Bribery Versus Realpolitik in Understanding the Union of 1707

Nov. 27, 1994

In March of 1689, King William expressed his pleasure, in a letter addressed to the Scottish Estates, that so many peers and gentlemen of Scotland were

so much inclined to a union of both kingdoms, that they did look upon it as one of the best means for procuring the happiness of these nations, and settling of a lasting peace between them.(footnote1)

The king spoke unto the House of Lords that in union lay the only means for avoiding a succession of quarrels and disagreements between England and Scotland. William saw the importance of a union between the two countries, but, in the end, he realized that the time was not ripe to attempt such a venture. There was too much partisanism already, and both countries faced a great many weighty points, itching to be debated and decided.

In discussing the Union of 1707, one must consider the most important factors that contributed to its making. Bribery is a factor that is mentioned rather frequently, but was that really the prime motivating factor? One must weigh the actual importance of bribery in relation to the realpolitik of the Scottish elite. Given that the new King Williamıs views on Union were widespread in neither England nor Scotland, one must ask how such an agreement as the treaty of Union came into being, and discover the extent to which rational and tactical weighing of choices affected the Scottish decision to unify, rather than outright bribery. This can be shown by examining the economic crisis of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the role subscribed to bribery, and the military situation of the time period.

First of all, one must note that Scotland was in a general economic crisis at the beginning of the eighteenth century, due primarily to failed attempts at achieving a global power base. This would make them all the more vulnerable and weak in their independence.

Englandıs Navigation Act and Act for the Encouragement of Trade had both been geared towards limiting Scottish trade. Scotland had already been essentially cut off from its traditional trading partner, France, and the benefits accrued through such relation, due to the Union of the Crowns. In these acts, the English sought to constrict Scottish trade even further by impeding Scottish trade with the plantations of the West Indies.

The Scots would not be deterred; they were intent that they would engage in their own trade and acquire colonies of their own. The path for such action was paved by the Scottish Parliament when, on June 14, 1693, it passed the Act for Encouraging Foreign Trade, which was to allow companies to be formed to trade with whom The Crown was not at war.(footnote 2) The Scottish Company Trading to Africa and the Indies was established with broad powers and backing. The company could arm for and wage war, build cities, forts, and harbors, and conclude its own alliances. But the very company that was to prove to the Scots their own power and status as a true and independent nation, could not help but draw the attention of the English, and certainly not in a positive manner.

King William, his two interests conflicting, did not withdraw his approval of the Act, but turned all his energies towards sabotaging the formation of the Company. He compelled English subscribers to withdraw their support, and used his influence to block the selling of subscriptions in Holland and Germany.

These actions drove the Scots into a patriotic fury, and they funded the Company entirely on their own. £400,000 were subscribed by the Scots, equivalent to half of their money in circulation; some people invested everything they had.(footnote 3) Unfortunately, ³it was when the Company was surrendered entirely to Scotch leadership... that it parted with political and economic financial sense.²(footnote 4)

After finding general English hostility, there were worries that the English might take an active part in opposing Scottish endeavors. It was thus decided that the Company should muster its strength to achieve the Scotch Londoner William Patersonıs dream. The Company organized and launched two expeditions to colonize the Gulf of Darien, in the Panamanian Isthmus of Central America. Duke James of Queensberry claimed of Darien, perhaps quite rightly, that

that great... design and undertaking of the nation... which if it be altogether crushed, Scotland is never to enjoy such a fair opportunity again for promoting her outward wealth and welfare.(footnote 5)

Though perhaps they foretold the later building of a canal at this junction point of the world, the Scottish endeavor was to not be so lucky. Such attempts posed a direct challenge to the Spanish, who claimed control over most of the southerly Americas. King William was furious, he being then in negotiations with the Spanish in order to secure their support in containing the ambitions of an expansionist France. He very nearly shoved the Spaniards into action against the Scots.(footnote 6)

Of the first expedition, in 1698, less than a quarter of the colonists survived the hostility of both the natives and the fever-filled swamps of Darien. The second expedition, following a year later, was turned away when it sought provisions amongst Englandıs West Indian colonies, and ended up having to surrender to the Spanish within a year.

Darien is now a scar on the memory of the Scots, and the pain of the wound is still felt even where the cause is dimly understood.(footnote 7)

However, at the time, the momentous loss of money, a horrible strain on the Scottish economy, seemed to be blamed on the English and did little to help the already poor Scottish disposition towards their southerly neighbors. The Companyıs focus on Africa was less certain, but attempts were made at increasing trade. In May of 1701, two ships set sail overloaded with goods and bound for Africa; they were never seen in Scotland again. Thomas Drummond foolishly allowed pirates to steal his two craft while ashore in Madagascar two years later. These buccaneers lost one to fire just off the coast, and the other was scuttled in favor of a better catch they made. The Drummonds, fearing debts and retributions from the Company, disappeared, also never to be heard from again.(footnote 8)

A third ship was destroyed in the Malacca Straits; following the loss, the Company hired another ship with a Welsh captain, which he allowed to be subsequently seized by the English, who were under pressure from the East India Company at the end of January, 1704.(footnote 9)

Fledgling colonies were established in North America. In New Jersey, a colony lasted from 1682 until 1702. A further colony in South Carolina, established two years after the New Jersey colony, lasted a mere two years more before it was eradicated by the Spanish.

All through these failures, Scotland found itself under a tide of rotten harvests, and famine. It has been guessed that possibly five percent of the population starved to death in the late 1600ıs.(footnote 10)

The Company was a disaster, making financial ruin of the nation, and showed the Scots their weakness in a most grand fashion. It hardened many against the English, upon whom they placed much of the blame; however, it can also be seen that it could only be the English who could aid the Scots in finding a way out of the mess.

Second of all, the case in favor of bribery, while strong, does not dominate the field of explanations in any sense, and there are various holes that can be seen in this argument.

George Lockhart of Carnwath, not long after the Union, claimed that over £20,000 originating in England had been distributed in Scotland in secret to bribe the elite. With meticulousness, the late nineteenth century historian James MacKinnon refuted Lockhartıs accusations, pointing out where the payments were part of official expenses for royal officials, as well as where the Œbribesı consisted of hardly any money; in some cases, the people on Lockhartıs list received less than a paltry £50.(footnote 11)

Another instance of bribery often mentioned is that of William Seton of Pitmedden. Seton, a vocal supporter of federal union, and a staple of the opposition, switched sides in the debate and produced a pamphlet in favor of incorporating union. This was apparently at the same time that he began to receive an annual pension of £100 from the Scottish Parliament.

A more startling case is that of James Douglas, the 4th Duke of Hamilton. Hamilton was a popular speaker against union, and the ³nominal² leader of the opposition Country party. He was quoted at one point as saying that the treaty of union was in fact a treaty of ³subjugation.² Yet, following mid-1705, he failed to support his side on numerous occasions, to such an extent that he is sometimes considered of great aid to the ruling partyıs side.(footnote 12) No true evidence is to be found that he was in fact bribed, yet he had a great many debts which were far beyond his means to service. As well, his land holdings in England were severely threatened by the Alien Act. He could be seen to have been serving his best interests by securing a union for his own personal interests, even if the English were not secretly servicing his debts, which they may well have done.

T. C. Smout provided even more force against the idea that the Union was bought. His argument was that if the Scots were so easily bought, then England should not have felt it necessary to make broad concessions to them while working the treaty through the Scottish Parliament in 1706,(footnote 13) such as the Church Act of 1706, which protected the Scottish Kirk.

Yet many of these same concessions in the economic sphere, if one peers from the right point of view, can be seen to be high-class bribes. The English were paying a lump sum to Scotland straight from the English treasury which was supposed to be in exchange for Scotland taking on responsibility for the English debt. As well, those who had invested in the Indian and African Company were to be reimbursed by the English at 5% interest.

The Squadron Volante play an important role here. A strong minority opposition grouping, they carried the union with their bloc of votes. The most obvious reason pointed to would be that they were all big investors in the Darien scheme, and, thus, all in great financial need.

Also, major concessions were made to various sectional and private trading interests. The English Malt tax was to remain low in Scotland as a concession to the malt interests, as well as to the general ale-consuming populace. The English conceded exclusions from English coal duties to the coal mines of Eastern Scotland, primarily as support in their competition with the English coal mining operations in Newcastle. As well, Scottish exporters of grain were provided subsidies in order to bring them into the fold.

What comes into play in finality is that the arguments as to bribery seem to be bringing a modern day perspective to a separate historical event. Bribery is often conceded by many historians as being the general practice of eighteenth century politics, and ought to be viewed in a much lighter vein.

In tandem is the realization that the post-1960ıs historians who support the bribery position may be bowing to their own biases against elitism, and failing to see the difference between the modern day and the 1700ıs. Scottish elites of the 1700ıs were not multinational corporations, and cannot be judged along such lines. What was in the interest of the Scottish elites had a more direct link to the interests of the masses: if a landowner suffered a loss, it affected those who resided and worked on his land, as well as many other people linked in various ways. What needs to be addressed is that what was good for the Scottish elites would benefit, at least to a certain extent, the Scottish masses. Taking the position that the nasty self-serving elites sold out their country simply to line their own pockets is overly simplistic, as well as showing a populist bias.

Finally, there was the current military situation, and itıs relation to the Scottish economy. Scotlandıs navy was veritably worthy of pity, being made up of two boats that were borrowed from England. In an essentially mercantilist age, without a supporting navy, Scotland was incapable of protecting its international trade. Scotland could have been cut off from the world market with great ease, even if the English did not interfere. As well, the Scots were unable to muster a significant modern army, and were thus ill-defended against the English on land.

Recognizing this, the Scots had to realize that the English presumably saw them as a potential threat, due to the land border. This was doubly so, due to Scotlandıs traditional alliance with France, which had always compounded English fears of an under-defended northern tier over which the French could march their troops.

Also, the Scots found themselves being forced to support English military campaigns abroad, such as the war for the Spanish Succession, without having any actual say in their execution. This saw a great drain on their resources towards ends which the Scots could neither fathom nor have any input towards.

In conclusion, one finds that realism and practicality can be seen as a prime motivating factor behind the 1707 Treaty of Union, and while bribery as a factor cannot be ignored, it does not play the overarching role that many historians claim to have found.


  1. The Early History of the Scottish Union Question, 147
  2. The Darien Disaster 329
  3. Andrew Fletcher and the Treaty of Union, 54
  4. A History of Scotland, 302
  5. The Early History of the Scottish Union Question, 180
  6. Andrew Fletcher and the Treaty of Union, 54
  7. The Darien Disaster, 315
  8. The Darien Disaster, 312
  9. Ibid.
  10. Scotland, A New History, 309
  11. "Bought and Sold for English Gold?" Explaining the Union of 1707, 16
  12. "Bought and Sold for English Gold?" Explaining the Union of 1707, 19
  13. "Bought and Sold for English Gold?" Explaining the Union of 1707, 22


Lynch, Michael. Scotland: A New History . London: Pimlico, 1991.
Mitchison, Rosalind. A HIstory of Scotland . London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1982.
Omond, G. W. T. The Early History of the Scottish Union Question. Edinburgh: Oliphant Anderson and Ferrier, 1906.
Prebble, John. The Darien Disaster . London: Martin Secker and Warburg Ltd., 1968.
Scott, Paul Henderson. Andrew Fletcher and the Treaty of Union . Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd., 1992.
Whatley, Christopher A. "Bought and Sold for English Gold?" Explaining the Union of 1707 . Dundee: The Economic and Social History Society of Scotland, 1994.

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