Scottish American ancestry: 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. 

As you can see Scotland and its diaspora had a wide influence on early America and the rest of the ‘New World’. It’s a wanderer’s habit, long in the making – as this medieval French proverb beautifully demonstrates:

Que d’Escossois, de rats, de poux…
Ceux qui voyagent jusqu’au bout
Du monde, en rencontrent partout.

Pierre le Jolie, Description de la ville d’Amsterdam

Roughly translated that’s: “Rats, lice and Scotsmen – you find them the world over.” Perhaps the best backhanded compliment ever.

In 1992, Scottish author William McIlvanney famously told an adoring Scottish crowd that the Scots are a ‘mongrel nation’; one that has given refuge for countless centuries to the persecuted elsewhere.

America took that idea and ran with it. It has carried the baton so much further than those early Scottish Americans could have imagined.

Despite its great power – for the most part – the torch still burns brightly in the land of Lady Liberty; it is why America remains a beacon to the outside world. Long may that continue.