The Great Scots who signed the US Declaration of Independence in 1776


It has been written that America owes a hefty dose of gratitude to the many Scottish ancestors who helped mould the new nation. One of the leaders of the American Revolution, Patrick Henry, was of Scots ancestry. Another was Alexander Hamilton, the first US Secretary of the Treasury.
There are two other people, however, who deserve special mention. The only Scottish-born signers of the Declaration of Independence – a clergyman and a noted legal scholar – came to America in the mid-18th century and played significant roles in shaping two of the country’s key institutions.

Rev John Witherspoon was the only ordained clergyman to sign the historic document. He was born at Gifford, East Lothian, and graduated from Edinburgh University. Witherspoon became a parish minister in Beith, Ayrshire, then Paisley, Renfrewshire, before emigrating to the colonies in 1768.

Witherspoon is credited with raising the profile of one of the great American schools of higher learning. He became the sixth president of the College of New Jersey – now known as Princeton University, an icon of Ivy League education. At first he declined the job because his wife was reluctant to join him from Scotland, but a second offer persuaded the couple.

While Thomas Jefferson is credited with imploring a separation between church and government activities, there is no doubt Witherspoon’s ideas from his Scottish Enlightenment days helped to influence a climate for religious pluralism in the US. Among his students at Princeton were a future president and vice-president, as well as 60 members of the US Congress and three Supreme Court justices.

The other Scottish signatory was quite familiar with the High Court. James Wilson was born near St Andrews, Fife, where he attended university. He also went to university in Edinburgh and Glasgow but, surprisingly, never graduated. He left for America in 1765 and obtained a job at the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania, another Ivy League school), where he would receive an honorary degree.

Wilson was admitted to the Philadelphia bar in 1767 and most notably wrote a legal opinion saying that, unless Americans had representation in the British parliament, London had no authority over them. This argument – no taxation without representation – was the basis for the colonies to break away from Britain. 

In 1775 he gave a speech that, in essence, discussed the principle of Judicial Review, the system in America in which laws can be checked against the constitution. This later evolved into the Supreme Court, of which Wilson himself became as associate justice.

Wilson, a strict legal man, nearly did not sign the declaration because the people he represented were divided over the issues. However, once he agreed to sign, it broke the deadlock in the Pennsylvania delegation.

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