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Lessons from the Scottish Enlightenment

Stephen Davies

Among the many aspects of the modern world invented in Scotland, we may include the discipline of economics—indeed, the contemporary social sciences in general. In the latter half of the eighteenth century a whole congregation of brilliant intellects appeared in this small country on the edge of Europe and articulated profound insights into what we would now call economics, sociology, political science, cultural studies, anthropology, history, and philosophy. Some, such as Adam Smith and David Hume, are still well known, but there were other people such as Adam Ferguson, Thomas Reid, James Millar, Francis Hutcheson, and Henry Home (Lord Kames) who are equally worthy of study but receive far less attention. Seldom has such a short period of time (a little more than two generations) seen such a burst of insight and ideas in such a small space.

Moreover, the ferment and vitality of Scots society at this time was not confined to purely intellectual pursuits. The same period also saw a flourishing of the arts and literature, in areas such as painting (Allan Ramsay), architecture (Robert Adam), poetry (Robert Burns), and prose fiction (Tobias Smollet and later James Hogg). It was also the society that produced figures such as James Watt and Thomas Macadam, who contributed to advances in technology and engineering.

Most dramatic however was the economic transformation of Scotland into one of the most dynamic and prosperous parts of Europe. By the end of the eighteenth century Scotland was at the forefront of the nascent Industrial Revolution.

None of this would have been predicted by anyone who looked at the condition of Scotland at the end of the seventeenth century. It was poor and backward, with an agricultural sector that had not joined in the innovations pioneered by the Dutch and adopted south of the border. There had been a series of armed rebellions and civil wars between 1637 and 1690 that had brought loss of life and large-scale emigration (both forced and voluntary) in their wake. In the 1690s famine and harvest failure carried off at least an eighth of the population. Most dramatically, in the same decade most of the nation’s liquid capital had been squandered on the Darien Scheme, a foolish idea to plant a Scottish colony on the isthmus of Panama.

Scottish Miracle

Given this kind of starting point, the subsequent flourishing and transformation of Scottish society becomes even more remarkable. Indeed it was partly awareness of this dramatic metamorphosis that inspired the investigations of Smith and his contemporaries. Can the Scottish Enlightenment be explained or must we write it off as one of history’s mysteries? Certainly there is something ultimately mysterious about brilliant intellectual efflorescences in a particular place, but we can cast some light on the Scottish case.

The key was the union of Scotland and England in 1707—but not in the way commonly supposed. The Union, as intended, benefited Scotland by giving her merchants access to the larger markets of England and her colonies. The unintended consequences had the most profound effect, however, and this tells us something about the origins of episodes of intellectual and cultural flourishing.

The Scottish side entered the Union, which was brought about by political maneuvering and bribery, with no great enthusiasm. The collapse of the Darien Scheme forced its hand. The English side was driven by pure calculation of high politics, in particular the possibility of Scotland refusing to go along with the English Parliament’s decision that on the death of Queen Anne the crown would pass from the House of Stuart to that of Hanover—raising the prospect of the Scots sticking with the Stuarts and so dissolving the union of the crowns of the two kingdoms and maybe even restoring the “Auld Alliance” of France and Scotland.

The motives for the Union meant the English government had no real interest in Scottish affairs other than to check the continued support there for the exiled Stuarts. Given the relative size of the two countries, the merger of their Parliaments effectively abolished the Scottish Parliament. Because of the continued strength of Jacobitism and peculiar features of Scottish electoral law, elections from Scotland to the Westminster Parliament were deeply corrupt, involved a small (and shrinking) electorate, and were controlled by the Whig oligarchy that ruled Britain from 1715 onward. So political careers were no longer possible in Edinburgh.

Moreover, in 1708 the government of the new United Kingdom did something as significant as abolishing the Scottish Parliament. For essentially short-term and trivial reasons the government also abolished the Scottish Privy Council, the center and main instrument of executive government in Scotland for several hundred years. Meanwhile the distinct Scottish legal system survived, as it does to this day.

Salutary Neglect

The result of all this was that eighteenth-century Scotland, just like the contemporaneous American colonies, experienced “salutary neglect.” The imperial government in Westminster did not legislate affairs north of the border in any detail. What was left was an increasingly efficient and honest legal system together with the Church of Scotland and a system of local government that was much less active than its counterpart in England.

Decreasing Political Domination

All this had a number of effects that contributed to the sudden dynamism and innovativeness of Scottish society. Talented and ambitious people now looked for other outlets for their energy besides politics and government. In short, they were left to their own devices to sort out their problems and explore their opportunities in a system of law without having to contend with an active political power. Intellectual life was less and less dominated by the political (and religious, since the two were so connected) disputes that had dominated it in the previous century.

At the same time Scotland, like the rest of the world at that time, experienced sustained population growth because of the gradual improvement of the planet’s climate and the impact of new crops such as the potato. This led to innovation in the context of a society no longer dominated culturally by the values and outlook of a ruling warrior aristocracy—indeed the aristocracy (including the Jacobite ones) now turned increasingly to innovation and “improvement.”

The transformation of Scotland in the eighteenth century and the intellectual flowering that it led to was in part the outcome of an unintended experiment: the removal of much of politics and government from Scotland by the Act of Union and its aftermath. We can conclude that in any society, even the most apparently unpromising, there is an enormous reserve of talent, ingenuity, and insight that can find expression when law and property are stable and government keeps out of the way.

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