While Jefferson and Monroe attended William and Mary College, which was intellectually staid, the guide said, Madison went to the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. There he came under the tutelage of John Witherspoon. Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister, born in Scotland and educated at the University of Edinburgh, became President of the College of New Jersey, a Presbyterian institution, in 1768, a year before Madison came there. Under Witherspoon’s guidance, the guide indicated, Madison became imbued with the ideas, ideals, and enthusiasms of the Scottish Enlightenment. (A recent letter in its alumni magazine pointed out Princeton’s iconic Nassau Hall was built because of donations by Scottish Presbyterians.)
Witherspoon would also have shown Madison that enlightenment thought should be expressed in political activity. Witherspoon was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence, signed the Articles of Confederation, and later supported the adoption of the Constitution.
Learning how the Scottish Enlightenment had affected Madison I thought of James Wilson. Wilson, whom I had learned about for an academic project, is largely forgotten now, but he was one of the most influential of our Founding Fathers, and he was the intellectual offspring of the Scottish Enlightenment. Wilson was born in Scotland in 1742 and attended three of the four Scottish universities, St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Edinburgh, where he studied Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. He came to Pennsylvania when he was twenty-four. He signed the Declaration of Independence and was one of the most influential people in the Constitutional Convention. Wilson was on the committee that produced the first draft of the Constitution. He was a leading legal theorist and wrote influential legal articles and books and was one of the original Justices of the Supreme Court. Through him, as with others, flowed Scottish Enlightenment thought into our founding documents.
Hearing how Madison was influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment and thinking again about Wilson’s role made me wonder more generally about the Scottish Enlightenment’s effects on the founding of our country. I have read one book about that Enlightenment, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It by Arthur Herman. It is quite good, but it is a general study, and I wondered if there was something more specific about how those Scottish thinkers affected our country’s foundations. Let me know if you are aware of a good study on that topic. The visit to the presidential homes certainly made me think that in important ways we owe at least partial thanks for our country to the Scots.