Annika Nestius Brown argues that Ulsterman Francis Hutcheson should be considered Father of the Age of Enlightenment.
Few people in Northern Ireland will recognise the name Francis Hutcheson (1694 – 1746) yet this ‘Father of the Scottish Enlightenment’, was born and raised in Co Down, Ulster and his influence can be seen in the ideas that contributed to the American War of Independence, French Revolution, and closer to home, the Society of United Irishmen.
Francis Hutcheson’s grandfather was a Presbyterian Minister in Saintfield and part of his early education took place at the dissenting academy in Killyleagh.
Having completed his degree at Glasgow University, Francis Hutcheson moved to Dublin where he practised as a Presbyterian Minister and wrote several philosophical works of note, including Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue. In 1729, he took the post of Professor of Moral Philosophy at his old alma mater. Here he became an important influence on David Hume and Adam Ferguson and, above all, Adam Smith, whom he taught economics.
Over time, Francis Hutcheson’s writing went on to inspire major European philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Voltaire. His definition of “unalienable rights” was used at Harvard from the 1730’s onwards and it has been stated that at least three of the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence based their guiding principles on Hutcheson.
Throughout his life, Francis Hutcheson upheld the importance of natural justice and of a moral sense. His background in Ulster made him acutely aware of the disabilities and injustices imposed on both Dissenters and Roman Catholics. However, rather than looking back to a golden past or seeking to replace one group’s tyranny with another, he formulated a moral guidance that could create a society of individuals with equal rights.
This can be said to be the true legacy of Hutcheson – the idea of each person have rights as an individual rather than as part of a group. He championed the breaking up of existing community identities and of opening up a public space that belonged to no particular group, such as the ruling elite, allowing each individual the greatest freedom to pursue their interest (the pursuit of happiness) as long as it was compatible with the common good. This can be distilled down to a belief that the market economy is both legitimate in its existence and important in its function for society, but it must be regulated for the common good lest it becomes an end in itself. To Hutcheson, the pursuit of knowledge, science and enlightenment was central to the creation of a more peaceful and prosperous world.
With his contribution to the Enlightenment tradition and his influence on radical thinkers, Hutcheson not only helped to formulate the historical direction of the United States of America, Britain and Ireland. His philosophy was fundamental in the economic, social and political development of these countries, and thus, the modern world. It can therefore be said that the influence and legacy of this man from County Down is of profound significance to everyone.
Annika Nestius-Brown is Director of Operations at the Francis Hutcheson Institute