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Gwen Fries 4/19/13 Political Theory: Scottish Enlightenment Thinkers vs.

English Jacobins

At first glance, the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment and the thinkers of the Jacobin movement in England have little in common in terms of political philosophy. Scottish Enlightenment political philosophy teaches that progress is paramount and that the progress of nations over time eliminates the need for societal revolutions. The Jacobin name, due in large part to the French Revolution, was synonymous with revolution. The political philosophy produced by the Scottish Enlightenment was generally accepted by Britons, whereas the Jacobite views of reform were seen as threatening and radical. Yet as different as these philosophies are, there are still common elements. Ideas such as progress, reason and constitutionality were present in both philosophies. The political climates, overarching themes of the philosophies, and how these two movements were received differ greatly, yet the ideas of progress, constitutionality, and reason are ideas the two groups share. Because the political philosophy developed by the Scottish Enlightenment is the established philosophy, one must first examine the specifics of it before comparing it with the threatening Jacobite philosophy. During the 18th century, a flourish of scientific, artistic, economic, and philosophic advances occurred in Scotland. So powerful was this sweep of advances that Voltaire was inspired to describe Scotland as the place to look for all ideas of civilization.1 While this wave of innovation and experimentation swept through many parts of Scotland, notably Aberdeen and Glasgow, many of these developments began in the eye of this cultural storm, Edinburgh.

" Edinburgh, the 'Athens of the North'" Edinburgh. United Kingdom Government, n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2013.

Edinburgh was fittingly referred to as "the Athens of the North" because of its nod to antiquity in the form of the Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian columns present in the city--this affinity for antiquity was common for the Georgian era. In these three 18th century university cities, ideas and theories were spread infectiously among the highly-intellectual populations. These intellectuals met in various clubs and pubs, including Aberdeen's Wise Club, Edinburgh's Select Society, and the Literary Society in Glasgow. Intellectual communities such as Edinburgh were the perfect environment for the rapid fire exchange of ideas. This was so much the case that one English visitor was stirred to proclaim, "Here I stand at what is called the Cross of Edinburgh, and can, in a few minutes, take 50 men of genius and learning by the hand."2 These communities established the background against which one of the foremost moments in the history of political theory would take place.3 Many men disseminated their political philosophies during this time, but two of the most influential political philosophers of this time were Adam Ferguson and David Hume. Adam Ferguson joined the faculty of the University of Edinburgh in 1759 as a professor of natural philosophy. Five years later he became the Chair of Pneumatics at the university.4 Ferguson's political philosophy is fueled by several key points. Ferguson, perhaps arguably even more than the other Scottish Enlightenment philosophers, placed an incredible importance on the study of history as it relates to politics and society as a whole. He believed all the answers to society's transformations, change, and progress could be, and must be, explained by looking back


Broadie, Alexander. The Scottish Enlightenment the Historical Age of the Historical Nation. Edinburgh: Birlin, 2001. Print.

Ferguson, Adam. Principles of moral and political science; being chiefly a retrospect of lectures delivered in the college of Edinburgh. Volume 1. Edinburgh, MDCCXCII. [1792]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. CIC Penn State University. 9 Apr. 2013

to the answers provided by the philosophers of antiquity. He was especially fascinated by the concept of "Stoicism." The idea of Stoicism reaches all the way back to Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. It stresses a virtuous life free from overwhelming passions. Fortitude is its core value. In his manuscripts, Ferguson quotes Marcus Aurelius saying, "How by hour resolve firmly, like a Roman and a man, to do what comes to hand with correct and natural dignity, and with humanity, independence and justice." Ferguson believed that a life of Stoicism ensured a lifetime of "dauntless integrity" and that it was "the Nursery of Heroes and the School of Godlike Benevolence as Fortitude and Strength of Mind." He also quotes a favorite orator of his, Cicero, on the subject of Stoicism. "The Stoic," referring to Cicero, "therefore Said The chief our only Good is Virtue." He follows this quote with his own conclusion, "Do on every occasion what is just and you are Safe." Ferguson found this code of living to account for the actions of man, and ultimately, to account for the course of history and its progress.5 The study of history, while interesting in its own right, became important to Ferguson because he believed that in it lied the answers to the puzzle of progress. Ferguson's fascination with progress is one which, it is arguable, aligned with the English Jacobins. Progress itself was the underlying theme of the entire Scottish Enlightenment in the arts, sciences, and philosophy. Ferguson advocated the study of history to determine the triumphs and downfalls of past societies to best adjudicate the most prudent course to take in the present and future. Adam Ferguson was also interested in the importance of rivalries as a fuel for progress both on an international and national level. The competition between nations propels both to improve themselves. The competition between political parties, for example, also encourages each to keep

Merolle, Vincenzo, ed. Manuscripts of Adam Ferguson. London: Pickering, 2006. Print. xi.

improving.6 Competition is a direct means to progress in the eyes of Adam Ferguson. Fellow philosopher David Hume did not see any good in parties. "As much as the legislators and founders of states ought to be honored and respected among men, as much ought the founders of sects and factions to be detested and hated; because the influence of factions is directly contrary to that of laws." Hume felt that party divisions undermine law and the workings of government. What is more, parties very often stir up strong emotions and animosities between citizens of the same nation who should be working together for the good and progress of that nation.7 David Hume, like Adam Ferguson, placed a great importance on the study of learning history. The study of past empires and how they had developed over the years were related to important themes in the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume also believed that the study of history provided diversion and was generally interesting. He thrilled to discover the true story of how far mankind had come and the bumps and turns along the way. "What spectacle can be imagined, so magnificent, so various, so interesting?"8 All of David Hume's views on the importance of history can be summed up in one thought: the need for progress. "And indeed, if we consider the shortness of human life, and our limited knowledge, even of what passes in our own time, we must be sensible that we should be for ever children in understanding, were it not for this invention, which extends our experience to all past ages..." Hume then goes on to say, "A man acquainted with history may, in some respect, be said to have lived from the beginning of the world, and to have been making continual additions to his stock of knowledge in every century."9

Ibid. pg. 199 Hume, David. The Essays Moral, Political and Literary of David Hume. Oxford UP, 1971. Print. 55 Ibid. Pg. 566 Ibid. Pg. 567

Hume's study of history was focused, much in the same way that Adam Ferguson's was, on the idea of progress. He believed history gave its students the ability to view the developmental process of manners and refinement in societies as they moved towards perfection.10 It is important to note, however, that Enlightenment thinkers remained fairly realistic about their expectations for society's improvement. There were no utopian thinkers.11 This focus on progress was secure and resisted the idea of a complete societal revolution. Whereas the Jacobins were notorious for more radical thinking and harboring revolutionary ideals, the political philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, such as Ferguson, Hume, and John Millar, stressed the significance of a gradual, almost evolutionary development of nations.12 There was not a desperate need for societal revolutions or government displacement because a society could improve itself merely by improving its commercial activity and thus the quality of life for its citizens. Hume specifically accepted the notion that societies had matured from "rude, unpolished nations" to what they were at his time by intensifying commercial activity. He was well renowned by his contemporaries as a historian. He postulated that the more a society knew about the history of empires, including their vices and downfalls, the more likely that society would be able to avoid these pitfalls and become successful over time.13 He found history to be so incredibly important because it was true. Knowing about the truths of history expanded one's knowledge. The importance of knowledge and commerce, agricultural cultivation and industry itself would provide the "peasants" a path to economic prosperity and independence. Likewise,


Ibid. Pg. 566 Op. cit., The Scottish Enlightenment the Historical Age of the Historical Nation . pg 38



Branson, Roy. "James Madison and the Scottish Enlightenment." Journal of the History of Ideas (1979): 235-50. Web. 29 Mar. 2013.

Op. cit., The Scottish Enlightenment the Historical Age of the Historical Nation . pg. 46

the middle class, "tradesmen and merchants," could eventually achieve status due to the property holdings they would gain. The way Hume saw it, why go through the bloodshed and upheaval of revolution if life would eventually evolve into something so good? That went against the reason which the Scottish Enlightenment so highly valued.14 The political philosophy produced by the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers was generally well-accepted not only by Britons but by Europeans and especially Americans, who were perhaps the most well-versed in Scottish Enlightenment philosophy of all.15 Still, there were those citizens who felt it was not enough to wait for society to improve itself. Some felt that governmental reforms were necessary and needed immediately. These citizens which favored reform were known as Jacobins. The 18th century was filled to the brim with societal changes. New literature, philanthropic movements, philosophies, styles of music, and scientific discoveries filled the air, yet the government and political system remained traditional and seemed to be stuck in another time. The landscape of Great Britain was rapidly changing, yet the British government was not. Stealing insignificant amounts of money could still warrant the death penalty. The county of Cornwall in England had as many representatives in Parliament as did all of Scotland. Scottish representation by county was still based on an ancient feudal system.16 Those British--and indeed it could be said British as there were Scottish citizens as well, including William Ogilvie, who voiced concern--citizens who craved change and a modernization of government were referred to as Jacobins.17 Because at the end of the 18th century France was experiencing a bloody


Ibid Pg. 239-240 Op. cit. "James Madison and the Scottish Enlightenment." Pg. 237 Brown, Philip Anthony. The French Revolution in English History. London: Allen & Unwin, 1923. Print. Pg. 8 Ibid. Pg 6-7




revolution at the hands of the extremist Frenchmen who were referred to as "Jacobins," the name of these reformers in Britain took on a more "radical" flavor. The English Jacobins were not to be confused with their French counterparts, however. Most Jacobins were not extreme to that extent and disapproved of the extreme bloodshed. John Thelwall, one of the more notable faces of the Jacobins, despised the "sanguinary ferocity of the late Jacobins in France."18 Many English Jacobins admired the goals of the French Jacobins, just not the means they took to achieve them. Like the Scottish philosophers, they believed a well-educated public was the key to progress and change. That is not to say that they were not radical in their own right. As early as the 1780s, Jacobins were vying for "universal suffrage." 19 The English Jacobins did not hold the belief that one must be a property holder in order to vote. In fact, some Jacobins like John Cartwright did not feel that the representatives themselves need own land.20 The common Jacobite assertion was that God created men to be equal and free. Ideally, there was to be no discrepancy among men. The only way one man could be of a position higher than another would be if the lower man agreed to it. "However much soever any individual may be qualified for, or deserve any elevation, he hath no right to it till it be conferred on him by his fellows."21 The London Corresponding Society put it simply, "Every


Cone, Carl B. "Preface" The English Jacobins: Reformers in Late 18th Century England. New York: Scribner, 1968 Print.

Cone, Carl B. "Take Your Choice." The English Jacobins: Reformers in Late 18th Century England . New York: Scribner, 1968. 68-72. Print.

Cartwright, John. The People's Barrier Against Undue Influences and Corruptions . London: n.p., 1780. [ECCO] Cartwright, John. The Legislative Rights of the Commonalty Vindicated . London: n.p., 1777. [ECCO]


adult person, in possession of his reason, and not incapacitated by crimes, should have a vote for a Member of Parliament."22 At times, the radicals and their ideas seemed incompatible. They preached this message of equality, and yet they did not include those citizens of a lower class in any of their meetings or plans. It seemed to not have occurred to the Jacobins to include those of their fellow citizens who may not have owned land, had complete freedom, status and a profession to keep bread on the table. Their group was homogeneous--men of some status--and they made very little to no effort to communicate and engage with the lower classes or women. Their highest priority or single purpose was not to alleviate the suffering of the poverty-stricken but to reform Parliament. Economically, they wanted their government to stop wasting public money and to at least ease up on confiscatory taxes if not get rid of them completely.23 Their concern to help the poor differs from the Scots, yet their lack of inclusion of the poor and those not in their homogeneous group are characteristics they share with the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers. There were absolutely certain Jacobins, such as the very radical Samuel Coleridge, who were incredibly concerned with the poor and down-trodden. Samuel Coleridge blamed the financial hardships of the common man on English political systems, though he admitted it was also a social problem. Coleridge went so far as to design and plan his own utopian society, Pantisocracy which was to take root along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Because of the financial strain of crossing the Atlantic, among other reasons, it never came to fruition. Pantisocracy was meant to provide an example of a society which had stricken aristocracy and


"The Trial of Thomas Hardy for High Treason." A Complete Collection of State Trials. Comp. T. B. Howell and Thomas J. Howell. Vol. XXVI. London: T. C. Hansard, 1818. 379-80. Google EBooks. Web.

Op. cit. The English Jacobins: Reformers in Late 18th Century England 70-71

subordination from its list of qualities. Coleridge intended to apply rules which had been mutually conceded by all members of the society. Obviously, no strong authority and subjugation would need to take place in a society such as this. He also supported the elimination of private property. Coleridge, and many of his peers, blamed the vast disproportion of the spread of wealth, mainly land, for many of society's problems. The Church of England itself was even accused of being materialistic and bearing "the mark of the antichrist" because it owned property, and there was a hierarchy within its structure. Because of these qualities, Coleridge saw the church as inherently tied in to politics. The sum of all the problems which Samuel Coleridge saw in contemporary English society was "personal subjugation," and he and other Jacobins suggested the government utilize some form of welfare system to combat this injustice.24 Some radical Jacobins also placed a high importance on happiness and felt that daily labor should be constantly improving society through labor and commerce. Hume in his Essays claims that because man has been endowed with so many talents and a higher level of consciousness than other creatures, he has a duty to be active and productive. "There is this obvious and material difference in the conduct of nature, with regard to man and other animals, that, having endowed the former with a sublime celestial spirit, and having given him an affinity with superior beings, she allows not such noble faculties to lie lethargic or idle, but urges him by necessity to employ, on every emergence, his utmost art and industry."25 The Scottish Enlightenment theme of Stoicism also plays a role here. A man must always be doing what is just and virtuous, and he must always be independent. "Acknowledge, therefore, O man! the beneficence of nature; for she has given thee that intelligence which supplies all thy necessities. But let not indolence,

Morrow, John. Coleridge's Political Thought: Property, Morality, and the Limits of Traditional Discourse . New York: St. Martin's, 1990. Print. Pg. 18-22

Op. cit. The Essays Moral, Political and Literary of David Hume. Pg. 147

under the false appearance of gratitude, persuade thee to rest contented with her presents."26 Along with stoicism, this reiterates the necessity of progress and improvement of society by exertion. Not all Jacobins were so radical. Many merely craved the reform of Parliament, not society as a whole. The London Corresponding Society was founded by Thomas Hardy in January of 1972. The society was created around the idea that the nation had an intrinsic right to change the government if they felt it was not working properly.27 Jacobins were supporters of the Lockean theory that citizens had a somewhat contractual relationship with their government. John Thelwall, one of the leaders of the London Corresponding Society, called the English to action by saying, "Compare what ye are with what ye have a right to be." He urged the people to take advantage of these inherent rights many believed came from God himself, or at least that God had given the Anglo-Saxons. "The people...have a right...to renounce the broken compact, and dissolve the system."28 The Scots had faith that by applying oneself to improving trade and commerce, and thus the quality of life, society as a whole would improve. The Jacobins felt they needed to reform the government itself to improve the quality of life. They also thought that just by coming together and speaking with a strong voice, the contractual relationship of the people to the government would force Parliament to reform to better suit those from whom its power was derived.29 Scottish Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume did not give credence to the contractual relationship between government and citizen. While he would concede that

26 27

Ibid. Pg. 148 Op. cit. The English Jacobins: Reformers in Late 18th Century England Pg 77


Claeys, Gregory, ed. The Politics of English Jacobinsim: Writings of John Thelwall. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1995. Print.

Op. cit. "Preface" The English Jacobins: Reformers in Late 18th Century England. Pg. iv


there had to have been a contract made at the beginning of civilization, "The people, if we trace government to its first origin...are the source of all power and jurisdiction, and voluntarily, for the sake of peace and order, abandoned their native liberty, and received laws from their equal and companion. The conditions upon which they were willing to submit, were either expressed, or were so clear and obvious, that it might well be esteemed superfluous to express them."30 Yet, while acknowledging this happening, Hume asserts that society has evolved past the social contract. "Almost all the governments which exist at present, or of which there remains any record in story, have been founded originally, either on usurpation or conquest, or both, without any pretence of a fair consent or voluntary subjection of the people."31 The Scottish Enlightenment and the English Jacobin movement were viewed very differently by the world. The Scottish Enlightenment was seen as a wonderful philosophic movement created and disseminated by well-rounded scholars. The Jacobins were not viewed as reasonable reformers but radical revolutionaries like their French cousins. The Scottish philosophers believed that society would evolve and improve over time if the society was industrious. The Jacobins sought immediate reform and helping their fellow man promptly through ideas such as universal suffrage and welfare programs. Scottish thinkers were optimistic for the future of their society, but guardedly so. Jacobins such as Samuel Coleridge sometimes had envisions of a utopian society in which there was no subjugation and virtually no inequality. Though the overarching themes of these two movements could not be more different, there are identifiable common elements. The education of the people and the stress placed on thinking for oneself are essential aspects of both the Scottish Enlightenment and the English

Op. cit. The Essays Moral, Political and Literary of David Hume. Pg. 454 Ibid. Pg. 457



Jacobin movement. Using one's reasoning abilities is another stressed principle. The Jacobins trusted the people of Great Britain to hold up the actions of their government to their reason to determine if they were content with the state of the nation. The Scottish Enlightenment belabored questioning everything and holding it up to reason.32 Both movements agreed that society at least started on a contractual basis, even if the Enlightenment thinkers believed most societies had moved away from that system. The study of history was a necessity to the Scottish political philosophers in order to track progress and ensure progress in the future. Looking back on history did not often come up in Jacobin writings except the thought that the people's rights and contractual relationship with its government were supposedly Anglo-Saxon ideals. Still, progress was one of the major themes of the Jacobin movement. Lastly, there was a social aspect to both campaigns. The ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment were transfused in the various clubs, pubs, and societies in the intellectually vivacious university cities of Scotland such as Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen. The English Jacobins formed many societies, secret and public, such as the London Corresponding Society, Belpar Society for Constitutional Information, and the Derby Society for Political Information among others. Both movements relied on the public for their success, present and future. Perhaps most importantly, neither the Scots nor the Jacobins wanted any change to come through violence as it had in France. Though different philosophies and motives existed, and though the reaction received by these two groups were very different, these two seemingly opposite groups of people ultimately shared one goal, the prosperity of Great Britain.


Op. cit. The Scottish Enlightenment: The Historical Age of the Historical Nation Pg. 14