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Secret: What the Scottish Enlightenment Taught Our Founding Fathers
The origins of American freedom
By Steven Martinovich
Very rarely in human history has a nexus been formed that has had such a remarkable impact on the world as the Scottish Enlightenment. The words and theories that emerged from the minds of men like David Hume, Adam Smith and Francis Hutcheson - few of them familiar to the average reader - had their greatest impact not in Europe, but in the United States. In America's Founding Secret: What the Scottish Enlightenment Taught Our Founding Fathers, Robert W. Galvin argues that those Scottish thinkers are directly responsible for the form that the United States took.
Galvin, who served as chairman of Motorola - the company his father formed - for over 30 years, makes a persuasive case that a remarkable interdisciplinary exchange of ideas in Scotland are the ideals that America's Founding Fathers put into practice. Simply, the intellectual basis for American government is the promotion of commerce: economic progress coupled with private capital.
In making his case, Galvin argues that the only right actually granted in the American constitution is the right to property derived by the creative labour of the mind: in simple language, the copyrights and patents guaranteed by the federal government. Indeed, as he points out, the constitution only uses the word "right" in Section 8, clause 8 when it mandates Congress "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."
"This right espouses more than a patent and copyright system," writes Galvin. "It bespeaks in part the founders' intention to build the American society on its self-supporting economy and to build that economy importantly on the capital of the mind. That freedom and affordability were coexisting intents of our Constitution is overtly declared and inescapably implied."
The intellectual heavy lifting for that notion came from Scottish thinkers as diverse as Hutcheson, who Galvin credits as the father of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith and even James Watt, inventor of the steam engine. Beginning on the eve of the Reformation in the 1500s, a slow and steady cross-pollination of ideas took place in Scotland. Prompted by religious questions that explored man's place in society, succeeding philosophers, scientists and academics wrestled over the issues of how to improve humanity's lot, Scottish independence, legitimate rule and virtue.
Their testing ground, writes Galvin, were the young colonies in North America. Separated by an ocean, many Scots felt a certain kinship with American colonists who they saw facing many of the same problems, primarily the yoke imposed by the English crown. Treatises on capitalism, independence, governance and industry made their way across the Atlantic and into the hands of the founders, some of who had even been educated by members of the Scottish Enlightenment.
Whether Galvin persuades readers of his primary thesis may ultimately come down to the intellectual and political prejudices they go in with. Recent corporate scandals have probably made some people reticent to acknowledge the tremendous role that commerce has played in the creation and maintenance of the United States as a free nation. Yet, as Ayn Rand pointed out in her title essay in For the New Intellectual they would be in danger of forgetting that, "Intellectual freedom cannot exist without political freedom, political freedom cannot exist without economic freedom; a free mind and a free market are corollaries."
The Scottish intellectuals recognized that and the acceptance of that ideal led the founders to enshrine that key right in America's constitution. Both realized that rights cannot exist without the ability to translate one's rights into reality, "to think, to work, and to keep the results," as Rand stated. It's a remarkable cornerstone principle and the guarantor of all the other rights Americans enjoy. Not only are the Scottish to be commended for transmitting it to North America, but Galvin deserves praise for reminding us of their tremendous contribution to liberty.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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