Scottish influence in American Culture: Enlightened Education and Democracy

Ridley and Blood, Rev. John Witherspoon, 1723 - 1794. Principal of Princeton College, New Jersey

In the history of America’s birth, the names of James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, Honorable William Findley, along with other founding fathers, are shining stars. Nonetheless, few Americans today would recognize the extraordinary influence on those “fathers” by such men as Adam Smith, Thomas Reid (one of the founders of Common Sense Philosophy), David Hume, and other philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Along this pillars of Enlightenment thought, another Scotsman closely influenced American education, religion and politics in the Revolutionary era: Reverend John Witherspoon, the forgotten founding father, as Jeffry Morrison succinctly states in John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).The Enlightenment was crucial in the development of almost every aspect of colonial, revolutionary and republican America. During and after the American Revolution, many of the core ideas of the Enlightenment were the basis for the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of the Confederation and the Federal Constitution, the founding documents of the United States. In Scottish (as well as French) Enlightenment, America’s framers found the philosophical principles and authority for new ways of thinking about governmental structure, economic development, the relationship with religion, the promotion of reason, freedom from oppression, and natural rights. Therefore, one of the fundamental historical and cultural debts that the United States has as a nation, is to the extraordinary Scottish thinkers of the Enlightenment and the scots immigrants who were educated and molded under those ideas. Witherspoon was one of those figures.

Scottish Enlightenment
The three major areas of concern for Scottish philosophers were moral philosophy, history and economics. In moral philosophy, the main question was whether the acquisitive ethics of capitalism could be made compatible with traditional virtues of sociability, sympathy and justice. Reflecting on History, a bit more than a century before Auguste Comte (the father of Sociology), the Scots had a tendency to come with the notion of the “natural progress” of civilization. For instance, Adam Smith -before Karl Marx- envisaged history as progressing through economic stages, attended by political and social structures.

Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire

On political economy, Hume identified commerce as the main engine of economic growth, with jealousy of trade and the misuse of money and credit as its main obstacles. Ferguson’s (1767) division of labor added another dimension. The intellectual efforts of the Scottish scholars, led Voltaire -one of the most celebrated thinkers of the Enlightenment (and who coined the concept of Enlightenment)- to note that “we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilization” (‘Nous nous tournons vers l’Écosse pour trouver toutes nos idées sur la civilisation’).

David Hume
David Hume

The reason for the Scottish Enlightenment, however, is a debate for another time. The importance and historical significance of the episode is for today. Walking down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh you will come across a statue of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, arguably the greatest philosopher of his time, if not all time.

Although originally hailing from Ninewells, Berwickshire, he spent the majority of his time in Edinburgh. He considered such subjects as morality, conscience, suicide and religion. Hume was a skeptic and although he always avoided declaring himself an atheist, he had little time for miracles or the supernatural and instead focused on the potential of humanity and the inherent morality of the human race.

This did not go down particularly well at the time as the majority of Scotland, and indeed the rest of Great Britain and Europe were very religious. Hume was a gentle individual; he allegedly died peacefully in his bed still having not given an answer on his faith, and did so without upsetting the bowl of milk in his lap. The legacy of his discourse lives on however and he is credited with some of the finest thinking of his time.

Sir Tom Devine

The Scottish Enlightenment was centered on the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. According to Tom Devine, “Scholars, born and educated in Scotland, sought to understand the natural world and the human mind. They wanted to improve the world through new ideas, discoveries and inventions.” He is the Scotland’s preeminent historian, whose presentation of Scottish history captured the public’s imagination through several bestselling books. The teaching career of Professor Sir Tom Devine spanned 45 years at the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. Although now retired from university life, he continues to produce new books shedding light on Scotland’s past.

Published by Clan Carruthers Society - USA

We are all passionate about where we came from and where we're going. We set this website/blog up so we can all share our family stories along with the history for future generations.

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