St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland. His followers Christianized Scotland. The firebrand Calvinist John Knox led the Protestant Reformation in Scotland and founded what would become the Presbyterian denomination. In the 1600s Lowland Scots migrated in great numbers to Ulster, Ireland’s northern province. Religious oppression by the English power structure and various economic factors drove almost 500,000 mostly Presbyterian Ulster folk to American shores seeking freedom of religion and enterprise between 1717 and 1776. In 1718 Rev. James McGregor led his entire congregation to Boston, where New Englanders called them dirty, uncouth Irish and burned down their meeting house. Ulster folk became America’s first least wanted.
SCOTCH-IRISH IN THE REVOLUTION
By 1776 colonists from Ulster and their descendants had spread in large numbers from Pennsylvania southward through Virginia and the Carolinas to Georgia and westward through the Ohio Valley. In the Revolutionary War they were largely (though not entirely) Patriots. They were the backbone of George Washington’s Army, and they won crucial battles in the Carolinas that led directly to Patriot victory. On one occasion Martha Bratton, the wife of a Patriot general, was instrumental in winning a key battle in South Carolina. She stood her ground when a Tory militiaman threatened to behead her for refusing to disclose her husband’s whereabouts.
THE PIKES MUST BE TOGETHER
The American and French revolutions inspired Protestants and Catholics to rebel against oppressive British Rule in 1798. But after a strong start the United Irish Rising was brutally crushed. Refugees from the failed rebellion were among another 100,000 Ulster folk who immigrated to the U.S. in the decades after the American Revolution. The United Irish created an Irish-American identity years before the Famine Irish arrived, and they melded it with Jeffersonian politics. One of them, Presbyterian minister Thomas Ledlie Birch, glorified Ireland’s past before the British conquest and passionately spoke out for Jeffersonian principles. His undoing would come at the hands of Federalist-leaning Pennsylvania church leaders who condemned him as a “minister of the devil.”
THE JACKSON ERA
Andrew Jackson steered a path to the White House by appealing to a fierce agrarian populist anti-Washington wave. The first Scotch-Irish U.S. President led a Democratic Party that had been strengthened by Ulster immigrants such as Birch. They had created Irish identity and married it to Jeffersonian principles favoring personal freedom, limited government, and equality. But Jackson’s fealty to commoners extended only to whites. He was a slave-owner and perpetrator of draconian Indian removal policies, which were opposed by two prominent Scotch-Irish politicians, famed frontiersmen David Crockett and Sam Houston.
THE FAMINE AND BEYOND
When more than a million Famine Irish refugees arrived on U.S. shores in the mid-1800s, many Scotch-Irish descendants greeted them with nativist hostility. Pittsburgh tycoon Thomas Mellon was notoriously contemptuous of the Irish. The immigrant from County Tyrone honored his Scottish heritage but considered the Catholic Gaelic Irish savages. Tensions between Famine Irish and those joining in Mellon’s xenophobia broke along party lines. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries in heavily Scotch-Irish Appalachia, encouragement of black-white racial prejudice helped keep unions weak.
Americans of Scotch-Irish descent today rather closely reflect the politics of white Americans in general. They range in their world view from conservative populist supporters of Donald Trump to progressives such as Presbyterian minister Caroline Leach of Atlanta, Georgia. It remains to be seen whether today’s Scotch-Irish and their Ulster-Scots cousins in Ireland, two fervently democratic peoples, are gaining a more mature vision of what democracy means.