Public Virtue

Alasdair MacIntyre

  • Explaining America: The ‘Federalist’ by Garry Wills
    Athlone, 286 pp, £14.50, August 1981, ISBN 0 485 30003 6
  • James McCosh and the Scottish Intellectual Tradition by David Hoeveler
    Princeton, 374 pp, £13.70, June 1981, ISBN 0 691 04670 0

When the Scottish radical lawyer, Thomas Muir, was tried before the infamous Lord Braxfield in 1793, he declared that if what he had advocated was treasonable, then Plato, Harrington and David Hume were equally guilty. To the present-day student of Hume, Muir’s inclusion of him in his catalogue of reformers must appear even odder than his appeal to Plato: for Hume is usually and rightly portrayed as a consistent defender of the 18th-century Hanoverian status quo. But Muir’s sense of Hume did not altogether lead him astray: for the essay by Hume which he cited, the ‘Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth’, had already been put to revolutionary use. The list of books James Madison had recommended in 1782, as the first acquisitions for a library for the Congress, had included Hume’s Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects as well as his History of England; and in his contributions to the Federalist in 1787-8, Madison had drawn upon several of those essays, including the ‘Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth’. Hume therefore did in fact contribute to one of the classic statements of 18th-century republicanism. Douglass Adair – in Fame and the Founding Fathers (1976), but the discovery was made in his doctoral dissertation of 1943 – was the first to identify Hume’s detailed and specific influence on Madison, and to understand that influence as part of the general culture of the Scottish Enlightenment which Madison acquired at Princeton from the teaching of John Witherspoon. Professor Garry Wills has now followed Adair and extended his thesis in producing an interpretation of Madison in which the Scottish influence on him has a central place.

Wills’s earlier book Inventing America perhaps overstated the case for Scottish influences on Jefferson, but his general thesis that the Scottish Enlightenment provides the most important clues for understanding the thought of the Founding Fathers is triumphantly vindicated in his new book on Madison. Wills’s own attention is concentrated upon the interpretation of Madison’s contributions to the Federalist in their immediate historical context: but in so doing he brings out even more clearly than Adair and others had done the importance for later American history of John Witherspoon’s presidency of the college that was to become Princeton University.

Witherspoon had been one of a remarkable group of five undergraduate students at Edinburgh in 1738 who had petitioned the Principal to re-establish the procedures and standards for graduation, which had been allowed to lapse, and he then took his degree by defending a Latin dissertation orally. He very soon became one of the few learned Church of Scotland ministers who belonged to the Popular or Evangelical Party and he was by far their most effective polemical and satirical preacher and writer. He received invitations to pursue his ministerial career in Holland and in Ireland as well as in the United States. But it was Princeton that he finally chose. And at Princeton every year Witherspoon as both President and Professor of Moral Philosophy delivered what became almost exactly the same course of lectures on ethics and politics (published in 1800 after he was dead as Lectures on Moral Philosophy and Eloquence). The influence of those lectures is in part to be measured by the fact that the graduates of Princeton in his period provided nine members of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, numerous members of the Senate and the House, three Supreme Court justices, and a host of governors and state legislators. The most eminent name on the list is that of Madison.

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