Review: How the Scots invented the Modern World

This book, by the historian Arthur Herman is subtitled “The true story of how Western Europe’s poorest nation created our world and everything in it.” Even the most casual student of modern history knows this assertion is false, which is why the subtitle is doubtless a publisher’s marketing invention. Still, while most of us are unaware of Scottish influence in our modern world, as Herman documents, the Scots have indelibly imprinted themselves deeply on America’s national character.

While reading Joe Bageant’s book about the poor, struggling working class in his home of Winchester, Virginia, I learned that the white working class in Winchester and Appalachia was populated by “Scot borderers”. Curious to learn more about how Scots influenced American life, I thought this book by Herman would answer my many questions.

Herman devotes two chapters specifically to the Scottish influence on America, which was considerable. Most of America’s signature inventions, including innovations like the telephone and telegraph were invented by Scottish Americans. Scots were also influential in the founding of the United States. Many of our early presidents were of Scottish ancestry. Many of our leading educational institutions including Princeton were either created by or flourished under the direction of Scottish university presidents.

Such accomplishments seemed unlikely for Scotland, which in the 17th century was truly Europe’s poorest nation, which said a lot. Consisting of the upper half of Great Britain, it had only a tenth of its population. Scotland itself was fractured between natives in the northern Scottish highlands and more civilized Scottish communities populating its lower half including the great cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Scottish highlands were ruled by well established clan chieftains. Tenants leased land and owed loyalty to their local clan chiefs. Clans frequently warred among each other, but the cold, wretched poverty and martial spirit also made the highlanders excellent warriors. Their tradition of loyalty, along with their ability to survive their wretched poverty, made them very innovative.

For those of you not well versed in British history, for most of its history Scotland was an independent nation and fought wars with England. England’s relative prosperity from trade eventually convinced the Scots to merge with England, creating a larger nation known as Great Britain. As Herman documents, the cost for Scots was steep. To get access to England’s markets and intellectual capital, Scots had to agree to permanent minority status in Parliament. They also gave up much of their national identity, including their native language. The full process of Scottish-English amalgamation took centuries but it is clear that both English and Scots found union profitable.

Before Scotland merged with England, it instituted a number of progressive laws that acted as a catalyst for moving the nation into the modern world. Among Scotland’s early innovations was a first of its kind compulsory public school system, which ensured that all Scots could read and write. This allowed literacy and intelligentsia to flourish. Nor was access to higher education that hard for a commoner to achieve. A sufficiently motivated student of modest means could often work themselves into a university. Scotland’s liberal and open educational environment along with federation with England allowed it to grow rapidly. Glasgow became the manufacturing hub of Great Britain. Its universities in Glasgow and Edinburgh in many ways were superior to those further South in Oxford and Cambridge.

Its emphasis on education, as well as its unique mixture of entrepreneurial and liberal values, proved to be a great catalyst for its rapid progress. Like England, Scotland was also well situated to capitalize on sea trade. It traded extensively with the United States in commodities like tobacco and cotton, which it manufactured into goods and resold. It is not surprising then, particularly when during the 18th century the clan system in the Scottish highland broke down, that there were plenty of skilled and semiskilled Scots available for emigration. Many of them ended up in the Americas, which they adopted as their own. With their traditional warrior cultures and inbred survival skills, Scottish highlanders were not afraid to push into the American frontier. Scots were at the forefront of America’s expansion westward. However, Scottish immigrants had major impacts everywhere they went including Canada, Africa, Australia and India.

My hope to better understand the “Scottish borderers” that Bageant alludes to in his book was only partially realized. It appears that America’s redneck class comes principally from Scottish highlanders, many of whom were thrown off their ancestral lands and who had to emigrate. Poor but proud these people thrived on hard times and learned not to get too attached to place. When things felt too settled they tended to move west and south, which accounts for their heavy influence in the Appalachians and the South, and likely the conservative nature of these states into the present. Red states disproportionately send more people into the military. This likely traces itself back to life by their ancestors in the Scottish highlands and the martial life in clan communities.

Scotland is more than its highland communities. The “lowland” Scottish communities represented the civilized part of Scotland. Lowlanders were more inclined toward liberal values and progressivism in general. While many ethnicities made up colonial America, because of their work ethic and relatively higher educational levels Scots were often its leaders. Their influence can be felt in our constitution, which emphasizes a relatively limited federal government and the separation of church and state. Scots learned powerful lessons about the dangers of state sponsored religions, as Scotland’s Kirk was theocratic in nature. They carried over these lessons to establishing a new nation.

Herman documents a huge array of Scottish innovations but some of their innovations were purely philosophical. Much of our modern philosophy and outlook, including a near reverence for capitalism, has its origins in Scotland. Scots comprised some of society’s greatest skeptics. Perhaps the best known is David Hume, an avowed 18th century atheist. Adam Smith was one of many whose unorthodox philosophical ideas were not well received because they were too radical, even when his theories on economics proved to be wildly popular.

While Herman shows how important Scottish thought and innovation has been to the modern world, he is likely overstating Scottish influence. Unquestionably, Scottish influence has been considerable. Herman does us a favor by making us aware of the oversized extent of the Scottish impact on our world.

Fortunately, the book proves to be quite accessible and readable. It offers a number of surprises as well. It is more of a survey book since it covers centuries, but it does ably put Scotland and Scots under a microscope and lets us understand how Scottish thought and innovation has shaped much of the society we know today, as well as influences the problems we continue to grapple with in the present.

(This is not the first book by Arthur Herman that I have read. You might also enjoy my review of “To Rule the Waves”.)

One response to “Review: How the Scots invented the Modern World”

  1. I thought this book was great regarding the Scottish Enlightenment period and how it had a tremendous impact on the UK specifically and the world (including the “New World”) as a whole. However, I did think the author only made that connection at the end or second half of his book, which made the reading rather disappointing when considering the title. In fact, most of this book revolves around the UK… not what happened outside it. If you read the second half you’ll save yourself some time and effort. It’s a great read if your interested in David Hume, Francis Hutchinson, etc. But if you truly want to learn about how “The Scots Invented the Modern World”, I would suggest reading something else.


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