Editor’s note: The following comments on Ronald Hamowy’s article, “Jefferson and the Scottish Enlightenment: A Critique of Garry Wills’s Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence” (October 1979), come from Professor Nicholas Varga, of Loyola College in Maryland, and Professor Gilman Ostrander, of the University of Waterloo. Their letters are printed with a reply by Mr. Hamowy. We regret that Mr. Wills has not accepted our invitation to respond to Mr. Hamowy’s critique.
Mr. Varga writes:
This is neither in praise of Garry Wills nor to bury Ronald Hamowy. In some measurealthough to different degreesboth scholars have put us in their debt, and inevitably the work of each falls short of absolute perfection. Even if all of Hamowy’s critique were cogent and true, Wills would still have served scholarship by prying open a discussion which for many decades has appeared foreclosed.
It is not possible or necessary to repeat Hamowy’s close reading and comparison of Wills with the Scottish authors he claims as the main source of the ideas embedded in the Declaration of Independence. Hamowy’s critique on this point cannot be gainsaid.
His case against Wills is launched with parallel quotations from Hutcheson, the Declaration, and Locke. His aim is to establish that Locke, not Hutcheson, was indeed the source of the concepts in the Declaration. One instance at least proves neither Hamowy’s nor Wills’s contentions. For the passage in the Declaration that proclaims the right and duty to revolt against a tyrannical government, the Hutcheson passage merely states that a tyrant forfeits his authority and Locke merely indicates his lack of surprise that a people would revolt against a tyrant. Neither Hutcheson nor Lockein these passagesalludes to a right and duty to revolt.
The phrase “long train of abuses” appears in both Locke and the Declaration, but this seems more like common rhetorical coinage than something distinctly Lockean. Hamowy also makes a point of noting that Wills omitted the phrase about “future security” from his citation of the Declaration when Locke uses the word “secure” in the pertinent passage. This is pretty thin stuff on which to rest an implication of misusing evidence.
Later in the essay, Hamowy asserts that Locke and Hutcheson are not in fact alternate sources but writers within a broad intellectual stream that included others. This is no small concession. By it, the Declaration of Independence becomes something more than an American version of Locke’s theories. Even if Wills stretched his assertions beyond his data, he also established that much, and for that small reminder historians ought to thank him.
However, why must the discussion about the meaning of the Declaration of Independence focus so narrowly on the influences that impinged on Thomas Jefferson’s mind? Are Americans beholden to a singular lawgiver? The Declaration, as it was promulgated, was formally the collective work and responsibility of the Continental Congress, which claimed to act in the name of the American peoplehowever the nation was constituted. What authority or meaning it has derives from this fact and not from Jefferson’s draftsmanship.
He was of course not a mindless instrument, but he acted by analogy as the pen of Congress and the nationas he himself made clear in stating that he merely gave the common sense of the matter. Wills has reminded us that the idiosyncratic notions which Jefferson embedded in his original draft were rejected by Congressmuch to his dismay and annoyance. The nation, Congress, and its penman were appealing to mankind, and Congress ensured the general acceptability of the Declaration by deleting the peculiar ideas of Jefferson. For a global audience, it is reasonable to find intellectual resonances not only from Locke but also from the Scottish Enlightenment and even from an older tradition of political thought that stretches back through Hooker, Aquinas, and Salisbury to Cicero and Aristotle.
On the special question of Locke’s distinctive influence on American political philosophy, attention should be given to another recent study from outside the historical guild. Aldo Tassi’s monograph, The Political Philosophy of the American Revolution, argues persuasively that key aspects of Locke’s thought were rejected by Americans. Assuming the philosopher’s case will withstand scholarly review, why should historians continue to idolize Locke as America’s sole guiding genius?
Finally, it is surprising that Hamowy’s critique pays no attention to Douglass Adair. Wills acknowledges his debt to Adair’s article in The William and Mary Quarterly wherein he appealed for putting Jefferson’s thought into the context of the “great tradition of Western social thought.” More pertinent is Adair’s essay in the Huntington Library Quarterly where he traced James Madison’s thought in Federalist No. 10 to the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Thus, if Madison, why not Jefferson? What historians really ought to be studying is the general climate of opinion in the nation rather than that of a few important members of the elite.
Mr. Ostrander writes:
Garry Wills has enjoyed a remarkable success in drawing wide attention to his Inventing America and in confounding reviewers who may be more knowledgeable than he in American intellectual history but who are evidently unfamiliar with the Scottish writers in question. He continues his success in the October 1979 issue of The William and Mary Quarterly, where Ronald Hamowy goes hotly and sometimes heedlessly on the attack. In his determination to demolish Wills’s argument concerning the influence of Scottish moral philosophy on Jefferson’s thought, Hamowy has been led to commit the same sort of methodological transgressions that he censures in Wills.
Hamowy is right in dismissing Francis Hutcheson as a demonstrably major influence on Jefferson and in showing that Wills had little to go on here except the dubious evidence afforded by parallel texts. Hamowy might have demonstrated the fallibility of this method of proof, a method by which the Declaration of Independence can be attributed to numbers of different exponents of natural rights. Instead he follows Wills’s example by adding parallel texts of his own selection to prove Locke’s influence on Jefferson’s Declaration to his own satisfaction. Hamowy readily demonstrates that Wills’s efforts to eliminate Locke from Jefferson’s political thought are absurd. And then Hamowy no less absurdly moves to eliminate virtually everybody but Locke as a formative influence on Jefferson’s Declaration.
At one point, Hamowy dismisses all of the Scots but Hutcheson from so much as consideration on the ground that they did not advocate revolution. Then at a later point he specifically excludes Hume and Kames from consideration, asserting that “Kames was an expert in British constitutional law and Hume an internationally respected philosopher. Neither had written anything remotely resembling the sentiments Jefferson was to express in the Declaration.”
Well, there is no truth in that. Both of them had done so at length. Hume’s Political Discourses (1751) and Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1754) influenced the sentiments expressed in the Declaration, or at least were read and recommended by Jefferson. Hume may be an internationally respected philosopher today, but in his own time he was more respected for his writings on morals and politics. The very letter from Jefferson to Thomas Randolph in 1790 that Hamowy cites as praising Locke’s little book on government goes on to recommend several essays by Hume on the subject. Here and elsewhere, Hamowy exhibits the same blindness to Scottish references in Jefferson’s writings that Wills exhibits toward similar references to Locke.
Kames was an expert on much more than British constitutional law, writing his most influential works in the fields of aesthetics and moral philosophy. There is good evidence that Jefferson as a young man studied Kamesespecially his Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion (1751)with great care and fully accepted his distinctly unLockean conclusions. Judging from Jefferson’s writings, including annotations in his books, it was Kames, to a greater extent than Locke or Hutcheson or any other writer, who influenced the development of Jefferson’s social thought. Gilbert Chinard and Adrienne Koch drew attention to Kames’s influence on Jefferson, and Chinard was especially emphatic about it. He wrote that Kames was for Jefferson “a master and a guide” and the source of “all his conception of natural rights,” which “neither Locke, nor so far as I know any political thinker” of Locke’s period had defined as Kames and Jefferson defined it. Hamowy observes that “Wills faults previous writers on Jefferson’s thought,” including specifically Chinard and Koch, but neither Hamowy nor Wills evidently took the pains to find out what these scholars had to say about this subject.
As Chinard pointed out, it seems to have been from Kames in particular that Jefferson derived the unLockean moral sense philosophy that arguably underlies the Declaration, with its inclusion of the pursuit of happiness among man’s natural rights. As to this pursuit of happiness, Wills may be as confusingly convoluted as Hamowy says he is, but Hamowy surely outdoes him here in obfuscation. Hamowy considers Hutcheson’s argument that “man’s innate moral sense cannot but compel him to pursue happiness,” and then proceeds on his own to argue that, in this situation, “not even the most despotic of governments can prevent men from pursuing their own happiness.” There is a distinction here between the necessity to pursue happiness and the liberty to pursue it which Hamowy does not consider.
In place of a Scottish moral sense conception of happiness, for which ample texts can be found in Jefferson’s writings, Hamowy suggests “a more sensible explanation”: that “when Jefferson spoke of an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, he meant that men may act as they choose in their search for ease, comfort, felicity, and grace.” Hamowy makes no effort to discover this hedonistic interpretation in Jefferson’s writings. He may be speaking for himself here; he is surely not speaking for Jefferson.
In his effort to obliterate Scottish influence from Jefferson’s thoughts, Hamowy writes that for Wills to characterize Jefferson’s years of study at the College of William and Mary under William Small as the most intellectually influential years of his life was “a piece of hyperbole for which no evidence exists.” Hamowy himself goes beyond hyperbole here. There is plenty of evidence in Jefferson’s writings to suggest that this was the case, which is why leading Jefferson scholars including Chinard and Dumas Malone lend their support to it. One such piece of evidence, of which Wills rightly makes much, is Jefferson’s own avowal in his autobiography that “it was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life, that Dr. William Small of Scotland” saw fit to take him in hand and give him his “first views of the expansion of science, and of the system of things in which we are placed.” Hamowy concedes it to be “perfectly plausible” that Jefferson might have been introduced to the works of the Scottish Enlightenment by his enlightened Scottish professor. It is not “plausible.” It is plain as a pike staff.
What seems most noteworthy to me about Hamowy’s critique is the adamancy with which it rejects evidence of the pervading influence of the Scottish Enlightenment upon the thought of the American Revolutionary generationsouth of New England, at leastand the fierce insistence upon the English whig tradition to the virtual exclusion of other influences upon American Revolutionary thought. “The fact of the matter is,” Hamowy declares, that not only is it “essential to read the writers of the Whig revolutionary tradition” but evidently also to concede that “the theory which the colonists early settled on was undoubtedly Lockean.”
A reconstruction of the political thought of the era from the pamphlet literature of the Revolution alone might tend to support such a conclusion, since writers will have drawn upon the sources best suited to the Revolutionary argument. A patriot, though educated in the Scottish school, might find Locke more appropriate than Hume or Kames to cite in the Revolutionary argument, but that was not to imply a renunciation of his Scottish assumptions about man and society. Jefferson, in his well-known denial that he used Locke as his guide in writing the Declaration, explained that the Declaration had reflected “the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc., &c.” The Declaration declared an end to the Revolutionary debate and the beginning of a new nation, to be organized in such form as would seem most likely to effect the safety and happiness of the people. The Scottish moral sense philosophy was appropriate to this purpose as it was not appropriate to such earlier pamphlets as Jefferson’s legal brief, A Summary View of the Rights of British America.
It is perhaps the rather narrow concentration by intellectual historians upon this pre-Revolutionary pamphlet literature during the past generation that accounts for Hamowy’s unyielding rejection of the Scottish Enlightenment as a major source for Jefferson’s ideas. (Hamowy does acknowledge the existence of a Scottish intellectual influence in general but never in any particular case.) And to the extent that the pamphlet literature of Massachusetts may have received some emphasis on the part of New England-oriented scholars, the impact of the Scottish writers would be even less in evidence. As John Adams became painfully aware upon first arriving in Philadelphia, the Harvard-educated delegates from Massachusetts lacked the cosmopolitan training of gentlemen from Virginia, South Carolina, and, to a less extent, Pennsylvania, who were versed in the literature of the Scottish Enlightenment as was hardly beginning to be the case with Adams and other Harvard men.
The influence of the Scottish Enlightenment upon Jefferson and other Americans of the Revolutionary generation was not “invented” by Wills as Hamowy supposes, nor did it remain undiscovered until the present. More than a generation ago in his History of American Philosophy, Herbert W. Schneider concluded that “the Scottish Enlightenment was probably the most potent single tradition in the American Enlightenment,” and he could have cited a good many earlier secondary sources in support of this statement. More recently, however, intellectual historians have been pursuing directions of research that have tended to pass by the manifestations of this Scottish influence.
Meanwhile, scholarly interest in the Scottish influences upon the thought of the Revolutionary generation is reviving, and the weightiest contribution to the subject is not Wills’s book, although it has attracted the most popular attention. The first volume of Elizabeth Flower and Murray G. Murphey, A History of Philosophy in America, heavily stresses the formative influence of Scottish moral philosophers from the Revolutionary era down through the nineteenth century. The Scottish philosophy emerges as the central theme of their study from the Revolution to the Civil War, and they write that “because the theme . . . runs counter to a negative view so deeply entrenched and because of its importance . . . we have resorted to heroic measures at considerable sacrifice to chronological order.”
Wills’s Inventing America may be long on style and short on research, but it has succeeded in pricking the complacency of scholars, some of whom have lately taken to discussing the intellectual history of the Revolution as though it had achieved its final formas though it had been ossified by a generation of students into a solid historical truth, susceptible of no further sea change other than the addition of such barnacles of truth as might from time to time attach themselves to it.
Mr. Hamowy replies:
In the space allowed a brief reply I cannot, of course, hope to deal thoroughly with attacks on an argument that had originally taken some twenty-one pages to elaborate. I shall, however, try to respond to the criticisms offered by Professors Varga and Ostrander in the order in which they are raised.
(1) Varga claims that my use of textual parallels from the Declaration and John Locke’s Second Treatise was intended to “establish” that Locke, and not Hutcheson, was the source of the political philosophy expounded in the Declaration. In point of fact, I offered these parallels to refute Wills’s contention that, as distinct from the writings of the Scottish school and particularly Hutcheson, no such parallels between Locke and the Declaration existed. Varga’s contention that neither Locke nor Hutcheson, in the passages cited, alluded to a right and a duty to revolt against tyrannical government misses the point, inasmuch as it leaves unrefuted my claim, contra Wills, that the parallels with Locke are at least as close as those Wills offers with Hutcheson.
(2) I do not claim that the phrase “long train of abuses” is “distinctly Lockean,” althoughwithin the contexts in which it was used by both Jefferson and Lockethe parallel is striking. Further, my point in adding the phrase “future security,” which Wills omits when quoting from the Declaration, was to underscore the fact that the textual parallel with Locke is closer: than appears to be the case from a reading of Wills. The reasons why Varga objects to this, and why he regards it as “thin,” I find unclear.
(3) Varga believes that I have conceded something to Wills’s thesis by contending that Locke and Hutcheson “are not alternate sources but writers within a broad intellectual stream that included others.” Here he seems to have missed the main thrust of my article, which is thatin political philosophyHutcheson followed Locke and differed markedly from the other writers of the Scottish school. Wills, on the contrary, asserts that Jefferson’s Declaration owes nothing to Locke and everything to the Scottish school, among whom he numbers not only Hutcheson, but Hume, Kames, Smith, Ferguson, and Reid. I trust I have shown that a close reading of the Scottish thinkers shows Wills’s conclusions on this score to be hopelessly wrong. That the Declaration is something more than an American version of Locke’s theories is not at issue, historians having argued long before the publication of Wills’s monograph that the document is indebted to a number of authors writing within the Whig revolutionary tradition. And Wills has certainly not set out to establish this but to prove that Jefferson’s Declaration is nothing more than an American version of Scottish moral philosophy.
(4) Varga regrets that the discussion of the meaning of the Declaration focuses so narrowly on the influences at work on Jefferson when he composed the document. Its authority and meaning, Varga argues, derive from the fact that it was issued as representing the views of Congress and of a new nation. I do not deny that the Declaration can be usefully studied in this light, but Wills has not chosen to do so, preferring to concentrate his analysis of the document on Jefferson’s intent and meaning and not those of Congress. I see no reason to fault Wills on this score; studying the Declaration as a work of intellectual history will not generate the same conclusions as would follow from some different approach, but these conclusions can nonetheless be of great historical value. My critique of Wills concerns the specific claims made by him about Jefferson, and this is the reason why the work of Congress was not considered.
(5) Although Tassi questions the notion that early American political theory was indebted solely to Locke, he certainly does not deny the importance Locke’s views had in shaping the American conception of the nature of political obligation. In any case, Tassi’s central thesis, that participation in the exercise of political power was a basic philosophical underpinning of the American conception of libertya thesis that is somewhat problematicdoes not directly bear on the questions raised by Wills respecting the influences at work on Jefferson in composing the Declaration.
(6) Adair has persuasively argued that Madison’s Federalist No. 10 was influenced by Hume, but it hardly follows from this that Jefferson’s Declaration was also influenced by the same Scottish thinker, especially in light of the differences in subject-matter and purpose of the two documents.
(7) Ostrander appears particularly disturbed at my use of textual parallels from Locke. These were intended not “to prove Locke’s influence on Jefferson’s Declaration to [my] own satisfaction,” as Ostrander contends, but primarily to refute Wills’s claimquoted in my critiquethat “those who think Jefferson had to derive his natural right of revolution from Locke have no direct textual parallels to draw on.”
(8) The sentiments expressed in Hume’s Political Discourses and Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals are in no way similar to those expressed in the Declaration but are, in most important particulars, antithetical. In fact, so dissimilar is Hume’s political philosophy from the ideas put forth in the Declaration that it is hard to believe that anyone familiar with the Discourses and the Inquiry could claim, as does Ostrander, that they “influenced the sentiments espoused in the Declaration.”
In his “Of the Original Contract” Hume explicitly rejected the notion that governments are founded on consent and that the sovereign’s subjects have tacitly reserved to themselves the right to resist oppressive authority. Indeed, Hume was such a staunch opponent of the contract theory of political obligation that he wrote Hutcheson in 1743 to complain that Hutcheson had not offered a more sweeping condemnation of the Lockean theory of consent. In his “Of Passive Obedience” Hume excoriated those who have “with so much industry, propagated the maxims of resistancemaxims which, it must be confessed, are in general so pernicious and so destructive of civil society.” Finally, in his Inquiry Hume went to great lengths to elaborate the notion that justice and property, and the whole body of law and rights that flows from justice and property, follow uponthat is, are not anterior tothe establishment of civil society and are the product of human contrivance founded on public utility alone. These views are hardly echoed in the Declaration.
(9) Ostrander objects to my referring to Hume as an internationally respected philosopher in the eighteenth century. “In his own time,” Ostrander writes, “he was more respected for his writings on morals and politics.” In fact, in the eighteenth century, to be a philosopher was to write on morals and politics, and anyone conversant with the history of philosophy knows this. To suggest that I was attempting to belittle Hume’s contributions to ethics and political theory by alluding to him as a philosopher is to display ignorance of common academic usage.
(10) There is indeed good evidence that Jefferson, as a young man, studied Kames’s Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion. A copy now in the Library of Congress, as Millicent Sowerby notes, was probably part of the Shadwell library and is annotated by Jefferson in a young hand. However, there is almost no political philosophy contained in the work and nothing specifically touching on the ideas expressed in the Declaration respecting natural rights and the right of resistance. Additionally, we know that the work cannot have been of great interest to Jefferson since he admitted, in a letter to Thomas Law in 1814, to not having consulted Kames’s Principles for fifty years, that is, some twelve years before the drafting of the Declaration.
(11) Chinard notes that Jefferson studied Kames’s Historical Law Tracts and suggests that Jefferson was particularly struck by a passage from the “History of Property,” where Kames wrote that “the perfection of human society consists in that just degree of union among individuals, which to each reserves freedom and independency, as far as is consistent with peace and good order.” Referring to this passage, Chinard observes: “I am perfectly aware of the undeniable influence of Locke upon the theory of Kames; and it would be very unlikely that Jefferson had not read at that date Locke’s ‘Treatise on Civil Government.’ ” Chinard adds that “Jefferson, elaborating on this statement of Kames, derived from it his conception of natural rights.” Here Chinard is on weak ground since his conclusion rests on a misinterpretation of Locke. Locke, Chinard argues, held that each individual divested himself of his liberty upon assuming the bonds of civil society, while Kames, following Blackstone, adopted a stronger view of the inalienability of natural rights, under which men surrendered only those rights inconsistent with the primary end of civil society, namely, mutual defense. In point of fact, there is little difference between Locke’s theory as set forth in the Second Treatise and that which Chinard here attributes to Kames. In any case, Ostrander is certainly misinterpreting Chinard in claiming that Jefferson’s debt to Kames was for “distinctly unLockean conclusions.”
(12) Ostrander faults me for failing to consider the distinction between the necessity to pursue happiness and the liberty to pursue it. Yet the failure to make this distinction is precisely the point of my criticism of Wills’s use of Hutcheson.
(13) Ostrander ignores my claim that the “admittedly conjectural” explanation I offer of the notion that all men possess an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness appears to be the only interpretation consistent both with Jefferson’s views respecting individual autonomy and with the structure and language of the Declaration. It is quite beyond my comprehension why Ostrander regards this proposed interpretation as “hedonistic,” a charge that can with greater justification be made against Wills. “The Declaration,” I wrote, “does not proclaim that the end of government is the maximization of happiness, as Wills suggests, nor does it predicate the legitimacy of government on whether its citizens are happy but, rather, on whether the rights of its citizens are respected.”
(14) The thrust of my analysis dealt with Wills’s claim that the Declaration can be properly understood only as a product of Scottish moral philosophy devoid of Lockean influence. As my article makes clear, I have made no effort “to obliterate Scottish influences from Jefferson’s thoughts,” Ostrander’s contention to the contrary notwithstanding.
(15) Jefferson’s “well-known denial that he used Locke as his guide in writing the Declaration” was a response to charges of plagiarism and not a repudiation of Locke’s influence on the views expressed in the document. In any case, although Locke is mentioned in the passage, the Scottish moralists are not. Neither Wills nor Ostrander has successfully explained why, if Jefferson’s views on politics bore the imprint of Scottish moral philosophy during the drafting of the Declaration, he should not have included the works of these thinkers in his listing of “the elementary books of public right” that expressed “the harmonizing sentiments of the day.”
(16) Herbert Schneider, to whom Ostrander refers in support of his views, writeswith specific reference to the Declaration’s preamblethat “there was no enthusiasm as yet for the Hutcheson-Hume theory of moral sense, and any attempt to regard these ‘principles of natural law’ as merely principles of human nature was repudiated along with the belief in innate ideas. . . . [T]hough Jefferson explained that when he referred to ‘self-evident truths’ in the Declaration of Independence he meant nothing more than ‘the common sense of the subject,’ this faith in common sense was not yet a philosophical principle or a psychological discovery.”
(17) Had Ostrander read Flower and Murphey with care he would have noted their claim that Jefferson’s interest in the doctrines of the Scottish school “in all probability” derived from Dugald Stewart. They thus date Jefferson’s concern with the Scottish moral sense theories to the period after 1788, when Jefferson first met Stewart in Paris, and probably to 1792, with the publication of Stewart’s Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind.
(18) Ostrander’s commendation of Wills for “pricking the complacency of scholars” strikes me as peculiarly misplaced. If, as Ostrander is prepared to concede, Wills’s monograph is “short on research,” and if, as he further allows in an unguarded moment, the American Revolutionaries might have found Locke “more appropriate than Hume or Kames to cite in the Revolutionary argument,” then what exactly is it that Wills has contributed to scholarship by claiming that Jefferson’s Declaration is, in reality, a synopsis of the views of the Scottish Enlightenment owing nothing to Locke? It is certainly not that Jefferson was acquainted with Scottish moral philosophy, which has long been established, nor is it that aspects of Jefferson’s ethical views at points reflected moral sense theory, which no one has ever denied.
The importance of Wills’s thesis is that it has specific reference to the Declaration, and on this score it simply cannot stand careful scrutiny. With sufficient convolutions of language and tortured logic, it might, for all I know, be possible to decode the Declaration as laying bare the arcana of Rosicrucian dogma. But without sufficient corroborating evidence from Jefferson’s own writings and from the Revolutionary literature of the period, such an exercise is worse than useless and contributes nothing to our understanding of the Declaration. Every historical hypothesis must be subjected to rigorous analysis before being given the status of historical truth, Wills’s no less than Carl Becker’s or Julian Boyd’s. On examination it appears that Wills has not offered us even a barnacle of such truth.
4. Ronald Hamowy, “Jefferson and the Scottish Enlightenment: A Critique of Garry Wills’s Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Ser., XXXVI (1979), 503523, esp. 521.
14. This is not to deny that Locke does explicitly refer to a right to resist at another point in the Second Treatise. Locke, Treatises of Government . . . (London, 1690), ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge, 1960), sec. 209.
|Ronald Hamowy was Research Fellow at The Independent Institute and Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Alberta in Canada.|