Scotlands History\|Scottish Enlightenment

Free trade and the making of America

'What can be added to the happiness of the man who is in health, who is out of debt, and has a clear conscience?’

Adam Smith

It is often said that Adam Smith was 'the founding father of economics' but Smith was not simply fascinated by how wealth was created.

Smith believed that free trade could bring about positive change across the globe. He was critical of Glasgow's tobacco barons and the slave trade. To Smith, economics could help to create a better, fairer and safer world.

Adam Smith's economic theories were particularly influential in Britain, Europe and America. ‘The Wealth of Nations’ had a profound effect on how the government in America was organised.

Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, was a friend of Adam Smith and David Hume.

'I am sure America has sent us many good things; gold, silver, sugar, tobacco, indigo, etc., but you are the first philosopher, and indeed the first great man of letters for whom we are beholden to her.’

David Hume, letter to Benjamin Franklin, May 1762

Adam Smith gave Franklin chapters of ‘The Wealth of Nations’ as he wrote them. Franklin and Smith would then debate the contents and Smith would often re-write whole sections.

When Benjamin Franklin visited Scotland he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of St Andrews and the Freedom of the Borough of St Andrews. Franklin socialised with the literati of Enlightenment Edinburgh.

In 1776 Benjamin Franklin was one of the Committee of Five that drafted the United States Declaration of Independence. The first draft was written by Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson was strongly influenced by Scottish Enlightenment thinking through his mentor, Dr William Small.

William Small was born and educated in Scotland, and received his Master’s degree at Marischal College in Aberdeen. He took Scottish Enlightenment philosophy and ideas to America.

'It was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life that Dr Wm Small of Scotland was then professor of Mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners, and an enlarged and liberal mind.

'He, most happily for me, became soon attached to me and made me his daily companion when not engaged in the school; and from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science and of the system of things in which we are placed.’

Thomas Jefferson

When William Small finally returned to Britain he became an adviser to James Watt and Matthew Boulton.

Jefferson once noted, ‘In political economy, I think Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ the best book extant’.

In 1801 Thomas Jefferson became the third President of the United States. 

In recent years there has been much debate about the impact of the Scottish Enlightenment on America and the making of the modern world.

Some historians have even suggested that the wording of the United States Declaration of Independence was directly influenced by works by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers.

A photo of the statue of Thomas Jefferson in Paris
A photo of a stone engraving of the American Declaration of Independence

Picture credits:

Statue of Thomas Jefferson at Les Invalides in Paris. Taken by ciaranj75 and published on Flickr.

Stone engraving of the 1776 American Declaration of Independence. Published by the American National Archives.

Related links

American Declaration of Independence

The documents, text and more information about the 1776 Declaration drafted by Thomas Jefferson, on the US National Archives website.