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Scottish influence in American Culture: Enlightened Education and Democracy

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Scotland in the 18th century/Image from:

Scotland in the 18th century/Image from:

In the history of America's birth, the names of James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, 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. 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').

The Scottish Enlightenment was centred 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."

[If you like to learn more about Scottish Enlightenment visit Tom Devine's "Scottish Enlightenment" website or go here.]

Map of Scotland/Source:

Map of Scotland/Source:

Scots in America

Scots in 18th century America

Throughout the eighteenth century, Scots -especially from the Highland (the north and west of the Highland Boundary Fault)- were emigrating from their homeland. Among other places, they went to the rising manufacturing cities of England; to the British colonies in the Caribbean and North America and the French colonies in North America. Scots established homes, trading posts, artisan shops and schools all over the world. After 1746, the continued flow of Scottish immigrants was nourished by Jacobite exiles and sympathizers. After I763 not only individuals, but whole families and parishes migrated to America.

The causes of this emigration were many, among them: a declining death rate in a country of limited productivity; the failure of the Jacobite uprisings, which promoted departures, involuntary as well as voluntary; bad harvests in I763 and I764 and the letters and tales of Highland soldiers who served in America during the Seven Years War (a turning point in British and colonial relations and a fundamental juncture for the Revolutionary cause). All these factors, among others, were strong stimulus to leave Scotland and try America. The Scots tended to migrate as families rather than individuals. For that reason, many successful settlers sent funds back to the old country to enable family members to follow — wife or sweetheart, brothers and sisters, and sometimes their parents as well.

Education was widespread in Scotland and most of Scots were literate. It was said in 1773 that the Virginians imported all their tutors and schoolmasters from Scotland and most headmasters of the schools in the new colonies south of New York were Scottish or of Scottish ancestry. Hence, during the 18th century Scots played a pivotal role in the development of education in the British colonies. Scots arriving in America soon established universities, colleges and other educational establishments such the College of New Jersey (today known as Princeton University). Those establishments were fundamental in the education of America's future leaders. For instance, Thomas Jefferson, John Rutledge, James Madison and Benjamin Rush were educated under Scottish influence.

[For a list of famous American Scots visit this website.]

College of New Jersey; Wood engraving/Source:

College of New Jersey; Wood engraving/Source:

 This is the principal building of the College of New Jersey in 1764 "Aula Nassovica," (Nassau Hall). This image belongs to a fundraising brochure for the college/Source: Library of Congress' Exhibition "Religion and the Founding of American Republic

This is the principal building of the College of New Jersey in 1764 "Aula Nassovica," (Nassau Hall). This image belongs to a fundraising brochure for the college/Source: Library of Congress' Exhibition "Religion and the Founding of American Republic

Princeton's 1794 orrery/Photo from the Historic Maps Collection, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Princeton's 1794 orrery/Photo from the Historic Maps Collection, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library

The College of New Jersey and Enlightened Education

In 1746, New Light Presbyterians and a few Harvard's and Yale's alumni founded the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University. Even as the College was founded by a religious institution and with the declared purpose to train ministers -as the first universities in the North American British colonies (namely Harvard, College of William and Mary and Yale)- the charter that created Princeton was unique in the colonies. It specified that “any Person of any religious Denomination whatsoever” might attend. On October 22, 1746, the Province of New Jersey granted to the College of New Jersey, a charter for “the Education of Youth in the Learned Languages and in the Liberal Arts and Sciences”. [See the 1748's charter here.]

The college opened at Elizabeth, New Jersey, under the presidency of Jonathan Dickinson. From the time of the move to Princeton in 1756 until the construction of Stanhope Hall in 1803, the University had just one building, Nassau Hall. Named for William III of England of the House of Orange-Nassau. When the Continental Congress met in Nassau Hall during the summer of 1783, Princeton became the capital of the country for four months.

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The College of New Jersey under John Witherspoon

In 1768 Reverend John Witherspoon, a prominent Scottish religious and political leader, who later will be an original signer of the Declaration of independence and the Articles of Confederation, became the sixth President of the College (1768-94). Witherspoon transformed a college designed predominantly to train clergymen into a school that would heavily influence the leaders of a revolutionary generation. He made fundamental changes to the moral philosophy curriculum and strengthened the college's commitment to natural philosophy (science).

Notably, Witherspoon's common sense approach to morality was more influenced by the Enlightenment ethics of Scottish philosophers Francis Hutcheson (who argued that humans have natural and disinterested feelings of benevolence which guide their moral acts and an innate "moral sense" which informs their moral judgments) and Thomas Reid than the Christian virtue of Jonathan Edwards (who argued that genuine human virtue is an imitation of divine benevolence). As a consequence, Witherspoon believed that morality was a science. Thus It could be cultivated in his students or deduced through the development of the moral sense. Witherspoon argued that the moral sense was an ethical compass instilled by God in all human beings and developed through education (Reid) or sociability (Hutcheson). In accordance with the Scottish moral sense philosophy, Witherspoon also taught that all human beings -religious or otherwise- could be virtuous.

Witherspoon also broadened and enriched the curriculum of the College. He was the first to introduce the new rhetoric of the eighteenth century, accomplishing his purpose by extending and intensifying instruction in English grammar and composition. Under his tenure, the College expanded its collections of instructional resources: books for the library and ``philosophical apparatus'' for instruction by demonstration in the sciences, including the famous Rittenhouse Orrery. This instrument was devised to represent the motions of the planets about the sun. In the eighteenth-century orreries were regarded as essential teaching equipment of lecturers on ``natural philosophy''. And as Alexander Leitch (A Princeton Companion, Princeton University Press, 1978) points out, the many books he added to the library gave the undergraduate access to a wide range of contemporary literature, including authors with whom he had publicly disputed.

Princeton University

Princeton University

John Witherspoon

John Witherspoon

Books about John Witherspoon

The influence of John Witherspoon in Revolutionary America

Born in 1723 Gifford (East Lothian) Scotland, Witherspoon was a product of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland's leading university in an age when the Scottish universities had a vitality and influence possessed by no others in Great Britain. Witherspoon introduced to Princeton, and -through its prestige- to other institutions, some of the more advanced ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment.

He saw no conflict between faith and reason and was much inclined to apply the test of common sense to any proposition. At the same time, he encouraged his students to test their faith by the rule of experience. In lecturing on rhetoric, he advised his students of the multiple components into which a discourse traditionally had been divided.

His name is rightly identified with certain attitudes and assumptions, considered to be of importance in the development of American national life, that are associated with what is known as the Common Sense Philosophy. Hence, John Witherspoon was one the most influential religious, educational and political leaders in Revolutionary America.

According to Thomas Miller, who edited an edition of Witherspoon’s selected works in 1990, his Lectures on Eloquence count as the first treatise on rhetoric in America. And Witherspoon’s Lectures on Moral Philosophy introduced a generation of Princetonians to some leading Enlightenment themes.

Several of his students, who included James Madison, Aaron Burr, Philip Freneau, and John Breckenridge, all played prominent roles in the development of the new nation. In this article Robert A. Peterson establishes that,

"Ten of his former students became cabinet officers, six were members of the Continental Congress, thirty-nine became Congressmen, and twenty-one sat in the Senate. His graduates included twelve governors, and when the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America met in 1789, 52 of the 188 delegates had studied under Witherspoon. The limited-government philosophy of most of these men was due in large measure to Witherspoon’s influence."

In the age of revolution, Princeton -the only Presbyterian institution in the colonies- was deeply compromised with the rebellion. At the time of the birth of the United States, and along with those statesmen, the College also produced thirty judges, including three justices of the Supreme Court, all those under Witherspoon’s tenure.

John Witherspoon's Selected Works

Articles of the Confederation, 1776

Articles of the Confederation, 1776


John Witherspoon: A forgotten Founding Father

Witherspoon's support of the American cause is no surprise. Along with the Scottish Enlightenment ideas, he subscribed to John Locke's political philosophy.

In New Jersey Witherspoon was influential in leading the colony -initially ambivalent about revolution- toward rebellion. In early 1774 he joined the Committee of Correspondence and Safety and in 1776 he was elected to the Continental Congress as part of the New Jersey delegation. In July 1776, Witherspoon voted for the Resolution for Independence; he was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. Interestingly, this historic document has many similarities to the Declaration of Arbroath which proclaimed Scottish freedom for the first time in 1320.

His 1776's sermon "The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men" was published in many editions. The Dominion... contained a calm and very striking statement for his reasons concurring with the American demand for the control of their own affairs and articulated a link between spiritual and temporal liberty in a way that straightly spoke to the passions of the moment...

this is the first time of my introducing any political subject into the pulpit. At this season, however, it is not only lawful but necessary, and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature. So far as we have hitherto proceeded, I am satisfied that the confederacy of the colonies has not been the effect of pride, resentment, or sedition, but of a deep and general conviction that our civil and religious liberties, and consequently in a great measure the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our posterity, depended on the issue. The knowledge of God and his truths have from the beginning of the world been chiefly, if not entirely confined to those parts of the earth where some degree of liberty and political justice were to be seen, and great were the difficulties with which they had to struggle, from the imperfection of human society, and the unjust decisions of unsurped authority. There is not a single instance in history, in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.

In July 1776, when the question of succession was fiercely debated, one delegate argued that the country was not yet “ripe” for independence. Witherspoon as a native Scotsman, long wary of the power of the British Crown, riposted: “In my judgement the country is not only ripe for the measure, but in danger of becoming rotten for the want of it.”

Witherspoon served in Congress from June 1776 until November 1782 and became one of its most influential and energetic members. He served on over 100 committees, most notably the powerful standing committees, the board of war and the committee on secret correspondence or foreign affairs. He spoke often in debate; helped draft the Articles of Confederation; helped organize the executive departments; played a major role in shaping foreign policy; and drew up the instructions for the peace commissioners. He fought against the flood of paper money, and opposed the issuance of bonds without provision for their amortization. He was a strong defender of a national constitution. He also served twice in the New Jersey Legislature, and strongly supported the adoption of the United States Constitution during the New Jersey ratification debates.

In 1774, on his way to the first meeting of the Continental Congress, John Adams stopped over in Princeton. He met Witherspoon and pronounced him ``as high a Son of Liberty, as any Man in America''. Henceforward, his and his fellow Scotsman influence in American culture and ideals should not be forgotten.

Declaration of Independence

Declaration of Independence


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CaribeM (author) on February 10, 2012:

Hi, thanks for stopping by and comment. I'm very glad that you enjoyed and found the hub useful. Best wishes on your research.

jEmSSnn01 from NY on February 10, 2012:

Thank you for sharing your knowledge on this subject, I've learned something from your hub which will be useful on my research, thanks again. 

M.C. Mescher on October 16, 2011:

Thank you for sharing such powerful history to all who may see it on the net.

careerguidance` from chandigarh on July 01, 2010:

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CaribeM (author) on May 28, 2010:

Watkins, thank you very much for reading this article. I'm very glad that you enjoyed it and I greatly appreciate your very warm comment.

We found common ground on this one :) Hope to have many more in the future. Take care!

James A Watkins from Chicago on May 27, 2010:

Absolutely fascinating! I greatly appreciate your emphasis on the Scottish Enlightenment and John Whitherspoon. Outstanding! Your writing is excellent. I surely enjoyed reading this article. Thank you!

CaribeM (author) on April 10, 2010:

Hi Nell! Thanks for checking this article and sharing your comments. You are right, many people believe that the war of independence was a "nationalistic" struggle between "Americans" and the British. But it could be more properly depicted between opposing views about government and ideals of "freedom". I think the nationalistic identity rose much later.

Take care and thanks for becoming a "follower". Look forward to read more of your interesting hubs.

Nell Rose from England on April 10, 2010:

Hiya, this is really good. I always say that when the American war of independance was started, it wasn't between England and America, it was between American, Scottish English (who had been transported there because they were convicts) and Irish, against the English!! lol at that time there were no 'real' Americans, as there are today, it was a mixture of all the above. thanks for an informative hub. cheers nell

thevoice from carthage ill on April 07, 2010:

hub best thanks

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