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A Narrow Sea - Episode 39

A Narrow Sea - Episode 39

‘An esteem for Liberty and a contempt for tyranny’
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon

Though the great migration of Scots to Ulster had all but ceased at the start of the eighteenth century / 1700s, the relationship between the north of Ireland and Scotland continued to be very close.

Not only was trade brisk across the narrow sea but new ideas flowed backwards and forwards. Both Ulster and Scotland were to play a pivotal role in what later became known as the Enlightenment – an intellectual movement crossing frontiers over much of western Europe and the British colonies in America. In essence, the Enlightenment championed rational investigation, toleration, freedom of thought and political liberty, and a belief in the essential goodness of human nature.

An Ulsterman, Hans Sloane, did much to launch this Enlightenment. Sloane’s family had come from Ayrshire to work on the Hamilton estates in County Down and Hans, born in 1660, had regular access to an extensive library in Killyleagh Castle.

He studied medicine first in London and then in Paris and Montpellier. In 1687 Sloane travelled to Jamaica as physician to the Governor and there he gathered material for his book, The Natural History of Jamaica. Returning to London, Sloane introduced Europeans to chocolate and to quinine, a Peruvian bark which proved effective in the treatment of malaria.

In 1712 he was appointed physician to Queen Anne (who was extremely fond of his chocolate drinks) and set up his Physic Gardens to grow his medicines in Chelsea. In 1716 he was knighted by King George I. His huge collection of 50,000 books, 3,500 manuscripts, 35,000 cameos, seals, coins and precious stones, and over 25,000 natural history specimens, formed the kernel of the British Museum in Bloomsbury, opened in 1759, six years after his death.

Sloane was in the vanguard of those who questioned commonly-held assumptions and who promoted rational, evidence-based scientific enquiry.

Ireland had only one university, Trinity College Dublin, which was closed to Catholics and refused to grant degrees to Dissenters – that is those Protestants who were not members of the Church of Ireland. England then had only two universities but Scotland boasted universities in Glasgow, Edinburgh, St Andrew’s and Aberdeen’.

Ulster Presbyterians with sufficient means preferred to send their sons to Edinburgh and Glasgow to study for degrees in divinity, medicine, and natural philosophy. These Scottish universities were then, arguably, the most progressive and enlightened in Europe. Ever since 1560 when John Knox had preached the Protestant doctrine he brought from Geneva, Presbyterians had been striving to ensure that all could read the Bible and the Catechism. As a result, Scotland was better supplied with schools than anywhere else in Europe. In addition, bursaries were often available to assist young men from humble origins to obtain a university education.

Francis Hutcheson, son of the Presbyterian minister of Saintfield, was born at Drumalig in County Down in 1694. He was one of the many crossing the narrow sea from Ulster to study divinity at Glasgow University. After a brief spell as minister to the congregation of Magherally in Co. Down, he opened an academy in Dublin. Hutcheson’s publications were widely admired and ensured his election as Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow in 1729. He at once identified with the more modern and progressive element within the Church of Scotland. One of his students wrote later:

If ever a Professor had the art of communicating knowledge and of raising an esteem and desire of it in the minds of his scholars; if ever one had the power to inspire the noblest sentiments…if ever one had the art to create an esteem for Liberty and a contempt for tyranny and tyrants, he was the man!

Francis Hutcheson is widely acknowledged to be the father of the Scottish Enlightenment.

After the Union of 1707 between Scotland and England, Edinburgh ceased to be a national capital. Many nobles moved south to London, the source of power, and a new middle class emerged to dominate Scottish society. This middle class included men of learning and letters determined to show the world that they, as men of intellect, could outstrip the English by creating works of international importance.

For example, one of Hutcheson’s pupils, Adam Smith, in 1776 published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. A thousand pages long, this revolutionised thinking about the regulation of the economy.

Hutcheson’s influence on his generation was incalculable. He taught that slavery in any form was a totally unnatural state. Hutcheson wrote that the aim of government should be ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. He championed the rights of wives, servants and children, and advocated the right of resistance to bad government. Hutcheson believed passionately that the people, or their representatives, should rule. Neither inherited office nor even superior wisdom gave a right to govern.

These ideas, in particular Hucheson’s belief that freedom was an inalienable right, filtered back to Ulster and from there were carried across the Atlantic to America.

Here, they would do much to shape a revolution which would shake the western world.


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