The Scotch-Irish: A Survey and an Appreciation

Henry Jones Ford

From time to time objections have been raised to the term "Scotch-Irish." In his Dutch and Quaker Colonies, John Fiske says:

"The name Scotch-Irish is an awkward compound, and is in many quarters condemned. Curiously enough, there is no one who seems to object to it so strongly as the Irish Catholic. While his feelings toward the 'Far-Downer' are certainly not affectionate he is nevertheless anxious to claim him with his deeds and trophies, as simply Irish, and grudges to Scotland the claim to any share in producing him. It must be admitted, however, that there is a point of view from which the Scotch-Irish may be regarded as more Scotch than Irish. The difficulty might be compromised by calling them Ulstermen, or Ulster Presbyterians."

The Century Magazine for September, 1891, contained an article by Henry Cabot Lodge on "The Distribution of Ability in the United States," in which he classified the Scotch-Irish as a distinct race-stock. This was the subject of criticism, in replying to which he said:

"I classified the Irish and the Scotch-Irish as two distinct race-stocks, and I believe the distinction to be a sound one historically and scientifically. . . . The Scotch-Irish from the North of Ireland, Protestant in religion and chiefly Scotch and English in blood and name, came to this country in large numbers in the eighteenth century, while the people of pure Irish stock came scarcely at all during the colonial period, and did not immigrate here largely until the present century was well advanced."

The term does not matter so much as the thing signified. That there is a particular breed of people in the North of Ireland introduced there by the Ulster Plantation, is indisputable. In that region itself the term Ulster Scot seems to be preferred as an appellation. The people there habitually regarded and spoke of themselves as belonging to the Scottish nation, and the term appears in Ulster documents. The term Scotch-Irish is also ancient, being the designation used in the Scottish universities for the students resorting to them from Ulster. Their Scottish character was fully recognized, but at the same time they were not of Scotland, so the Ulster student was registered as Scoto-Hibernus.

When Ulster emigration to America became noticeable it was a common practice in the colonies to speak of the arrivals as Irish. As they certainly came from Ireland the designation could not be wholly disowned, yet the arrivals strongly objected to being described as Irish. They regarded themselves as Scottish people who had been living in Ireland. The circumstances were such as naturally to engender the term Scotch-Irish, which is a sufficiently accurate description of a distinct race-stock. It is true that the Ulster Plantation was designed to be English rather than Scotch, but for reasons set forth in preceding chapters, the Plantation became a Scottish settlement into which the English ingredient was absorbed. Ulster emigration to America was distinctly Scotch-Irish in its composition. The use of the term is therefore not only justifiable but is required by accuracy of statement.

The use of that or some corresponding term is forced upon historians because it is impossible to tell the story of the American nation with any completeness without considering the Scotch-Irish. That is how John Fiske came to make the mention already cited. He was speaking of early emigrants from Germany, and he tells how some "pressed onward and spread along the Appalachian frontier." In pursuing this particular theme the truth of history compels him to bring in the Scotch-Irish, although rather abruptly. He remarks: "Here they [the Germans, from the Rhenish Palatinate] have played an important part, usually in association with a race of men of still more vigorous initiative, the so-called Scotch-Irish." And then he proceeds to give a brief account of the Ulster Plantation and Ulster emigration to the colonies as an essential feature of American history. Mr. Fiske computed that "between 1730 and 1770 more than half the Presbyterian population of Ulster came to America, where it formed more than one-sixth part of our entire population at the time of the Declaration of Independence."

Theodore Roosevelt experienced the same necessity of considering Scotch-Irish influence, in his Winning of the West. The leaders in national expansion were the backwoods mountaineers. He says that "the dominant strain in their blood was that of the Presbyterian Irish—the Scotch-Irish as they were often called." He remarks that "it is doubtful if we have wholly realized the importance of the part played by that stern and virile people, the Irish whose preachers taught the creed of Knox and Calvin"; and he declares that "the West was won by those who have been rightly called the Roundheads of the South, the same men, who, before any others, declared for American independence."

The fact has not been duly observed that upon every computation of numbers Scotch-Irish immigration far exceeded all other Puritan immigration. The Massachusetts immigration of Puritan Independents about which so much has been written, was comparatively small, as may be seen by the figures of the colonial historian Hutchinson, given in Chapter VI. of this work. He estimated the total arrivals at 21,200 men, women and children up to 1640 after which until Scotch-Irish immigration began more people left New England than arrived there. It was not until after the extensive infusion of Scotch-Irish blood that New England developed traits since regarded as characteristic. This fact is incidentally displayed by the considerations which Charles Francis Adams notes in his Massachusetts — Its Historians and Its History. He points out that the intellectual influence and literary distinction of New England are late developments. That section was once characterized by such mental sterility and moral insensibility that he designates the years from 1637 to 1760 as the glacial period. Then began the political activity that made Massachusetts prominent in the Revolutionary period; but the associations of literary culture now attaching to New England were not established until the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

Even upon such a restricted view of history as that which makes it simply a narrative of events the Scotch-Irish can not be left out. When history performs its proper function of tracing the causes which form national character and decide national destiny, the Scotch-Irish factor becomes prominent. Since American history has improved in scientific character and in philosophic spirit, it is noticeable that there has been increasing recognition of the importance of the Scotch-Irish contribution to American nationality. There are considerations, some of which will now be instanced, that indicate that this recognition will be still more enlarged in the future.

As the events of the Revolutionary period are reduced to scale, the more disproportionate they seem in relation to the vast results. In all history there appears to be no parallel instance of the founding of a great nation as an incident of controversies over constitutional principles. Insurrection and revolt were nothing new in the experience of England, but whatever the particular conclusion, the national sovereignty emerged stronger than before. It was very difficult for English statesmen to admit the idea that American independence was an actual possibility, and even after the fact was formally recognized the notion was long held that it would surely be transient. The American cause was throughout most of the Revolutionary period in a precarious state. There were sharp divisions of sentiment among the people, and the Government of the improvised confederation was never able to command even the limited resources within its jurisdiction, or to act with steady vigor. The more one studies the details of the struggle the more remarkable appears the successful issue. It seemed little less than a miracle to Washington himself, when he calmly reviewed it in later days. The affair remains a mystery until the effect of the Ulster migration is considered. Here is a factor, whose extent and activity puts it foremost in any scientific study of cause and effect. If, as Mr. Fiske computes, the Scotch-Irish population must have amounted to one-sixth of the entire population at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and remembering that they were all hot for independence while everywhere else there were streaks of cold or lukewarm feeling, there can be hardly any question as to where lay the decisive influence.

In the opinion of Lecky, who is with justice regarded as the most impartial historian of this period, the issue of the Revolutionary War once rested upon the action of the Pennsylvania line, whose "privates and non-commissioned officers consisted chiefly of immigrants from the North of Ireland." Lecky remarks, "no troops in that army had shown themselves more courageous, more patient, and more devoted." But their pay was a whole year in arrears; they were left nearly naked and destitute of provisions; their complaints had not received attention, and early in 1781 they rebelled. Although some officers were killed or wounded in attempting to suppress the mutiny, the force stuck together and acted as a disciplined body. They left camp at Morristown, about 1,300 strong, with their muskets and six field-pieces; and marched to Princeton, apparently with the intention of proceeding to Philadelphia.

The situation caused great alarm. Lecky remarks that "in the weak condition of the American forces such a body, if it had gone over to the English, might have turned the fortunes of the war." The English commanders had hopes that this might be accomplished, and there was much to encourage them for many deserters from the American army had already gone over to the British camp. But the Scotch-Irish were not of that sort. Sir Henry Clinton sent confidential messengers with offers of amnesty and payment of all arrears due them, leaving it entirely to them whether they would render military service or be discharged. The offers were rejected, the emissaries were arrested and sent to the American camp to be dealt with as spies. The mutineers kept together as a disciplined body, committed no depredations and proclaimed their loyalty to the American cause and their readiness to resume service as soon as their grievances were redressed. The affair was finally settled by a partial satisfaction of their just demands. Congress was delighted at getting out of so serious a difficulty, and a purse of one hundred guineas was made up for those who had delivered up the British emissaries. But the men who had gone to such extreme lengths to force the payment of what was due them, now refused to accept the present of money, saying that they had only done their duty. The whole affair was characteristically Scotch-Irish.

The logic of the American controversy has not worn well, and at present deeper reasons are sought for the conflict than those assigned at the time. It is now regarded as having its source in the fact that the colonies had outgrown their tutelage, and that a nationality was developing, which, to get its breath and live its life, had to burst its bonds. The manifestation of this incipient nationality was a sudden phenomenon, and it corresponds to the great increase of American population through Ulster emigration. Prior to that the colonies had been separated by intense antipathies. Now a marked unifying and nationalizing influence makes its appearance, together with an energetic movement toward territorial expansion. Prior to the Ulster emigration the population of the colonies had been stagnant and, in New England especially, even tended to decline. The Scotch-Irish immigration changed that and set in motion forces of national expansion whose attainments soon exceeded the bounds that colonial imagination dared to think possible. So late as 1775 the poetic fancy of Philip Freneau was satisfied with this modest anticipation:

The time shall come when strangers rule no more,

Nor cruel mandates vex from Britain's shore;

When commerce shall extend her shortened wing,

And her rich freights from every climate bring;

When mighty towns shall flourish free and great,—

Vast their dominions, opulent their state;

When one vast cultivated region teems

From ocean's side to Mississippi's streams.

American settlements extended beyond the Mississippi in the poet's own lifetime. Freneau died in 1832. Missouri was admitted as a State in 1821. This rapidity of national expansion beyond all early expectation is a direct consequence of Scotch-Irish immigration, and is unaccountable until that factor is considered.

This national expansion was accompanied by an industrial development quite as remarkable for the rapidity of its process. An economic transformation took place in which Scotch-Irish immigration was an influential factor. It has been noted that the development of manufactures in the first distinctively Scotch-Irish settlements in America, was so great as to excite the anxious concern of English officials in Maryland. When Ulster immigration poured into New England the culture of the potato, practically unknown there before, was introduced. Spinning and weaving were widely diffused by the same agency. In the three years prior to 1774, the number of Ulster weavers who had emigrated to America was officially computed in England to be not less than ten thousand. The rapid rise of manufactures in the first part of the nineteenth century was a development prepared mainly through Scotch-Irish influence. New England, the dominant interest in which had been navigation, experienced an industrial revolution. Important developments took place wherever the Scotch-Irish settled. The invention of the reaper, which has created a vast American industry and has worked a revolution in agricultural conditions, was an incident of Scotch-Irish occupation of the Valley of Virginia. Cyrus McCormick made his great invention by improving a mechanism originally devised by his father as a labor-saving contrivance in the work on his Rockbridge County farm.