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The Scottish influence on the US Declaration of Independence, from Arbroath to the Enlightenment

Portrait of Professor William Small by Tilly Kettle

Portrait of Professor William Small by Tilly Kettle

Speaking at the launch of Tartan Day in April 2008, George W Bush, then President of the United States, spoke of the great debt of honour that Americans held for those of Scottish descent who have “made enduring contributions to our Nation with their hard work, faith and values”.

He went on to acknowledge the role that the Scottish Declaration of Arbroath played in forming the American constitution citing the “Scots’ strong dedication to liberty”. and also their “tradition of freedom” that they brought with them to the New World.

Just how much influence Scots have had in forming the constitution of America is often debated. There are those who trace a direct line from the sentiments and wording of the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, a letter to the Pope that made Scotland’s case for freedom from England and freedom for all the people of Scotland, all the way to the American Declaration of Independence, which was presented to Congress in 1776 and says that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

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Undoubtedly those who drew up the American declaration were influenced by great thinkers from Aristotle onwards. But just a cursory look at the men involved in drafting and signing the declaration reveal a strong Scottish influence.
Of the 56 signatories of the declaration it is estimated that at the least a third were either Scots by birth or of Scottish descent. This number, by some people’s estimates, rises to three-quarters. Whilst it is probable that most of the signatories held non-American ancestry, it is clear that Scottish blood, education and ideas were strongly represented in the drawing up and signing of the document.

The committee set up to draft the declaration comprised five men: Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Of these five, the drafting was entrusted mostly to Jefferson.

Jefferson was himself of Scottish descent, tracing his lineage back to King Robert I of Scotland. But if his claims to Scottish ancestry may be sketchy, his education amongst Scots is not.

Jefferson was himself very well-read, with many of the tracts and papers he had absorbed influencing the drafting of the declaration. His education was further broadened when he studied law at William and Mary, one of America’s oldest colleges. There he was taught by William Small, a Scottish Professor of mathematics and philosophy. Jefferson wrote later that Small was “as a father” to him and certainly shared with him the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment as well as the Scottish ideals of freedom and equality.

However, Jefferson was not the only man of influence with a Scottish past involved in the declaration. James Wilson, from a farming family in Fife, was hugely influential in building America. He was one of only six to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.

He was a late arrival to the US, arriving there in 1765 aged 23. His background at the Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow placed him right at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment. He moved into law on reaching America and from there was drawn to the Revolution. His role as a founding father continued to his death when he was still an associate justice of the US Supreme Court.

His role in shaping America was so great that in 1906 his body was moved from North Carolina to Pennsylvania where it was re-interred close to Benjamin Franklin.
There were other Scots amongst the signatories whose influence is still felt today. And they were not the last. The history of America is peppered with folks with names like McKinlay, Blair, Buchanan, Monroe and McArthur: men whose forebears may have left their country many years previously, but had never forgotten what it meant to be a Scot.

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  • KP

    Is there any mention of the Declaration of Arbroath in any of the corrspondence of the Signers? That would be the clincher.

  • Sir James Douglas

    If anybody doubts the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment, they might want to note that Benjamin Franklin himself visited Scotland in 1759.

  • cardrossian

    Isn’t it strange that Scots could put pen to paper in such a brilliant way so often, yet Scotland itself does not have (as yet) a written consitution? Thank God that the SDA has taken that in hand so that Scotland does now at least have a formula for such a document. Interested persons (and we should all be interested) can find out more on the Scottish Democratic Alliance website.

  • http://freemasonties.blogspot.com/ dddoc

    And yet Scotland still remains to this day a slave nation under the English, who’ve imposed the unwanted Eu on our country. While America who booted the English out during the war of independence, consistently snuggle up too the English in their global domination to bring freedom to the world.

    Hypocrites spring to mind…

    Thanks for the info ;)

  • Peter L. Gordon

    “It is in truth not for glory, nor for riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”
    The Declaration of Arbroath, Scotland, April 6th,1320.