Tuesday, June 26, 2012

How the Scots Invented the Modern World – A Review

By Tim Dunkin

The present reviewer has read a lot of history in his day – some of it written much better than others. Many people can write about history, but not many can write competently about it. Rarer still is the individual who can write about history in an engaging way that will encourage the reader to not just grind through to the bitter end, but to enjoy his or herself in the process. Rarest of all is the writer who can combine these two traits. Yet, in How the Scots Invented the Modern World, author and professor of history Arthur Herman has done just this – produced a tome that addresses his subject matter in an accomplished, lucid, and yet almost conversational manner that leaves the reader impatient to turn the page and find out more. In this respect, I would class Herman with other historians who write with a wider audience in view than just other historians, authors such as Barbara Tuchmann, Stephen Ambrose, and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto.

Certainly, no one can deny that Herman has an easy command of his material, relating primarily to the history of Scotland from the late 17th century to the end of the Victorian era, focusing especially on the Scottish Enlightenment, that outpouring of literary and philosophical endeavor most associated with (but certainly not limited to) such luminaries as Adam Smith, David Hume, and Thomas Reid. This is to be expected, as the author has acquired an extensive knowledge of the development of Western thought in his years in academia – his doctoral disssertation focused on the political thought of 17th-century Huguenots, and he has authored works ranging as widely as the role of the British Navy in creating today's global trade system to the philosophical idea of “decline” in modern Western thought to an attempted renovation of the image and efforts of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

One thing that comes through in his discussions is a conservative leaning that is also far too rare in modern academic writing. When Herman discusses the history and ideas of which he is writing, his prose is mercifully free from the snide asides of other writers who feel that even when discussing the good things our ancestors did, they must nevertheless denigrate them with some acontextual reminder of the evil. Even when discussing the excesses of state-run religion (in this case, the Calvinistic Scottish Kirk), Herman's approach is even-handed and contextual to its time period. This conservative bent makes sense, as Herman has been a coordinator for the Smithsonian's Western Heritage Program, as well as a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Nevertheless, his writing does not come across as a crass political tract – instead, it is the respectful exposition of a scholar who agrees with the thrust of his subject, but has enough sense to approach it evenhandedly.

This book is worth its price alone for its summary history and discussion in chapters 3 and 4 of the Scottish Enlightenment. Indeed, these chapters provide a virtual who's who of that movement, and provide an excellent overview of how each thinker was influenced by the previous ones, and led to the next. The book also provides reference to a number of primary sources from this Enlightenment that, when taken together, would form an excellent core reading list for anyone interested in the history and development of liberty ideology, a field of philosophy to which the Scots singularly contributed. Much of what we think of as classical liberalism, which American conservatives are (so we claim) trying to conserve, was fleshed out and applied to the real world by Scottish thinkers who, as Herman notes, were extremely well grounded in the realities of this world. For instance, Scotland abolished slavery within its jurisdiction, on the basis of a philosophy of natural liberty, before either England or any of colonies/states in America. Nevertheless, as the years progressed, the astute reader can observe the divergence of later Scottish political philosophy from the purer roots of philosophical libertarianism, especially once we reach the time of Dugald Stewart, who applied the principles of scientific reasoning to the process of legislation, thus opening the door for the “perfection” of society through the “right” kind of lawmaking, thus paving the way for today's Anglo-European style of social democracy. Notably, this turn occurred at around the same time that the Scottish Enlightenment stopped viewing religion as a companion of “science” (of all sorts) and started viewing it as a rival.

Nevertheless, the Scottish philosophical school in the main was not too divergent from the American tradition that sprung from the same British root. Much of American colonial liberty philosophy came from the Scots school, and was aided by the importation, in the colonial period, both of Scottish thinkers (including the theologian and cleric John Witherspoon) and of the Scottish style of university education, which focused on a broad knowledge of fundamental topics that laid a foundation for a well-rounded thinker (and which, the author laments, was later supplanted by today's emphasis on over-specialization and meaningless, check-box filling “electives”). The Scots helped to make the American revolution what it was, both by the influence of their philosophy (Madison, in particular, was influenced by this school of thought, as were a number of other Founders) as well as by their manpower.

It is in this field that the book took on a personal interest for me. Herman notes that Scots formed a large and integral part of the American landscape and population, even in colonial days. This reviewer was pleased to see a positive reference to David Hackett Fisher's work Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, another excellent history that covers four major types of emigration from the British isles to the American colonies. One of these was an influx of Scots, Scots-Irish, and English borderers who settled the mountainous back-country of each of the colonies, and among whose descendants this reviewer is included (Dunkin is an anglicized form of Duncan, a venerable old Scots clan, and other ancestral lines, including my direct maternal line, are either Scots-Irish or, if from the English side of the line, from that borderer region close to Scotland). Just as they were used as buffers against the Catholic Irish in Ulster, the Scots and Scots-Irish formed a bulwark for these colonies against hostile Indians and Frenchmen prior to the Revolution, and formed the backbone of many units engaged against the Redcoats in the struggle for American freedom. In 19th century America, the Scots, both old blood and newly immigrated, would contribute mightily to the wealth and industry of the nation, just as they also did in Canada, Australia, and wherever else they settled in large numbers.

As with many books that purport to demonstrate how “X” ethnic or national group contributed disproportionately to some aspect of modern society, the author does perhaps focus too intently on the contributions of the Scots while ignoring the concurrent (and often prerequisite) contributions of the English and others who made our modern world. Nevertheless, too intent of a focus does not presuppose that the author is exaggerating the Scots' benefaction to the modern West, such as I've seen with other works – one that comes to mind, entitled How the Irish Saved Civilization, virtually proposes that without the Irish, we would all still be in the Dark Ages. Still, toward the end of the book in its discussion of the Scots' role in modern science and technology, one gets the distinct sense that without the Scots to help them, the English would never have figured out how to build a bridge or attach a steam engine to a ship.

Nevertheless, the author does make it apparent (perhaps painfully so for those modern devolutionists who would like to see Scotland break away from the Great British union) that the Act of Union in 1707 was in every way a long-term benefit to Scotland. While Scotland was never conquered by English arms, the original union of 1707 occurred because most Scots of note realized that Scotland simply did not have the wealth or population to hold off their neighbor to the south indefinitely. By entering union on peaceful terms, Scotland was able to grab the horns and use union to its own benefit – something that ought to serve as a check on the ambitions of our own devolutionists who would prefer to have another go at disuniting the American union. Gaining access to British markets and the protection of the Royal Navy, Scotland thrived as a commercial state, and emerged as the natural center for the development of industrialization. Scots also came to form the backbone of the British army during the Victorian period, carving out an empire like none ever seen before. As Plautus put into the mouths of the Italian confederates absorbed by the Roman unification of Italy, “Conquered, we conquer” - Scots manpower and battle prowess made possible the empire upon which the sun never set.

One thing that will probably run afoul of the sensibilities of today's modern “Scottish pride” revisionists, these Americans who like to put on kilts and march around while (badly) playing the pipes, is the corrective that Herman applies to the romanticization of these traditions. As he points out, for instance, the system of each clan having its own tartan pattern actually dates from the early 19th century – and came into being as a “revivalist” ploy to impress visiting royalty from London. Prior to this, the clans (of course) wore tartans, but no pattern particularly pertained to any one group. Of course, as the author also points out, the clan system itself was not exactly as romantic as it is often made out be today. Essentially, it evolved as a particularly Scottish type of feudalism, and suffered from the same drawbacks as any other feudal system, such as the complete lack of a concept for the natural liberties of those not at the top of it. One case that the author points out involved a highland Scots lord – acting perfectly legally and within his rights as laird – to essentially torture to death one of his tenants for the crime of withholding a few fish from his allotment of tribute. This took place in 1740, well after the Scottish Enlightenment had gotten well under way.

All in all, How the Scots Invented the Modern World is well worth the investment for a serious student of Western (and particularly British) history and the development of classically liberal political philosophy. The author's well-informed and smooth style of writing should be very appealing to the serious lay-scholar, and will provide resources that a student of these fields can follow to obtain deepened understanding. This reviewer would give this work 4 ½ stars out of 5.

How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It, by Arthur Herman
Three Rivers Press: 472 pages: $14.95