If Malcolm Gladwell is right that the cultural legacy of the Scots-Irish explains the poor outcomes experienced by people in southeastern Kentucky, how do we explain the exceptional success of these same people in Pittsburgh?

One answer to this conundrum is this one: “Cultural legacy explanations are garbage.”

That’s the Politically Correct answer, but it’s also silly. Even if, in human societies, culture doesn’t eat strategy for breakfast, it doesn’t work the other way around, either. Culture is very powerful. It’s just that it’s not determinative – culture isn’t fate. Everything depends on the environment to which the culture plays out (i.e., in this case the places the Scots-Irish families migrated to) and the determination – or lack of it – to fit in and succeed in that new environment.

The Scots-Irish who ended up in Pittsburgh discovered that they were a small minority in a city dominated by people of English and German stock. And then it got worse – Pittsburgh was America’s fastest-growing city during the Industrial Revolution, and as waves of Irish and Italian immigrants swept into the city, the Scots-Irish became even smaller minorities.

As a modest minority who had no chance of dictating cultural norms, the Scots-Irish had little choice but to adapt their culture to the majority culture of the city. The unhappy alternative, after all, was to become Pittsburgh’s permanent “white trash.”

At the same time, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and Pittsburgh’s central role in it, the Pittsburgh Scots-Irish had every incentive to get with the program, because it was possible to become very rich and very powerful in that world if you didn’t allow unproductive cultural traits to get in your way.

Consider the Mellon family, perhaps the epitome of the successful Western Pennsylvania Scots-Irish. They maintained the legacy of focusing on their own family, but jettisoned the unhelpful part about not trusting anyone else. Andrew Mellon became the world’s wealthiest man by trusting large numbers of young, untried entrepreneurs in whose ideas he invested.

And the focus on family is nowhere in American history better exemplified than in old Judge Tom Mellon’s extraordinary Letters to My Sons, a charming and moving collection of hundreds of letters the old man wrote to his five sons over the course of many years. All five became wealthy and, as noted, Andrew outdid them all.

It’s interesting to note in this regard that Thomas Mellon’s focus on family paralleled that of another remarkable family, the Rothschilds. Mayer Rothschild, like Judge Tom, was a successful man, though not compared to his sons. And Mayer, like Judge Tom, had five sons and sent them out into the world to thrive and create additional wealth. These sons were sent off to Frankfurt, London, Paris, Naples and Vienna, while the Mellon sons were sent off to American cities and states. But the results were similar.

In fact, it seems likely that the Rothschilds and the Mellons were the world’s two most powerful families of their day – and possibly of any day before or since – given the vast scale of their wealth and their impact on their broader societies. Andrew Mellon, for example, was Secretary to the Treasury under three US Presidents. (Or, as the family prefers to put it, “Andrew was the Secretary under whom three Presidents served.”)

Yes, yes, I’m aware of the powerful Italian families that dominated the Renaissance. The Medicis, for example, produced three popes and served as bankers to England’s Edward IV in the fifteenth century (a project they would live to regret). But the world was a much smaller place in the fifteenth century than it was in the nineteenth, and much easier to dominate.

Compare this extraordinary success with the rather different outcomes experienced by the Scots-Irish residents of Harlan, Kentucky and, indeed, throughout southeastern Kentucky and Appalachia in general. Why the difference?

Back in the old country the Scots-Irish had been hassled for generations by the Church of England and the Catholic Scottish and Irish. Naturally enough, when they migrated to America they were looking to be left alone. And, in the almost-impenetrable mountains of Appalachia, once the Native American tribes had been subdued and expelled (especially the  Cherokee, Shawnee and Chickasaw), solitude is exactly what they got.

To this very day no significant in-migration has occurred in those hills, with the result that the Scots-Irish were both the dominant culture and virtually the only culture. They could indulge the worst aspects of their cultural legacy from the old country because there was nobody around to call them on it and because there was no enticement luring them to change – the Industrial Revolution completely bypassed Appalachia.

As an ironic aside, the Kentucky Scots-Irish even surrendered their beloved Presbyterianism. The American Presbyterian Church had high standards for their ministers in those days, establishing Princeton University in 1746 to train their clergy. As a result there weren’t nearly enough ministers to man every tiny church in every hollow in Kentucky. (And you couldn’t travel, say, from Jackson to Barbourville to attend church services – you’d have to leave on Thursday.)

Fortunately for the hill people, the Methodists and Baptists had much more sensible ideas about the educational levels of their clergy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many ministers in these denominations had, in fact, little formal education at all, but simply apprenticed under other ministers. As a result, though, there were a lot of them. By the 1920s almost all the Scots-Irish in Kentucky had abandoned Presbyterianism and were either Baptists (as, I believe, was the case in J.D. Vance’s family) or Methodists (as in the case of my family).

In any event, as the decades and generations went by in Harlan, Kentucky (and in Jackson and Barbourville, Kentucky), the cultural legacy of the Scots-Irish expressed itself in all its worst aspects: lack of trust in anyone except family, hatred for government or any authority, a hair-triggered temper prone to sudden violence. The hill culture became a kind of caricature of the Scots-Irish legacy, almost less of a societal subgroup and more of a cult. How was that likely to play out in middle class Ohio? We’ll see next Friday

Next up: On Hillbilly Elegy, Part 5

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