Robert Bruce and American Independence
A guest post by Dr. Christopher R. Powell
O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
What is this “patriot dream” that Katherine Lee Bates wrote of in 1895, printed in The Congregationalist on Independence Day that year? Where are these “alabaster cities” gleaming? And, why is the concept of “brotherhood” also so important?
As we also contemplate our freedom on this most important of American holidays, we also think about what our founders wrote into Declaration of Independence – “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." How did these truths become “self-evident?" What does it mean to be “created equal?" And, right there at the end, we also find out that our founders appealed to a “firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence."
Would you believe that these concepts, and the very concept of American independence itself, have their foundations in 14th century Scotland? Who taught our founders what they knew about independence, equality, and liberty? Many authors attribute a distinct part of our founders’ beliefs to the French Enlightenment of Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau, but in fact, the three great principles of the French Enlightenment – reason over religion, progression, and universality of human rights – were seized on more by Engels, Marx, and Trotsky as explaining the “natural” progression of society towards socialism. While Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were said to have built off of French themes of scientific reductionism, capitalism, and propriety of thought (reason), in fact, these themes originated in, and were more strongly exercised in, the Scottish Enlightenment.
While Franklin and Jefferson regularly traveled to France, who was actually in the Colonies at that time, influencing and teaching the rest of our founders, building the institutions that many of our most important leaders learned in, signing our Declaration and Constitution, and becoming our leaders themselves – Senators, Justices and Judges, Presidents of our universities, and leaders in business, politics, and religion? These were not Frenchmen, but Scots.
And from whom did this growing body of American founders learn? Scottish philosophers, theologians, scientists, politicians, and businessmen including Francis Hutcheson, Thomas Reid, David Hume, John Locke, Adam Smith, Anthony Ashley-Cooper (3rd Earl of Shaftesbury), and John Witherspoon (President of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), and signer of our Declaration and Articles of Confederation).
But, we can go back farther. Thomas Reid, Scottish philosopher, summarized Scottish values across history as “piety, patriotism, friendship, parental affection, and private virtue,” among others. Reid firmly believed in a moral common sense that underlies philosophical inquiry, but also life itself.
This moral common sense is found broadly in the time of King Robert I, The Bruce, whose personal piety both made and unmade him – his life led in continuous regret and repentance over the death at his hands of the Red Comyn which preceded The Bruce’s ascension to the throne at Scone in 1306, but his faith caused him to firmly believe the Scots were on the right side: that what should have been a complete rout of the Scots at Bannockburn instead turned into a complete victory in this major battle in the Scottish Wars of Independence – almost exactly 702 years ago – because of the Hand of Providence.
While the time of Lairds, Earls, and Kings was indeed a feudal system where might just as easily determined right as any moral sense, we find the clan structure (from Scottish clann, meaning children) was based exactly in what Reid determined – family values. The clan structure drew its strength from two pillars – duthchas, or collective heritage of the clan, which was their prescriptive right to settle territories and which determined their ability to protect their people, and oigreachd, or the granting of charters by the Crown which conferred authority to the clan chief as landed gentry owning their property.
This orientation to property is a key part of the foundation of America as a distinct entity in the world at that time based on personal property – alienation was a concept that dealt with the transfer of property (of any kind, including personal) to someone else. Your property was yours and under the American system (and the Scottish that preceded it), it could not be alienated from you by force (e.g., the King’s), only by your decision. To speak in the Declaration of rights being unalienable, the founders meant that the concept was similar for other rights as it was for property – that these were natural rights, given only by God, available to everyone.
Robert the Bruce, in his time on the Scottish throne (1306-1329), was determined to create a Scottish identity that transcended and superseded the clans, but was based firmly in its values. When he was crowned at Scone, he insisted that prayers were offered not only in Latin from his Catholic faith, but also from the Dewar of the Coigreach in Highland Gaelic in order to cement his connection not only from his Lowland origins, but to the Highlanders whose faith, strength, and values, he would need to fight the English.
We see these values in our founders’ quotes, captured in literature and from the pulpit, in discussions that underlie the Federalist Papers, and the debate that drove the writing of our Declaration and Constitution, which, in their collective audacity, defined a unique experiment in political economy and government which is America:
“Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people” – John Adams
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” – John Adams
“Americans have the right and advantage of being armed – unlike the citizens of other countries whose governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.” – James Madison
“What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty and Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support?” – James Madison
“Our greatest happiness does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed us, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.” – Thomas Jefferson
“I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them no enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.” – Thomas Jefferson
And from our Scottish educators and founders as well:
“Wisdom denotes the pursuing of the best ends by the best means.” – Frances Hutcheson
“That action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers.” – Frances Hutcheson
“To feel much for others and little for ourselves; to restrain our selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitute the perfection of human nature.” – Adam Smith
“Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.” – Adam Smith (a concept which could be said to underlie the limited authority of our Federal government, and devolving of most authority to the States).
“Whatsoever State among us shall continue to make piety and virtue the standard of public honor will enjoy the greatest inward peace, the greatest national happiness, and in every outward conflict will discover the greatest constitutional strength.” – John Witherspoon
“You are all my witnesses, that this is the first time of my introducing any political subject into the pulpit. At this season, however, it is not only lawful but necessary, and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.” – John Witherspoon
Happy Fourth of July!
About Dr. Chris R. Powell:
If you would like to follow this blog, sign up HERE
If you like an author's posts, please click like and share
It helps us continue to do what we do
If you liked this article, you might also like other articles on medieval history:
or other posts under the Medieval History label