800, Bibliographical Society.


  1. University of Glasgow “The Rector” in The University of Glasgow Story (online)
  2. John Smith (1722) A short account of the Late Treatment of the Students of the University of G—–w” Dublin cited in M. A. Stewart (1996) “Rational Dissent in early 18th-century Ireland” in Knud Haakonssen (ed) Enlightenment and Religion: Rational Dissent in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Cambridge University Press, pp. 42-63. Quote on p. 47.
  3. Stewart (1996), p. 48.
  4. M. A. Stewart (1987) “John Smith and the Molesworth Circle” in Eighteenth-Century Ireland, Vol. 2, pp. 89-102. (see page 96).
  5. Smith (1722) quoted in Stewart (1996), p. 93
  6. Stewart (1987), p. 95
  7. Stewart (1987), p. 97-98. Patrick H. Kelly (2002) “Molesworth, Robert” Irish Dictionary of National Biography.
  8. John Bergin (2002) “John Smith” in Irish Dictionary of National Biography. Stewart (1996), pp. 91, 94. Quotes from Smith (1722), pp. 15 and 7, in Stewart (1987), p. 94.
  9. Quote from Smith (1722), p. 21 in Stewart (1987), p. 96
  10. Stewart (1987) p. 94. M. A. Stewart (2002) “Arbuckle, James” in Irish Dictionary of National Biography. Ian McBride (1993) “The School of Virtue: Francis Hutcheson, Irish Presbyterians and the Scottish Enlightenment,” in D. George Boyce, Robert Eccleshall, and Vincent Geoghegan (eds.), Political Thought in Ireland Since the Seventeenth Century, London: Routledge, p. 85.
  11. Robert Wodrow and Matthew Leishman(ed.) (1842) Analecta: Or Materials for a History of Remarkable Providences Mostly relating to Scotch Ministers and Christians, Vol. 3, Glasgow:Maitland Club, (Google Books) pp. 185, 247-8. James Potts (ed) (1783) “Original Memoirs of Dr. Robertson of Wolverhampton” in The Hibernian Magazine, Or, Compendium of Entertaining Knowledge, pp. 535-539 (Google Books), see pp. 237-8. Stewart (1987), p. 98-9. McBride (1993), p. 84-5.
  12. McBride (1993), p. 85. Quote from Smith (1722), p. 5 in McBride.
  13. Quote from Smith (1722), pp. 3-4 quoted in Stewart (1987), p. 100
  14. McBride (1993), p 85. James Moore (2012) “Presbyterianism and the Right of Private Judgement: Church government in Ireland and Scotland in the time of Francis Hutcheson” in Ruth Savage (ed) Philosophy and Religion in Enlightenment Britain, Oxford University Press, pp. 141-168 – see pp 142-3.
  15. Stewart (1987), p. 97. Original Memoirs of Dr. Robertson of Wolverhampton, p. 537. McBride (1993), p. 86.
  16. “Smith, John II”  in Mary Pollard (2000) A Dictionary of Members of the Dublin Book Trade 1550-1800, Bibliographical Society, p. 532-534. “Smith, William III” in Pollard (2000), p. 539.
  17. Pollard (2000), pp. 532, 534. Bergin (2002).
  18. Pollard (2000), p. 539
  19. Bergin (2002)
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