Brian Cowan is a Professor of History at McGill University. Scott Sowerby is an Associate Professor of History at Northwestern University. As they write here, although the term “state trial” is surprisingly difficult to define, their book came together and went to press in the remarkable circumstances of a US President undergoing not one but two trials.
When we began working on this book, we had only a vague notion of what exactly made a trial a ‘state trial’. Like many historians of early modern Britain, we had used the term loosely without thinking about it very rigorously. The term is a familiar one because the collections of trial proceedings known as the State Trials are often used as source material for work on law and politics in the early modern era. The challenge we set for the contributors to our book was to think hard about what these ‘state trials’ really were and why they were so important to the legal and political history of late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century England. In response, we received a series of essays that demonstrate the centrality of these trials to the political transformations of the kingdom from a restored absolutist monarchy to a post-revolutionary constitutional monarchy. We were less successful at coming up with an enduring or fixed definition of a ‘state trial’. While the term is used to refer to any trial in which matters of constitutional importance were at stake, or sometimes a trial in which offences against the state have been committed, these definitions raise more problems than they solve. How does one define constitutional importance? What exactly constituted ‘the state’ in a personal monarchy coexisting, uneasily, with its Parliament?
In the end, we settled on a nominal definition rather than a substantive one: a state trial is any trial called a ‘state trial’ by the publishing impresarios who invented the genre in the eighteenth century, from Thomas Salmon’s first four-volume edition, A Compleat Collection of State-Tryals, and Proceedings upon Impeachments for High Treason, and other Crimes and Misdemeanours; from the Reign of King Henry the Fourth, to the End of the Reign of Queen Anne (1719) to the great compilation of State Trials by William Cobbett, Thomas Bayly Howell, and Thomas Jones Howell in 33 mighty volumes (1809–26). These authors clearly used the term to signify a trial that was politically relevant, steeped in partisan conflict, and likely to attract media attention. This latter series in particular gained great prominence in the Victorian and post-Victorian political and literary imagination through its use by Thomas Babington Macaulay, Leslie Stephen and the ghost story writer, M. R. James. By the twentieth century, the stories told in these state trials were incorporated into both Whig and revisionist narratives of English politics in the age of Restoration and Revolution, but their contemporary significance began to fade as the great constitutional debates and conflicts of the Stuart age receded into distant memory.
Little did we know when we began to work on this book that the issues it addresses – the political significance of trials and politically motivated prosecutions – would become even more relevant than ever before. The great constitutional debates provoked by the result of two surprising events in 2016 – the UK’s Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA – brought the politics of justice back to the forefront of contemporary concerns. In America, impeachment was back on the agenda, and two impeachment trials were brought to the US Senate by the House of Representatives in December 2019 and January 2021, the latter occurring well after the manuscript for this book had gone to press. While the Senate acquitted the President on both occasions in a perfunctory manner, the prospect of a great American state trial loomed over our thinking about the English political trials discussed in this book. As the book went to press, protests against racial injustice in the American criminal justice system and their violent suppression by police forces across the nation made it clear that the legal system remains an object of popular contention. While the volumes of State Trials gather dust on library shelves and are mainly read today by early modern historians for professional reasons, the issues raised by those trials remain alive and ever pertinent.
This guest post was written by Brian Cowan, Professor of History at McGill University and Scott Sowerby, Associate Professor of History at Northwestern University.