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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: September 2017

XI - Lord Kames's Influence on Some of the Founders of the United States


The Reception of Kames's Works by Some of the Founders of the United States

Lord Kames was highly relevant to colonial America before and around the time of independence. There were a number of reasons for that. The prolific nature of Kames's writing in an astonishingly great number of areas (though not always with equally high quality) played a significant role in his reception in North America. In some ways he was providing fairly orderly and portable ‘codifications’ of large areas of knowledge of his time – law, moral philosophy, legal and social history, property and economic theory, education, aesthetics, rhetoric and letters, and agriculture. That was of much use in the intellectual outpost of civilisation which colonial America then was. The Enlightenment man and uomo universale Kames served as a transmitter, and to some extent populariser, of eighteenth-century thought. Furthermore, he was not English, but Scottish, and that not only chimed with the Scottish and Protestant-Calvinist roots of many of the American settlers; it also made Kames an unsuspicious, and potentially even sympathetic, author during the growing political and economic tensions with England-dominated Britain which would lead to American independence in 1776. The fact that Kames was a figurehead of the Scottish Enlightenment and, as a Scottish judge, a member of the Scottish establishment, gave his books an increased authority, and that by no means applied to his legal works only.

All that made Kames attractive to several founders of the United States as well. Those founders who studied Kames were not collectively influenced by him, but individually, and also each of them by different works. Kames reached them during their individual training in their formative period, well before they entered the political arena. As Kames's works covered an unusually large field, each reader would pick out these works which served his interests most. Thomas Jefferson was here probably the reader with the broadest interest.