The Scotch-Irish


With independence gained, the Scotch-Irish almost everywhere exerted a unifying, an American, influence, favoring a central government of truly united states. The very fact of their recent arrival in the country and their spread through all thirteen colonies had prevented the growth of strong ties to a particular colony and therefore of an insistent demand for states’ rights. In Pennsylvania and Virginia support by the Scotch-Irish may have been decisive in shaping state constitutions that were extraordinarily liberal for the times. In Pennsylvania power was wrested from the Philadelphia Quakers and given to the majority of the people, thanks to the combined efforts of Scotch-Irish, German, and non-Quaker English settlers in the western regions. In Virginia also, the ScotchIrish of the Shenandoah Valley strongly supported a constitution remarkable for its break with tradition—one that abolished quitrents, entails, primogeniture, and the slave trade, and guaranteed religious liberty. (It must be noted, however, that leadership for all these liberal measures came from Jefferson, Madison, and other Enerlish Virginians.)


Scotch-Irishmen struck a real blow for religious liberty in this country. In 1738 the royal governor of Virginia and the Tidewater planters actively sought to persuade newcomers to the Pennsylvania frontier to leave that crowded region and settle in the Shenandoah Valley. An ancestor of John C. Calhoun presented to Governor William Gooch a memorial drawn up by the Presbyterian Synod of Philadelphia requiring religious toleration as a prerequisite for settlement. Gooch acceded to the demand, to the benefit of Virginia and of later American freedom.

From the first, Scotch-Irishmen took an active part in politics. They were elected to office in their communities, became effective lawyers, and in significantly large numbers served in legislatures, on high courts, and as governors—though hardly because their ancestors had come from Scotland and northern Ireland. With the election of Andrew Jackson as President, the descendants of the Scotch-Irish had attained the highest office in the land, and most of them had by then ceased to emphasize their ancestry.

In education and religion it may be asserted that many American ideals and standards derive from the happy agreement of two self-assured colonial groups, the Scotch-Irish and the New England Yankees. Alone, neither people might have been weighty enough or (in the case of the Yankees) unprovincial enough to have prevailed; but their common Calvinism and earnestness gave America its first commitment to general education as well as its tendency to identify religion with upright moral character.

For both people, schools followed churches as the first institutions to be formed. The Word of God must be expounded by educated ministers, and colonists could not send their sons abroad for training. The connection between church and school, going back to the Reformation, was to remain close for descendants of both Presbyterians and Puritans until the present century. Ministers were schoolmasters as well as preachers. Curricula in ScotchIrish log schools on the frontier resembled those of the town schools in earlier New England, with training in the three R’s, the Bible, and the catechisms, while higher education was directed toward training for the ministry. The Puritans founded Harvard and Yale well before the Presbyterians established Princeton and HampdenSydney and Dickinson; but from these first colleges came a host of others, whose students were not wholly ministerial. Until the Civil War the great majority of colleges in the country were founded by religious denominations and still remained under their control. (The state’s responsibility for higher education had not yet been widely claimed.) Of the 207 permanent colleges founded before 1861, well over half were established by Presbyterians and New Englanders; and many of them were notable as “mothers” of still other colleges.