The Provost

Author: John Galt

Chapter XLVII—The Resignation

Shortly after the Battle of Waterloo, I began to see that a change was coming in among us. There was less work for the people to do, no outgate in the army for roving and idle spirits, and those who had tacks of the town lands complained of slack markets; indeed, in my own double vocation of the cloth shop and wine cellar, I had a taste and experience of the general declension that would of a necessity ensue, when the great outlay of government and the discharge from public employ drew more and more to an issue. So I bethought me, that being now well stricken in years, and, though I say it that should not, likewise a man in good respect and circumstances, it would be a prudent thing to retire and secede entirely from all farther intromissions with public affairs.

Accordingly, towards the midsummer of the year 1816, I commenced in a far off way to give notice, that at Michaelmas I intended to abdicate my authority and power, to which intimations little heed was at first given; but gradually the seed took with the soil, and began to swell and shoot up, in so much that, by the middle of August, it was an understood thing that I was to retire from the council, and refrain entirely from the part I had so long played with credit in the burgh.

When people first began to believe that I was in earnest, I cannot but acknowledge I was remonstrated with by many, and that not a few were pleased to say my resignation would be a public loss; but these expressions, and the disposition of them, wore away before Michaelmas came; and I had some sense of the feeling which the fluctuating gratitude of the multitude often causes to rise in the breasts of those who have ettled their best to serve the ungrateful populace. However, I considered with myself that it would not do for me, after what I had done for the town and commonality, to go out of office like a knotless thread, and that, as a something was of right due to me, I would be committing an act of injustice to my family if I neglected the means of realizing the same. But it was a task of delicacy, and who could I prompt to tell the town-council to do what they ought to do? I could not myself speak of my own services—I could ask nothing. Truly it was a subject that cost me no small cogitation; for I could not confide it even to the wife of my bosom. However, I gained my end, and the means and method thereof may advantage other public characters, in a similar strait, to know and understand.

Seeing that nothing was moving onwards in men’s minds to do the act of courtesy to me, so justly my due, on the Saturday before Michaelmas I invited Mr Mucklewheel, the hosier, (who had the year before been chosen into the council, in the place of old Mr Peevie, who had a paralytic, and never in consequence was made a bailie,) to take a glass of toddy with me, a way and method of peutering with the councillors, one by one, that I often found of a great efficacy in bringing their understandings into a docile state; and when we had discussed one cheerer with the usual clishmaclaver of the times, I began, as we were both birzing the sugar for the second, to speak with a circumbendibus about my resignation of the trusts I had so long held with profit to the community.

"Mr Mucklewheel," quo’ I "ye’re but a young man, and no versed yet, as ye will be, in the policy and diplomatics that are requisite in the management of the town, and therefore I need not say any thing to you about what I have got an inkling of, as to the intents of the new magistrates and council towards me. It’s very true that I have been long a faithful servant to the public, but he’s a weak man who looks to any reward from the people; and after the experience I have had, I would certainly prove myself to be one of the very weakest, if I thought it was likely, that either anent the piece of plate and the vote of thanks, any body would take a speciality of trouble."

To this Mr Mucklewheel answered, that he was glad to hear such a compliment was intended; "No man," said he, "more richly deserves a handsome token of public respect, and I will surely give the proposal all the countenance and support in my power possible to do."

"As to that," I replied, pouring in the rum and helping myself to the warm water, "I entertain no doubt, and I have every confidence that the proposal, when it is made, will be in a manner unanimously approved. But, Mr Mucklewheel, what’s every body’s business, is nobody’s. I have heard of no one that’s to bring the matter forward; it’s all fair and smooth to speak of such things in holes and corners, but to face the public with them is another sort of thing. For few men can abide to see honours conferred on their neighbours, though between ourselves, Mr Mucklewheel, every man in a public trust should, for his own sake, further and promote the bestowing of public rewards on his predecessors; because looking forward to the time when he must himself become a predecessor, he should think how he would feel were he, like me, after a magistracy of near to fifty years, to sink into the humility of a private station, as if he had never been any thing in the world. In sooth, Mr Mucklewheel, I’ll no deny that it’s a satisfaction to me to think that may be the piece of plate and the vote of thanks will be forthcoming; at the same time, unless they are both brought to a bearing in a proper manner, I would rather nothing was done at all."

"Ye may depend on’t," said Mr Mucklewheel, "that it will be done very properly, and in a manner to do credit both to you and the council. I’ll speak to Bailie Shuttlethrift, the new provost, to propose the thing himself, and that I’ll second it."

"Hooly, hooly, friend," quo’ I, with a laugh of jocularity, no illpleased to see to what effect I had worked upon him; "that will never do; ye’re but a greenhorn in public affairs. The provost maun ken nothing about it, or let on that he doesna ken, which is the same thing, for folk would say that he was ettling at something of the kind for himself, and was only eager for a precedent. It would, therefore, ne’er do to speak to him. But Mr Birky, who is to be elected into the council in my stead, would be a very proper person. For ye ken coming in as my successor, it would very naturally fall to him to speak modestly of himself compared with me, and therefore I think he is the fittest person to make the proposal, and you, as the next youngest that has been taken in, might second the same."

Mr Mucklewheel agreed with me, that certainly the thing would come with the best grace from my successor.

"But I doubt," was my answer, "if he kens aught of the matter; ye might however enquire. In short, Mr Mucklewheel, ye see it requires a canny hand to manage public affairs, and a sound discretion to know who are the fittest to work in them. If the case were not my own, and if I was speaking for another that had done for the town what I have done, the task would be easy. For I would just rise in my place, and say as a thing of course, and admitted on all hands, ’Gentlemen, it would be a very wrong thing of us, to let Mr Mucklewheel, (that is, supposing you were me,) who has so long been a fellow-labourer with us, to quit his place here without some mark of our own esteem for him as a man, and some testimony from the council to his merits as a magistrate. Every body knows that he has been for near to fifty years a distinguished character, and has thrice filled the very highest post in the burgh; that many great improvements have been made in his time, wherein his influence and wisdom was very evident; I would therefore propose, that a committee should be appointed to consider of the best means of expressing our sense of his services, in which I shall be very happy to assist, provided the provost will consent to act as chairman.’

"That’s the way I would open the business; and were I the seconder, as you are to be to Mr Birky, I would say,

"’The worthy councillor has but anticipated what every one was desirous to propose, and although a committee is a very fit way of doing the thing respectfully, there is yet a far better, and that is, for the council now sitting to come at once to a resolution on the subject, then a committee may be appointed to carry that resolution into effect.’

"Having said this, you might advert first to the vote of thanks, and then to the piece of plate, to remain with the gentleman’s family as a monumental testimony of the opinion which was entertained by the community of his services and character."

Having in this judicious manner primed Mr Mucklewheel as to the procedure, I suddenly recollected that I had a letter to write to catch the post, and having told him so, "Maybe," quo’ I, "ye would step the length of Mr Birky’s and see how he is inclined, and by the time I am done writing, ye can be back; for after all that we have been saying, and the warm and friendly interest you have taken in this business, I really would not wish my friends to stir in it, unless it is to be done in a satisfactory manner."

Mr Mucklewheel accordingly went to Mr Birky, who had of course heard nothing of the subject, but they came back together, and he was very vogie with the notion of making a speech before the council, for he was an upsetting young man. In short, the matter was so set forward, that, on the Monday following, it was all over the town that I was to get a piece of plate at my resignation, and the whole affair proceeded so well to an issue, that the same was brought to a head to a wish. Thus had I the great satisfaction of going to my repose as a private citizen with a very handsome silver cup, bearing an inscription in the Latin tongue, of the time I had been in the council, guildry, and magistracy; and although, in the outset of my public life, some of my dealings may have been leavened with the leaven of antiquity, yet, upon the whole, it will not be found, I think, that, one thing weighed with another, I have been an unprofitable servant to the community. Magistrates and rulers must rule according to the maxims and affections of the world; at least, whenever I tried any other way, strange obstacles started up in the opinions of men against me, and my purest intents were often more criticised than some which were less disinterested; so much is it the natural humour of mankind to jealouse and doubt the integrity of all those who are in authority and power, especially when they see them deviating from the practices of their predecessors. Posterity, therefore, or I am far mistaken, will not be angered at my plain dealing with regard to the small motives of private advantage of which I have made mention, since it has been my endeavour to show and to acknowledge, that there is a reforming spirit abroad among men, and that really the world is gradually growing better—slowly I allow; but still it is growing better, and the main profit of the improvement will be reaped by those who are ordained to come after us.


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Chicago: John Galt, "Chapter XLVII— The Resignation," The Provost, trans. Garnett, Constance Black, 1862-1946 in The Provost (London: Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831), Original Sources, accessed February 9, 2023,

MLA: Galt, John. "Chapter XLVII— The Resignation." The Provost, translted by Garnett, Constance Black, 1862-1946, in The Provost, London, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831, Original Sources. 9 Feb. 2023.

Harvard: Galt, J, 'Chapter XLVII— The Resignation' in The Provost, trans. . cited in 1831, The Provost, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, London. Original Sources, retrieved 9 February 2023, from