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Old September 9th, 2014 #1
Alex Linder
Join Date: Nov 2003
Posts: 45,350
Blog Entries: 34
Alex Linder
Default The Scottish Enlightenment: A Study in Rapid Cultural Change

[this is a book review from Mankind Quarterly, Winter 2004]

How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World, by Arthur Herman, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002

Scotland and the Origins of the Modern World: An Interpretative History

Alex Greer
Victoria, BC, Canada

The author reviews a work in which educational reform in Scotland, together with revitalized ways of looking at personal responsibility are seen as having been carried throughout the British Empire and young America by a spreading Scottish population of enormous talent and energy, and from these places extensively to affect the world. It is argued that Scottish achievements resulted in major contributions to numerous areas of scholarship famously including civil engineering, medicine, economic and political thinking as well as directly promoting the industrial revolution in the English speaking world and the wider expansion of the global economy notably since the mid-nineteenth century.

It is not too often when a book comes from academia which the average lay reader can fully appreciate and enjoy. Historian Arthur Herman of the Smithsonian has produced a brilliant treatise of interpretative history: How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Such a title sounds presumptuous. This work combines history, biography and many obscure anecdotes to not only inform the reader about Scottish accomplishments for Western Civilization over the past three centuries, but also as to why and how the Scots did so despite their former poverty and their disproportionately small numbers.

Before the Scots set about to "invent" the modern world, they were living in one of the poorest regions in Western Europe. War with England was frequent, and brutal clan feuds in both the Highlands and the Lowlands were all too common. The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries further saw wars over religion. What would inspire a people who knew only war and poverty to formulate new ideas to arise out of their poverty? The answer lies with the changes brought about by the Protestant Reformation in the 1560s. Reformer John Knox, and his disciples, had advanced a radical vision of having a school in every parish. It took time for this vision to be a reality, and by the early 1700s, this unique education system transformed Scotland into one of the most educated and literate nations in Western Europe.

The Scottish thirst for education went beyond studying the scriptures. With the Calvinist concept of the unity of knowledge Scots came to master the humanities, and also scientific and technical subjects. Education further heightened the expectations of the common people, as the sons of farmers and labourers advanced to business and to the professions. In the late 1700s and early 1800s self-made men like civil engineer Thomas Telford built roads, bridges and canals, and mechanic James Watt perfected the steam engine. Scottish universities had a non-elitist ethos, unlike Oxford and Cambridge, and hence gave a greater priority to academic excellence. With their high reputation, the Scottish centers of high learning attracted English students. Edinburgh University's School of Medicine became the best medical school in the British Isles, and Edinburgh emerged as the intellectual center (an "Athens of the north") of a unique Scottish Enlightenment, at which philosophers like Lord Kames, David Hume, and Adam Smith emerged.

Herman's analysis of Adam Smith should interest many readers. Herman points out that Smith was not an extreme libertarian who gave a green ligh tot big business and materialism. He was more of an observer than an advocate, and he concurred with David Hume's pessimistic views of human nature, and really he saw that the free market was a check on human avarice. Alone with a lesser known Eighteenth Century Scottish thinker Adam Ferguson, Smith recognized that the development of commercial society had its risks of becoming soulless, materialistic and impersonal. Ferguson wrote many tracts on the need to preserve traditional Scottish values as material progress went forward. Given that education preceded the rise of a commercial, and then an industrial society, the Scots were thus able to observe that it was necessary to preserve the memory of their past, and their values of honor, courage, family and community. Ferguson, who had created one of Edinburgh's famous debating societies, the Poker Club, stressed the need for strengthening institutions like the family, the churches, and the militia to preserve and reinforce these values.

As a small country an outlet was needed for Scotland's expanding energy, and that outlet was found in the union with England in 1707. This union was not without controversy and opposition. Herman has ruffled the feathers of Scottish Nationalists by pointing out that by the 1730s Scotland was prospering economically beyond its dreams by tapping into the British Empire's growing cross-Atlantic commerce. Mid-Eighteenth Century Glasgow became a thriving port due to its tobacco trade with Virginia. Those 'tobacco lords' who owned the ships and warehouses were not misers: rather they used their wealth to enrich the culture and architecture of the city. Having lost the tobacco trade after America's Independence, Nineteenth Century Glasgow and its environs then became noted for their ship building yards. Being educated, the Scots were well up to the challenges of the union and the empire. The expanding British Empire gave the Scots new opportunities to settle and develop colonial lands far away such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, the practical Scots, both in the homeland and of the Diaspora, stood at a pinnacle of achievement.

What of the old romantic Scotland? Some areas of Scotland, namely parts of the Gaelic-speaking Highlands, were largely untouched by the changes caused by the Reformation and by the Union. Scots of the old ways eventually mounted their last stand in the 1745 Jacobite Rising, which climaxed at the Battle of Culloden. Contrary to the Jacobite myths, this conflict was a civil war between Scots with or without the English. As Herman's analysis would have it, those Scots who had adapted to the changes, and who prospered, supported the Hanoverian regime, and those Scots who did not change supported Bonnie Prince Charlie. The Lowlanders with few exceptions were adamantly opposed to the Stuart Pretenders. (When news of the defeat of the clans at Culloden traveled south the citizens of Glasgow lit a bonfire in celebration.) Of the Highland clans who took up arms for each side, Herman notes that the rich clans (ie. Campbells) were Hanoverian, while the poor clans (ie. MacDonalds) were Jacobite.

The memory of this romantic past did not end with Culloden. The Highlanders maintained an oral tradition about their defeat which survives to this day, as also about the atrocities committed by the government forces. These stories were further carried overseas by those who were later displaced in the 1790s land clearances. The romantic past inspired a literary revival in the late Eighteenth Century. Robbie Burns in his poems and songs, and then Sir Walter Scott in his poems and novels, preserved for posterity the romantic tales and ballads of both the Lowlands and the Highlands. Given that the Scots in the early 1800s were a very literate people, and that many had money to buy books, Scott's novels became bestsellers. Moreover, Scott was widely popular in England, Europe and America. Herman especially credits Scott with preserving romantic Scotland for the industrial age.

Herman has two fine chapters on the role of the Scots in building the United States of America. One chapter focuses on the colonial period. From the 1707 union, which opened the English colonies of North America to Scottish trade, both Lowland and Highland Scots planted settlements and created ports from New Jersey to Georgia. The greatest numbers of Scottish settlers were the "Scots-Irish", (a name given them by the English-descended colonists), "were 'Irish' by geography only." They were ethnic Scots, but they came from the northern Irish province of Ulster. (The Ulster Plantation of the early 1600s was largely a Scottish enterprise.) The Scots-Irish were very adventurous, and in search of land for their extended family groups, they settled the back country of Pennsylvania down to the Carolinas and Georgia. Subsequent waves of them would then move further west. Herman gives this description of their characteristics:

The first was a fierce Calvinist faith. The other was a similarly fierce individualism, which saw every man as the basic equal of every other, and defied authority of every kind. The man who claimed to be better than anyone else had to be ready to prove it, with his words, his actions, or his fists. (p. 197-8).
On the frontier:

They (Scots-Irish) settled in small farm communities, usually on the lee side of a ridge or in a creek hollow, clustering together according to family or region, like their remote Highland ancestors. A typical farm consisted of a "cowpen" or livestock corral of a sort familiar to a Lowland or Border farmer, and a cabin built of logs. The archetypal dwelling of the American frontier, the log cabin, was in fact a Scots development, if not invention. The word itself, cabine, meant any sort of rude enclosure or hut, made of stone and dirt in Scotland, or sod and mud in Ireland.

Across southwest Virginia, North Carolina, and eventually Tennessee, their extended families spread out Alexanders, Ashes, Caldwells, Campbells, Calhouns, Montgomerys, Donelsons, Gilchrists, Knoxes, and Shelbys -- establishing a network of clanlike alliances and new settlements. (p.199)
Given their anti-authoritarianism the back country Scots-Irish supplied a disproportionate number of the soldiers for the Continental Army in the American War of Independence.

In keeping with his theme about the importance of education, Herman pays considerable tribute to John Witherspoon, a Scottish-born Presbyterian minister, President of Princeton University, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Witherspoon's influence goes beyond his denominational label. Although he did not attend the Constitutional Convention Witherspoon educated many founding fathers such as James Madison. The Princeton President is credited as having some indirect influence on some of the thinking behind the U.S. Constitution. As an orthodox Calvinist Witherspoon had the same pessimism about human nature as did David Hume. While Hume was as religious skeptic, his writings were available at Princeton's library. Herman notes: "How can a self-governing republic rule over a vast expanse of territory, which a future United States of America must inevitably do, without becoming an empire, and therefore acquisitive and corrupt? There seemed to be no clear answer." (p. 219) To give the American people a federal government, at which the risks of tyranny were to be minimized, Witherspoon's student Madison, who upon reading Hume, came to see the need for "countervailing interests" in the federal government, or in other words checks and balances. Such concepts would resonate in The Federalist Papers and in the 1789 Constitution. Given the growth of the federal leviathan in the past century the above questions are not stale, but are very relevant.

The other chapter on America examines the role of the three quarters of a million Scottish immigrants who came to its shores during the Nineteenth Century. Unlike the Irish, the Scots were well educated and skilled, and they came not only to work, but also to manage America's growing industries. Unlike the Irish, and other immigrant groups like the Jews, the Protestant Scots did not encounter discrimination, also they did not expect special or preferential treatment. The Scots assimilated with ease into WASP America, and in politics they did not form pressure groups and political machines. Entrepreneur Neil Dow was quoted as saying that Scottish immigrants were "the most welcome." (p. 328) Many American Scots became prominent self-made men, like steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell.

As education remains at the heart of Herman's thesis, any reader of Scottish descent, or who has been shaped by a Scottish insitution, can probably relate personally to Herman's analysis. My great-grandfather was a Scot-Irish Presbyterian small-hold farmer in Northern Ireland. Despite his humble station in the food chain he was literate due to the Kirk's insistence on reading and writing. My grandfather took such an interest in education he became a mathematics teacher, and then a primary school principal. My father went further in his interest in math and science and became a civil engineer, so that after migrating to Canada, he helped to design roads and bridges during the post-WWII economic boom.

How the Scots... excels as a work of interpretative history. Herman, who has also taught at Georgetown and George Mason Universities, has done an excellent task in connecting the dots of Scotland's recent past. He presents various obscure facts and stories about obscure Scottish personalities, so that he has given us a history book which is not just a chronology of famous Scots, since it further answers as to how and why these Scots came to achieve what they did. Herman's conclusion summarizes the Scottish place in Western Civilization:

As the first modern nation and culture, the Scots have made the world a better place. They taught the world that true liberty requires a sense of personal obligation as well as individual rights. They showed how modern life can be spiritually as well as materially fulfilling. They showed how a respect for science and technology can combine with a love for the arts; how private affluence can enhance a sense of civic responsibility; how political and economic democracy can flourish side by side; and how a confidence in the future depends on a reverence for the past. The Scottish mind grasped how, in Hume's words, "liberty is the perfection of civil society," but "authority must be acknowledged essential to its very existence"; and how a strong faith in progress also requires a keen appreciation of its limitations. (p. 361)
[from Mankind Quarterly, Volume XLV Number 2, Winter 2004]

Last edited by Alex Linder; September 9th, 2014 at 08:59 AM.


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