The influence of the scottish covenant on the ‘election’ of representatives in the new american republic

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This article analyses the nature of British and American political union in the late eighteenth century, and the manner in which Scottish religious ideas influenced the interplay between these two alternative political models, in order to contribute to new forms of representative assemblies. It uses the figure of John Witherspoon as a case study in order to outline the intellectual and structural links between American federal representation and the formation of religious representative hierarchies in the Anglo- Scottish Union during the eighteenth century. A notion of ‘virtue-as-duty’ was promoted by Witherspoon towards his students, and more generally, from within the large deliberative assemblies to which he belonged. If Witherspoon’s students could correctly adopt his notion of virtue-as-duty, they could be set apart as small clusters, separate from other unregenerate factions, thereby giving them more authority as political representatives. This idea allows a link to be made between a Presbyterian form of representative hierarchy, and a classical republican one. In the Presbyterian hierarchy, although humans were ‘equalized’ by their shared depravity, some of the depraved could be ‘elected’ to higher social positions. In the classical hierarchy, general human equality nonetheless allowed social stratification. Yet where Witherspoon connected an elect few and a moral many, this also distanced the individual role in electing, or being elected. Both took place as a result of correctly fulfilled duty to divine moral conscience, rather than through any autonomous political choice moderated by individual moral sense, as imposed by a form of Scottish common-sense philosophy that most scholars argue was introduced into the American political context by Witherspoon himself. Rather, the legitimacy of those ‘elected’ derived from their ability to articulate that their position of leadership was ‘disinterested’ because it was divine grace that had placed them in such a position of public prominence, rather than their own agency or interest. That we can identify Witherspoon as the figure who was charged with teaching a new generation of leaders this form of counter-intuitive legitimacy allows us to connect him to a fundamental paradox with regard to the rise to prominence of his student-politicians, such as James Madison: Witherspoon’s religious strain of thought, which shared many analogues with the late eighteenth-century Scottish covenanting movement, meant that his students could only justify their entrance into an aristocracy of leaders by negating the agency which supposedly allowed them to become a member of a public political elite within a federal representative system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)57-76
Number of pages20
JournalParliaments, Estates and Representation
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2007

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