December 12th, 2012

Frances Hutcheson – Liberty Finds Its Way to the Founders


The mid-course corrections proposed in The Second Bill of Rights and The New Federalist Papers are centered around the restoration of individual liberty.  Frances Hutcheson was born in Northern Ireland.  He arrived in 1711 at the University of Glasgow for an education, but stayed as a teacher and writer till his death in 1746.  He was one of the Founders of the Scottish strain of the Enlightenment.  Arthur Herman, the author of The Scottish Enlightenment (Harper Perennial, 2001), argues that Hutcheson and his contemporary Henry Home (Lord Kames) were the inventors of the strand of individual liberty enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Many of Hutcheson’s students are well known to history.  Adam Smith referred to his university teacher as “the never to be forgotten Hutcheson.”  John Witherspoon, signer of the Declaration of Independence was recruited in the 1760’s by Dr. Benjamin Rush, another signer of the Declaration, to leave Glasgow to assume the Presidency of (what is now) Princeton University.  We’ll explore this lengthy list further in future posts.

Witherspoon brought Hutcheson’s philosophy of liberty directly into the American republic.  An excerpt from Herman’s book about Hutcheson ( pages 79 to 81) reminds us of this incredible inheritance:

“Hutcheson’s most lasting impact lay outside his immediate profession.  It touched students such as Adam Smith, who arrived to study at Glasgow in 1737 . . . .  He sat in on the great man’s lectures on moral philosophy . . . three days a week, and then attended his main course on the philosophy of law and politics.  There, Smith and other listeners would discover that the underlying principles of all human behavior were part of an ‘immense and connected’ moral system governed by the dictates of natural law.  That included, ‘oeconomicks, or the laws and rights of the several members of a family,’ as well as ‘private rights, or the laws obtaining in natural liberty.’

The crucial element in each, the part that enabled everything else to move, was always the same: liberty.  Human beings are born free and equal.  The desire to be free survives, even in the face of the demands for cooperation with others in society.  Society acknowledges it as a natural right, which it must leave intact.  That right is universal; in other words, it applies to all human beings everywhere, regardless of origin or status.  . . . . Hutcheson . . . not only endorsed Lockean ideas of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  He challenged other forms of oppression which Locke . . had ignored [slavery and the subjection of women]. . . .

Hutcheson had created a new political and social vision, . . . : – the vision of a ‘free society.’  He is Europe’s first liberal in the classic sense:  a believer in maximizing personal liberty in the social, economic, and intellectual spheres, as well as the political.  But the ultimate goal of this liberty was . . . happiness – which Hutcheson always defined as resulting from helping others to be happy.  . . .

Hutcheson’s doctrine of happiness . . . had two faces.  It involved, on one side, gratification of the self through a joyous and contented life.  When Thomas Jefferson added ‘the pursuit of happiness’ to his list of inalienable rights of man in the Declaration of Independence, he was emphasizing this side of Hutcheson’s legacy.  On the other, it was also intensely altruistic.  No man stands alone was the message his students absorbed.  . . .

Hutcheson taught his contemporaries:  the desire to be moral and virtuous, and treat others with kindness and compassion; the desire to be free, including political freedom; and the desire to enjoy our natural rights in society, as civil rights, are universal desires.  And why do human beings want them?  Because these are the things that lead to human ‘happiness.’

But this raised a problem for his disciples.  If those desires are really so universal, why do so many societies deny people those very things?  Why have there been so few that have delivered on Hutcheson’s vision of a free society?”

The Founders embraced these ideals – both sides of happiness – the obligation to give and the joy of receiving the benefits of liberty in concert with fellow citizens.

From Hutcheson to Adam Smith and John Witherspoon; from Adam Smith to Ben Franklin, and from Witherspoon to one of his most famous students – James Madison:  liberty was the crucial common element.

To help us rekindle individual freedom and liberty in the United States, click on the Book link above or go directly to Amazon:

With malice toward none, and charity for all!


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