The Scotch-Irish


Millions of Americans have Scotch-Irish ancestors, for when this country gained its independence perhaps one out of every ten persons was Scotch-Irish. Few descendants among these millions, however, know much about their ancestors—about what the hyphenated name implies, where the original Scotch-Irishmen came from and why, or what part this vigorous folk played in early American history.

Millions of Americans have Scotch-Irish ancestors, for when this country gained its independence perhaps one out of every ten persons was Scotch-Irish. Few descendants among these millions, however, know much about their ancestors—about what the hyphenated name implies, where the original Scotch-Irishmen came from and why, or what part this vigorous folk played in early American history.

Because the thirteen original American colonies were English, with government in English hands and the population predominantly from England, the tendency of our history books has been to make us see colonial history as the product of transplanted Englishmen. Every American child learns about Jamestown, Pilgrims and Puritans, Tidewater planters, landed proprietors and gentry —all English; but few schoolbooks make a child aware of the non-English “first Americans.” In quite recent years our attention has been insistently called to the blacks who made up one sixth of our first census in 1790; and the very names of German, Dutch, Portuguese Jewish, and French Huguenot elements tell us who these early Americans were. But who were the Scotch-Irish?

Next to the English they were the most numerous of all colonists, with settlements from Maine to Georgia. Some historians suggest that they were “archetypal” Americans, in the sense that their ideals and attitudes, limitations and prepossessions, virtues and vices, proved to be common national characteristics of nineteenth-century Americans. If such a claim has any validity, the people themselves deserve to be more than a vague name.


To English colonists who were their neighbors from 1717 to 1775 any idea that immigrants from northern Ireland might presage future American character would have been startling if not dismaying. Few of the settled colonists had kind words for the newcomers in those days. Pennsylvania received the largest numbers of them, and James Logan, secretary to the Penn family and an Irishman himself, lamented that “the settlement of five families of [Scotch-Irishmen] gives me more trouble than fifty of any other people.” When they continued to pour into the colony, Logan, fearing that the decent Quaker element might be submerged, fumed: “It is strange that they thus crowd where they are not wanted.” Cotton Mather in Massachusetts was more forthright; he fulminated against their presence as one of “the formidable attempts of Satan and his Sons to Unsettle us.” On the eve of the Revolution a loyal English colonist declared the Scotch-Irish to be, with few exceptions, “the most God-provoking democrats on this side of Hell.”

Such initial hostility toward a wave of foreigners was to become commonplace during the next century, when America received some thirty million immigrants from Europe. By comparison with these late-comers, however, the Scotch-Irish were fortunate, since they experienced active hostility for only a brief time. Practically all of them pushed as quickly as possible to the cheap lands of the back country, where, out of sight, they no longer offended the sensibilities of English colonists by their “oddities.”

In many ways the Scotch-Irish pioneers were indeed an augury of Americans-to-be. They were probably the first settlers to identify themselves as Americans—not as Pennsylvanians or Virginians or citizens of some other colony, nor as Englishmen or Germans or any European nationality. Their daily experience of living on the outer fringe of settlement, of making small farms in the forests, of facing the danger of Indian attack and fighting back, called for qualities of self-reliance, ingenuity, and improvisation that Americans have ranked high as virtues. They were inaugurators of the heroic myth of the winning of the West that was to dominate our nineteenthcentury history. Their Presbyterian Church, with its tradition of formality in worship and its insistence upon an educated ministry, was the first denomination to make tentative, if reluctant, adjustments to the realities of frontier life. Social mixing and intermarriage with their neighbors, irrespective of national background, made any such qualifier as Scotch-Irish (or northern Irish or Ulsterman) disappear within a generation.

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:

We’ll sit upon the pint-stoup and we’ll talk of auld lang syne As we quaff the flowing haggis to our lasses’ bonnie eyne. And we’ll join the jubilation for the thing that we are not; For we say we aren’t Irish, and God knows we aren’t Scot!

(The members of the Scotch-Irish Society might have informed the satirist that one does not “quaff” haggis, a formidable pudding made with a sheep’s viscera.)

Yet for all the implicit snobbishness in the double name, it directs attention to geographical, historical, and cultural facts in the background of the Scotch-Irish people. The persistence of ancestral traits of character can be exaggerated and even given a mystical quality; but there is no doubt that tradition, ancient “sets” of mind, religious convictions, limitations of outlook, and abiding prejudices gave the Scotch-Irish qualities of personality and character that affected their life in America.

The people who began to come to America in 1717 were not Scots, and certainly they were not Irish: already they were Scotch-Irish, even though this name was rarely given them. The hyphen bespeaks two centuries of historical events, many of them tragic (“dark and drublie” was the Scottish phrase), some of them heroic. The ancestors of these people had come, in the century after 1610, from the Lowlands of Scotland across the twentymile channel to the northern province of Ireland (Ulster) as a result of a political experiment undertaken by England. It was called the Plantation of Ulster, and it was simply one of England’s many attempts to solve “the Irish problem.”

For five centuries, ever since the time of Henry II (1133–89), England had tried to rule Ireland, but the Irish refused to become docile subjects. Their resistance was intensified into bitterness when England became Protestant and tried to extirpate the Roman Catholic religion in Ireland. Finally, in Queen Elizabeth’s closing years, Irish earls in the north, after a desperate struggle, were defeated and exiled, and the Crown confiscated all their lands. James I, who followed Elizabeth in 1603, proposed (at the suggestion of Edmund Spenser and others of his counsellors) to settle this region with loyal English and Scottish Protestants who, in return for cheap land, would keep the Irish under control. Since the king had been James VI of Scotland before succeeding to the English crown, he was successful in persuading thousands of his Scottish subjects to cross to Ulster and start a new life there under advantageous economic circumstances.

Only a vivid modern imagination can conceive the squalor, indeed the near savagery, of the northern Irish counties around 1600. Queen Elizabeth called the inhabitants “the wild Irish.” She and her advisers looked upon them much as Victorians did African natives and other “lesser breeds without the law.” These Irishmen had no cities, no education, no refinements; they lived from hand to mouth at a primitive level (maintained, of course, by centuries of guerrilla fighting against the English). Their Catholic religion, a patriotic rallying point and a blessed solace, had acquired many elements of magic and superstition. Almost utter demoralization had ensued upon the defeat and exile of their leaders in the 1590’s.

The Scots who were invited (along with English Protestants) by King James to settle Ulster and subdue its natives were thus the first Scotch-Irishmen. They came from the Lowlands, that region nearest the English border and longest in contact with English ways, language, and ideas. They were not the romantic Highland figures of Scott’s novels. They were not clansmen who wore kilts and who marched, complete with dirk, sporran, brooch, and bonnet, to the skirling of bagpipes in the glens. On the contrary, they were farmers who eked out a bare living on thin soil as tenants of a laird. Three words best characterize them: they were poor, Presbyterian, and pertinacious.

Their farming methods were primitive. Crops were not rotated, and the yield was meager; starvation was always imminent in the long winters, for both man and beast. King James’s offer of a new start in Ireland on larger farms whose land had lain fallow was, therefore, very appealing, all the more because lairds in the Lowlands had recently demanded higher rents and contracts that made farmers feel a loss of traditional rights and dignity.

The first Scotsmen to pioneer in Ulster succeeded well enough to allure other thousands of Lowlanders, and when, in mid-century, troubles arose with the English king and his church, the exodus increased. The new Ulstermen ran the gamut of character, as pioneers do. Their motives for migration—desire for a better living, escape from problems and debts—indicate ambition and initiative. Some of the adventurers proved to be shiftless; others had qualities needing only opportunity to bring them to full flower. Most of the “planters” took their families with them, thus proclaiming their intention to stay and establish themselves. Socially, they were generally humble folk (aristocrats rarely migrate), but with tenacious qualities indispensable for pioneers.

They were Presbyterians to a man, and Scottish Presbyterianism was unique in its intensity, even in those religious days. The Reformation in Scotland, led by John Knox, had achieved immediate and almost universal success among Lowlanders. Their Calvinist “kirk” became the Church of Scotland, a nationalist symbol for the people, who supported it all the more loyally because of the initial struggle against “popery” and the subsequent resistance against royal efforts to make it Anglican. A notable aspect of the Reformation in Scotland was the enthusiastic commitment of the people to education, not only for ministers but also for laymen. It was as if a dormant ideal had suddenly and permanently come to flower. The highest aspiration of a Lowland family was that a son might attend a university and become a minister or dominie. The passion for education carried over to northern Ireland and to America, with far-reaching results in the colonies.


It is likely that the quality of the Lowlanders that made the king most hopeful of their success in the Ulster Plantation was their well-known stubbornness and dourness (“dour” and “durable” are linguistically related). He counted on these traits to hold them in Ulster even when things went badly, and to make them keep the “wild Irish” in tow, and his confidence proved justified. Had not an elder of the kirk besought the Lord that he might always be right, “for Thou knowest, Lord, that I am unco’ hard to turn”?

In the century between 1610 and 1717 perhaps as many as one hundred thousand Lowlanders came across from Scotland, and by the latter date there were some five Scots to every three Irishmen and one Englishman in Ulster. The English planters represented the Establishment: high civil officials, Anglican churchmen, businessmen, and the Army; but the preponderant Scots set the tone of the new culture of northern Ireland. It is a culture that, as the recent troubles there have painfully shown, is still self-consciously different from that of the rest of the island.

The Ulster experience was a fitting preparation for pioneering in America. The farmers had constantly to be on guard against native Irish uprisings. Agricultural methods decidedly improved under English example. Feudalism, which still existed in Scotland, simply disappeared in Ulster, for farmers were no longer subject to an overlord or attached to one locality. The Presbyterian Church, with its members “straitly” watched over and disciplined by the session of each parish kirk, stiffened the moral fiber of the people, and with its own presbyteries, not subject to the Scottish Kirk, gave the members experience in self-government.

In one respect, however, the Scotch-Irish seemed to be deficient. The Renaissance did not reach Scotland until the eighteenth century, many years after the Lowlanders had left. From the moment of their arrival in northern Ireland comment was made by Englishmen on the apparently complete lack of aesthetic sensibility on the part of these Scots. As one observer remarked, if a Scotsman in Ulster “builds a cottage, it is a prison in miniature; if he has a lawn, it is only grass; the fence of his grounds is a stone wall, seldom a hedge. He has a sluggish imagination: it may be awakened by the gloomy or terrific, but seldom revels in the beautiful.” The same limitations apparently characterized the Scotch-Irish in America.

In the very decades when at last the Ulster Plantation seemed to be achieving its purpose, with the Irish subdued, Protestantism dominant, English rule secured, and prosperity imminent, the great migration to America got under way. As usually happens when thousands of people undertake so hazardous an enterprise as crossing an ocean to find a new home, there was both a push from the old country and a pull from the new.

Paradoxically, Ulster’s growing prosperity was one cause of the first wave of migration. A lucrative woolen and linen industry, developing since the logo’s, alarmed the English Parliament and led to the passage of a series of crippling protective acts whose results were resentment on the part of Ulstermen, economic depression, and recurrent unemployment. A second cause touched men personally and turned many thoughts to migration: this was the hated practice of rack-renting. The term referred to a landlord’s raising rent when a long lease on his land expired—and in the decade after 1710 hundreds of leases came up for renewal. To us, such a practice seems normal; but Ulster farmers felt it to be a violation of tradition, a moral injury, because a tenant was treated impersonally. If the farmer could not or would not pay the higher rent, he had only two practical alternatives: a return to the poverty of Scotland, or migration to the New World.

Still other causes stimulated emigration. Six years in succession after 1714 brought dire drought, with depression in the flax industry and soaring costs of food. In 1716 sheep were afflicted with a destructive disease; severe frosts throughout the decade discouraged farmers; a smallpox epidemic scourged Ulster. In addition there was a goad from the Anglican religious establishment. Deserting the tolerant policy of William III, the High Church party, ascendant during the reign of Queen Anne (1702–14), secured the passage of a Test Act, requiring all officeholders in Ireland to take the sacrament according to prescriptions of the Church of England. Although aimed at Irish Catholics, the weight of this requirement fell heavily upon substantial Presbyterians who held magistracies and other civil posts. By extension, Presbyterian ministers could no longer perform legal marriages or even bury the dead, nor could “dissenters” teach school. This unwise law, though not everywhere rigidly enforced, caused resentment among the stubborn Scots, intensified by the fact that they had been loyal to the Crown and had proved a bulwark of defense against the rampageous Irish.

For all these reasons some five thousand Ulster Scots went to America in 1717 and 1718. After that initial migration, the pull of America began to exert more effect than the push from northern Ireland. Reports coming from the colonies were highly favorable, especially from Pennsylvania. Land was cheap and plentiful, authorities were well disposed, the soil was fertile beyond all imagination, and opportunities were boundless. Only two drawbacks loomed: the perils of an ocean crossing, and the expense of the passage. The former was very real in those days; but optimism persuaded young people that the nightmare of several weeks on a tiny, overcrowded ship, with much illness, was rarely fatal and that grim memories would soon fade. As for passage money, the practice of indenture had long been a familiar device. Few who had made up their minds to go would be deterred by having to work for a master in America for a period of years to pay off their passage fee, for then came freedom and a new life in a country which, according to some, resembled paradise.

Five great waves brought a quarter million Ulster Scots to America, turned them into Scotch-Irish Americans, depressed the economy of Ulster, and depopulated parts of that province. The tides ebbed and flowed partly with conditions in Ulster, partly with upsurges of what was called migration fever. The chief waves were those of 1717–18, 1725–29, 1740–41, 1754–55, and 1771–75; and each benefited particular colonies. The first two helped fill up the back country of Pennsylvania and soon began spilling over into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The third further peopled the Shenandoah Valley and spread into the piedmont and upcountry of North Carolina. That colony and South Carolina drew most of the people in the fourth wave, while the final group, coming just before the Revolutionary War, spread out widely from New York to Georgia.


In each wave, other colonies also drew settlers. Because the Delaware River early proved the favorite entry way, the colonies of New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland soon had many Ulstermen. Massachusetts reluctantly admitted a few but so disliked their uncongenial ways that later arrivals in Boston went on to New Hampshire or Maine.

Two facts about the migration are significant for American history. First, there was almost no further influx from northern Ireland after the Revolutionary War; thus, there was no addition to the Scotch-Irish element from abroad nor any inducement to maintain sentimental ties or a “national” identity with a country ruled by England. Second, the concentration of ScotchIrishmen in the geographically central colonies of Pennsylvania and Virginia made a kind of reservoir from which the people spread north and south through all other colonies; moreover, their farms just east of the Alleghenies were nearest the Great West when that vast territory opened up after 1783. Scotch-Irishmen were thus the vanguard of the trans-Allegheny pioneers.

It has already been observed that no other immigrants were so patriotically unanimous in support of the American cause as the Scotch-Irish. One group of patriotic settlers in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, drew up a set of resolutions on May 20, 1775, declaring the people of that county free and independent of the British Crown. This predominantly Scotch-Irish assemblage thus anticipated by more than a year the Declaration of Independence. The Revolutionary War might not have been won without Scotch-Irish fighting men.

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.

The distinctive religious influence of the Scotch-Irish and New Englanders was not in their common Calvinism, though certainly Calvinist theology has had its effect upon America: it was rather in persuading millions of Americans that religion and character are synonyms. In most other parts of the world religion is likely to mean ritual observance, adherence to a creed, customary pious acts, or some combination of these; but when an American says that a person is deeply religious he is likely to mean first of all that he is upright and highly moral. Both Puritans and Scotch-Irish insisted upon rectitude of life and behavior, stubborn adherence to principle, scorn of compromise, and a stern severity that could be as hard upon others as upon self. Neither people could accept the idea that a man’s religious duty consisted only of acts performed on Sunday or of doctrinal orthodoxy. Since America quickly became pluralistic in religion, there could never have been agreement upon ritual, creed, or observances to unify us religiously; but all Americans could agree on admirable character and high moral rectitude. What the Puritans and Scotch-Irish made of religion was immensely reinforced when the Baptist and Methodist movements, rising to ascendancy in the nineteenth century, taught the same ideas.

In certain ways the Presbyterian Church of the ScotchIrish was the first important denomination to become “Americanized” and broadly “American.” In log churches on a frontier, with a congregation of pioneer farmers, many formal traditions of the dignified Presbyterian Church quietly vanished—the Geneva gown and stock, the separate pulpit, the attendance of the minister by a beadle, the set prayers. Many of the colonial Presbyterian ministers experimented with unconventional, direct methods of evangelism, in order to speak clearly to a people losing interest in dignity for the sake of tradition. (The approval of the presbyteries for this informality was not won, however; and because the dynamic Methodists and Baptists felt free to adopt resourceful methods of evangelism, they drew thousands of adherents among descendants of the Scotch-Irish.)

The Church of England was the established religion in six colonies and the Congregational faith in three others; both, then, were identified with the upper-class English Establishment; but the Presbyterian Church was nowhere official, elite, or English. Moreover, these other two dominant churches were regional, strong only in the Tidewater and in New England; but the Presbyterian Church, like the Scotch-Irish people, was present in every colony. Its ministers were supported not by legally exacted tithes but by free contributions of members; these ministers in their work moved freely from one region to another. The organization of the church was controlled by presbyteries that ranged from New York to the South. The “federal” structure of the church of the Scotch-Irish seemed congenial to American conditions and exerted a unifying influence in our early history.

If we of the twentieth century wish to admire the Scotch-Irish as representative prototypes of later Americans, we must ruefully note that their Ulster forefathers’ neglect of things aesthetic was carried over to the new country. European visitors and critics in the nineteenth century, indeed, considered all Americans deficient in such matters; but we now know how wrong they were, for our museums are full of beautiful early American art and artifacts from New England, from the Tidewater, from German farmlands, and from many other regions and districts—but not from Scotch-Irish settlements. Nothing in the background of these people in either Scotland or northern Ireland had attracted them to painting, sculpture, architecure, music, and literature, and nothing in their way of life in the colonies apparently changed their attitude. They liked what was practical and seemed indifferent to whether it was beautiful. The lists of distinguished scions of the Scotch-Irish in nineteenth-century America include no names of artists and poets.

By 1800 the young United States was growing strong and self-confident, with a continent to win. Already the authority of the thirteen original states was losing its hold over the rising generation. If a farsighted historian Of the time had been inclined to identify representative types of inhabitants who would probably become the most characteristic Americans of the new century, he might well have named the restless frontiersman and the rising middle-class townsman. The former was rapidly winning the West, clearing the wilderness, exploiting America’s fabulous wealth, adding romance to the American myth; the latter was establishing law and order, building industry, adding comfort to utility, and treasuring respectability and responsibility. If the same historian had sought to find the embodiment of each of his representative types, he could have pointed immediately to the descendants of the vigorous Scotch-Irish, now thoroughly American, with no further accretions from abroad. Most of them had even forgotten the adjective formerly applied to them. The daily life of being an American was too absorbing to permit adulation of one’s ancestors, even though these had been the admirable Scotch-Irish.

A professor of sociology at Washington and Lee University, Dr. Leyburn is the author of several books, including The ScotchIrish: A Social History , published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1962, from which this article is adapted.