A toast to 'Auld Lang Syne'

Scotland produced many of the great thinkers and teachers of the 18th and 19th centuries at a time when it was the poorest, smallest country in Europe (roughly the size of Rhode Island). As a student, I learned about this influence and I wrote a thesis on the subject in 1973, "The Scottish Philosophy and Its Influence on Pre-Civil War America." 

Time has passed but interest in this subject hasn’t. So I couldn’t resist buying the 2001 book “How the Scots Invented the Modern World and Everything in It” by Arthur Herman. Herman explores the breadth and depth of Scottish influence on the modern world. This article explores the contributions of many strong, smart and influential Scots.

First, Scotsman Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” became the basis of early American economics. It doesn’t stop there. You will immediately recognize the names of world famous writers such as Sir Walter Scott, Daniel Defoe, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns. Another famed Scottish writer, Edward Gibbon, authored “The Rise and fall of the Roman Empire” and in the 18th century the University of Edinburgh published the first Encyclopedia Britannica and brought us innovators like Alexander Graham Bell, Samuel Morse (Morse Code) and James Watt (perfected the steam engine).

Part of the explanation, says Herman, was that during this period European countries were engaged in war and most of their energy and resources were spent defending their colonies. While in Scotland, education dominated the scene. The Scots were training doctors, scientists, economists and philosophers. Herman says, “The Scots were smart, self-motivated and scrappy.” They fought for independence from England. Despite the fact that England won, the Scots never lost their spirit.

Many of the successful, urban, educated Scots immigrated in the late 1700s to the United States. The Highland Scots, who were mostly farmers, were not as well educated. Many left for Northern Ireland when their land was taken over; while some were offered land grants, others needed jobs. Many of these Scots, known as the Scotch-Irish, settled in Appalachia.

Intellectuals, notably moral philosophers Thomas Reid, Francis Hutchinson, David Hume and John Witherspoon, were renowned teachers. Witherspoon, a co-writer and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was recruited from Scotland to be the first president of Princeton University. We’ve all heard about Andrew Carnegie (steel) and Thomas Lipton (tea).  

For Clevelanders, the first car ever built here was built by Scotsman Alexander Winton; hence, the large W on top of Winton Place in Lakewood. Who can dispute the importance in U.S. history of Patrick Henry, Daniel Boone and presidents James Polk, Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson, all descended from Scots.

Space is limited here, but I'll leave you with some interesting facts from Herman’s book. Of the original 13 colonies, nine of the governors were Scots. More than one-third of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Scots. And just as I was finishing this article, I read in the November issue of "This Week" magazine, the Scottish song "Auld Lang Syne" (written by Robert Burns in 1788) is sung on New Year's Eve in every English-speaking country.

Great Scot!

Read More on Arts & Entertainment
Volume 5, Issue 25, Posted 10:44 AM, 12.10.2013