The Scotch-Irish

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When the Revolutionary War came, Scotch-Irishmen were the most whole hearted supporters of the American cause in each of the thirteen colonies. If before 1775 they were still regarded as aliens and immigrants, their zeal as patriots and soldiers changed all that. At home and abroad they were credited with playing a vital part in the struggle for independence. A Hessian captain wrote in 1778, “Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American rebellion; it is nothing more or less than a Scotch Irish Presbyterian rebellion.” King George was reported to have characterized the Revolution as “a Presbyterian war,” and Horace Walpole told Parliament that “there is no use crying about it. Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it.” A representative of Lord Dartmouth wrote from New York in 1776 that “Presbyterianism is really at the Bottom of this whole Conspiracy, has supplied it with Vigour, and will never rest, till something is decided upon it.” Such testimony to enthusiasm for the American cause was not given to any other group of immigrants.

Upon the conclusion of the war, when the great Ohio and Mississippi valleys were opened up and the rush westward began, sons and daughters of the original Scotch-Irishmen led the way across the mountains to the new frontiers. Theodore Roosevelt is not the only historian who suggests that the institutions, attitudes, and characteristics of these trans-Allegheny pioneers constituted the practical middle ground into which the diversities of easterners and southerners might merge into something new—American culture.

The hyphenated term “Scotch-Irish” is an Americanism, generally unknown in Scotland and Ireland and rarely used by British historians. In American usage it refers to people of Scottish descent who, having lived for a time in the north of Ireland, migrated in considerable numbers to the American colonies during the half century before the Revolutionary War. Perhaps 250,000 of them actually crossed the sea to America, and they bred rapidly; their sons, like later arrivals from Ulster, constantly extended settlements westward to the Appalachians. The mountains then sent the flow of newcomers north and especially south from Pennsylvania until they constituted a dominant element in many colonies.

Only occasionally were these people then called Scotch-Irish; the usual designation was simply “Irish.” “Scotch-Irish” is accurate, yet many Irish-American critics assert that it is an appellation born of snobbish pride and prejudice. They are not entirely wrong. During the years of immigration, from 1717 to 1775, none of the newcomers seem to have insisted upon the “Scotch” part of the name; this insistence developed only among their descendants, and for interesting reasons.

As is well known, after the potato famines of 1845 and 1846 the Irish began to pour into the United States. These people were desperately poor; they were Roman Catholics coming to a Protestant-dominated country; they were mostly illiterate, often uncouth by American standards, and they were very visible in their concentration in Eastern cities. Prejudice against the “shanty Irish” was rampant for decades. In these very decades, antiquarian interest was quickening among Americans; local historical societies burgeoned; people looked for distinguished ancestors among their colonial forefathers. Descendants of the people from Ulster, whose grandparents had not objected to being called Irish, now preferred the hyphenated name Scotch-Irish—all the more enthusiastically because Sir Walter Scott had beguiled the nation with his romantic picture of Scots and of Scotland. A Scotch-Irish Society was founded, and its annual meetings, like its publications, boasted of notable ancestors and important contributions to the United States.∗

∗One typical list of distinguished Americans whose forebears were Scotch-Irish was published in 1920. It included the names (listed alphabetically) of Thomas Hart Benton, James G. Blaine, John C. Calhoun, John G. Carlisle, Andrew Carnegie, George Rogers Clark, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Horace Greeley, Alexander Hamilton, Mark Hanna, Samuel Houston, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, John Paul Jones, George B. McClellan, William McKinley, Oliver Hazard Perry, John D. Rockefeller Edward Rutledge, Winfield Scott, Zachary Taylor, Matthew Thornton, Anthony Wayne, and Woodrow Wilson.

The ostentatious pride of these later Scotch-Irish, and their boasts of importance to America, aroused first the anger of many Irish-Americans and then their sarcastic wit. The newly invented hyphenated name was called a cant phrase, a shibboleth, a mongrel absurdity, a delusion; and the Scotch-Irish Society was proclaimed “an organized humbug.” One Irish-American, in a waggish poem entitled “The Gathering of the Scotch-Irish Clans,” lampooned the false pretenses of Irishmen who would not admit their true origins:

Are ye gangin’ to the meetin’, to the meetin’ o’ the clans, With your tartans and your pibrochs and your bonnets and brogans? There are Neeleys Jrom New Hampshire and Mulligans from Maine, McCarthys from Missouri and a Tennessee McShane.

There follows a succession of straight Irish names, and the satire ends: