Skip to main content
Listen to Acton content on the go by downloading the Radio Free Acton podcast! Listen Now

From 1694 to 1746

The ultimate notion of right is that which tends to the universal good; and when one's acting in a certain manner has this tendency he has a right thus to act.

Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) was one of the most important clergymen and intellectual lights of the eighteenth century Church of Scotland. As the successor of another Scottish minister and philosopher, Gershom Carmichael, as Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow from 1729 onwards, Hutcheson wielded immense, even charismatic, influence over the generation of men who presided over the Scottish Enlightenment. Not for nothing did Hutcheson's most famous pupil, Adam Smith, describe him as "the never to be forgotten Dr. Hutcheson." Hutcheson was also the first to lecture in English rather than Latin at Glasgow University.

An Irishman by birth and the son of a Presbyterian minister, Hutcheson himself was ordained as a clergyman of the Church of Scotland in 1716. Most of his life, however, was spent in the academy. During his time as a scholar, Hutcheson lectured and wrote at length on subjects ranging from moral philosophy, metaphysics, aesthetics, logic, jurisprudence, and political economy. He also drew upon Christian, stoical and natural law sources to develop robust foundations for the notion of human rights, property, and other protections of attentive to the early-modern Protestant natural law thinkers such as Hugo Grotius and Samuel von Pufendorf. He played a major role in introducing their ideas into the university curricula studied by Scottish clergy and students.

Hutcheson himself was very much a Christian. More generally, Hutcheson was one of a large number of intellectually active Church of Scotland ministers such as William Robertson and Hugh Blair who played a significant role in shaping Christian responses to the Scottish Enlightenment. Deeply aware of the growing commercial character of European societies, Hutcheson and his fellow clergymen thought that such societies needed strong moral underpinnings in the form of the classical virtues and practical Christian ethics. Their approach was not one of seeking to oppose the subsequent economic and political changes unleashed by the spread of markets. Rather, they were concerned with helping people to live the moral life and pursue human flourishing in increasingly market-ordered communities. Like Smith, Hutcheson sought to moderate the powerful role played by self-interest in commercial society, though without seeking to negate what he regarded as its often economically beneficial side-effects.

Hutcheson's most long-term influence, however, may well have been upon key aspects of the American Founding. Hutcheson's books were studied in all the main colonial American educational establishments from the 1730s onward – including by several of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, such as John Adams as well as the Scottish clergyman and sixth principal of the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University), John Witherspoon. Though Witherspoon and Hutcheson had often been on opposing sides of theological debates in the Church of Scotland, Witherspoon was deeply influenced by Hutcheson's writings on ethics, especially his posthumously published Philosophiae moralis institutio compendiaria with a Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy (1747). Some scholars have even argued that Hutcheson's language and phraseology is, of all the discernible influences upon the American Declaration of Independence, the most significant (even more than John Locke), including the immortal words, "unalienable rights."

Hero of Liberty image attribution: Allan Ramsay [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons PD-1923

Most Read