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Stories from the Scotsman
A fair wind for liberty


Patrick Henry, son of a Scot, gave the speech of his life to the revolutionary convention in Richmond, Virginia on 23 March, 1775. Pretending to wear the shackles of a slave he famously asked: "Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?" Throwing his arms wide apart he cried: "Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"

Twenty-seven days later a shot was fired at Lexington that was heard around the world, attributed to either a Munro on the American side or a Pitcairn on the British. There was thus agreement on one point - a Scot was responsible for starting the American War of Independence.

According to Professor Arthur Herman, author of The Scottish Enlightenment: How the Scots Invented the Modern World, Scots can be held accountable for much else besides . Those who expect the fawning, self-serving drivel that normally follows such inflated claims are in for a sad disappointment. When Andrew Carnegie was asked if he was a native-born American, he replied: "No sir, I am a Scotchman," a response which he admitted made him feel as proud as he who could boast, "I am a Roman citizen." Not so Herman who, in the first line of his book, confesses almost with relish: "I am not a Scot, or even of Scottish descent," which in certain quarters is tantamount to saying that he must be instead a totally deluded American unleashed on the world after a lengthy spell on Planet Zog.

Scottish opinion about this book seems to be completely polarised. On the one hand are the proselytisers who liberally quote the book (or soundbites from reviews), taking immense pride in the flattering assessment of one whose very status as an outsider is deemed to render his views correct. On the other we have the puddens who believe that Scottish history, like kilts, is for Scots only. Truth to tell, in their heart of hearts they believe kilts and tartans to be post-modern frivolities, but they would violently disagree with any non-Scot who articulated such sentiments.

Herman argues that the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment created modernity, shared ways of regarding the world and certain assumptions that are commonly held throughout the English-speaking world. Above all, such ideas had an impact upon America, in these pages silently assumed to be the present custodian of all that humans hold to be most valuable, a view that many readers, not least the Scots, will find hard to share. The concept of freedom has been kicked around over so many centuries and devalued by the extravagant rhetoric of so many demagogues that we may be forgiven for assuming that the ball has well and truly burst, and yet freedom as an idea still has an almost unrivalled capacity to inspire.

Scots have always felt a bond with Americans, partly because so many of us settled there. Until the early 20th century, America was deemed a much less potentially harmful power than it is now. For many, having acquired a trade or a degree or a summons of removal, it was the obvious destination. As Herman suggests, there are probably more descendants of Highland clans in present-day America than there are in Scotland. Much harder to trace is the no-less important Lowland drain of talent that flowed steadily for three centuries.

The author is not alone in detecting a colossal Scottish impact upon the US, a contribution celebrated in Tartan Day festivities. In 1998 the US Senate proclaimed 6 April a day of national significance, because on that date in 1320 the Declaration of Arbroath was addressed to the Pope and the American Declaration of Independence, it is claimed, was modelled on that momentous document.

For Herman, 1776 was a crucial year, in which Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, Gibbon produced the first volume of Decline and Fall using the historiographical methodologies of the Scottish School, David Hume died, and Thomas Jefferson drafted a declaration that drew significantly upon the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Smith virtually predicted the American Revolution. He is undoubtedly one of Herman’s heroes, but he is critically and sympathetically handled. Not for Herman is Smith the laissez-faire obsessive (Smith never used the term) but rather the Glasgow professor who feared that narrow-minded fixation on business would lead to Philistinism and who noted that while the commercial classes often complained about high prices they were silent on the effects of high profits.

It was Smith who distinguished the attributes that made the Scots such successful emigrants. The parish school system taught "almost the whole common people to read" but, just as important, "a very great proportion of them to write and account". Literacy was, of course, paramount, but it may be suspected that it was often numeracy that ensured that so many Scots made their mark.

Such a Mac-ocracy was not popular in the colonies where plays satirised McFlint, McGripe and McSqueeze. Grasping tobacco lords and avaricious state governors conspired to give the Scots a bad name but by 1790 there were around a quarter of a million of them in America and they continued to arrive throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Historian Bernard Aspinwall called them "shock troops of modernisation", the battalions who would help to transform an agrarian community into a mighty industrial power.

They had gone as prisoners, indentured servants, as colonising farmers and merchants, teachers, ministers, doctors and soldiers. To this day Americans celebrate the massive Scottish contribution to education. Between 1726 and 1837 Presbyterians founded some 65 academies or "log colleges" in America. One of these, founded by an Ulster Scot, became Princeton University, of which John Witherspoon, minister of the Laigh Kirk in Paisley, was appointed president in 1768.

As a member of the Kirk’s popular party, Witherspoon discovered a congenial environment in his new home and young minds uncontaminated by the outmoded assumptions of the Old World. At Princeton he established debating clubs on the model of those back home to foster the exchange of "guid crack" that was informative as well as educational. An advocate of life-long learning, Witherspoon believed, in a very Scottish way, that it was essential to study thoroughly a philosophical or intellectual opponent in order to refute him. He turned out hordes of influential graduates, his Scots brogue affectionately remembered by all. He was the only cleric to sign the Declaration of Independence.

George Jardine, professor of logic and rhetoric at Glasgow from 1774 to 1824, one of the first to reflect on the philosophy of education, greatly influenced American university teaching. In 1868 James McCosh, the Scottish philosopher, became president of Princeton. Throughout the 19th century and beyond, millions of American schoolchildren were exposed to McGuffey’s Readers, produced by the grandson of Scottish immigrants. The Alexander Robertson school was the first in New York to admit girls as well as boys. So far, the literature of the Scots in America is grossly deficient on the subject of women, for whom the emigrant experience was often the hardest and loneliest of all. Two colourful exceptions were the Macbeth sisters, who were involved in setting up mission schools among the Pince-Nez. The stories of thousands of Scottish women in America, however, remain to be told.

The first issue of the Boston Newsletter, the first regular newspaper in America, was published in 1704 by John Campbell from Islay. Scots would continue to dominate printing and publishing. John Dunlap was the first printer of both the 1776 declaration and the US constitution.

It is a moving experience to stand on the banks of the Potomac at Georgetown and muse on the massive sea-road of the Atlantic that brought so many Scots from the Clyde and elsewhere.

Hugh Mercer, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s personal surgeon, served George Washington in a similar capacity; the irascible and impossible John Paul Jones rewarded his ain folk in Galloway by attacking them in the name of the new republic.

The westward urge that originally drove the Celts to Britain ensured that they did not stop at the eastern seaboard. The history of the Wild West is peppered with Scottish names. The doomed heroes of The Alamo, for example, were of Scottish descent. Jim Bowie, land speculator and chancer extraordinaire, bore a Gaelic name - "Buie", meaning yellow-haired - and still pronounced that way by Americans . Davy Crockett, famous for his love of "cracking" - blethering - had a Galloway surname . One of the last sounds both men heard at The Alamo was the bagpipes of John McGregor.

It was Scots who composed both Hail to the Chief and The Star-Spangled Banner, but the composition of anthems for their countries of adoption was something of a Scottish habit. Alexander McLachlan from Johnstone, the "Robert Burns of Canada", wrote several patriotic ditties to commemorate Canadian confederation in 1867, as did Banjo Paterson, the son of a man from Lanarkshire, at Australian federation in 1901.

These men, and thousands like them, were so confident of their identities as Scots that they helped to confer a similar boon upon the countries in which they settled. The finest ideas to come out of the Scottish Enlightenment were inclusive and those, by and large, were what Scots at their best contributed to America as to the rest of the world.

Professor Herman is rightfully critical of modern Scots who seem to be once again seeking comfort in the very mythology from which the Enlightenment was supposed to free them. However, as he must know, one of the few countries in the world with a greater capacity for self-mythologisation than Scotland is the US.

Herman, with Adam Smith, sees imagination as the basis of modern society. He congratulates Walter Scott for creating a parallel Scotland, based on the myths of the past. This is an area for potentially fruitful debate although, as if the existence of two Scotlands were not enough, we now have a third, which Americans are busily manufacturing out of Scottish materials in celebration of Tartan Day .

In which shall most of us reside? John Buchan once observed that, "Romance is a revolt against the despotism of facts." To judge from growing evidence, these facts must be truly despotic in both Scotland and America.

Ted Cowan is professor of Scottish history at Glasgow University. Professor Cowan will be speaking at a Scotsman / Policy Institute public debate - "Did Scots Invent the Modern World?" - on Monday 15 April, 7pm, at The Scotsman, 108 Holyrood Road.

He will be debating with Professor Arthur Herman, author of The Scottish Enlightenment: How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Tickets are available.

The Scotsman

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