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Historians and the Scottish-American Connection

The links between Scotland and America stretch back over three centuries. Perhaps one can officially date them from 1650, when a group of Scots gathered in Boston to create the first Scots’ Charitable Society, an organization to aid fellow immigrants who had fallen upon hard times. Scottish migration to the British North American Colonies during the seventeenth century remained sporadic, but from the early eighteenth century forward, extended bands of Highland and Lowland Scots settled all through Nova Scotia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Simultaneously, wave after wave of Scotch Irish migrants from Ulster landed in Philadelphia, making their way down the Appalachian valleys into Virginia and beyond.

Contemporaries were well aware of this Scots and Scotch Irish migration to the Colonies. As James Logan, chief advisor to Pennsylvania proprietor William Penn once observed: “It looks as if Ireland [i.e., Ulster] is to send all her habitants hither; for last week not less than six ships arrived, and every day two or three are coming.” These Presbyterians, the Quaker Logan continued, were “audacious and disorderly”; they were “troublesome settlers to the government, and hard neighbors to the Indians.”

Since the Scots were often educated, planters in the Chesapeake region frequently hired them as tutors, although they groused at having their children acquire a Scottish accent. The Journal kept by Lerwick émigré John Harrower, who served a four-year indenture as a schoolmaster in Virginia, illuminates this world. At William and Mary, young Thomas Jefferson fell under the sway of Aberdonian William Small, to whom he was ever grateful.

When the American Revolution broke out, at least in the Scotch-Irish version of the story, the Ulster natives leaped at the opportunity to attack the British crown. “Call this war by whatever name you may. . . ,” observed one Hessian officer, “it is nothing more or less than a Scotch Irish Presbyterian rebellion.” King George allegedly called the conflict “a Presbyterian war,” and another official stated that cousin “America has run off with the Presbyterian parson.” In spite of these comments, the actual Scotch-Irish population was a bit more divided in their loyalties than legend would have it, especially in the South. Still, the Scotch-Irish generally emerged from the Revolution with an enhanced local reputation.

The same could not be said for the Scots proper. Although famed poet Robert Burns once wrote an “Ode for General Washington’s Birthday,” the Scots who had emigrated to Colonial America were seldom convinced by the patriots’ arguments. Many had fought against the Crown only thirty years previously, but when the Revolution broke out, the majority of Scots sided with Great Britain. Of this there is little dispute. In 1776 former Paisley cleric John Witherspoon, then president of the College of New Jersey and a staunch patriot, tried to change this point of view. He gave an address (later printed as a pamphlet) to the “Natives of Scotland residing in America” that noted: “It has given me no little uneasiness to hear the word Scotch used as a term of reproach in the American controversy.” Virginian Thomas Jefferson included a condemnation of “Scotch and other foreign mercenaries” in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, a phrase that Witherspoon discreetly helped remove. However, Jefferson continued to rail at the “Scotch Tories” for over two decades.