SETON, William (1673-1744), of Pitmedden House, Pitmedden, Aberdeen.
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Family and Education
bap. 6 Mar. 1673, 1st s. of Sir Alexander Seton, 1st Bt., MP [S], of Pitmedden, Ld. Pitmedden SCJ, by Margaret, da. of William Lauder, clerk of council and session [S]. m. 31 Aug. 1712, Katherine (d. 1749), da. of Sir Thomas Burnett, 3rd Bt.*, 5s. 4da. suc. fa. as 2nd Bt. 29 May 1719.1
Commr. justiciary for Highlands [S] 1702, union with England 1706, Equivalent [S] 1707–17; collector of bishops’ rents [S] 1705–14.2
MP [S] Aberdeenshire 1702–7.
Commr. public accts. [S] 1703–4.3
The family tradition to which Seton was heir was staunchly, not to say heroically, loyalist: his grandfather was killed by the Covenanters at the Bridge of Dee in 1639, and his uncle perished in the Royal Navy during the Second Dutch War. His father, a noted jurist, served from 1677 to 1686 as a lord of session, until resolute opposition to the repeal of the Test incurred the displeasure of James II. Nevertheless regarding himself as bound by his oath of allegiance, Lord Pitmedden declined a return to office at the Revolution and retired from public life.4
When Seton first attracted political notice in 1700 it was as an adherent of the Country opposition, to whose campaign he contributed caustic pamphlets attacking Court corruption. On one occasion he ventured some slighting remarks on King William, for neglect of Scotland and diplomatic collusion with Louis XIV, and suffered a spell of imprisonment in consequence. Seton’s standpoint was not atavistic Jacobitism; it was akin, rather, to that of the ‘commonwealth’ Whigs in England: the preservation of liberty through ‘limited monarchical government’, and the pursuit of prosperity by agricultural and commercial expansion. Both depended in large measure on reviving the virtue of the nobility and gentry, ‘the best blood and spirits of any country’, which had been tainted by moral decay. He loathed ‘priestcraft’ in all its forms, popish, episcopal and even Presbyterian. Popery, nothing but superstition and ‘fantastic, unintelligible mumming’, was a natural ally of tyranny, while factious and disputatious Protestant divines divided and weakened the body politic. The Erastian element in his proposals (that the constitution of the established church should be made to conform to the civil power, and that the state should supervise university training) recalls the writings of Robert Molesworth* among others, and references to the sad fate of liberty in Denmark suggest a familiarity with Molesworth’s recently published Account of that country. Furthermore, Seton’s political agenda amounted to a Country Whig programme: closer supervision by parliament of estimates and accounts, biennial sessions, the disqualification of pensioners from parliamentary voting, the reinvigoration of the militia, and the replacement of the privy council by an elected committee of parliament. He differed from Fletcher of Saltoun and other ‘patriots’ in advocating a full union with England, partly for political benefits, in freeing church and state from the debilitating thrall of its ‘mock politicians’ and partly on strategic and economic grounds (to secure Scotland from French military ambition and Dutch commercial rivalry). These arguments suited the national mood after the Darien disaster, but their pretentious tone derived from his bookish upbringing and self-image as an apprentice philosopher. Lord Pitmedden also influenced his son more directly, in his determined anti-popery and in the active interest he took in trade. Seton certainly departed from his heritage in his acceptance of the lawfulness of resistance at the Revolution, but in religion he was far from Whiggish. He denied any theological superiority for ‘presbytery’, recommended that England and Scotland should agree on a unified national Church, and in the meantime pressed the case for religious toleration. It seems likely that he himself remained episcopalian in sympathy if not necessarily in practice.5
Seton’s entry into the Scottish parliament was heralded by a second edition of The Interest of Scotland, which laid out in detail his scheme of Country reform. He immediately joined the Country party votes and protests, and was selected for the commission of accounts whose establishment his own writings had prefigured. Identifying himself more closely with the cavaliers, he published in 1703 a call for the toleration of episcopalianism which refuted the usual charges of Jacobitism, and in July 1704 moved to put off the nomination of a successor to the crown. This manoeuvre failed dismally, but on its heels followed the more successful proposal along the same lines from the Duke of Hamilton, to which Seton gave strenuous backing. Since the pretext for his own motion had been to strengthen the hand of the Scottish parliament in negotiations for a union, and since he had declared his belief that the Claim of Right had effectively provided against the hazard of a Catholic successor, Seton was not necessarily going back on his principles. But he was also calculating personal advantage, and having demonstrated how much of a thorn he could be in the Court’s flesh he promptly made an approach to Lord Seafield, who had played a part in procuring his release from confinement in 1700. Seafield was told that ‘Pitmedden younger pretends a great kindness to your lordship, and says most seriously . . . that if your lordship will obtain him a pension of £100 p.a. he will be your servant and give you a suitable return’.6
What Seton received was a minor post as collector of bishops’ rents, and thenceforth he placed his literary and debating talents at the service of administration, though for the most part in a cause, that of Anglo-Scottish union, which he had consistently preached when in opposition. The optimistic and somewhat disingenuous assessment in 1706 by a Jacobite agent that Seton had been elected as a ‘loyal, honest man’ has to be set against a list of the Scottish parliament in 1705 that marked him as a supporter of a Protestant succession, and Defoe even considered him ‘an honest Whig’. His chief contribution to the ‘paper war’ on the issue, Scotland’s Great Advantages by an Union with England (1706), contrasted the ‘peace and plenty’ to be expected under a union with the ‘slavery and poverty’ that would otherwise ensue, and although he gave more emphasis than before to economic considerations, in line with the official view, he also offered the political argument that union would provide security from external forces and from the threat of popery, and might promote ecclesiastical ‘moderation’. Included in the union commission, and satirized as ‘solid Pitmedden’, he nevertheless proved responsive to the specific concerns of his constituents on questions of trade, and was the only Scottish commissioner that George Lockhart* could persuade into opposing integrated taxation. In the Scottish parliament he ‘read a long speech’ (later published) in favour of the first article of the treaty, concentrating on economic arguments but incorporating his favourite theme of the enervation of public virtue. A second contribution, on the third article, addressed the constitutional objections of the opposition. Drawing on classical texts and on precedents from Scottish history, he denied that the treaty would abrogate national sovereignty and dismissed the notion that parliament lacked the authority to take this step without consulting ‘the people’. In a confused piece of theorizing he observed that Scotland, far from being a ‘common democracy’ was, as he had always maintained, a ‘limited monarchy’, yet one in which parliament held the ‘supreme power’, regardless of any constitutional ‘fundamentals’, and cited the ‘dethronement’ of King James in 1688 as an example of its unrestricted capacity to act in the public interest. Naturally he voted for union, though a streak of principled independence briefly reappeared in divisions over drawbacks and on representation. He was chosen on the Court slate of representatives to the first Parliament of Great Britain and also appointed to the Equivalent commission, an appointment which he perhaps regarded with mixed feelings, given his prior opposition to the concept of joint taxation.7
Little is known of Seton’s party-political affiliation at Westminster. His previous record marks him as a Court supporter, but he joined Squadrone MPs, including his father-in-law, Sir Thomas Burnett, in supporting the cathedrals bill. His conduct in this instance, however, may simply have been prompted by friendship with the bill’s progenitor, Bishop Nicolson of Carlisle. Seton was active in the parliamentary response to the invasion threat, being nominated on 11 Mar. to draft the bill to discharge Highland clansmen from their obligations to disloyal chieftains.8
Seton was unable to find a seat in 1708, and did not subsequently stand for Parliament. On 4 Apr. 1711 a petition in his name, on behalf of the Equivalent commissioners, was presented to the Commons. Its request that the examination of accounts should take place in Edinburgh was refused. Seton was removed from the commission in 1717, having already lost his place as collector of bishops’ rents, which had lapsed at the Queen’s death. He died in 1744. Little over a year later his two maiden sisters retrieved the family’s long-lost reputation in Jacobite circles when welcoming Prince Charles Edward to their Edinburgh home.9
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: D. W. Hayton
- 1. G. Seton, Hist. Fam. of Seton, 474, 476–8; Fam. of Burnett of Leys (New Spalding Club), 85.
- 2. CSP Dom. 1702–3, p. 355; Boyer, Anne Annals, vi. 234; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxix. 342; xxxi. 578–9; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1720–8, p. 202.
- 3. APS, xi. 108, 178, 190.
- 4. Fam. of Seton, 473–4, 476; HMC 14th Rep. III, 237; Leven and Melville Pprs. (Bannatyne Club, lxxvii), 63; Crossrigg Diary, 17, 19–20.
- 5. APS, x. 210, 214; [Seton], The Interest of Scotland (1702), esp. 11, 13, 20, 23–25, 31–32, 35, 48, 52–61, 63, 81–86, 89–95, 97–110; P. W. J. Riley, Union, 233–4; Fam. of Seton, 476; J. S. Shaw, Management of Scot. Soc. 33; [Seton], A Continuation of a Few Brief and Modest Reflexions Persuading a Just Indulgence to be Granted to the Episcopal Clergy and People in Scotland (1703), 5, 10–11.
- 6. Info. from Dr P. W. J. Riley on members of Scot. parl.; APS, xi. 72, 102; [Seton], Continuation, 9–11; Boyer, Anne Annals, iii. app. 42; HMC Portland, iv. 99; Riley, Union, 96–97; Seafield Letters, 153; Crossrigg Diary, 139, 141; Seafield Corresp. 382.
- 7. EHR, lxxxiv. 522; Riley, Union, 219, 237–8, 327, 331; Orig. Pprs. ed. Macpherson, ii. 17; HMC Portland, viii. 207; Defoe Letters, 179; [Seton], Some Thoughts on Ways and Means for Making This Nation a Gainer in Foreign Commerce (1705); Somers’ Tracts, xii. 519–24; Lockhart Pprs. i. 141; HMC Var. v. 272; Lockhart Letters ed. Szechi, 31, 33; Crossrigg Diary, 179; Defoe, Hist. Union (1786), 312–16, 320–4; Seton, A Speech in Parliament (1706); info. from Dr Riley; HMC Mar. and Kellie, i. 404.
- 8. R. Walcott, Pol. Early 18th Cent. 234; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxii. 77–79; Nicolson Diaries ed. Jones and Holmes, 451, 455, 459, 462.
- 9. P. W. J. Riley, Eng. Ministers and Scotland, 218, 253; HMC Portland, x. 221; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1714–19, p. 285; Fam. of Seton, 476.