Self-Made Men: Scots in the United States

America would have been a poor show had it not been for the Scotch.

—Andrew Carnegie

Canada and the United States should be more alike than they are. Once parts of the same British Empire, they share a common language, a common geography, and a common economic fate. Both are, in their own way, nations of immigrants—including, in both cases, sizable and influential numbers of Scots.

Yet their histories run in very different directions. The development of Canada was largely a public enterprise, controlled and in many cases financed from the top down. The Hudson’s Bay Company started that tradition; the building of the Canadian Pacific epitomized it. Americans built their world around the principles of Adam Smith and Thomas Reid, of individual self-interest governed by common sense and a limited need for government. The U.S. Constitution of 1787 enumerated the powers of the federal government, and left the rest to the individual states. The Canadian Confederation of 1867 explicitly gave the provinces certain powers, and kept the rest for itself. It reflected the political vision of Dugald Stewart: government as a resource for society’s progress, rather than a hindrance to it.

Despite these differences, the Scots themselves were almost as important to the development of the United States as to that of Canada. In Bernard Aspinwall’s phrase, they were “the shock troops of modernization, ” the first echelon of skilled immigrant labor to reach America’s shores and make it a productive nation. They transformed the new republic from an agricultural community of “agrarian yeoman” into an industrial powerhouse, the quintessential modern nation.

The Scots who came to the United States in the nineteenth century reveal once again why the Scottish diaspora was so different from other mass immigrations in history. Despite their relatively small numbers (less than three-quarters of a million, compared with 5 million Irish), the vast majority of Scottish immigrants could read and write English. Most knew some trade other than farming. Almost half of the Scottish males who came to America between 1815 and 1914 qualified as either skilled or semiskilled workers. In fact, while Canada tended to draw Scotsmen who wanted to own a farm and lead a rural life, the United States attracted those who were determined to succeed in a trade or in a factory job. Their work ethic and moral discipline were bywords. “Of all immigrants to our country, the Scotch are always the most welcome,” wrote the entrepreneur and prohibitionist Neil Dow in 1880. “They bring us muscle and brain and tried skill and trustworthiness in many of our great industries, of which,” he added pointedly, “they are managers of the most successful.”

Of all American immigrant groups, probably only the Jews had more or comparable skills. But unlike the Jews, or the Irish for that matter, Protestant Scottish immigrants were not held back by religious discrimination. And unlike the English, they did not expect special or preferential treatment. They lived by Sir Walter Scott’s famous maxim, “I am a Scot and therefore I had to fight my way into the world.” They anticipated hard work as a matter of course.

Nor were they intimidated by their new environment. On the contrary, it had a certain familiar feel: an Anglo-Saxon privileged elite who dominated politics and government; an Anglicized urban middle class divided into competing Protestant sects; Irish immigrant workers crowded into growing industrial cities; an inaccessible interior governed by tribal warrior societies about to be displaced by the forces of progress—here was Scotland all over again.

It is not surprising that so many Scots came to identify with America. They saw it as the fulfillment of their own hopes and desires, and Scottish men and women as indispensable to its forward progress. Andrew Carnegie’s famous declaration quoted above echoed the sentiment of many others, that “the United States was Scotland realized beyond the seas.” It was a place where the Scotsman could create a new life for himself out of the opportunities the continent offered, and a new identity. After all, being an American was above all an idea, just as being a “North Briton” had been, or civilization itself. All it required was a goal and a desire to succeed—and a person could become anything, or anyone, he wanted.

This was a self-confident individualism as old as the Renaissance: “Man can do all things if he will.” But then it had been an ideal for an elite. It presupposed a fixed social structure, a hierarchy of status groups in which individual talent, like water, would eventually find its own level. No such thing existed, or seemed to exist, in America. The field was wide open, just as the country itself was wide open—“an empire of liberty,” as Thomas Jefferson phrased it, which the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 had more than doubled in size. It was the Scots who would show the rest of the Americans how to operate in that kind of social and cultural void—where nothing seems impossible, where a man can take his skills and his willpower and turn it into gold.

A new social ethos was born, which the rest of the world would come to see as quintessentially American—and quintessentially modern. In fact, it is quintessentially Scottish, and the Scots in America would also demonstrate that the endless possibilities of this inventive self-fashioning and the pursuit of individual success do not have to end in chaos. They can spawn a new kind of civic community, which respects the right of all people to pursue their own ends as long as they respect that right for others. It is an enlightened community, with echoes of David Hume’s secular Golden Rule. But it is reinforced, like concrete with steel rods, by a traditional moral discipline, the legacy of Presbyterianism.

Scots had helped to create the new American nation. Now they would show how it could work.


In 1788 Benjamin Rush wrote to John Adams, “America has ever appeared to me to be the theater on which human nature will reach its greatest civic, literary, and religious honours. Now is the time to sow the seeds of each of them.”

Rush had come back from his sojourn to Scotland in 1774, where he had recruited John Witherspoon to Princeton and studied medicine with William Cullen, energized and enthused. With an almost missionary zeal, he had thrown himself into the revolutionary cause and then into shaping the newly born republic into a modern nation. Rush founded the first antislavery society in America, recognizing in that “peculiar institution” precisely the kind of tyranny that had prompted Americans to break with Britain. He became a pioneer in the temperance movement, and he led a crusade for humane treatment of the mentally ill, making him America’s first clinical psychologist. He helped to found the American Philosophical Society, based on the Edinburgh original, and supplied its operative motto: “Knowledge is of little use, when confined to mere speculation.” This captured perfectly the practical side of the Scottish Enlightenment, and Rush’s own desire to see an America take shape in conformity to that model.

The basis of this new enlightened American identity, Rush believed, was going to be its system of education, and above all its universities. Here his influence was enormous and long-lasting. He completely remade the College of Philadelphia’s medical school, where he was a popular and influential teacher, recasting the teaching of medicine according to the Edinburgh model. He founded Dickinson College in western Pennsylvania, with a Scottish president, which became the vehicle for Rush’s vision of a new kind of nondenominational educational institution. He argued for moving Latin and Greek out of the center of the curriculum (although he still believed in the importance of classical languages), and ushering science in. The university should be a place that pushed forward the frontiers of knowledge in all areas, Rush believed, through research and innovation, as well as a center of instruction.

His own College of Philadelphia had already taken up reforms along related lines under its Scottish president, William Small, which were based on the University of Aberdeen. So Rush and Small’s college (later the University of Pennsylvania) became one important conduit for the Scottish remaking of American education; John Witherspoon’s Princeton was another.

Even after his death in 1794, Witherspoon’s influence on the new republic continued to be enormous. He had made Princeton into a training ground for a leadership elite. During his tenure Princeton had produced a future United States president (James Madison), a vice president (Aaron Burr), six members of the Continental Congress, nine cabinet officers, twenty-one senators, thirty-nine congressmen, three Supreme Court justices, twelve governors, thirty-three state and federal court judges, and thirteen college presidents. He had made science an integral part of the college curriculum, along with history, English, and moral philosophy.

After 1825 Harvard, Yale, Brown, and Columbia began moving in the same direction as Princeton and Philadelphia. Later, Harvard and a new addition to the academic constellation, the Johns Hopkins University, would deviate slightly from the Scottish norm, and look to the Germans. But on the whole, American higher education remained resolutely Scottish all the way down to World War I.

This was helped by two Scots in Scotland who made their mark on American education by remote control, as it were. One was Dugald Stewart. He had always stressed the importance of moral philosophy as the matrix discipline, the place where all the other disciplines, arts and sciences alike, met. His lectures on philosophy and ethics became the standard guides for nearly twelve academic generations of American scholars and educators. They offered a blueprint for building a curriculum based on the Scottish school, as did the writings of another influential Scot, George Jardine.

Jardine taught at the University of Glasgow for fifty years, from 1774 until his retirement in 1824. His heroes were Hutcheson and Adam Smith. His ideas on what a university education was supposed to offer, and how it was supposed to be taught, changed the face of higher education not only in America but in Scotland as well. Jardine was professor of logic and rhetoric; he became convinced early on “that something was wrong in the system of instruction; that the subjects on which I lectured were not adapted to the age, the capacity, and the previous attainment of pupils.” So Jardine created the introductory college course, which presented new or difficult material in small and digestible pieces rather than as a single imposing system that students had to either understand or fail. Jardine also insisted that lectures be interspersed with regular examinations, in order to gauge the students’ progress, and on which students had to write themes or original essays. Jardine’s famous example was “There was fine linen in Egypt in the time of Moses,” which would lead students to do research about the government, society, and political economy of ancient Egypt, as well as about the Bible.

Jardine’s Outlines of Philosophical Education, Illustrated by the Method of Teaching the Logic Class at the University of Glasgow became one of the most popular textbooks in American higher education. It explained how to create a stimulating intellectual atmosphere in the classroom and lecture hall. It created a system of “writing across the curriculum,” as it would later be called, with compositions, essays, and research papers assigned in every class and at every level, which taught students how to think for themselves, but also how to write clear, incisive, original English prose. The typical Edinburgh Reviewer became the ideal American college graduate—a person of strong moral sense and independent judgment, with a knowledge of history, philosophy, literature, and science at his fingertips, in whom “all the faculties of the mind are exerted, and powers unused before, are awakened into life and activity.”

All these trends came together in 1868, when Princeton University needed a new college president and turned to the reigning figure at Queen’s College in Belfast, the philosopher James McCosh. It was exactly one hundred years since Princeton had turned to another Scot, John Witherspoon, to revive its fortunes. The arrival of McCosh caused almost as much of a stir. One undergraduate remembered it being “like an electric shock.” McCosh brought Princeton physically and intellectually into the modern age: he put together a distinguished faculty in both the arts and the sciences; he founded the first graduate school, as well as schools of science, philosophy, and art; he erected a series of new buildings on campus,43 including a gymnasium and a seventy-thousand-volume library. “Some critics found fault with me,” McCosh remembered later, “for laying out too much money on stone and lime; but I proceeded on system, and knew what I was doing. I viewed the edifices not as an end, at best as outward expressions and symbols of an internal life.”

In McCosh’s case, that internal life had multiple components and involved complex elements. Like Witherspoon, McCosh was a Presbyterian minister as well as a philosopher. He had helped to lead the Great Disruption in 1843, when he and Thomas Chalmers had inspired other clergymen to walk out of the General Assembly and create a new independent evangelical church, the Free Kirk. But he was also the direct heir to the mainstream tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment, a century and a half of intellectual achievement that McCosh synthesized and summarized under a single title: “the Scottish philosophy.”

The Scottish philosophy, he said, “is different from nearly all the philosophies which went before, from many of those which were contemporary, and from some of those which still linger among us.” It stressed observation and experience as the primary source of knowledge. It saw human consciousness as our window on reality, and onto the self. And it stressed that as human beings, we come equipped to grasp the truth about ourselves and about the world around us, including a sense of right and wrong.

This was the legacy that the Scottish school had left for the generations that came after them. It was the friend of science and moral confidence, and the enemy of moral relativism, pessimism, and doubt. “We have the express testimony of a succession of illustrious men for more than a century, to the effect that it was Hutcheson, or Smith, or Reid, or Beattie, or Stewart, or Jardine . . . who first made them feel they had a mind, and stimulated them to independent thought.” They may not have been the most startling or original thinkers in history, McCosh concluded. “But the great merit of the Scottish philosophy is in the large body of truth which it has if not discovered, at least settled on a foundation which can never be moved.”

A foundation which can never be moved. Yet even as McCosh was writing his tribute to the Scottish school, he knew that the assumptions on which it was based were being steadily whittled away. A new force was stirring in the Western educational world, that of the German university ideal, which stressed rigorous research and professional specialization rather than the generalist approach that McCosh and the Scots favored. And then there was the threat from the other direction, the newfangled system of course electives. In 1885 McCosh traveled to New York to debate Harvard president Charles W. Eliot on the ideal college curriculum. McCosh condemned Eliot’s plan to allow students to select their classes from a list of more than two hundred offerings. It encouraged dilettantism, he argued, and, more important, destroyed the notion of a fundamental unity of knowledge, leaving everything “scattered like the star dust out of which worlds are said to have been made.”

Many thought McCosh, who was then seventy-three years old, had won the debate. But in the coming years elective courses would grow in their numbers and popularity, along with new academic subjects from agricultural science and business administration to anthropology, economics, psychology, and political science—disciplines that, ironically, often owed their origins to the great figures of “the Scottish philosophy.” But they also sounded the death knell of that older ideal of an education which, as David Hume had put it, “softens and humanizes the temper and cherishes those fine emotions, in which true virtue and honour consists,” and which Witherspoon had said promoted “the order and perfection of humanity.”

Like Witherspoon, McCosh had seen the goal of education as producing a strong Christian as well as an educated man. That ideal, too, was fading, in an intellectual climate that had become more secular and skeptical. The Scottish school’s faith in a universal common sense, and in the solid reality of the world around us, began to sound naive—especially when scientists, including the Scottish physicist James Maxwell, were showing that that reality might not be so predictable and knowable after all. American philosophers were starting to turn to French and German thinkers such as Kant, Hegel, and Auguste Comte—and still later and even more disturbingly, Karl Marx.

When McCosh retired in 1888, the Scottish tradition, to which he had dedicated so much of his life, was already on the retreat in the intellectual frontiers across America and Europe. Before it faded, however, it had created the American liberal arts college and the American university. Its offspring would increase with the years, often without acknowledging their patrimony. But the Princeton Class of 1889 made up for all of them, when it unanimously asked that former President McCosh’s name be inscribed on their diplomas, along with his successor’s. When he met their delegation in the front hall of his house, McCosh listened to their request, quickly dabbed at his eyes, and called to his wife. She listened, took her husband’s handkerchief from the pocket of his clerical frock coat for her own eyes, and said tenderly, “Jamie, yer lads are nae for forgettin’ ye.”


The Scottish influence in nineteenth-century America was a matter of muscle as well as mind. Scots and Ulster Scots immigrants had created the first American frontier along the eastern slopes of the Appalachians and Alleghenies. After the American Revolution, their descendants helped to extend and govern the result—Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, James K. Polk, Jim Bowie, Daniel Boone, William Clark (of the Lewis and Clark expedition), Sam Houston, and General Winfield Scott, whose grandfather fought at Culloden.

Then, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, a second, much larger wave of emigration left Scotland for the United States, this time including numbers of skilled workers from the Lowlands, as well as impoverished Highlanders fleeing the clearances and the great cholera epidemic. By the early 1840s Scotland was in the grip of “Amerimania, ” as Glasgow-based ship companies such as the Cunard line established regular routes to New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and even, for a time, New Orleans. A popular Scottish song captured the mood of those setting out from Glasgow or Greenock for a new future:

To the West, to the West, to the land of the free;

Where the mighty Missouri rolls down to the sea;

Where the man is a man even though he must toil,

And the poorest may gather the fruits of his toil.

Not everyone headed west to the mighty Missouri. Thousands found employment in eastern seaboard cities, where their job skills, along with their frugal work habits, made them popular with employers. As early as the 1790s the incipient American industrial base came to rely on Scottish engineers, mechanics, and workers to set up its cotton mills, maintain and repair its steam-engine pumps, and operate its power looms. A textile worker from Paisley quickly discovered that he or she could work the same hours in a factory in Massachusetts and earn far more money, with a lower cost of living. This is what emigration guidebooks meant when they said North America was “the best poor man’s country” because “the price of grain is very low and the price of labor very high.” In addition, factory owners often employed their Scottish immigrant workers to teach the Americans proper work skills and habits—which meant a Scottish worker soon found himself managing the factory floor.

The confidence in Scottish workers extended to women workers. In 1853 an agent for Hadley Falls Mills in Massachusetts recruited eighty-two unmarried women mill workers from Glasgow, while one in Holyoke Mills hired sixty-seven. In a couple of months they had earned enough to pay off their entire transatlantic fare and buy themselves some new clothes and shoes. For a Scot in the United States, a factory job was always a stepping-stone to something else, to something better.

Scots poured into shipbuilding yards in Philadelphia, iron foundries in Pittsburgh, stonecutting quarries in New England and Ohio, and papermaking factories in New York. The entire typemaking industry in New York City was said to be largely a Scottish monopoly. Others became pioneers in the new dry-goods industry, where by the Civil War a new technique of merging all the different aspects of the trade under one roof emerged. The department store was essentially a French invention, but Scots, both in Britain and the United States, made it profitable on a new scale. David Nicholson in Philadelphia, Dugald Crawford in St. Louis, Robert Borthwick in Buffalo, Robert Dey in Syracuse, John Forbes in Kansas City, Carson Scott in Chicago, William Donaldson in Minneapolis, and Alexander Stewart in New York City all founded department stores that helped to revolutionize the retail business in the United States. They were not only businessmen but civic leaders: pillars of the local chamber of commerce, members of the Masonic Lodge, presidents of the local chapter of the St. Andrew’s Society, serving on the boards of hospitals and universities, rebuilding the city’s Presbyterian churches, and providing funds for a new city hall or school. They were essential links between business enterprise and the rest of the community. They truly represented the “human face” of American capitalism.

Other immigrants settled in Illinois (two of the original founders of Chicago were Scots, John Kinzie and Alexander White), Ohio, and the upper Midwest. But large numbers were drawn farther out, to the Pacific Northwest (Scottish-born Robert Stuart blazed the original Oregon Trail), Utah (the earliest Mormon missionaries were Scottish-born Presbyterian converts), and above all California. In 1814 California’s very first non-Hispanic, non-Indian resident was a Scottish sailor named John Gilroy. By 1830 there were fifty Scottish families living in California, and as early as 1839 Alexander Forbes, a Scottish merchant in Tepic in Mexico, was urging colonization of California—by Britain. George Simpson, top-hatted executive of the Hudson’s Bay Company, agreed. “English it must become,” he said of California. “Either Great Britain will introduce her well-regulated freedom of all classes and colours, or the people of the United States will inundate the country with their own peculiar mixture of helpless bondage and lawless insubordination.”

In the end, the “lawless insubordination” did win out, but not the forces for slavery. California’s multicultural mix, with whites, Spanish Creoles, Hawaiians, and Native Americans posed no problem for Scots. Scottish-descended mountain men such as Kit Carson and Isaac Graham came from Kentucky and Tennessee to live, trade, play, and quarrel with Spaniard, Indian, and Englishman alike. Hugh Reid was the sandy-haired, blue-eyed son of a Cardross shopkeeper who emigrated to Los Angeles in 1834 and became partners with James McKinley. Reid married the daughter of a local chief, opened a school for boys, and dubbed himself Don Perfecto Hugo Reid. He soon owned one of the largest haciendas in California, the Rancho Santa Anita, which covered most of present-day Pasadena. He sat in California’s constitutional convention when it became a state, and led the fight to bring it into the union as a free state. He also called the white settlers’ treatment of the Indians “the shame of this country and a disgrace” and became a leading defender of Indian rights and interests until his death in 1852.

Then, in January 1848, a Scottish immigrant named James Wilson Marshall was inspecting the mill race of John Sutter’s mill not far from San Francisco, when “my eye was caught by something shining in the bottom of the ditch. . . . I reached my hand down and picked it up. It made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold. The piece was about half the size and shape of a pea. Then I saw another. . . .” Marshall raced back to the mill, shouting, “Boys, I believe I have found a gold mine.”

So he had. The California Gold Rush not only brought thousands of new residents, including Scots, but also changed the very nature of success in America. It offered instant wealth for the asking—by 1857, total production of gold reached over $500 million, almost all of it going to private individuals. Riches, for those who were quick or cunning or lucky enough to find them, became the promise of California and the West.

For example, the Donahoe brothers were actually of Irish ancestry, but born and raised in Glasgow. Michael was the first to come to America in 1831, to work with his uncle in New York. All three brothers, Michael, Peter, and James, then went to work for a locomotive builder in Paterson, New Jersey, until the Gold Rush drew them to California. All three became millionaires but, as is appropriate for hardworking Scots, not as gold prospectors. Peter opened a steamship line carrying prospectors and other immigrants between San Francisco and Sacramento. He built the first steam engine for a U.S. Navy vessel on the West Coast, and the first steam locomotive in California. James and Michael became partners in the Union Iron Foundry, and while James retired, rich and satisfied, Michael opened another major foundry in Davenport, Iowa, with a sideline in steam engines and agricultural machinery. Meanwhile, Scottish engineer Andrew Hallidie designed and built San Francisco’s cable car network in 1873, a symbol of the city to this day—but also of the Scottish aptitude for engineering, transportation, and communication.

As early as the 1850s Scottish clerical missionaries such as William Ander-son of San Francisco’s First Presbyterian Church and William Scott of the Calvary Presbyterian were prophesying that the new California would become the American Utopia. Scott, who had been born in Tennessee in a log cabin and had been Andrew Jackson’s personal spiritual adviser, even saw San Francisco as the new Athens—a kind of Edinburgh on the Pacific. But the most influential of these Scottish-descended California clerics was the Methodist William Taylor, whom one historian has dubbed the John the Baptist of the Gold Rush. In addition to preaching, “California” Taylor visited the San Francisco hospital daily where men from the gold fields had been abandoned by their friends to die. He organized revival meetings along the Long Wharf every Sunday, where hundreds would gather to sing hymns and hear him preach on a passage from Scripture particularly appropriate for Californians: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

In 1854 San Francisco became famous for another reason. The Flying Cloud arrived in harbor from New York, having made the trip in eighty-nine days and eight hours—a world record. The Flying Cloud was built by Donald McKay, born in Canada of Scottish parents, whose shipyards in East Boston were the nursery of the great clipper ships of the age. “If great length, sharpness of ends, with proportionate breadth and depth conduce to speed,” wrote Duncan Maclean of the Boston Daily Atlas, “the Flying Cloud must be uncommonly swift.” She certainly was. Running 225 feet long and 41 feet wide, with iron straps stretched over her hull’s planks for more durability, the Flying Cloud set the Cape Horn world speed record not once but twice.

In the decades before steam “annihilated distance” in transoceanic travel, the McKay clippers could sail more than four hundred miles a day. They opened up the oceans to a new pattern of world trade, as did those of his Scottish competitors. Scottish-built China clippers became legends, such as the Thermopylae of William Thompson’s White Star Line from Aberdeen, and the Cutty Sark, built in Dumbarton in 1869, which started in the tea trade but then broke into the Australian wool trade as the fastest ship in the world, steam or no steam. Meanwhile, McKay’s nautical masterpieces, such as the Lightning and the Great Republic, the biggest clipper ship ever built, connected the United States from east to west, from Boston and New York to San Francisco, before the railroads drew the coasts together with rails of iron.

Even before the railroads, however, the American continent became connected in another, perhaps more important way.

Samuel Finley Breese Morse was an accomplished portrait painter living in New York City. Like other Americans of Scottish origins or ancestry,44 such as Charles Willson Peale and Gilbert Stuart, he found portrait painting the perfect combination of artistic expression and good business. He painted the rich and famous, including President James Monroe; Morse also helped to found the National Academy of Design. To make even more money, he began experimenting with a new science the English and French had pioneered, the field of telegraphy. In 1834 Morse devised a system for transmitting messages electrically by wire, using a series of dots and dashes to represent each letter. The Morse telegraph, and Morse code, made a system of long-distance communication possible; a message could travel, without danger of being lost or destroyed, over thousands of miles in a matter of hours rather than months. He laid out a line between Baltimore and Washington in 1844, and sent the first true long-distance message. Ten years later America was covered with over 23,000 miles of telegraph wire. Laden with money and honors, Morse became a pillar of the New York community. He even ran for mayor twice. He had developed the ancestor of all forms of modern electronic communication, from satellites and television to radio and the telephone.

Alexander Graham Bell grew up in Edinburgh and was educated in Edinburgh High School and Edinburgh University. His family had built a reputation as experts on communication with the human voice; the old Scottish obsession with correct English pronunciation had spawned an entire industry devoted to elocution, phonetics, and speech. His father Alexander Melville Bell had developed a “visible speech system,” which he hoped would be the prototype of a universal phonetic alphabet. His son, in turn, invented a method for teaching the hearing-impaired to speak (Bell’s mother was deaf, as was his future wife), before the family emigrated to Canada in 1870.

In 1865, as telegraph wires connected the American continent from California to the east coast, and the transcontinental railroad was nearing completion, the eighteen-year-old Alex had conceived the possibility of the electrical transmission of actual human speech, not just dots and dashes on a keyed device. In the summer of 1874 he laid out his theory to his father at their house in Brantford, Ontario. “If I could make a current of electricity vary in intensity precisely as the air varies in intensity during the production of sound,” he concluded, “I should be able to transmit speech telegraphically.”

Others were working on similar devices, and some aspects of Bell’s original design were already in experimental use. As usual, however, with Scottish scientists and engineers, it was his ability to organize and systematize the ideas of others, and beat them to the punch, that ultimately paid off. In 1875 Bell was teaching at the Boston School for the Deaf—among his students was Helen Keller—when he and his friend Thomas Watson devised a telephone, or “harmonic telegraph,” which transmitted sounds over a wire. His patent application went on file at the United States Patent Office on February 14, 1876—just two hours before his leading competitor took the first step in filing his own. On March 10, Bell and Watson spoke to each other for the first time from different rooms. Bell showed his device at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, and the following year he was talking from Boston to New York, using the Western Union Company’s telegraph wires. In 1878 President Rutherford B. Hayes (the third U.S. president of Scottish descent) installed the first telephone in the White House. By the 1880s it was becoming a familiar instrument to residents in New York, Boston, and Chicago.

What appealed to Bell about the telephone was that it permitted direct, personal, long-distance communication, not just station-to-station messaging, as the telegraph did. He was determined to make telephones available to everyone who could afford them, and set up his National Bell Telephone Company in 1877 to manufacture them. By then his rivals had gotten into the act. Bell had to contend with more than six hundred lawsuits from individuals and corporations such as Western Union, whose employees Elisha Gray and Thomas Edison were working on a similar device. Eventually Bell won out, securing his monopoly of patents for telephone technology.

Bell was now a rich man. By 1883, just seven years after he had unveiled his invention to the rest of the world, his net worth was nearly a million dollars. He moved his family to Washington, D.C., where, on Winfield Scott Circle, he built a magnificent home that filled an entire block, complete with electric lighting and heating. He built himself an estate in Nova Scotia, where the ocean and the mountains reminded him of his native Scotland. He continued his work with the deaf, spending over $450,000 of his own money on new research, and became president of the National Geographic Society. Bell never became as rich as a Morgan or a Rockefeller or a Carnegie. But thanks to the telephone, he was at least as well known and powerful. Bell had become one of the new breed of American businessmen: the industrial magnate.

The rise of industrial corporations such as Bell Telephone and its long-distance subsidiary, American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), signaled a radical change in the way capitalism organized itself. Big business was replacing the merchant-entrepreneur as the driving wheel of commerce: technology had spawned mass production, which in turn gave birth to a new system for meeting the demands of consumers and suppliers. That system, however, did not spring out of nowhere. It was the brainchild of another Scot, the creator of the prototype of modern corporate enterprise and the most famous self-made man of all: Andrew Carnegie.


He was born in 1835 in Dunfermline, a linen-weaving town that was also the final resting place of Robert the Bruce. The first distinct sound he could remember hearing as a child was the sound of his father’s hand loom working in the living room below his crib. Machinery would play various roles in Carnegie’s life, just as the whole range of Scotland’s past and present seems to come together in the education of this poor handloom weaver’s son.

From his maternal uncle he learned about traditional Scottish history, and acquired a lifelong love for the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the poetry of Robert Burns. His grandfather Andrew Carnegie, Sr., was the self-appointed discussion leader of the workingman’s “college” in nearby Pattiemuir, a working-class representative of the Scottish Enlightenment. “The participants,” the grandson recalled, “well fortified with malt whisky, were equal to any topic—philosophical, political, or economic, that might be presented.” His other grandfather, Thomas Morrison, came from a wealthy Edinburgh merchant family who had lost their fortune and position. Undeterred, Thomas had learned to be a shoemaker and made a snug life for himself in Dunfermline. He was also a committed Radical and a correspondent with the English reformer William Cobbett, and published numerous articles in Cobbett’s Political Register. From the one grandfather Carnegie learned his own egalitarian politics, summed up in the Scottish Radicals’ motto, “Death to privilege.” From the other he got his sense of optimism and intellectual energy, as well as a belief in education as the foundation of democracy.

In 1848 new power looms driven by Watt’s steam engine were replacing the old hand looms, so the Carnegie family left for America. Andrew was twelve when they settled in the former Fort Pitt at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, which had been renamed Pittsburgh. The town was a magnet for Scots looking for work in the coal mines, iron foundries, and lumber mills that were transforming Pittsburgh into the industrial workshop of the upper Mid-Atlantic. The Carnegies found a place to live with an aunt, who rented them two backrooms in a grim, overcrowded alley in the working-class suburb of Allegheny City. While his father took work in a textile factory, Andrew became a bobbin boy in the same factory for a dollar twenty a week. He was just a few months shy of thirteen.

Yet, like the “lad o’ parts” of popular Scottish novels of the day, Andrew Carnegie was grimly determined to better himself. That meant education. He read everything he could get his hands on, and learned Morse code. Within a year he landed a job as a messenger boy at the Atlantic and Ohio telegraph office in Pittsburgh. Most of the other young boys were also Scots or Ulster Scots, who all became successful in later life, as did their supervisor, James Douglas Reid. But Andrew outdid them all. He memorized the locations of all the office’s main customers, so he lost no time in delivering messages. He could translate the clicks of the telegraph even before they appeared on the printed tape. It was a skill bound to attract attention; and when Thomas Scott of the Western Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad learned about it, he hired Carnegie on the spot as his personal telegraph operator and secretary. The job paid thirty-five dollars a month, almost three times what his father earned after a lifetime’s experience of manual labor. When Scott asked him, “Are you native born?” Carnegie answered, “No, sir, I am a Scotchman”—a reply that, he wrote later, made him “feel as proud as ever Roman did when it was their boast to say, ‘I am a Roman citizen.’”

Carnegie’s first fortune came not in the iron or steel business, but in the railroads. He was only twenty-two when his boss moved to Philadelphia, leaving the post as supervisor of the Western Division to his young assistant. When the Civil War broke out, Carnegie moved to Washington, where he helped to create the system of military supply by rail that helped to guarantee a Union victory. At war’s end the rising young executive sank his personal savings into a new company that was manufacturing sleeping cars for passenger trains. The company owner was George Pullman. In less than a year Pullman made a fortune, as did his investor. Andrew Carnegie could count his personal worth at more than $400,000. The only question was what to invest in next.

The answer seemed obvious: steel. It was essential to railroad construction, which was clearly the key to America’s next stage in economic development, and to the military. But it was also becoming the primary material of a rising industrial civilization, for buildings, bridges, machine tools, and even household items such as cooking utensils and sewing machines. The British had dominated the steel industry for more than a century, thanks in large part to James Watt’s steam engine and J. B. Neilson’s blast furnace. Now an English scientist named Henry Bessemer had developed a new way of forging steel directly out of molten pig iron, which drastically cut the labor involved and dramatically increased the production.

Carnegie met Henry Bessemer on a trip to England in 1873, and decided his new method held the key to the future of steel. He began inspecting a neighbor’s land for a site on which to build the first Bessemer plant in North America. He bought the land and started building the plant, naming it after Edgar Thomson, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, who he assumed would be his largest customer. A collection of fellow Scots joined the Carnegie “clan” as partners in the business: his brother Tom, his cousin “Dod” Lauders, John Scott, and Gardner McCandless, as well as non-Scots such as Henry Phipps and Charles M. Schwab. Together they bought out other steelmakers and converted their businesses into Bessemer plants, all the while relentlessly finding ways to make the process simpler, quicker, and cheaper. The Scottish thoroughness and attention to cutting business costs, and willingness to take risks, paid off. In less than twenty years, by 1892, the Carnegie Steel Company was producing steel equal to one-half of the entire production of Great Britain.

This was Adam Smith’s capitalism on a truly gigantic scale. In fact, Carnegie Steel Corporation, later United States Steel, is the ancestor of the modern industrial corporation. Carnegie created a perfectly “vertically integrated” business, controlling every aspect of production from extraction of the raw iron ore and coal to the distribution of the final product, much as John Rockefeller did with Standard Oil. But Carnegie also changed the nature of division of labor, which for a hundred years Adam Smith and his disciples had understood to be the source of all productive wealth. He did this by effectively standing the relationship between business and technology on its head. Before Carnegie, business had to wait for technological advances by scientists such as Charles Macintosh (the inventor of vulcanized rubber) and engineers such as James Watt to create new products or increase production. Now the demands of production themselves would force technological change. The manager, not the engineer or the foreman or the quick-witted employee, decided by looking at his flow charts where processes could be made more efficient or pennies could be saved. The engineer and the employee followed the manager’s lead. If they did not, they were fired. It was a principle all of Carnegie’s managers and supervisors followed, such as William Jones and Charles Schwab and Henry Clay Frick. Industrial capitalism had become as simple, and as ruthless, as that.

And all the time, Carnegie and his subordinates were constantly probing, checking, and rechecking for ways to save money. It became the key to Carnegie’s way of doing business. Once he asked his friend the New York publisher Frank Doubleday how much money he made in the course of a month. Doubleday could not say; he pointed out that publishers generally drew up their balance sheet at the end of the year. “Do you know what I would do if I were in that kind of business?” Carnegie asked. “No, what?” said Doubleday. “I would get out of it,” Carnegie replied.

And by examining his records so minutely, Carnegie discovered a new principle: that the best way to cut the cost of making a product was to make more of it. He stated it clearly and simply: “Cheapness is in proportion to the scale of production. To make ten tons of steel a day would cost many times as much per ton as to make one hundred tons. . . . Thus the larger the scale of production the cheaper the product.” Carnegie had discovered “economies of scale,” an indispensable idea for modern industrial production, and for corporate capitalism generally.

Yet this hardheaded, relentless business sense was balanced by his keen, buoyant optimism. Carnegie believed not just in his own corporate future, but in the possibilities for America and the world generally. He was a keen disciple of Adam Smith, but also of Robert Burns. Burns’s refrain “a man’s a man for a’ that” constantly rang through his public pronouncements, which tended toward the radically progressive. He wrote a book called Triumphant Democracy in which he prophesied that industrial capitalism would become the great vehicle for the expansion of democratic opportunity. “The Republic may not give wealth or happiness,” he wrote, “she has not promised these. It is the freedom to pursue these, not their realization, we can claim. But if she does not make the emigrant happy or prosperous, this she can do and does do for everyone, she makes him a citizen, a man.

He often visited Scotland, where he lectured his former countrymen on the need to make Britain more democratic. He spoke to large crowds in a voice that was “occasionally marred by an American accent,” as a Scottish journalist noted, “but his feeling is always Scotch and his Americanisms soon relapse into his mother tongue.” Carnegie extolled the virtues of the American system, telling Britons, “The great error in your country is that things are just upside down. You look to your officials to govern you instead of you governing them.” He became an enthusiastic admirer of the English libertarian philosopher Herbert Spencer, who expanded Adam Smith’s belief in the virtue of free markets into an entire social philosophy. Carnegie foresaw “a new industrial world” taking shape, a world “without war or physical violence, in which through the genius of invention and the miracle of mass production, the fruits of industry would become so abundant that they could be made available to all.” The title of Carnegie’s next book summed it all up: The Gospel of Wealth. Capitalism had become a form of secular redemption; it was the final permutation of the Scottish school’s celebration of commercial society, civilization, and progress.

Unfortunately, Carnegie had to pass through a personal purgatory first. His hopes for “an industrial world without war or physical violence ” were shattered by the bloody Homestead Strike in 1892. Nine people died at his steel works at Homestead, Pennsylvania, in the worst labor violence in American history, and he was vilified across the country. Carnegie recognized his responsibility and bitterly regretted that he had allowed the response to the strike to fly out of control. “The pain I suffer increases daily,” he wrote to a friend. “[T]he Works are not worth one drop of human blood. I wish they had sunk.” But the memory of Homestead marred his public image and ruined his love affair with the steel business. In 1901 he approached the financier J. P. Morgan to ask what he would pay in order to own U.S. Steel. Morgan told him to name his price. Carnegie took a pencil and on the back of an envelope wrote the number: “$480 million.” He passed it to Morgan, who looked at it and said without hesitation, “I accept.”

Carnegie’s share came to over $300 million—in the era before income taxes, an almost unimaginable sum. In keeping with his egalitarian principles, he said, “the man who dies rich dies disgraced,” and for the next decade he set about translating that sentiment into action. Like Bell, he came to think of his fortune as public property. More than $180 million of his money went to a variety of very Scottish projects. One was building public libraries. Soon there were more than 2,800 Carnegie libraries around the world, including nearly two thousand in the United States. By the time of Carnegie’s death, the total number of readers in the United States using his free public libraries every day was estimated at 35 million. He also built 7,689 pipe organs for churches, as well as parks, swimming pools, auditoriums (such as Carnegie Hall in New York), and medical research laboratories (such as the one at New York’s Bellevue Hospital).

A very large chunk went to education, albeit only of a certain kind. Carnegie took to a new extreme Benjamin Rush’s principle that “knowledge is of little use, when confined to mere speculation.” He saw science, engineering, and vocational training as the future of American education, and refused to fund anything that strayed outside those practical bounds. “The flavor and philosophy of Poets and wise men is the sweetest of all foods,” he used to say, “but for others, not so and these the majority who must earn a living.” To Carnegie, offering a new school for petrochemical research or hydraulic engineering promised more for the future of democracy than the same old courses in Roman drama—or even philosophy, the traditional mainstay of Scottish higher education. The new president of Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson, discovered that when he approached Carnegie in the summer of 1902.

It was an important moment. The two strands of the Scottish legacy for America, already closely related, were about to briefly cross paths. One traced its origins to the Scottish Enlightenment’s vision of intellectual effort as the benchmark of progress, which Princeton University embodied and Wilson touched through his predecessors McCosh and Witherspoon. The other represented the raw human power of the Scottish diaspora, which understood progress in terms of technical know-how and good business sense. In his letter to Carnegie, Wilson leaned heavily on Princeton’s Scottish heritage: “She has been largely made by Scotsmen, being myself of pure Scots blood, it heartens me to emphasize the fact.” He saw Princeton raising a great School of Jurisprudence and Government with Carnegie’s largesse, for the training of future statesmen and jurists. However, he was willing to add this proviso: “[N]o doubt it would be wise . . . to expand the part which commerce and industry have played, and increasingly must play, in making for international as well as national peace and for the promotion of all the common interests of mankind.”

Carnegie visited Princeton, and did give generously to the school. But it was not a school of government, or a library, or even a laboratory. Instead, it was a lake. Carnegie told Wilson he wanted Princeton to have a rowing team like Harvard and Yale, in order “to take young men’s minds off football.” The fifty-acre body of water known as Lake Carnegie was the result. That, and nothing else. The two strands of Scotland’s legacy had met, and retreated in mutual incomprehension.


The intellectual legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment in America was nearly spent. But its practical scientific side seemed to be just getting started. While Carnegie and Woodrow Wilson were parting company, two other men were organizing a momentous experiment in Washington, D.C., along the banks of the Potomac. They were Alexander Graham Bell and Samuel Langley. They had met at the Smithsonian Institution, where Langley was executive secretary, and which had been turned from an antiquarian curiosity shop into an important center for scientific and engineering research by another son of Scottish immigrants, Joseph Henry.45 Langley had told Bell about his new idea of creating a heavier-than-air machine that could fly. Bell was enthusiastic, and gave Langley five thousand dollars for more research. On May 6, 1896, Langley made his attempt at unmanned flight, with his steam-powered Aerodrome V. It flew for nearly half a mile before it settled into the waters of the Potomac. Langley and his team winched it out of the river and set it off on another successful trip, the first airplane flight ever recorded on film. The man handling the camera was none other than Bell himself. Afterward he wrote, “No one who was present on this interesting occasion could have failed to recognize that the practicability of mechanical flight had been demonstrated.”

Manned flight was next. On October 7, 1903, Bell and Langley assembled their team for a test flight with a pilot, once again along the Potomac River. This time, however, it failed. A second attempt on December 8 failed also. Then, on December 18, they read in the newspaper that the day before, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright had flown a machine 120 feet with Orville on board. The Wright brothers had taken the laurels for the first successful manned flight. But in 1914 a pilot did manage to fly Bell and Langley’s airplane, and Bell himself went on to make new discoveries and devise new inventions (including, in 1918, a speed-record-breaking hydrofoil). A new era of modern technological progress had opened up, along with a whole new way to realize the Scottish dream of creating communication and exchange between human beings. The Wright brothers deserve the credit for the first manned, powered flight. But it is significant that when the Smithsonian Institution decided to build a display for the first airplane, it hung up Bell and Langley’s prototype instead.

When Samuel Morse had sent his first telegraphic message from Baltimore to Washington in 1844, the words he chose came from the Bible: “What hath God wrought?” The words have since seemed prophetic, expressing the sense of astonishment, almost foreboding, at how the world would change over the next century and a half, thanks to technology and the industrial age. From that point of view, he could have sent a slightly different message:

“What have Scotsmen wrought?”

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