When you come to Glasgow, you might wonder at Saint Paul’s assertion that, “the wages of sin is death”—and not because of the famously gloomy weather or the dreary, coal-stained sandstone of the buildings. Nor because of the crime, violence, and drug addiction that have afflicted the less fortunate of this city for as long as anyone can recall. But because the vast wealth at the other end of the social scale found its origins and the personal security of its descendants in the early trans-Atlantic tobacco trade.
And not because tobacco has fallen out of fashion and favor in the last 50 years. As an American, you might quibble over the sharp business practices of the self-styled Glasgow Tobacco Lords that were designed to drive planters like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as close as possible to the edge of bankruptcy (in Virginia and the Carolinas, the chronic debts owed to the Scots had as much as anything to do with the revolutionary ardor of the times).
And you might quibble at the practices of Tobacco Lords like William Cunninghame, who anticipated the break with the colonies and bought up every dried leaf between the Chesapeake and the European Continent (although multiplying prices to take advantage of mass addiction in times of drought sounds as American as apple pie and Rockefeller oil).
But the cultivation of tobacco in the labor-starved colonies required slavery. And far from simply ignoring the fact while profiting off the results, the Glasgow Lords leapt in to organize, outfit, and finance the boatloads of half-dead human beings delivered to auction houses throughout the English-speaking Americas. The infamous Triangle Trade begat a Glaswegian financial paradise.
Slaving might have been one of the world’s oldest professions, but the American version added a new and rather insidious wrinkle. In earlier practices, from Rome to the Ottoman Empire, you generally needed to lose a war to be taken. Even then, only yourself landed in chains—your children would be as free as any other citizen of the empire. But in America, it was decided that any child of a slave mother—whether through rape, forced intercourse, or whatever, and regardless of the father’s status—would be born a slave. Generations of planters would be taught to think nothing of buying and selling their own children.
Ironically, just as it did in the young United States, slavery and its financial desserts allowed the Scots to finance the struggle for human rights and independence from the English King and to underwrite the philosophies of freedom-loving individualists like Adam Smith and the faculty of the renowned Glasgow University. And to build vast, ugly homes (or was it mausolea?) like the mansion depicted here, which would eventually morph into Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art.
William Cunninghame and his partners all died wealthy and content in their beds. Today, you have to dig deep into the history books (and forget the tourist guides) to find even a hint of their worst crimes. But their legacy lives on in civil war, Jim Crow, sharecropping, segregation, race riots, freedom rides, assassinations, protest movements, and even kneeling football players.
Somewhere, someone should be paying something for all of that.