The Revolutionary Period in America

Henry Jones Ford

Although in the eighteenth century the ocean made a vast separation in space between the two countries, the sense of political communion between Ireland and America was very close. They had interests in common that excited strong political sympathy. Both were dependencies of the British Crown; both resented the claims of the English Parliament to legislate for them, particularly in the matter of taxation; both were addicted to constitutional arguments on such subjects, and an issue of the kind in either country attracted close attention in the other. The active part which the Scotch-Irish took in the American Revolution was a continuation of popular resistance to British policy that began in Ulster. In 1771 the counties of Antrim and Down were thrown into disorder by rackrenting practices of landlords, in which the Marquis of Donegal, an absentee landlord, took the leading part; as leases expired he made exactions for renewal so exorbitant that the total is estimated at $500,000. The tenant farmers were utterly unable to pay so they were dispossessed, losing the value of their improvements. What is known as the Steelboy insurrection resulted. Its subsidence was attributed by the English historian Lecky

"to the great Protestant emigration which had been long taking place in Ulster. The way had been opened, and the ejected tenantry, who formed the Steelboy bands and who escaped the sword and the gallows, fled by thousands to America. They were soon heard of again. In a few years the cloud of civil war which was already gathering over the colonies burst, and the ejected tenants of Lord Donegal formed a large part of the revolutionary armies which severed the New World from the British Crown."

In 1771 Benjamin Franklin visited Dublin where he conferred with some of the leaders of the Irish National party, at that time a Protestant organization. "I found them," he wrote, "disposed to be friends of America, in which I endeavored to confirm them with the expectation that our growing weight might in time be thrown into their scale, and by joining our interests with theirs, a more equitable treatment from this nation [England] might be obtained for themselves as well as for us." Franklin recommended that if possible an exception should be made in favor of Ireland in carrying out the non-importation agreement of the American colonies. This was found to be impracticable but the Continental Congress was sufficiently concerned about the matter to make an apology. The address to the people of Ireland, adopted on July 28, 1775, declared:

"Permit us to assure you, that it was with the utmost reluctance we could prevail upon ourselves to cease our commercial connexion with your island. Your Parliament had done us no wrong. You had ever been friendly to the rights of mankind; and we acknowledge with pleasure and gratitude, that your nation has produced patriots, who have nobly distinguished themselves in the cause of humanity and America. On the other hand we were not ignorant that the labor and manufactures of Ireland, like those of the silkworm, were of little moment to herself; but served only to give luxury to those who neither toil nor spin. We perceived that if we continued our commerce with you, our agreement not to import from Britain would be fruitless, and were, therefore, compelled to adopt a measure to which nothing but absolute necessity would have reconciled us. It gave us, however, some consolation to reflect, that should it occasion much distress, the fertile regions of America would afford you a safe asylum from poverty, and, in time, from oppression also; an asylum, in which many thousands of your countrymen have found hospitality, peace and affluence, and become united to us by all the ties of mutual interest and affection."

Benjamin Franklin was a member of the Committee on Trade appointed by the Continental Congress in 1775. Its report submitted on October 2, 1775, set forth that:

"The Cessation of the American Trade with Ireland originated in Policy dictated by Principles of self Preservation and may be attended with Distress to a People who have always manifested a Noble Regard to the Rights of Mankind and have ever been friendly to these much injured Colonies."

The committee then recommended that the non-intercourse agreement be relaxed to the extent that "our Friends and Fellow Subjects in Ireland should be admitted to take Flax seed from these Colonies in Exchange for all such Powder and other military Stores and woolen Yarn of their Manufacture as they shall bring to America."

This attitude of good will was cordially reciprocated in Ireland and it was manifested in the Irish Parliament, notwithstanding the controlling influence assiduously maintained by the English Government. Usually the address to the Throne at the opening of Parliament passed unopposed but at the session of October, 1775, an amendment was proposed and was warmly advocated, strongly urging the necessity of "conciliatory and healing measures for the removal of the discontent which prevails in the colonies."

The amendment was defeated by ninety-two to fifty-two. Harcourt, then the viceroy of Ireland, was much displeased by the vigor with which the amendment was supported, particularly since more than half of the members abstained from voting. Many of these owed their seats to government influence, and therefore felt themselves precluded by the received code of parliamentary honor from voting against the Ministers. Hence their abstention indicated American sympathies and made the Government victory merely nominal. In his report to the English Government Harcourt wrote that: "The Opposition to the King's Government in this country . . . are daily gaining strength upon this ground." He added that "the Presbyterians in the North (who in their hearts are Americans) are gaining strength every day." In a later report Harcourt complained of "the violent opposition made by the Presbyterians to the measures of Government" and he described them as "talking in all companies in such a way that if they are not rebels, it is hard to find a name for them."

It can hardly be doubted that the political ideas derived from Irish experience and poured into the colonies by Ulster immigration exerted a powerful influence in moulding American institutions. The principles involved were however but the staples of the English constitutional system. The chief objects of the Irish National party, during the period of Protestant ascendency, were short Parliaments, secure tenure of judicial authority, and a habeas corpus act. In those things no more was sought than England enjoyed. The struggle was against peculiar privations to which Ireland was subject. The duration of a Parliament in England was limited to seven years; in Ireland there was no limit and a Parliament had been known to continue for thirty-three years. In England judges held office during good behavior; in Ireland, at the pleasure of the Crown. The writ of habeas corpus was not allowed in Ireland, although it was the ordinary privilege of the subject in England.

As early as 1768 the English Government made a concession on the Parliament issue by approving a bill limiting the term to eight years, but the Ministers did not yield on the other points until Ireland was up in arms and they were powerless to resist. The English Government then yielded to Ireland what it had refused to America. The old system of commercial restriction was abolished, the writ of habeas corpus was granted, the permanent tenure of judicial authority was established, and the legislative independence of Ireland was acknowledged. All those concessions were results of the American war. It does not fall within the province of this work to trace the history of Ulster since this period. It may be noted however that the most determined opposition to English rule over Ireland, up to the period when England and Ireland were united under the jurisdiction of one legislature, the Parliament of the United Kingdom, came from Ulster. The United Irishmen movement, which was the prelude to the rebellion of 1798, started in Belfast, and the chief strength of the rebellion was in Ulster. The union of Ireland with England was originally intensely unpopular in Ulster, but with the removal of commercial disabilities and with enlarged opportunities of trade, Ulster has become so reconciled to the union that it has been a centre of violent opposition to the movement in favor of home rule for Ireland.

The particular source of the ideas that presided over American constitution making was the political experience of English dependencies during the eighteenth century. Scotland, Ireland and the American colonies had the same general grievances and the same general attitude of constitutional protest against English policy. It is a significant circumstance that James Boswell, although indulging an almost abject admiration of the massive old Tory, Dr. Samuel Johnson, could not follow him in antipathy to the American colonists. Boswell's own Toryism could not escape modification through his Scottish environment. Such considerations make intelligible the extraordinary political career of Dr. John Witherspoon, brought from Scotland in 1768, to become President of the College of New Jersey. He was a member of the New Jersey Provincial Congress in 1776; member of the Continental Congress, 1776-83; signer of the Declaration of Independence, 1776; member of the New Jersey Senate, 1780; member of the New Jersey Assembly, 1783; member of the New Jersey constitutional convention, 1789. These political activities he combined with incessant activity as an educator and continual occupation as a clergyman. In one of his political articles he observed that "a man will become an American by residing in the country three months." The constitutional ideas which the Americans asserted in opposition to the policy of the British Ministry they brought with them whether they came from England, Scotland or Ireland. But the general conviction was intensified among the Scotch-Irish by deep resentment of the injuries they had sustained from English rule. "They went," says the English historian Lecky, "with hearts burning with indignation, and in the War of Independence they were almost to a man on the side of the insurgents."

Hence it was noted early in the American struggle that the Scotch-Irish were peculiarly energetic, united and formidable in their opposition to British policy. John Hughes, who was appointed Distributer of Stamps for Pennsylvania, in a report under date of October 12, 1765, said:

"Common justice calls upon me to say, the body of people called Quakers, seemed disposed to pay obedience to the Stamp Act, and so do that part of the Church of England and Baptists, that are not some way under Proprietary influence. But Presbyterians and Proprietary minions spare no pains to engage the Dutch and lower class of people, and render the royal government odious."

In September, 1765, writing to Benjamin Franklin, then in England, Hughes remarked: "When it is known that I have received my commission, I fancy I shall not escape the storm of Presbyterian rage." At that time Franklin himself was inclined to submit to the Stamp Act.

Joseph Galloway, than whom there could be no better informed witness, held that the underlying cause of the American Revolution was the activity and influence of the Presbyterian interest. Galloway was an eminent Philadelphia lawyer and an intimate friend of Benjamin Franklin, who on going to England as agent of the Province left his private and public papers in Galloway's charge. Galloway entered the Provincial Assembly in 1757, continuing a member until the Revolution. From 1766 to 1774 he was the Speaker of the Assembly. He was a member of the first Continental Congress in 1774, and was active in the measures taken to obtain redress of colonial grievances. He was not however willing to go to the length of actual rebellion and when the Declaration of Independence was issued he went over to the Loyalist side. He went to England in 1778 where he was active in spreading information about the American situation, advocating redress of grievances and a settlement of differences between the mother country and the colonies. Galloway's course can not be attributed to self-interest, as in maintaining his English allegiance he abandoned estates which were estimated to be worth £40,000. He never returned to America. In 1788 his property was confiscated by the Pennsylvania Legislature, but a large portion was eventually restored to his daughter.

Galloway, whose attitude to the English Government was that of the candid friend, held that it was the Presbyterians who supplied to colonial resistance a lining without which it would have collapsed. In testimony before a committee of the House of Commons in 1779 he declared that at the beginning of the revolt not one-fifth of the people "had independence in view" and that in the army enlisted by the Continental Congress "there were scarcely one-fourth natives of America,—about one-half Irish, the other fourth were English and Scotch."

In 1780 Galloway published in London his Historical and Political Reflections, in which he gave the inside history of the American revolt. His account is too important and significant to be summarized, and a verbatim extract is given in Appendix E. According to Galloway the revolt derived its formidable character from the organized activity of the Presbyterians. His use of the term includes the New England Congregationalists, but the creation of an organization of continental scope he expressly imputes to the leadership of the Pennsylvania Presbyterians who were mostly Scotch-Irish.

This is a view of the origin of the American war quite different from that which has been adopted by popular history, too intent upon dramatic effects to give much consideration to what is going on behind the scenes to produce those effects. But Galloway speaks from abundant personal observation of the springs of action and the purpose of his argument is such as to repel any suspicion as to the sincerity of his opinion. He is arguing in favor of redressing the legitimate grievances of the American colonies, holding that in this way the revolt may be ended and peace restored. Analyzing the situation from this point of view he could have no disposition to exaggerate obstacles to the policy he was commending, and his point is that although what he calls the Presbyterian faction is an implacable element, yet by judicious measures it may be so isolated and its influence so restricted that it will be unable to maintain the struggle for independence. He said:

"Sincerely disposed, as the greater part of the people in America are, to be more firmly united with Great Britain on constitutional principles, is it not much to be lamented, that the British legislature, seeing the defect in its constitutional authority over the Colonies and knowing that it is the great foundation of their discontent, have not taken it into their serious consideration, and adopted the measure most proper for removing it? Had this been done in the beginning of the opposition to the authority of Parliament, the republican faction must have been destitute of the means by which they have inflamed the minds of the Americans, and led them to a revolt. But I am not fond of dwelling on past errors, further than is necessary to amendment. It is not now too late, arid perhaps all circumstances considered, this is the most proper time for doing it."

His opinion is strongly corroborated by the wide diffusion of Loyalist sentiment in the colonies, the accessible facts in regard to which are collated in Sabine's American Loyalists. Of the thirty-seven newspapers published in the colonies in April, 1775, seven or eight were openly Loyalist, and twenty-three championed the Whig interest, but no less than five went over to the Loyalist side during the war. A distinguished New Jersey Loyalist declared that "most of the colleges had been the grand nurseries of rebellion" but he may have been unduly impressed by his proximity to Princeton, which was a centre of Whig influence under the presidency of Witherspoon. Upward of one hundred and fifty persons educated at Harvard or some other institution of learning were among the Loyalists. In a number of Massachusetts towns, among them Marshfield, Freetown, Worcester and Sandwich, the Loyalists were strong enough to form associations to oppose the Whigs. In Boston itself the opponents of the Whigs, known as "the Protesters," were upward of one hundred and they included eminent citizens. When the British evacuated Boston upward of 1100 Loyalists left at the same time. Sabine says: "Of members of the council, commissioners, officers of the customs and other officials there were 102; of clergymen 18; of inhabitants of country towns, 105; of merchants and other persons who resided in Boston, 213; of farmers, mechanics and traders, 382."