We Owe Scottish Much for Ideas on Independence

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), July 3, 2014 | Go to article overview

We Owe Scottish Much for Ideas on Independence


Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Thomas C. Stewart

On Sept. 18, the people of Scotland will vote on whether to remain part of the 307-year-old United Kingdom, or to recover their independence. As an American of Scottish descent, I think it is appropriate as the Fourth of July nears to acknowledge how much our own independence owes to ideas that we derived from Scotland.

The 18th century saw a remarkable intellectual flowering called The Scottish Enlightenment, which produced such mental giants as the philosopher David Hume, the economic thinker Adam Smith and the inventor James Watt. Scottish genius was prominent in so many fields that the great French philosopher Voltaire said, "We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilization."

The Scottish Enlightenment also produced the "Common Sense" school of philosophy that would help to spark both the American and French revolutions. It was founded by Thomas Reid, a Presbyterian minister who held the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow.

Like other Scottish philosophers, Reid recognized that knowledge is power. But he democratized the notion by saying that all human beings were capable of acquiring knowledge through observation, experience, memory and their other innate, God-given capacities. "To reason against any of these kinds of evidence," wrote Reid, "is absurd. ... They are first principles, and as such fall not within the province of reason, but of common sense."

Reid believed that what people could apprehend through common sense was "self-evident" and thus required no additional proof. The implication was that because all people had the capacity to acquire knowledge, all people were capable of governing themselves - a radical proposition for its day.

As may be imagined, Reid's philosophy proved enormously popular in America. In fact, it's possible that the phrase "We hold these truths to be self-evident" in our Declaration of Independence came from Reid.

But how did the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment enter the thinking of America's Founding Fathers? Through education. Scotland's universities in the 18th century were international centers of intellectual power. American universities imitated them. The works of Scottish philosophers became standard textbooks in American college classrooms, and many learned Scottish immigrants were either professors or tutors for students preparing for college.

"The education of our revolutionary generation," wrote historian Garry Wills, "can be symbolized by this fact: At age 16 Jefferson and Madison and Hamilton were all being schooled by Scots who had come to America as adults. …

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