The View From 1776
Sunday, April 22, 2007
The Scottish Enlightenment & America’s Founding
Our model of the world ? our paradigm ? determines our knee-jerk reactions. Having lost a critical element of our original paradigm, Americans have turned to tyranny without recognizing it for what it is.
What Alexis de Tocqueville said of the French nation under socialism in the early decades of the 19th century now applies to us. After almost fifty years of socialism, Tocqueville said, the French had become self-centered and indifferent to the general welfare. To get their welfare-state benefits, they were prepared to accept any degree of despotism, so long as the rulers gave lip service to “Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood.”
Robert Curry contrasts that with our now lost, original paradigm.
The Founders’ Tradition
By Robert Curry
We have had to the present day two different traditions in the theory of liberty…[one] was made explicit mainly by a group of Scottish moral philosophers led by David Hume, Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson…Opposed to them was the tradition of the French Enlightenment.?? F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty
America was founded during the Age of the Enlightenment, and the Founders quite naturally looked to Enlightenment thinkers for the ideas and arguments they used in the great task of crafting our system of government.? Hayek’s point is important because only one of these?Enlightenment?traditions, the Scottish one, influenced the founding, and it did so?decisively.? The French Enlightenment had virtually no influence on America in its formative years.? The Founders were?steeped in the Scottish tradition, and that was the?tradition they relied upon.? As Daniel Walker Howe put it, “the Scots spread a rich intellectual table from which the Americans could pick and choose and feast.”
The?Scottish Enlightenment was made up of men who delighted in vigorous debate.? And yet, as Samuel Fleischacker has?written, “the Scots did tend to share some general views—on the sociability of human nature, on the importance of history to moral philosophy and social science, on the dignity and intelligence of ordinary people—that were of great importance to their followers in America and elsewhere.”??Those?shared?general views informed the American debate,?and provided the basis of a fundamental agreement among the Founders.?
This fundamental agreement is a matter of the utmost importance.??How different our history might have been if there had been a significant party among the Founders committed to the ideas of the philosophes!? For Voltaire and Diderot the political ideal was the enlightened despotism of a reforming monarch, like Frederick in Prussia or Catherine in Russia.? Government by the people was folly because, as Diderot wrote, “the general mass of men are not so made that they can either promote or understand this forward march of the human spirit.”?? Fortunately for us the Founders did not have to debate these fundamental issues.
Today the situation is reversed.? The central role the Scottish Enlightenment?played in America’s founding has been largely forgotten.? Even the fact?that there was?a Scottish Enlightenment has been eclipsed by the prominence of the?French Enlightenment.? When well-educated people?discuss the Enlightenment, they almost invariably are actually discussing?the French Enlightenment.? The strange result is that we Americans, not realizing?that America?was?made in the foundry of the Enlightenment,?are prevented from recognizing?how much?America is?even today?an Enlightenment enterprise.?
If?we want?to try to re-capture the view from 1776 in order to understand the thinking of the Founders,?perhaps the best place to start is where the Founders began—with the?Enlightenment tradition of liberty that informed their thinking.