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How the Scots Invented the United States

The Scots invented the United States.

The Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the free-market economy: impossible without the Scots. The soldiers who comprised the backbone of George Washington’s army, the teachers and professors in American schools espousing the rights of man, the seeds of the Revolution itself--all from Scotland.

It’s Scots, not Scotch, by the way. Scots are the people, Scotch is the whiskey.

The Scots have a long and violent history. When they weren’t fighting the English, they were fighting each other. That began to change thanks to James Knox (1505-1572). Knox was a Protestant firebrand, fearsome as an Old Testament Prophet, who ousted the Catholic Church from Scotland--utterly, completely, without so much as a rosary bead left behind--and pushed for public education in order that everyone could read the Bible. Above all, Knox wanted to turn the Scots into God’s chosen people, and Scotland into the New Jerusalem.

Knox believed that political power was ordained by God, but that power was not vested in kings or in nobles or even in the clergy, but in the people. It was the people’s right to create their own leaders, and, if need be, to throw them out. This was a view that would later be ascribed to Englishman John Locke (whose ideas Thomas Jefferson wove into the Declaration of Independence), but it originated in Scotland more than a hundred years earlier. The phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is also Scottish in derivation.

Thanks to Knox, Scotland became Europe’s first modern literate society. It seems everyone, no matter how poor, had his own library. In Edinburgh, there were six publishing houses in 1763, for a city with a population of only sixty thousand.

Scottish settlers started arriving in America as early as the 1680s. As England’s presence expanded, the Scottish presence grew with it. “They supplied clergy for the Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches,” says one expert. “They served as tutors . . . and many went on to establish schools.” The Scots established a college in Prince Town, New Jersey, later known as Princeton, where James Madison studied the writings of Scottish philosophers, especially David Hume whose ideas would shape the U.S. Constitution.

The very idea of revolution was planted in the minds of the people by the intense Protestant revivalism that swept America in the 1730s and 1740s, which historians call the Great Awakening.

The Great Awakening transformed the culture of colonial America, touching its inhabitants with the spark of promised redemption, and daring them to challenge orthodox assumptions and institutions (such as the divine right of kings). The man most often associated with it is the New England minister Jonathan Edwards, and his church in Northampton, Massachusetts. But in fact Scottish Presbyterians were front and center in the movement from the start, from the Atlantic Coast to deep within the American frontier.

Adding to the flow of new ideas entering the colonies was the Scottish Enlightenment (1730-1800). Browse through the libraries of, for example, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton, and you’ll find books by Scottish thinkers that significantly shaped the American mind. Here are a few:

Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746): A strong believer in freedom of speech and freedom of religion. He challenged oppression, including slavery and the oppression of women. “Nothing,” he said, “can change a rational creature into a piece of goods void of all rights.” When Jefferson added “the pursuit of happiness” to his list of man’s inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence, he was quoting Hutcheson.

Lord Kames (1696-1782): A strong advocate of property rights. “Men institute laws,” he said, “in order to protect property” . . . “Where property is, laws and government follows, not out of keen desire for them, but out of necessity.” Near and dear to the hearts of the Founding Fathers was the protection of property rights

David Hume (1711-1776): A double threat: Hume’s writings became the blueprint for the U.S. Constitution and also heavily influenced Hamilton’s economic plan to transform America’s economy from one of agriculture and land-based wealth to one of industry and liquid capital.

Adam Smith (1723-1790): Another double threat: Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” helped foster American capitalism while his first book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” was nearly as influential politically with the framing of the early republic.

James Steuart (1713-1780): An advocate of government regulation of the economy (similar to the Federal Reserve), Steuart provided Hamilton with the blueprint for funding the Revolutionary War debt.

John Witherspoon (1723-1794): the president of Princeton University, James Madison’s most influential professor, and a teacher of David Hume’s philosophy. Witherspoon was a delegate at both the Continental Convention that drew up the declaration of independence and at the Constitutional Convention that framed the U.S. Constitution.

James Wilson (1742-1798): an advocate of judicial review that made the Supreme Court equal with the Executive and Legislative branches of government. Said Wilson: judicial review would give the federal government a power it would desperately need, the power of reflection, in order to decide whether a particular law fit within the frame of the Constitution. While not included in the U.S. Constitution, Judicial Review was established early in our republic through legal precedent and has enabled the Supreme Court to become watchdog over the Bill of Rights.

For more, read “How the Scots Invented the Modern World” by Arthur Herman.

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