Scottish American ancestors: Scotland’s American Revolution

In the Fall of 1759, Benjamin Franklin – then Colonial Envoy to Great Britain for Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Georgia – made his first reported trip north to the Scottish capital, Edinburgh. He spent the next two months enjoying good friends and good company in the taverns and meeting houses of a city that played no small part in the new political, social and economic ideas that would dominate the American Revolution.  

The Scottish luminaries Franklin came here to meet, rejected hierarchy and monopolization of power and knowledge, and had an optimistic view of an informed society’s ability to effect change.

In Edinburgh the likes of Adam Smith and David Hume would have shared the Old Town’s alehouses with prince and pauper alike. The stifling snobbery and class distinctions of 18th century London and Paris were impossible here because its tightly packed streets and housing were the ultimate leveler.  

As Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe said in his ‘tour of Great Britain’:   

Tho’ many cities have more people in them, this may be said with truth, that in no city in the world so many people live in so little room as at Edinburgh. This is, perhaps, the largest, longest, and finest street {Royal Mile} for buildings and number of inhabitants, not in Britain only, but in the world.   

At the time of Franklin’s visit, about 36,000 people were crowded into the defensive walls and filthy streets of what would have looked much like a fish bone from the air.  The city is built along the ancient lava flows of an extinct volcano. Castle Rock is its head, the Royal Mile its 300 meters wide spine. Edinburgh’s cobbled lanes and steep staircases descend down its slopes to a flattened tail dominated today by the Scottish parliament and the much older Royal Palace of Holyrood.  

Many of the Royal Mile’s medieval skyscrapers were by necessity so closely packed that people on the upper floors could shake hands with their neighbors on the opposite side, while the smoke from its countless coal fires led to the nickname ‘Auld Reekie'(Old Smoky). These were the conditions in which the theories of the Scottish Enlightenment were largely formed; in multi-family homes where rich and poor lived on top of one another and the merchant’s son played with the cobbler’s daughter. 

Franklin, educated as he was in America by his Scottish mentor William Small, undoubtedly knew more than most about Scotland’s history. He likely visited the sights just like any modern tourist, including the palace of Holyrood; which probably looked shabbier than today after a century and a half of neglect.  It had been effectively abandoned after the last Scottish king, James VI, inherited the throne of England, taking much of the Scottish court to London with him. As a result, the Scots, largely left to their own devices, learned how to govern without a king.

In any case, power in Scotland- more so perhaps than anywhere else in Europe- had always derived from the consent of the people. As early as 1320, the Declaration of Arbroath stated:  

If this prince [Robert the Bruce] shall leave those principles which he hath so nobly pursued, we will immediately endeavor to expel him as our enemy, and as the subverter of both his own and our rights, and will choose another king who will defend our liberties. 

Centuries later the concept of power residing in the governed rather than the governing, slowly rubbed off on the new British State, but its fullest realization came in the constitution of the new United States.  

In recognition of the Scottish influence on early American life, the U.S. Senate passed Resolution 155 in 1998. 

This resolution honors the major role that Scottish Americans played in the founding of this Nation, such as the fact that almost half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Scottish descent, the Governors in 9 of the original 13 States were of Scottish ancestry, Scottish Americans successfully helped shape this country in its formative years and guide this Nation through its most troubled times.

A decade later U.S. President George W. Bush signed Presidential Proclamation 8233 that recognized 

Many of our country’s most cherished customs and ideals first grew to maturity on Scotland’s soil. The Declaration of Arbroath, the Scottish Declaration of Independence signed in 1320, embodied the Scots’ strong dedication to liberty, and the Scots brought that tradition of freedom with them to the New World. 

So how did those Scottish sensibilities become so ingrained in American revolutionary thought?  

Well Franklin had already sent talent scouts to Scotland.

A few years before his arrival, he recruited Benjamin Rush, a young American student studying medicine at Edinburgh University.  He asked Rush to convey a letter to a Church of Scotland minister called John Witherspoon who was famed for his oratory skills. All three men would soon be Founding Fathers of the United States. 

Witherspoon immigrated at age 45 to New Jersey where as president of Princeton college he taught the ‘Scottish School of Common Sense’. Princeton University’s website describes his influence: 

John Witherspoon was the only clergyman and the only college president to sign the Declaration of Independence. Witherspoon’s administration was a turning point in the life of the College. In addition to a president and vice president of the United States, he taught 9 cabinet officers, 21 senators, 39 congressmen, 3 justices of the Supreme Court, and 12 state governors. Largely because of him, Princeton became known as the seedbed of revolution. 

Scots migrants also played a leading role in the revolutionary army and navy. John Paul Jones, the father of the U.S. Navy and naval commander during the revolution, abandoned his family fortune in Scotland after killing a sailor in a dispute over wages. And during the dark early years of the revolution, George Washington is reported to have said:

If all else fails, I will retreat up the valley of Virginia, plant my flag on the Blue Ridge, rally around the Scotch-Irish of that region, and make my last stand for liberty amongst a people who will never submit to tyranny whilst there is a man left to draw a trigger. 

There are countless other famous and not so famous Scots who could be listed- people most often simply referred to as American.  The true success of the Scottish ideas that helped shape the modern world is that they simply belong to all of us and are considered Canadian, American, Australian etc. 

For the descendants of Scottish Americans it can be difficult to identify exact origins because of this success.  But there are clues that give any American with deep Scottish heritage very good indicators.

There are three primary groups of Scots in America’s formative years. Their political and religious beliefs, cultures and life experiences very often differed from one another.  But their common glue lay in freedom of thought and action, as well as contempt for corruption and power undeserved or abused. Your family background will give you wonderful clues to which group/s your ancestors came from and why they ended up in America. 

Highlanders: Ancient clans that lived in Scotland’s most mountainous and inaccessible region. Descended from a group of tribes known as the Caledonian Confederacy that fought off the Romans. They formed the first Scottish State in the 9th century after uniting with settlers known as Scotti who brought Christianity from the north of Ireland.  By 1038 their kingdom included all of mainland Scotland. Over time, power moved further south to lowland Scotland but highland society and culture remained distinct from the rest of the country. Most highlanders remained Catholic and Gaelic speaking long after the rest of Scotland became Protestant and spoke Scots- a form of English similar to the difference between Dutch and German. After the failure of the Jacobite rebellion in the late 18th century, highland society collapsed and its people scattered worldwide. Most emigrated from the late 1700s to late 1800s by force or necessity. The area around Cape Fear had their largest pre-revolution settlement and those who stayed likely joined the patriot army. Many – but not all – of the next major group of highlanders arrived with the British Army. They overwhelmingly moved to Canada from places like Georgia, The Carolinas and New Jersey after the revolution. A century or so later another group of highlanders would arrive in the biggest numbers yet. They were the first to arrive defeated. They had much more in common with the Irish than their fellow Scots from the Lowlands, most of whom had joined forces with the English to defeat them at Culloden. They settled in established Irish communities in places like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and then fanned out across the West. They were Catholic, had been dispossessed of their land and shared legitimate personal grievances with the rest of Britain. As a result Highland Scot and Catholic Irish fused into a hybrid culture in North America that is often seen as one and the same despite huge differences in historical experience.

Lowlanders: Occupants of a fertile rift valley with the Highland mountains to the north and the Southern Uplands bordering England to the south. They focused on continental Europe for trade, setting up significant free trade colonies from Flanders to Poland, but their economy repeatedly suffered due to English blockades and the relentless cost of repelling invasions. Their centuries long military alliance with France helped, but in truth the French gained more; the Scots prevented the English focusing on their wars in France, while French support often failed to arrive for Scotland when most needed. From the earliest times they were defended by fortresses built on three volcanic plateaus spread from west to east across the middle of the country. These became the centers of the Scottish State from the 11th to 18th centuries, particularly the castles of Stirling and Edinburgh. They had four universities by the late 1400s and Europe’s first public education system from the 15th century onward. Poorer lowlanders, including many women, were literate unlike many of their counterparts in England, Ireland and continental Europe. Scottish emigrants brought their education system to America and helped the United States displace Scotland as the most literate country in the world by the mid 1800s.  The earliest lowland settlers were Presbyterian prisoners or indentured servants sent to the English colony of Virginia after defeat in the civil wars of the mid 1600s. They were Scottish Covenanters who often identified each other by wearing red around their necks, hence the term ‘redneck’. Their American descendants would very likely have been patriots, unlike many lowland Scots who arrived after the creation of the British State in 1707. Lowlanders from the major trading centers in the middle of the country (central Scotland) brought their industry and free trade ideas to many a northern state in the late 18th century. They settled largely from Maine to New York, and from New Jersey and Maryland to Pennsylvania.   The largest concentrations of central lowland Scots surnames today are in the northeast, northwest and California. A century later Scots from the more conservative and religious southern portion of the country began to arrive after land prices in southwest Scotland skyrocketed.  The region’s surnames are still well represented from Idaho down to Texas. Many of their descendants are Baptists or Methodists.

Florida is another place with strong Scottish connections. Highlanders who protected Georgia moved south after helping defeat the Spanish.   Lowlander farmers and merchants followed. Places like Sarasota invited Scots to emigrate in newspaper ads placed in Scotland in the 1880s.  The long used – and not always derogatory – nickname given by the English to their Scottish counterparts is ‘Jocks’ – Jock being the diminutive form of the name ‘John’ in Scotland. 

Ulster Scots – Scotch Irish  Descendants of Scottish Lowland families primarily from the south of the country. Like the Highlanders, they were famed for their blood ties and tight-knit clans. In Scotland and England families on both sides of the border were known as Border Reivers.  They were expert light cavalrymen who manned the frontier between Scotland and England for countless centuries. When they weren’t fighting each other off, they were fighting neighboring clans or even rival kin.    When peace finally arrived after close to 8 centuries of near constant war, they were sent to Ireland to protect protestant colonists against native Irish attacks. There they rapidly proved their worth and became known as the Ulster Scots or later Loyalists. Their descendants are the reason Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. Many left for America from the late 1600s to the mid 1700s with a deep sense of betrayal and abandonment. The British government failed to protect them from a massive increase in tenant farmer rents or provide adequate military support against an increasingly violent native rebellion that targeted their families.  Their traditional role followed them to the American colonies where they were the primary military strength of the patriot army. In future years they were the main reason the West was won- manning the U.S. cavalry when in uniform and strong enough to withstand native attacks when not.  Many of their descendants live in the Appalachians, but the greatest numbers are spread out across the West. In Ireland they were supporters of the Dutch protestant William of Orange- King Billy as he was known by his supporters. William and his largely protestant Scottish and Ulster Scot army defeated the Catholic dominated army of the deposed King James made up of largely Irish and Highland Scots. Their rural dwelling descendants in America are dubbed ‘hillbillies’ because of this connection. 

As you can see Scotland, like the United States, was forged by many peoples who shared a strong sense of community while accommodating widely diverse beliefs. As Scots poet William McIlvanney said to a cheering crowd in 1992, ‘We are a mongrel nation’.

The great ‘Scottish’ idea is that freedom is only freedom if it applies to all.

cum non sit Pondus nec distinccio Judei et Greci, Scoti aut Anglici
(“there is neither bias nor difference between Jew or Greek, Scot or English”)

Declaration of Arbroath to Pope John XXII, 6 April 1320

Of course this freedom of thought and action can court disaster based on over confidence; individually and collectively.  The United States, like Scotland, can be something of a Jekyll and Hyde but obviously on a far greater scale.  Robert Louis Stevenson took his inspiration from the split personality of his native Edinburgh; its forward-thinking creative genius only matched by the horrors of its dark underbelly.  Light after all cannot exist without darkness. In exploring your Scottish ancestors, you take a journey down one of humanity’s longest and most enigmatic roads. In the process you might just understand yourself that little bit more.  

Good hunting

Mark Connolly