At the age of sixteen, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton were all being schooled by Scots who had been educated in Scotland before coming to America.
This remarkable fact was no mere coincidence. Scholars from Scotland were held in the highest regard in colonial America because of Scottish thinkers and Scottish universities’ preeminence at that time. The Scottish Enlightenment (it is usually dated from about 1730 until the 1790s) was an explosion of creative intellectual energy in science, philosophy, economics, and technological innovation. It arrived just in time to have a decisive influence on the Founders.
Jefferson was the architect of the Declaration of Independence, Madison was the architect of the Constitution, and Hamilton was the architect of The Federalist Papers. If we want to understand their thinking, we need to start with the fact that the Scottish Enlightenment provided their teachers.
The Men Who Taught America’s Political Geniuses
Jefferson’s tutor, William Douglas, had studied at Glasgow and Edinburgh, but the great intellectual influence on Jefferson was William Small. Small was a powerful voice of the Scottish Enlightenment, and by far the most brilliant member of the faculty at the College of William and Mary. He came to America to teach only from 1758 to 1764—at precisely the right time to guide Jefferson’s studies and be Jefferson’s mentor. Small left America in response to an urgent request from James Watt to help with developing the steam engine.
Madison’s tutor, Donald Robertson, was also a product of the Scottish Enlightenment at its peak, but the great intellectual influence on Madison was John Witherspoon, Madison’s mentor. Witherspoon’s education can help us see just how close the Founders were to the Scottish Enlightenment.
Before coming to America, Witherspoon studied with both Adam Smith and Thomas Reid, two leading lights of the Scottish Enlightenment. When Madison entered Princeton University in 1769, under the leadership of Witherspoon it had become the American university where the great thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment—Reid, Smith, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, and David Hume—were studied most intensely.
Hamilton set out from the island of St. Croix to enroll at Princeton in 1772. He was sent by two sponsors who had recognized his astonishing gifts. Those two were his employer and Hugh Knox, a Scot and a Presbyterian minister who was a Princeton graduate.
Upon his arrival, Hamilton met with Witherspoon and proposed that he be allowed to blaze through his studies at a rate only determined by his intellectual powers. When Witherspoon turned down his bold proposal, Hamilton made the same proposal at King’s College (today’s Columbia University) and was accepted. His tutor there, Robert Harpur, was also a product of the Scottish Enlightenment, having studied at Glasgow before coming to America.
The ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment were studied and hotly debated just about everywhere in colonial America and long thereafter. James Foster’s laudable book “Scottish Philosophy in America” states it this way: “The Scottish Enlightenment provided the fledgling United States of America and its emerging universities with a philosophical orientation. For a hundred years or more, Scottish philosophers were both taught and emulated by professors at Princeton, Harvard and Yale, as well as newly founded colleges stretching from Rhode Island to Texas.”
‘Every American Intellectual Was a Scottish Disciple’
American philosophy at the Founding had deep roots in the Scottish Enlightenment, and the Scottish philosophical tradition was paramount in America’s colleges during the life of the young American republic. The distinguished American historian, Allen Guelzo, made that point in this way in his brilliant lecture series, “The American Mind”: “Before the Civil War, every major [American] collegiate intellectual was a disciple of Scottish common sense realism.”
Today, the impact of Scottish Enlightenment thinking on American thought has been largely forgotten. However, the best-known statement of the American idea is a perfect representation of just how great that impact was. “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (I have highlighted “self-evident” and “unalienable” to underscore that impact.)
Jefferson chose to use special and very precise terms. The Declaration does not simply claim that these are truths; it claims they are self-evident truths. It did not simply claim that we have these rights; he claimed they are unalienable. If we pause to ask where this way of thinking about rights came from, we do not have to go far to find the answer.
Hutcheson set Scottish Enlightenment philosophy in motion. It was from Hutcheson that the Founders learned to think about rights in terms of their alienability. Here is Hutcheson in “A System of Moral Philosophy”: “Our rights are either alienable or unalienable…our right to our goods and labours is naturally alienable.”
In the language of the time of the Founders, to alienate is to transfer the title to a property or other right to another person. According to Hutcheson, our right to our goods and labors arises out of the division of labor, which depends on the right to exchange (alienate) them. It is because our right to our property is alienable that we can sell, exchange, and bequeath our property.
For Hutcheson, our rights to life and liberty are unalienable, inherent to our being as humans. To use the phrase “unalienable rights” as the Founders constantly do, is to use the language of Hutcheson and his Scottish colleagues. Here, for example, is John Adams: “All people are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”
Here, as everywhere in the writings of the Founders, the distinction between our unalienable rights and the alienability of our property is perfectly clear. We have unalienable rights, we acquire property.
As for ‘Self-Evident’ Truths
What about “self-evident”? That term was the special contribution of Reid. Reid made self-evident truths the foundation of his philosophy, which he called the philosophy of common-sense realism. For Reid, common sense is the human faculty by means of which we can grasp self-evident truths.
Therefore, common sense is the power that makes human understanding possible: “The same degree of understanding which makes a man capable of acting with common prudence in the conduct of life makes him capable of discovering what is true and what is false in matters that are self-evident…”
For Reid, common sense is the human power of grasping what is self-evidently true, and therefore the power that makes reason possible. He argued without that power we would lack access to the foundational truths we require to be able to reason at all.
Reid focused on problems within philosophy, problems of human understanding and human moral understanding. To the Founders goes the credit for the insights that enabled them to apply Reid’s brilliant philosophical thinking to the political problems they had to confront to create America’s system of liberty. The truth that all men are created equal is central to their new thinking about mankind and the state. Yet the claim that its truth is self-evident relies on an understanding of self-evident truth the Founders learned from Reid.
If Our Founders Never Studied Under Scots
So, how different would the Declaration’s claim about our rights be without the Scottish Enlightenment thinking the Founders learned from their tutors and mentors? At least this different: “We hold these Truths, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Once you have gone this far, it is not difficult to go on to make the case that the Scots’ impact does not stop with “self-evident” and “unalienable,” that it also includes the way in which the famous sentence frames its claims. But enough for today.
In any case, when we realize the Founders’ debt to the Scottish Enlightenment we are in a position to understand better George Washington’s declaration that in his time “the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than at any former period.”