The View From 1776

The Scottish Renaissance In America

Scottish scholars were the most influential single group of teachers during the founding of the United States.  Today none of these great educators could find employment at major universities, because of their non-politically-correct understanding of reality.

Educating the Founders
By Robert Curry                                                  

“At age sixteen Jefferson and Madison and Hamilton were all being schooled by Scots who had come to America as adults.”
  Garry Wills, Inventing America

This remarkable fact was no mere coincidence.  Scholars from Scotland were held in the highest esteem in colonial America because of the preeminence of Scottish thinkers and Scottish universities at that time.  The Scottish Enlightenment (it lasted from about 1730 until about 1790) 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, Madison and Hamilton are the architects of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and The Federalist Papers. If we want to understand their thinking and their writings, we need to start with the fact that the Scottish Enlightenment provided their teachers.

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 representative of the Scottish Enlightenment, and he was by far the most brilliant member of the faculty at William and Mary.  He came to America to teach only from 1758 to 1764—at precisely the right time to guide Jefferson’s studies there.  Small left America when he did in response to an urgent request from James Watt.  Watt wanted his help with the development of 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, also a Scot.  Witherspoon’s own education can help us see just how close the Founders were to the Scottish Enlightenment.  Before coming to America, he studied with Adam Smith and Thomas Reid.  When Madison entered Princeton in 1769, under the leadership of Witherspoon it had become the American university where the great thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment—Francis Hutcheson, Thomas Reid, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and David Hume—were studied most intensely.

Hamilton had set out from the island of St. Croix to enroll at Princeton in 1772. He was sent by two sponsors, men who had recognized his astonishing gifts, his employer and Hugh Knox, a Scot and a Presbyterian minister who was a Princeton graduate. When Witherspoon did not accept Hamilton’s typically bold proposal that he be allowed to blaze through his studies at a rate only determined by his intellectual powers, Hamilton made the same proposal at King’s College (today’s Columbia) 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.  In the words of the eminent scholar Douglass Adair, “At Princeton, at William and Mary, at Pennsylvania, at Yale, at King’s, and at Harvard, the young men who rode off to war in 1776 had been trained in the texts of Scottish social science.”  James Foster’s admirable 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.”

It is well known that the Founders were on the whole remarkable for their learning.  It is fair to say that by modern standards they were as a group almost unimaginably learned.  They knew their Aristotle, they knew their Cicero, and they knew the Bible—and often read the texts in the original languages; Jefferson and Adams read Greek, Latin and Hebrew.  What is not so well known is how much the Scots contributed to the Founders’ thinking.  Those who overlook the Scots’ contributions to the American Founding end up overlooking the American Idea itself.

Witherspoon is no doubt the most important example of the influence of Scottish educators.  In the words of Jeffry Morrison in his excellent biography of Witherspoon:
“No other founder (not even James Wilson) did more to channel the Scottish philosophy into the colonies and thus into American political thought.” 
In addition to Madison, Witherspoon’s students by one count included twenty-one U.S. senators, twenty-nine members of the House, twelve governors, three Supreme Court Justices, and five delegates to the Constitutional Convention.  Is it any wonder that the ideas and arguments of Reid and Smith and their Scottish colleagues are everywhere in the writings of the Founders? 
Witherspoon’s course in moral philosophy, which he dictated year after year in largely unchanging form and which his students copied down faithfully, is almost certainly the most influential single college course in America’s history. 

Beyond his enormous influence as an educator, Witherspoon was also one of the most important of the Founders. He was an early and influential champion of American independence, and much more than merely a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  In fact, he played a central role in the signing. 

When the Declaration was completed and ready to be signed, the signers-to-be wavered.  For two days they hesitated to affix their signatures.  To sign it, after all, was to provide the British with documentary evidence of treason, punishable by death.  John Witherspoon rose to the occasion, speaking in his famously thick Scottish accent:
“There is a tide in the affairs of men, a nick of time. We perceive it now before us. To hesitate is to content to our own slavery. That noble instrument upon your table, which ensures immortality to its author, should be subscribed this very morning by every pen in this house. He that will not respond to its accents and strain every nerve to carry into effect its provisions is unworthy the name freeman.”

His speech broke the logjam and, as we all know, the delegates then swiftly signed the Declaration.

Robert Curry is the author of the forthcoming book, Common Sense Nation.  You can visit him at