Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Ulster Scots in America

USClassics Reid Cover Col.jpgWhitelaw Reid was US Ambassador to Britain. He was of Co Tyrone Covenanter descent, and his ancestors emigrated to the USA in 1795. When they got to the US, they bought a farm - but soon after discovered that part of the sale included the running of a ferry service on a Sunday. So they sold the farm!

Whitelaw was deeply interested in his Ulster roots, and after unsuccessfully running for US Vice-President, he became US Ambassador to Britain. Shortly after taking up his post, he gave a series of lectures in Edinburgh and Belfast entitled "The Scot in America and the Ulster Scot". This is the Northern Whig editorial on 2 November 1911, the morning after Whitelaw Reid’s lecture in Edinburgh, entitled "The Ulster Scots in America". The editor at that time was Joseph R Fisher:

"...Let us now praise famous men and the fathers that begat us’ is a command not unhonoured in Ulster. But it is even better when others praise us as well as ourselves, and every Ulsterman will read with a thrill the eloquent and vivid tribute paid last night by Mr WHITELAW REID, the United States ambassador, to the men of our race and blood for the part played by them in the building up of the great Republic. That tribute is intensified by Lord ROSEBERY’s comment that, though he loved Highlanders and lowlanders, when he came to the branch of the Scottish race that had been grafted on the Ulster stem he took off his hat in veneration and awe.

Speaking at Edinburgh, Mr WHITELAW REID naturally gave precedence to the Scots, but the Ulster Scots were the burden of his theme, and men from North of the Tweed had to yield to men from north of the Boyne. The Puritan in America, said the lecturer, had had his day, and so had the Cavalier, and it was full time for the Scot and for the Ulster Scot. Part of the tale has been told before in PARKMAN’s vigorous prose in ‘The Conspiracy of Pontiac’ and in Mr ROOSEVELT’s epical ‘Winning of the West’; but the value of Mr WHITELAW REID’s address is that it throws the facts into new perspective, and gives us an admirable summary of what Lord ROSEBERY aptly described as ‘a long catalogue of splendid achievements’.

Since the day in 1718 when the first flight of Ulster emigrants arrived in Boston in five small ships to found an American Londonderry, Scoto-Irish influences have had their full share in moulding the destinies of the New World. Not that the lines of the pioneers were laid out in pleasant places. PENN’s rule was a mild one, but, as Mr WHITELAW REID reminds us, he was a man of business and he used the Ulster Scots as a kind of buffer between the Quakers and the Indians. They held the frontier, stood siege in their rude log cabins, ambushed and were ambushed by war parties, while the Quakers, well out of harm’s way, preached the doctrine of gentle treatment of the tribes. It may be that the Ulster settlers were more prone to use the steel gauntlet than the velvet glove, but they ran all the risks, and it is directly to them that the success of the first great movement westward is due.

They were soon to prove that they could cope with trained soldiers as well as with armed savages. When the agitation that ended in the Revolution began the Ulster Presbyterians numbered one sixth of the population of the American colonies. But, in Mr WHITELAW REID’s words, their intellectual and moral responsibility for the War of Independence was far greater than their numbers would seem to warrant. They were the heart and soul of the movement from the first, partly on account of the wrongs they had suffered at home, still more because, as BANCROFT says, ‘their experience and religion alike bade them meet oppression with prompt resistance’. GEORGE the THIRD and his Cabinet comforted themselves with the thought that the American would not fight, or if they did that the first skirmish would find them clamouring for mercy. The Ulster Scots, having put their hands to the plough, were not of a stock that turns back before the work is finished. When taxed with breaking their oath of allegiance they answered ‘The oath binds only while the KING protects’; and the Declaration of Independence was written by the hand of an Ulster Scot who was Secretary of the Congress, was read to the people by an Ulster Scot, and first printed by an Ulster Scot.

In the field they gave as good an account of themselves as in the council chamber. Almost half of WASHINGTON’s general officers were Scots or Ulster Scots, and in his catalogue Mr WHITELAW REID did not mention perhaps the most brilliant of them all, the ill fated RICHARD MONTGOMERY, who fell in the attempt to capture Quebec. The Irish contingents were the backbone of the American army, noted marksmen, indefatigable marchers, cool in advance and cooler in retreat, signalising themselves equally in affairs like the dash on Trenton or in the pluck with which they endured the horrors of the terrible winter months at Valley Forge. The Virginian sharpshooters, Ulster Scots almost to a man, are bracketed in military history with CRAUFORD’s Light Brigade in the Peninsula.

When peace came at last it brought to the front men of the same race, who handled with notable courage and skill the most momentous experiment in democratic government the world has seen. It is a big score for Scotland and Ulster that of the twenty-five Presidents of the United States almost half have hailed from one or the other.

Despite the stream of fresh blood that has poured into the States during the period between the Revolution and the Civil War, Scots and Ulster Scots still maintained their supremacy in that struggle. In GRANT on one side and STONEWALL JACKSON on the other they produced two leaders who are universally recognised as amongst the greatest soldiers of the nineteenth century, while it is a matter for legitimate pride that the anti-slavery movement had its origin among the Covenanters of South Carolina and East Tennessee twenty or thirty years before there was any organised opposition even in Massachusetts. It is always risky to draw modern lessons from the record of past events: many more elements enter into the problem than the average man is accustomed to allow for.

But if the record of the Ulster Scots proves anything it proves beyond doubt that they are a race who may be led, but will not be coerced, and, having once settled in their own minds the rightness of a course of action, will pursue it to the bitter end..."


Excerpt from the reprint's introduction:

The widespread interest in the Ulster-Scots at that time was reflected in a letter from Alice L. Milligan (1865-1953) that appeared in the Northern Whig on 2 October 1912: She wrote:

"...I would like to know to what extent the history of the Ulster Plantation occupies the history curriculum of Belfast University. Ulstermen should know how their ancestors came to live here. The Right Hon Whitelaw Reid dealt with the mysterious exodus of Ulster Scots to America in his recent lecture in the Assembly’s Buildings. The young Ulster Scots of today should understand how it was that men of their race in such numbers took part in the upbuilding of the American Commonwealth..."

This recognition of the Ulster-Scots is particularly significant since Alice Milligan was an Irish nationalist, a friend of James Connolly and a Gaelic League organiser. Moreover her plea that young Ulster-Scots should be taught about their history is just as valid and necessary today.


Copies of the reprint are still available from