In the evening the company danced as usual. We performed, with much activity, a dance which, I suppose, the emigration from Skye has occasioned. They call it America. Each of the couples, after the convolutions and evolutions, successively whirls round in a circle, till all are in motion; and the dance seems intended to show how emigration catches, till a whole neighbourhood is set afloat.

—James Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides , 1773


“That Great Design”: Scots in America

Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an

American rebellion; it is nothing more or less than a Scotch Irish

Presbyterian rebellion.

—Anonymous Hessian o ficer, 1778

Watching events unfolding in America in the autumn of 1775, Adam Smith wrote in Wealth of Nations:

They are very weak who flatter themselves that, in the state to which things have come, our colonies will be easily conquered by force alone. The persons who now govern the resolutions of what they call the Continental Congress, feel in themselves at this moment a degree of importance which, perhaps, the greatest subjects in Europe scarce feel. From shopkeepers, tradesmen, and attornies, they are become statesmen and legislators, and are employed in contriving a new form of government for an extensive empire, which, they flatter themselves, will become, and which, indeed, seems very likely to become, one of the greatest and most formidable that ever was in the world.

In this, as in so much else, Smith proved prescient. Even he, however, could not have guessed how far that process of creating a “new form of government” or growing that “extensive empire” might go. Nor could he realize to what extent his own fellow Scots, including his friend David Hume, could take at least some of the credit for it.

As we have seen, Smith’s view of what was happening in Britain’s American colonies was informed by his friends in the Glasgow tobacco trade, several of whom had lived there. His interest in America was primarily economic. He saw it, and its prosperity, as the unintended result of a mercantile system gone haywire, which ended up enriching colonists who were supposed to be exploited, and emptying the pockets of Britons who were supposed to be benefiting from imperial dominion. As he put it, “The rulers of Great Britain have, for more than a century past, amused the people with the imagination that they possessed a great empire on the west side of the Atlantic.” But the people were beginning to discover that “the effects of the monopoly of the colonial trade . . . [are] more loss than profit.” Now they were saddled with a rebellion, and a war; and while Smith realized his own sensible advice for compromise would be ignored by the government in London, he also saw that the loss of the colonies would force a change in the direction of Great Britain, including Scotland—a change almost as dramatic as the change in the thirteen colonies themselves.


Scottish ties to North America dated back as far back as the reign of James I, when he conceived his ill-fated plans for a Scots colony, “Nova Scotia,” in Canada. It was a long way from the icy, rocky shores of Nova Scotia to the sun-drenched beach of Darien, but the same dream inspired both: the get-rich-quick scheme of settlers effortlessly tapping the fabled resources of the New World, with the government skimming the thick cream from the top. Nova Scotia failed, less disastrously than Darien, since Scots did continue to settle and live there, but both experiences taught Scottish merchants and entrepreneurs a basic truth: that only patience and hard work brought wealth from the American possessions. Even before the Act of Union, Glasgow and Greenock merchants were busy laying down their lines across the Atlantic. By 1707, Glasgow families such as the Bogles had been doing business in the middle colonies for nearly three decades, much of it through illegal smuggling.

Scottish merchants penetrated the Chesapeake Bay and the James, Potomac, and Delaware Rivers, and operated as far north as Boston. Scottish settlers started arriving as early as the 1680s, and as Britain’s role in North America expanded, the Scottish presence grew with it. One expert summarized the Lowland Scot presence in colonial America this way: “They permeated the official establishment, especially in the southern colonies, and provided several colonial governors. They supplied clergy for the Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches. They served as tutors . . . and many went on to establish schools.” Most of eighteenth-century America’s physicians were either Scots or Scot-trained. In short, Scots became indispensable to the running of colonial government and to cultural life, especially in the Southern and Middle Atlantic states. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Norfolk, Virginia, was virtually a Scottish town.

But this was only the first wave. America became the final destination for all three branches of the Scottish ethnic and cultural family: Lowlanders, Highlanders, and Ulster Scots. The first Ulster Scots turned up in 1713. In Worcester, Massachusetts, they were much in demand as Indian fighters and as a tough barrier between the English settlers and the “savage wilderness” beyond. When they tried to build a Presbyterian church, though, their neighbors tore it down. Between 1717 and 1776, perhaps a quarter of a million Ulstermen came to America, 100,000 of them as indentured servants. They did not remain servants for very long, as colonists soon discovered that Ulster Scots were not born to be obedient.

The Highlanders were last. Many were refugees from the Forty-five who settled along the Cape Fear River of North Carolina. MacLeods, MacDonalds, MacRaes, MacDougalls, and Campbells found themselves in a land where their native Gaelic isolated them even from their Scots neighbors, and in a climate and landscape totally unlike the one they had left behind. Flat, low-lying, humid marshes, red clay soil with scrub-pine forests; but the land was cheap and available, and the Highlanders carved out farms for themselves and their families. This is where Flora MacDonald and her husband would settle when they came to America; thousands of others would make the same trip over the next fifty years. The volume and the points of destination grew as the Highlands emptied itself of people well into the next century. Today there are probably more descendants of the Highland clans living in America than in Scotland.

A transfer of people also involves a transfer of culture. At the same time that a new, refined Scotland was taking hold in its urban capitals and then spreading its influence to the rest of Europe, the older, more traditional Scotland was finding a new home in America, and thriving. A strange time warp was under way. The very same “backward” cultural forces that the Edinburgh and Glasgow Enlightenments were overmastering in order to create a modern society, including the old-time Presbyterianism, were about to generate their own version of progress. By the time enlightened Scotland reached American shores, the two would meet in a kind of cultural cross-current: the United States, as a republic and a nation, would be the result.

The people who best represented that traditional Presbyterian Scot culture were the Ulster Scots, or, as the Americans called them, the “Scotch Irish.” They were Irish by geography only. In their settlements in the northern counties of Ireland, they had struggled to preserve the twin characteristics of their Scottish forebears. The first was a fierce Calvinist faith. The other was a similarly fierce individualism, which saw every man as the basic equal of every other, and defied authority of every kind. The man who claimed to be better than anyone else had to be ready to prove it, with his words, his actions, or his fists.

These volatile ingredients had been forged in fire in the religious conflicts of Northern Ireland, and in battles against both Catholic neighbors and English masters. A sense of personal independence, stubborn pride, and fierce family honor took root in the Scotch-Irish character. It kept the Ulster community intact through a century of triumph and disaster, and when its members began to leave Antrim, Armagh, Down, and Derry for a better future, they carried it with them to America.

The first great wave of Scotch-Irish emigration began with the failed harvest of 1717, which forced people to choose between moving and starving. A merchant from Philadelphia, Jonathan Dickinson, noted that summer “we have had 12 or 13 sayle of ships from the North of Ireland with a swarm of people.” He also noted their appearance: tall and lean, with weatherbeaten faces and wooden shoes “shod like a horse’s feet with iron.” The women wore short, tight-waisted skirts and dresses, showing their bare legs underneath, which shocked Quaker Philadelphia. Another wave of Ulster Scots followed in the 1720s; so many, in fact, that the British Parliament demanded an inquiry, wondering whether they would completely depopulate the Protestant element in Ireland before they were done.

Some never made it. The trip on overcrowded ships could be hazardous, even murderous. One ship from Belfast to Philadelphia ran out of food midway. Forty-six passengers died of starvation, and the rest had to turn to cannibalism, with some eating members of their own families. The numbers kept coming, however, until by 1770 at least 200,000 had settled in America. In the first two weeks of August 1773 alone, 3,500 emigrants turned up in Philadelphia, looking to start a new life.

Where did they go? A few stayed and found work at their ports of entry, such as Philadelphia or Chester. But most fanned out west, traveling deep into three great river valleys and mountain ridges: up the Delaware Valley into southeastern Pennsylvania; south across the Potomac into the Shenandoah Valley, and then even farther south, beyond the Piedmont ridge into the Carolinas.

From the point of view of the colonial government and locals, they had come at the right time. English emigration to America had fallen off; and non-English settlers such as Germans and Huguenot French had not yet appeared in large numbers. The Scotch-Irish settlements began pushing the frontier farther and deeper into the Appalachians. Unlike many of their earlier English predecessors, they did not expect an easy time of it. Prepared for the worst, they carved a new life for themselves out of the wilderness, taking land from neighbors or natives when it suited them. The habits of colonizing Ireland and seizing arable land from Catholic enemies carried over to the New World. Their insatiable desire for land, and the willingness to fight and die to keep it, laid the foundation of the frontier mentality of the American West.

They settled in small farm communities, usually on the lee side of a ridge or in a creek hollow, clustering together according to family or region, like their remote Highland ancestors. A typical farm consisted of a “cowpen” or livestock corral of a sort familiar to a Lowland or Border farmer, and a cabin built of logs. The archetypal dwelling of the American frontier, the log cabin, was in fact a Scots development, if not invention. The word itself, cabine, meant any sort of rude enclosure or hut, made of stone and dirt in Scotland, or sod and mud in Ireland.

Across southwest Virginia, North Carolina, and eventually Tennessee, their extended families spread out—Alexanders, Ashes, Caldwells, Campbells, Calhouns, Montgomerys, Donelsons, Gilchrists, Knoxes, and Shelbys—establishing a network of clanlike alliances and new settlements. They named their communities—such as Orange County (in North Carolina), Orangeburg (in South Carolina), Galloway, Derry, Durham, Cumberland (after the Border county in England), Carlisle, and Aberdeen—after the places and loyalties they had left behind. In North Carolina they founded towns called Enterprise, Improvement, and Progress; and in Georgia and western Virginia, towns called Liberty.

Placenames and language reflected their northern Irish or southern Lowlands origins. They said “whar” for “where,” “thar” for “there,”“critter” for “creature,” “nekkid” for “naked,” “widder” for “widow,” and “younguns” for “young ones.” They were always “fixin’ ” to do something, or go “sparkin’” instead of “courting,” and the young ’uns “growed up” instead of “grew up.” As David Hackett Fisher has suggested, these were the first utterings of the American dialect of Appalachian mountaineers, cowboys, truck drivers, and backcountry politicians. The language was also shamelessly intimate and earthy: passersby were addressed as “honey” and children as “little shits.” They dubbed local landmarks Gallows Branch or Cutthroat Gap or Shitbritches Creek (in North Carolina). In Lunenberg County, Virginia, they even named two local streams Tickle Cunt Branch and Fucking Creek.

Neighbors, including the Indians, soon learned to treat them with respect, not to say fear. One Englishman described an Ulster Scot neighbor : “His looks spoke out that he would not fear the devil, should he meet him face to face.” They did not bear much resemblance to their compatriot, Francis Hutcheson. Instead, Ulster Scots were quick-tempered, inclined to hard work followed by bouts of boisterous leisure and heavy drinking (they were the first distillers of whisky in the New World, employing native corn and rye instead of Scottish barley), and easy to provoke into fighting. The term used to describe them was rednecks, a Scots border term meaning Presbyterians. Another was cracker, from the Scots word craik for “talk,” meaning a loud talker or braggart. Both words became permanent parts of the American language, and a permanent part of the identity of the Deep South the Ulster Scots created.

One reason their cultural impact was so widespread was that they were constantly moving. It was said that no Scotch-Irish family felt comfortable until it had moved twice. Even before the Susquehanna and Cumberland valleys were fully settled, they were pushing into Virginia and the Carolinas. The governors of those colonies, Scots themselves, welcomed the new settlers; Ulster Scots began arriving in large numbers in the 1720s and 1730s, and under Governor Gabriel Johnson, a native of Dumfriesshire, expansion came to include Highland immigrants after the Forty-five. By 1760, North Carolina was practically a Little Scotland: a “Mac-ocracy,” in the words of one of the Ulstermen’s enemies. By the end of the century, some were moving on to Georgia, and as far south as the Savannah River.

The Scotch-Irish South was a breeding ground for a type of strong, independent man and woman, a school for natural leaders. Andrew Jackson was son of an Ulster Scot immigrant, Hugh Jackson, a wealthy weaver and merchant from Carrickfergus. In 1765 he led a group of emigrants to America into South Carolina. His son was a typical product of the tight-knit, tough, and quarrelsome culture of Ulster Scot Carolina, and chose his wife from a similar Scotch-Irish clan. Another immigrant, Captain Robert Polk, had joined the parade of emigrants from County Donegal for the New World slightly earlier. His son settled in Virginia, and his five children, Robert’s grandchildren, ended up in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. James Knox Polk was born there in 1795, eventually representing his state as senator and still later serving as twelfth President of the United States.

Patrick Calhoun and his wife, Catherine Montgomery, left Ireland for America in 1733, with their four sons. Patrick junior married a Caldwell, descendants of a Borders family also settled in South Carolina, and his son John C. Calhoun would become South Carolina’s most powerful politician.

John Henry emigrated from Scotland around 1730; he numbered among his relations on his mother’s side that stalwart of the Moderate literati William Robertson. He settled in Hanover County, Virginia, which was quickly becoming home to Scots and Ulster Scot families, and married another relative, Sarah Syme. Their son Patrick Henry was born in 1736. His most famous maxim, “Give me liberty or give me death,” abruptly but perfectly encapsulates the mentality of these backcountry Scottish communities, in which living as you pleased—a crude homegrown version of Hutcheson’s notion of man’s moral liberty— was a matter of birthright. In 1768 Mecklenburg County even told the North Carolina colonial assembly, “We shall ever be more ready to support the government under which we find the most liberty.”

Defending that liberty against all challengers required force of will and a keen sense of valor. Here, in America, a warrior ethos took root, which was as fierce and violent as that of any Highland clan. President Andrew Jackson would remember his mother telling him, “Never tell a lie, nor take what is not your own, nor sue anybody for slander, assault, or battery. Always settle them cases yourself.” One day she scolded him: “Stop that, Andrew. Do not let me see you cry again. Girls were made to cry, not boys.” “What are boys made for, mother?” he asked. She answered, “To fight.”

Jackson spent his life fighting, both as a soldier and as a gentleman of honor in duels that took the lives of two opponents. Dueling, and the code of honor that went with it, became embedded in Southern culture. Men defended themselves with their fists, knives, and muskets. Training with a gun and target practice were standard parts of a boy’s, and sometimes a girl’s, training for dealing with the real world. Running battles or feuds between backcountry families were as common, and as vicious, as any between Scottish Borders dynasties or Highland clans—the epic Highland clashes of Campbells and MacDonalds would later be matched in backcountry America by those of Hatfields and McCoys.

To see justice done, men were prepared to take the law into their own hands. In the Carolinas, bands of vigilantes or Regulators crisscrossed the territory in the late 1760s, stamping out local hooligans and waging war on interlopers. This vigilante attitude was epitomized by a Scots Borders descendant from Pittsylvania County, Virginia, named Captain William Lynch. He ruled as virtual dictator of his county, punishing wrongdoers and warning lawless elements that “we will inflict such corporal punishment on him or them, as to us shall seem adequate to the crime committed or the damage sustained.” “Lynch’s Law,” and the punishments and hangings it inflicted, also became part of American culture—an ugly part, but a legacy of a harsh world and a harsh, unforgiving people.

The Presbyterian Ulster Scots also brought over their burning hatred of Episcopalians (especially since, as British subjects, they had to pay taxes for the established Anglican Church in America). When one Anglican missionary tried to preach in the Carolina mountains, the locals “disrupted his services, rioted while he preached, started a pack of dogs fighting outside the church, loosed his horse, stole his church key, refused him food and shelter, and gave two barrels of whiskey to his congregation.” The missionary, an Englishman, learned to hate his would-be Scotch-Irish converts with a passion. “They delight in their present low, lazy, sluttish, heathenish, hellish life,” he wrote, “and seem not desirous of changing it.”

Religious feeling was not all negative. The years in Ireland had kept the original evangelical fervor of John Knox’s Kirk intact. For all their wild and “heathenish” ways, Ulster Scots dipped deep into the emotional resources of Scottish Calvinism. They worshiped in “prayer societies” and large “field meetings”—the ancestor of the American revival meeting. They turned to their ministers for inspiration and support, and took comfort in a hellfire-and-damnation style of Christianity. The skeptic Robert Burns mocked the dramatic flair of Scottish evangelical preachers in “The Holy Fair”:

Hear how he clears the points o’ Faith,

Wi’ rattlin’ an’ thumpin’

Now meekly calm, now wild in wrath

He’s stampan an he’s jumpan!

But the Scots and Scotch Irish laity loved it, and it became the hallmark of Southern—and American—religion from then until the present. It also forged a link between the Presbyterian “People of the New Light,” as the immigrants call themselves, and the intense Protestant revivalism taking place in the 1730s and 1740s, which historians call the Great Awakening.

The Great Awakening transformed the culture of colonial America, touching its inhabitants with the spark of promised redemption, and daring them to challenge orthodox assumptions and institutions. It set the stage for the American Revolution. The man most often associated with it is the New England minister Jonathan Edwards, and his church in Northampton, Massachusetts. But in fact Scottish Presbyterians were front and center in the movement from the start.

The Great Awakening’s basic notion was that the past had passed, and the future was alive with possibilities for celebrating the glory of God. Jonathan Edwards preached that the coming of Christ’s kingdom, the millennium, would begin in America. Anyone—not just Presbyterians but all Protestant sects, even the hated Episcopalians— could be touched by God’s grace; all the righteous would eventually join together, regardless of denomination or place of origin, to form a single great “Christian commonwealth.” Righteousness, not birth or status, determined one’s place in the coming kingdom of God. It was a revivalist message that echoed the themes of Scottish Calvinism since Knox’s day. Not surprising, then, that Presbyterians became its most enthusiastic partisans, or that the arrival of the Ulster Scots in the middle colonies of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, and Maryland provided the initial spark.

At the center of the explosion were minister William Tennant and his sons. A recent scholar has concluded, “The Tennants were probably the single most important clerical force in the progress of the Great Awakening.” William Tennant, Sr., was born in Northern Ireland, educated in Edinburgh, and in 1704 ordained as a minister in the Anglican Church. However, the moment he set foot in America, in 1718, he felt drawn to the faith of his ancestors and his wife’s family. By 1720 he was a Presbyterian minister in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, at the edge of the frontier, and in the midst of a thronging Scotch-Irish immigrant community in Neshaminy.

He soon realized that he had far more Ulster Scots parishioners than he could deal with, and far fewer trained clergy than he had counted on. So he decided to open his own school of theology in a log cabin (naturally) next to his church, which became known as “Log College.” It was the first Presbyterian academy in the middle colonies. One of its first graduates was his son Gilbert. Hard and fearless, Gilbert Tennant would have made a worthy companion to Andrew Jackson, or perhaps William Wallace. “Taller than common size,” he was “a man of great Fortitude, a lover of God, ardently jealous for His glory, and anxious for the salvation of sinners.” He went on to Yale College and returned to Pennsylvania to cheer the revivalist tour of George Whitefield in 1740, which ignited the Great Awakening in Protestant congregations all along the eastern seaboard.

It was a crucial moment. The Pennsylvania synod had decided to shut down William Tennant’s Log College because of his aggressive assertion that the clergy should inspire, not just rule over, its congregation. He defied them and set off a split within the Presbyterian Church in the colony, between the orthodox Old Side, and the New Side, who recruited their laity into their cause. By 1744, Gilbert Tennant was the New Side minister for the church in Philadelphia and the Tennant version of Presbyterian “New Light” was reaching out to New Jersey and New England.

To inspire students and future ministers for the New Side, the Tennants and their allies decided to create a new Presbyterian college in New Jersey. It opened its doors in 1747, and eventually moved to the town of Prince Town, or Princeton. It was supposed to be a revivalist antidote to the “corruption” of institutions such as Harvard and Yale. The college even chose Jonathan Edwards as its honorary president, although he died less than three months after moving to Princeton to assume his duties. A new president—Aaron Burr, Sr., father of the future vice president of the United States—was named, and by then the schism between Old Side and New Side Presbyterians was beginning to heal. Princeton became a haven for revivalist religion everywhere, regardless of denomination: even the Baptist leader Isaac Backus encouraged sons of his flock to go there.

One alumnus was a young Philadelphian named Benjamin Rush. Although Rush was English, not Scottish, by origin, he was the first of a succession of Americans for whom a Scottish education was the transforming event of their lives. He spent his childhood surrounded by key figures in the Presbyterian Great Awakening.23 When he went to Princeton the college president was Samuel Davies, who had spent years of his life preaching the gospel in the Scotch-Irish backcountry of Virginia. He stressed to Rush’s Class of 1760 “the vast importance and absolute Necessity of entering upon Public Life with A NEW HEART and A NEW SPIRIT.” After graduation, Rush apprenticed with Philadelphia’s leading physician, John Redman, who was also a Log College graduate. Other doctors he met encouraged Rush to travel to Scotland to study medicine, and in 1767 he left for Edinburgh. It was a trip that would change his life—and incidentally change the course of education in America.

He arrived in Liverpool on October 21. Thanks to Benjamin Franklin, who was then living in London, Rush had letters of introduction to various Edinburgh luminaries (during Franklin’s visit in 1759, he had been given the keys to the city). He even met David Hume at a dinner party—“his person was rather ungenteel and clumsy,” Rush wrote in his diary, “he spoke but little, but what he said was always pertinent and sensible.” However, Hume’s evident religious skepticism, and the relaxed attitude about religion generally among Hume’s Moderate friends, disturbed the young Benjamin Rush, suffused as he was with the ardent afterglow of the Great Awakening.

From that point of view, he felt more comfortable with the Kirk’s tradition-minded Popular Party, especially the party’s champion, John Witherspoon. Witherspoon was forty-three years old when Rush met him at his fast-growing parish in Paisley, near Glasgow. Witherspoon was a strong, energetic, squat-faced man with thick, bushy eyebrows; he was a skilled theologian and a brilliant preacher. He was no rock-ribbed, fire-eating reactionary, however. He had been the classmate of William Robertson, Hugh Blair, and the other Moderates, and had received the same humanistic education in the classics, philosophy, and science. Witherspoon grasped the strengths and foibles of his Moderate opponents better than most, and he had used his knowledge with devastating effect in his Ecclesiastical Characteristics, the anti-Moderate satire that had made him famous and admired, even in Moderate circles.

It was Witherspoon who had pointed out that the new “enlightened” Presbyterian Church of Robertson and the rest was really a kind of elitism, reinforced by their dependence on powerful political patrons such as Lord Islay. He took the title “Popular Party” with pride: he and his fellow Evangelicals were truly preachers to the people, the farmers and shopkeepers and apprentices and tenant laborers who made up the backbone of the Scottish Kirk. The people deserved a say in who their ministers were, he believed, and in how the Gospel would be preached.

It was the sort of forthright democratic attitude Benjamin Rush, son of the New Light, could identify with, and he was not alone. For, as he explained to Witherspoon, his visit to Paisley was not a pleasure trip. Rush was there on business. He was there to persuade Witherspoon to accept the post he had been offered a year ago November, to become the new president of Princeton College in America.


Princeton, or Nassau Hall as it was sometimes called after its principal building, had had a run of bad luck. It had gone through five presidents in twenty years—one of whom, Jonathan Edwards, had died less than three months after accepting the post. The college needed a president who could give it continuity and stability, and its trustees believed Witherspoon had the right qualifications and the proper orthodox Presbyterian spirit to do that. They also believed that Witherspoon could help the Church heal its New Side–Old Side schism, since Witherspoon had the respect of both groups (the head of the Old Siders, William Alison, was a fellow Scot). On November 19, 1766, they wrote to Witherspoon, offering him a salary of 146 pounds sterling, as well as use of a house and garden, and land for “winter fuel and pasturage.” They closed with, “we ardently pray, that Providence may make your way plain before you for the acceptance of [our] choice.”

At first glance, it seems odd that Witherspoon would even consider such an offer. His reputation in Scotland was made; Paisley was a rapidly growing city, and he felt duty-bound to stay and oversee the church he had been building there. He had already turned down offers from Dublin, Dundee, and the Scottish church in Rotterdam. Besides, as he explained to the trustees and to Benjamin Rush when he came to visit, his wife was very wary of the long and dangerous voyage to America. It was a prospect to daunt anyone, especially someone with a settled and comfortable life.

Yet the fact remained that Witherspoon, like many other Scottish Evangelicals, felt drawn to America. Since the 1750s they had been fighting a losing battle for control over their Kirk. At the same time they had seen the Presbyterian churches in the colonies newly awakened to the spirit of the Lord. A suspicion took hold in their minds, that the place God had destined for the new covenant with His chosen people might not be Scotland after all, but America. A Scottish colleague who had heard about the Princeton offer wrote to Witherspoon, urging him to accept it: “I have long thought it the intention of Providence . . . to fix the great seat of truth and righteousness in America; and that New Jersey seemed to promise fair for being the nursery of the most approved instruments for carrying on that great design, in that wide continent.”

Similar thoughts must have occurred to Witherspoon, as well. The opportunity to shape “that great design” and make the College of New Jersey its educational epicenter seemed too good to miss. We will never know whether Rush’s own appeal affected his final decision. But on February 4, 1768, Witherspoon informed him his doubts were resolved and he would take up the presidency of Princeton. “Pray that it may be for the Glory of God and the publick interest,” he wrote Rush, “for it is a very hard piece of work—and more against my worldly interest than you yet know but I will not draw back.”

On May 10 he informed his saddened parishioners that he was leaving them and Scotland forever. On the eighteenth he and his wife boarded a ship at Greenock bound for America. They reached the mouth of the Delaware River on Saturday, August 6, after a harrowing trip of nearly eleven weeks. That Sunday, John Witherspoon landed at Philadelphia, greeted by a throng of church officials and well-wishers. Five days later they set out by carriage for Princeton. As Witherspoon and his wife came up the drive that night, they found Nassau Hall, the building that housed the college and its students, ablaze with light. The students had asked permission to illuminate the college in honor of their famous new president, and had hung Nassau Hall with dozens of candles, lamps, and lanterns, an iridescent beacon in the surrounding darkness.

Once in office, Witherspoon proved to be the opposite of the stereotypical narrow-minded Evangelical hard-liner. He intended to make Princeton not only the best college in the colonies, but in the entire British world. The model he chose was his own Scottish alma mater, the University of Edinburgh, and its curriculum would be the rigorous humanistic one that Hutcheson and others had introduced at Glasgow. Witherspoon saw education not as a form of indoctrination, or of reinforcing a religious orthodoxy, but as a broadening and deepening of the mind and spirit—and the idea of freedom was fundamental to that process. “Govern, govern always,” he told his faculty and tutors, “but beware of governing too much. Convince your pupils . . . that you wish to see them happy, and desire to impose no restraints but such as their real advantage, and the order and welfare of the college, render indispensable.” Under his guidance, Princeton became a vital meeting ground of America’s evangelical fervor and Scotland’s modernizing humanism—and a principal conduit for the flow of Scottish ideas into the culture of the colonies.

Some of this was in place even before Witherspoon arrived. Samuel Blair, one of Princeton’s Ulster Scot founders, had said the school’s curriculum should “cherish a spirit of liberty and free enquiry,” so that every religious denomination, not just Presbyterians, enjoyed full freedom of conscience. Students were also introduced to a wide range of advanced secular, as well as theological, study. After one and a half years of Latin and Greek, they pressed on not only to traditional subjects such as logic and rhetoric, but also to history, geography, and science. Princeton’s founders believed, as Witherspoon did, that science was the ally, not the opponent, of religion. It was the sort of view of education anyone trained in a Scottish university would understand: that of a basic unity of all human knowledge, which every student can be exposed to and can ultimately master.

What Witherspoon brought to this was his own dedicated energy. He swept into Princeton like a human dynamo. In addition to serving as president, and as principal orator of the college, Witherspoon was also chairman of the Philosophy Department, of the History Department, and of what today we would call the English Department, and gave sermons in the college chapel every Sunday. In addition, he tutored students in French and Hebrew.

He then reorganized the college-sponsored grammar school attached to Princeton and took over as headmaster. As one would expect a Scot to do, he doubled the amount of formal training in English in the grammar school’s curriculum, and added English literature and composition to the college entrance requirements. He focused the curriculum on subjects central to the reforms Francis Hutcheson and his allies had earlier carried out in Scotland, particularly the classics, moral philosophy, and rhetoric and criticism—or what his old Moderate antagonists would have called belles lettres. He included massive doses of reading in all these subjects, not just the great ancient philosophers, but also modern ones. These included his fellow Scots and his Moderate opponents, such as Hutcheson, Kames, Ferguson, Adam Smith, and even David Hume. Witherspoon’s attitude was that even if you disagreed with a philosopher or thinker, you still needed to read him in order to appreciate his arguments and refute them. So Witherspoon’s students found themselves inundated with a host of thinkers Witherspoon disapproved of, but whom, in “the spirit of free inquiry,” they were expected to understand and digest. As a result, Witherspoon’s influence ranged far beyond his own views and positions, and pointed in directions he himself could not have foreseen.

Witherspoon did chart his students’ intellectual progress in other ways. He encouraged them to reorganize Princeton’s two student clubs along Scottish lines, as places for intellectual discussion as well as conviviality. Two of his best students, James Madison, who was just eighteen, and Aaron Burr, stepped in to help. Witherspoon also organized debates and speeches almost every evening in Nassau Hall, so that Princeton students, as he put it, “may learn, by early habit, presence of mind and proper pronunciation and gesture in public speaking.” On those evenings Witherspoon threw the doors open to the public, encouraging Madison, Burr, and the rest to sharpen their wits and loosen their tongues before a large audience on a wide variety of subjects, including political topics—topics so volatile and controversial (this was at the time of the Boston Massacre) that locals began to get alarmed.

All this was part of Witherspoon’s vision of Princeton as a place not just for teaching students and would-be ministers, but also for training future public leaders. It was one reason he wanted Princeton to be as “inclusive” as possible. Princeton drew students from all the colonies, not just New Jersey. He encouraged non-Presbyterians to attend, such as the Episcopalian Virginian James Madison. Even more amazingly, he recruited Native American students and blacks, such as the future teacher and minister John Chavis. Witherspoon wanted his students to think of themselves as Americans, and to think of themselves as obligated to lead America to a new future.

That future was very much on his mind, and on his students’ minds, as 1770 ushered in what promised to be a decade of conflict between the colonies and Britain. These were the years of the Boston Massacre, protests against the so-called Intolerable Acts, and the first meetings of the Committees of Correspondence. In the midst of this tense and confusing crisis, Witherspoon had no doubts where he stood. Whatever his feelings as a Briton and a Scot, his loyalties were now with his adopted home. He had chosen the Popular Party in Scotland, he said, because he was opposed to “lordly domination.” Now the same issue was at stake. America must be free to fulfill its place in God’s “great design,” and if the mother country refused to permit that freedom, then Americans had to be ready to take matters into their own hands.

Witherspoon published his first words of support for the American cause in 1771. Three years later, as events brought delegates from all the colonies together for the first Continental Congress, he composed his Thoughts on American Liberty. He urged the Congress to start thinking of America as a nation, with a distinct national interest. Although they should still avow their loyalty to Britain and its laws, they had to take a firm stand against Parliament’s efforts to tax and regulate their affairs. It was time, America’s most distinguished educator urged, to begin drawing up plans for union. He made much the same point in a pastoral letter to all the Presbyterian churches in the colonies, saying that he preferred “war with all its horrors, and even extermination, to slavery, riveted on us and our posterity.”

In the predawn hours of April 19, 1775, British troops marched into Lexington, Massachusetts, to find one hundred or so local volunteers drawn up on the village green to oppose them. Shots were fired; eight militiamen died, ten others were wounded, and the rest scattered. All that day British regulars and Massachusetts Minutemen exchanged gun-fire, as the American Revolution drew its first blood. When news of the fighting reached the other colonies, supporters of armed struggle sprang into action. Ulster Scots in the Shenandoah Valley took up the cause with alacrity; in Rockbridge County, Virginia, they even named their new county seat Lexington, in honor of the fallen. In North Carolina, Scotch-Irish volunteers gathered in Charlotte and, at midnight on May 20, declared Mecklenburg County to be free and independent from the British Crown.

The most pressing priority was turning the uprising in the separate colonies into a single national movement. This was partly a military problem: without a unity of command, the rebels had no chance of holding their own against their vastly superior British foes. It led to the creation on June 14, 1775, of the Continental Army, under the command of General George Washington. But it was also a political issue: how to convince colonists to think of themselves as part of a large whole, dedicated to a single purpose and requiring equal sacrifice from everyone? Fortunately, the Great Awakening had already pointed the way, and no one was more keenly aware of the deep resources waiting to be tapped there than John Witherspoon. American unity required more than just rational planning; it needed a strong moral base, and Witherspoon pointed out where to find it.

In March 1776 the British evacuated Boston; the scene of conflict was shifting from New England to New York. On May 15 the Continental Congress took the first tentative steps toward separating itself formally from Britain. Two days later Witherspoon stepped to the pulpit in Princeton and delivered a sermon he later published as The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men. It began with a survey of the role of God’s Providence in world history—of how, as the Psalms had put it, “not a sparrow falls but God knows it.” This was because, as Witherspoon explained, God ultimately knows and wills everything that happens in His creation, especially the fate of His chosen people. His benevolence had protected the Jews, and then the early Christians; it had guided the Reformation, and then extended it to the shores of America. Now God was guiding the turbulent events in the colonies, even as the powers arrayed against them seemed destined to triumph.

Witherspoon’s next sentence rang out from the pulpit like a bell reverberating over the landscape:

I am satisfied that the confederacy of the colonies has not been the effect of pride, resentment, or sedition, but of a deep and general conviction that our civil and religious liberties, and consequently in a great measure the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our posterity, depended on the issue.

What was at stake was not just taxes or the rights of freeborn Englishmen, but the principle of a Christian commonwealth dedicated to God. In fact, the political and religious issues were inseparable. “There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost and religious liberty [kept] entire.” The final proof, in Witherspoon’s mind, that this rebellion was part of God’s divine plan was that so many different religious denominations—Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, yes, and even Episcopalians—had come together to support it. “He is the best friend to American liberty,” Witherspoon asserted, who combined commitment to political freedom with a commitment to God. If Americans could do this, “there will be the greatest reason to hope, by the blessing of God, for prosperity and success.”

A Christian commonwealth dedicated to liberty and God: no political vision could possibly be further removed from the principles of a David Hume or an Adam Smith. But in America in 1776 it struck precisely the right note. When historians emphasize the role that secular political ideas played in inspiring the American Revolution, and point to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison—who actually did turn to David Hume for guidance, as we shall soon see—they sometimes overlook the powerful religious dimension of the revolt. Witherspoon’s invocation helped to tip the balance in the minds of thousands of colonists who might have been hostile, or at least cool, to the idea of political rebellion against their sovereign king. It was the authentic voice of Protestant America. Witherspoon mobilized a revivalist fervor that the revolution needed to succeed, and that the new nation would inherit.

Certainly contemporaries recognized it. The Dominion of Providence went through nine editions, with publishers in Philadelphia, London, and Glasgow. The Edinburgh editors of the Scots Magazine strongly condemned it, and concluded that “the unhappy commotions in our American colonies” were due almost entirely to “clerical influence,” and that “none . . . had a greater share . . . than Doctor Witherspoon.” Horace Walpole, son of the former prime minister, rose in Parliament to speak. “There is no use crying about it,” he said. “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it.” Everyone knew whom he meant.

On June 28, 1776, Witherspoon was in Philadelphia as part of the New Jersey delegation to the Continental Congress. They were there to draw up a declaration of American independence.


Revolution thrust on all Scottish immigrants, and on Americans of recent Scots or Ulster Scots extraction, a set of difficult choices. Should the colonists rebel or not rebel, in order to secure their rights? If they did rebel, should one join with them or remain loyal to the British Crown?

Recent immigrants, particularly those from the Highlands, tended to choose the Crown. Remarkably, even some of those who had fled in the wake of the Forty-five remained loyal to the government that had done so much to drive them from their homes. When Flora and Allan MacDonald heard the news about Lexington, Allan immediately offered his services to the loyalist side. He became second-in-command of the loyalist militia raised from the Highlanders in the Cape Fear region, under one Brigadier Donald MacDonald, a British officer dispatched to North Carolina—who also happened to be a cousin. Their Highland militiamen, complete with bagpipes and broadswords, ran afoul of the rebels at Moore’s Creek at the end of February 1776. Leading the charge was another Cape Fear Highlander, Donald MacLeod, who died with nine musket balls in him; thirty or so others also fell until the loyalists fled in confusion. The field belonged to the rebels—most of whom were almost certainly Ulster Scots.

In the Mohawk Valley in New York, Highland immigrants rallied to the British colors under two veterans of Culloden—one who had served on the Jacobite, the other on the Hanoverian side. The old Hanoverian, Alexander MacDonald, declared that “nothing can cure the madness that prevails all over America but the sternest of measures.” He led an ugly and savage guerrilla-style war in the valley, pitting Indians against rebel settlers, and Highlanders against Continental regulars. Incidents such as this, and the fighting at Moore’s Creek, made Scottish immigrants synonymous with loyalist or “Tory.” They became easy targets for abuse. John Witherspoon even penned an Appeal to the Natives of Scotland, urging them to reconsider on grounds of self-interest. Independence, he insisted, would make their new American home “powerful and opulent to a degree not conceived.” Eventually Britain and America would be bound together by ties of another kind, of free trade (he even quoted David Hume on this point!). They were not giving up their old roots, but were gaining new ones.

But by and large the Scots stood firmly against revolution. When it ended, most would end up paying for their decision by having to leave, as the newly independent Americans made it clear that they were no longer welcome:

Tories, with their brats and wives,

Should fly to save their wretched lives.

Allan and Flora MacDonald returned to their original home, on the Isle of Skye—coming full circle after a life of constant adventure and turmoil. One hundred fifty thousand other Loyalist exiles, at least a fifth of them Scots, left for the remaining British dominions in the Americas. At least one-half went to Canada, and nearly 35,000 of those to Nova Scotia, Scotland’s original foundation in North America. After the opulence of life in the thirteen colonies, immigrants found conditions there austere. Some nicknamed their new home “Nova Scarcity.” But the American Revolution did have this unexpected consequence: it infused the British dominions in Canada with a bracing dose of Scotsmen who would play an important part in the making of the country in the next century.

Ulster Scots, on the other hand, had no such qualms. A long-standing hatred of the English drove them into the arms of the Sons of Liberty and the rebel cause. They were, said one appalled New Englander, “the most God-provoking democrats on this side of Hell.” Another in Philadelphia said, “a Presbyterian loyalist was a thing unheard of.” Some, such as William Stark, commander at Bunker Hill, found a leading role in the fight, but most played a humbler part, like Andrew Jackson’s family. Two of Jackson’s brothers enlisted in the South Carolina militia, and one was only sixteen when he was killed in action. Andrew himself joined the militia at the incredible age of twelve, was wounded in battle and captured, and, when he refused to clean a British officer’s boots, received a saber cut across the skull that left a permanent scar. In prison he contracted smallpox and malaria. His mother nursed the wounded, and died of exhaustion before the war ended.

The Scotch-Irish from places such as Mecklenburg and Orange counties in North Carolina, Augusta and Rockbridge counties in Virginia, and Bucks and Chester counties in Pennsylvania supplied the cause of independence with more than just patriotic fervor. Debate now rages among historians about how skilled the average American colonist really was with firearms and whether most even owned or had fired a musket. One thing seems certain, however: the typical frontier Scotch-Irish settler had grown up with firearms, including the use of the rifled musket, which, the British general Howe had to admit, they had “perfected with little knowledge of ballistics.” They would supply the backbone of George Washington’s Continental Army. One estimate (probably exaggerated) had it that half the army at Valley Forge were Ulster Scots. Certainly they brought military experience, leadership, and a fighting spirit to a revolution that badly needed all three.

Daniel Morgan of North Carolina raised a regiment of volunteer rifles, beat British regulars at the Battle of Cowpens, and then was instrumental in frustrating the British general Cornwallis’s campaign in the Carolinas. Virginia-born and frontier-hardened George Rogers Clark turned the tables on the British in the Ohio Valley when he and his band of rangers made an epic journey to capture Fort Vincennes.

Henry Knox’s father had arrived in Boston from Ulster in 1729. Henry was twenty-five when the rebellion broke out; although he had no soldiering experience, in less than a year he was head of General Washington’s artillery. He personally led Washington’s raid on the Hessians in Trenton on Christmas Eve, 1776, and earned accolades for service in subsequent campaigns. He became major general in 1781, at age thirty-one. A key member of Washington’s inner coterie, Knox later served under him as the new nation’s first secretary of war. He pushed hard for the creation of a national militia in 1790, although Congress turned him down. Knox did, however, manage to take the first steps toward the creation of a national military academy at West Point, New York.

James McHenry grew up in County Antrim in Ulster, and was educated in Dublin, probably at a Presbyterian academy. He emigrated to Philadelphia in 1771, and while the rest of his family founded a prosperous import business in Baltimore, McHenry chose to study medicine at the College of Philadelphia with Benjamin Rush. The war drew them both into the Continental Army as physicians, although McHenry turned from army medicine (he was senior surgeon of the army’s mobile field hospital at Valley Forge) to staffwork, becoming secretary to General Washington and then to Lafayette. McHenry also went on to sit as secretary of war, both for Washington and for John Adams. When the threat of war with France flared, he ordered a series of forts built along the East Coast. The one in Baltimore would later bear his name, and the British siege of Fort McHenry in 1812 would inspire another American of Scottish extraction, Francis Scott Key, to pen the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the American national anthem.

Important contributions to the American war effort did not just come from Ulster Scots, however.

John Paul’s father was a gardener on a wealthy estate in Kirkcudbrightshire in extreme southern Scotland. However, his son had no interest in remaining on land. He was drawn irresistibly to the sea, and made his first voyage to Fredericksburg, Virginia, on a Scottish merchant ship at age thirteen. A brilliant seaman, he soon became master of his own ship; unfortunately, command brought out that part of his character which would plague him all his life: his vanity, his quickness to quarrel, and his ferocious temper. When he was charged with murdering one of his crewmen in 1773, he decided to skip Britain for Virginia, where he changed his name by adding to it a surname, Jones. The colonies were on the brink of rebellion: it was the perfect opportunity for a daring adventurer and skilled seaman. John Paul Jones won commission as lieutenant on the Alfred, the very first ship in the Continental Navy. On November 1, 1777, he took command of the Ranger, and with it and later his French-outfitted Bon Homme Richard he became America’s first naval war hero. His vanity and restless ambition prevented him from playing a more important role in the navy after the war; but his epic sea battles, and his famous maxim, “I have not yet begun to fight,” embodied the kind of do-or-die spirit that would eventually enable the struggling revolution to prevail.

A similar spirit overtook the delegates at the Continental Congress that steamy summer of 1776. Witherspoon, as part of the New Jersey delegation, knew the risks that this sort of undertaking involved. Within a year, British troops would invade Princeton. They would ransack Nassau Hall and burn the splendid library that Witherspoon had worked so hard to assemble. But at this point his attention was entirely fixed on the nation’s future. “It has been often said,” he wrote, “that the present is likely to be an important era to America. I think we may safely say, it is likely to be an important era in the history of mankind.” He believed that the Congress had more than just a duty to declare independence; its job was to lay the foundation for the creation of a new nation. “We have the opportunity of forming plans of government upon the most rational, just, and equal principles. I confess,” Witherspoon added, “I have always looked upon this with a kind of enthusiastic satisfaction.” It was, he believed, something that had never happened before in history. If they failed, it might never happen again.

The Continental Congress included a host of other delegates of Scottish or Ulster Scot extraction: at least nineteen, in fact, out of fifty-six signers of the final Declaration, or fully one-third.24 In addition to Witherspoon, there was William Hooper of North Carolina, whose father was a Scottish Congregationalist from Boston. There was Thomas McKean of Delaware, son of a farmer and tavernkeeper from the Scotch-Irish settlement in Chester County, Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania delegation was full of Scottish descendants, including James Smith; George Taylor, who had come over from northern Ireland as an indentured servant; and the native-born Scot James Wilson, who came from Carskerdy and was educated at St. Andrews and (probably) Glasgow— and whom we will meet again shortly.

The influence of Scottish education was also much in evidence, with Witherspoon, Wilson, and Benjamin Rush, who sat as a Pennsylvania delegate, and Thomas Jefferson. While Jefferson never attended any Scottish university, his alma mater at William and Mary College had been recently overhauled on the Scottish model. His closest teacher, William Small, had been a native-born Scot educated at the University of Aberdeen. The most arresting phrases in his draft of the declaration, “we hold these truths to be self-evident” and “the pursuit of happiness,” owed their lineage to the Scottish school. In addition, the final copy of the Declaration itself was written by an Ulster Scot (Charles Thomson, secretary to the Continental Congress); it was publicly read aloud to the citizens of Philadelphia by an Ulster Scot, and first printed by yet another Ulster Scot.

In Scotland itself, meanwhile, politicians, ministers, philosophers, merchants, and ordinary people lined up on either side of the conflict. In Parliament, Scots were now a prominent part of the governing establishment, and two sat in Lord North’s cabinet as he guided Britain into war. Alexander Wedderburn was serving as Solicitor General, and Robert, Lord Dundas, as Lord Advocate for Scotland, while Lord Mansfield acted as chief spokesman for His Majesty’s Government in the House of Lords. On the other side, the flamboyant Lord George Gordon, rabble-rousing orator and anti-Catholic bigot, proudly proclaimed the cause of American independence.

The merchant elites in both Glasgow and Edinburgh stoutly backed the government, and offered to raise volunteer regiments to help put down “those damned rebels.” At stake was more than just the loyalty of North Britons. Their material self-interest was also on the line. Merchants worried that American independence would cripple their lucrative transatlantic tobacco business. In fact, the war had brought an embargo on American goods, which rocked the foundations of most of Glasgow’s great merchant houses: by 1776 a few were ready to topple. William Cunninghame was an exception. As the American crisis had begun to heat up, Cunninghame had quietly bought up inventories of Virginia and Maryland tobacco from his rivals. When the war came, and the price skyrocketed, he graciously consented to sell the tobacco back to them—at an astronomical profit. It was the proceeds from the deal that enabled him to construct his splendid house on Virginia Street, and to emerge as the most successful—and the most cunning—of all the Tobacco Lords.

The American Revolution also made Scottish Highland regiments the backbone of the British Army. In the course of the fighting, the number of active Highland regiments doubled. Clansmen, prevented since 1745 from possessing weapons of their own, rediscovered their martial livelihood and their traditional costume of kilt and bonnet, serving in units raised by their landlords. Regiments such as Fraser’s Highlanders, MacDonald’s Highlanders, and the Argyll Highlanders fought in Virginia, New York, and the Carolinas, while others, such as the Atholl Highlanders and Lord Seaforth’s, took the places of other British garrisons in Ireland, Gibraltar, and India. MacDonald’s 76th Highland Regiment surrendered with other British forces at Yorktown, and according to one of its officers, their captors, who included several Scottish emigrants, urged them to desert. However, the officer noted proudly, “not a single Highlander allowed himself to be seduced by these offers, from the duty which he had engaged to discharge to his King and country.”

The revolution splintered the political loyalties of the Scottish Enlightenment. Although William Robertson was convinced that one day “America must in some future period be the seat of the empire,” he chose to support the government in London. David Hume, the archetypal North Briton, worried that hanging on to these far-flung imperial possessions would ruin the British government, both financially and morally. His sympathies lay entirely with the colonists. “I am an American in my principles,” he told Benjamin Franklin in 1775, “and wish we would let [them] alone to govern or misgovern themselves as they think proper.”

Like Hume, Adam Smith saw more at stake in the struggle than just American liberty versus the sovereignty of Parliament. He sensed the stirrings of forces that would eventually tear Britain apart if it failed to deal with them by changing its imperial policies more in the direction of free trade. His own solution was to give the colonies representation in Parliament—something that, given the current balance of forces at Westminster, was impossible. The only other sensible course, then, had to be—let them go. “It is surely time,” he wrote in the closing sentence of the Wealth of Nations, “that Great Britain should free herself from the expense of defending those provinces in time of war, and of supporting any part of their civil or military establishments in time of peace. . . .” By abandoning a lost cause abroad, Smith argued, Britain would have to confront the realities at home, “the real mediocrity of her circumstances,” as he put it, and the stagnant state into which her affairs had fallen.

The allies of Witherspoon in the Evangelical Party were more passionate in their support of the American cause. John Erskine, Witherspoon’s friend and colleague, wrote a pamphlet in 1769 titled Shall I Go to War with My American Brethren? to which the answer was a resounding No! When war broke out, others followed suit, protesting the war and condemning London’s hard-line attitude. Their position sprang from more than just solidarity with their Presbyterian counterparts in the colonies. They also worried that the government might turn to England’s Roman Catholics for support of its policy by giving them a Catholic Relief Bill, offering an olive branch to Catholics and, by extension, to the papacy in Rome, in exchange for help in suppressing the revolt in America. This rather farfetched fear touched not only Scots, but Englishmen as well. In 1780 it triggered the most violent riots London had ever seen. Egged on by the unbalanced but charismatic Lord Gordon, the mob burned Catholic churches and then ransacked the house of Chief Justice Mansfield, attacked the Bank of England, and opened up the Fleet and King’s Bench prisons. The riots took ten thousand soldiers to suppress. Two hundred and eighty-five persons died and another twenty-five were hanged.

It was a particularly low point for Britain, and for North Britons in particular. Had Hume lived to see it, it would have confirmed his sense that the country had entered a period of dangerous decadence, and that certain drastic steps were needed if the United Kingdom was to save itself and avoid dissolving into bankruptcy, chaos, and even revolution. Meanwhile, Britain was embroiled in an unpopular war not only with the thirteen colonies, but also with France, Spain, and Holland. Had Hume lived even longer, he might have appreciated the irony of seeing Britain’s ancient French foe going through the very revolution he most feared—because of the debts they had run up helping the Americans.


Scottish Americans, of course, did not win the American Revolution. It was the alliance with France that did that, and which finally guaranteed British consent to American independence at the Treaty of Paris in 1783. But just as Scots and their Scotch-Irish cousins supplied some of the crucial muscle and inspiration for the American cause, so they played an equally important role in creating the new nation afterwards. Indeed, two additional Scots decisively shaped its character, even though neither ever set foot on American soil.

John Witherspoon had started things moving when the Continental Congress was drafting the first attempt to create a national union, in the Articles of Confederation. There he spoke to the issue that was becoming increasingly important to him, America’s place in the future of the world. “I do expect,” he said to the assembled delegates, “a progress, as in every other human art, so in the order and perfection of human society.” Why, he asked, should the Congress fail in propelling it forward? “It is not impossible,” he said, “that in future times all the states in one quarter of the globe may see it proper by some plan of union to perpetuate security and peace.” Let America, Witherspoon urged the delegates, be the model for such a European union and “hand down the blessings of peace and public order to many generations.”

But the Articles of Confederation proved an abysmal disappointment. Too weak at the center, too fragmented in its granting of powers to the individual states, the American republic seemed doomed to fail. Pessimists such as John Adams even wondered whether the American experiment in self-government would fail with it.

To prevent this, delegates assembled in Philadelphia once again in the late spring of 1787, to draw up a new plan of union. Although Witherspoon did not attend, the Constitutional Convention did offer an indirect tribute to his efforts as America’s foremost educator. Of twenty-five college graduates at the convention, nine were Princeton graduates, while only four were Harvard graduates, and even fewer were from Yale. The two plans put before the delegates for a new constitution were both authored by Princeton men. William Paterson, the son of an Ulster Scot tinsmith, attended Princeton shortly be-fore Witherspoon arrived, but had been instrumental in getting him there. He produced the so-called New Jersey Plan, which strongly supported the rights of the small states against the large, such as New York, Virginia, and Massachusetts.

The alternative plan, the one that was, with some modification, eventually adopted as the blueprint for the American Constitution, was authored by one of Witherspoon’s closest disciples, James Madison. He came from one of central Virginia’s wealthiest families, and was part of the state’s Episcopalian squirearchy, which was disdainful of religious enthusiasts of the Great Awakening, and proud of its links to England. Yet he had gone to Princeton, where he became deeply attached to President Witherspoon, and even delayed graduation in order to continue special work with him. This included tutoring in Hebrew, and exposure to the most advanced of the Scottish thinkers, from Hutcheson and Kames to Adam Smith and David Hume.

It was above all to Hume, Witherspoon’s avowed nemesis, that Madison found himself drawn. Detached, ironic, charming but devastating when engaged in intellectual debate, always interesting and frequently outrageous: Hume represented a new kind of intellectual persona that Madison admired and cultivated, both as a thinker and as a public figure. He also embraced the basic premises of all Scottish social science: that human beings act the same when they find themselves in similar circumstances, and that uniform human causes produce uniform effects. It enabled him to zero in on the question that had stumped not only speculators on the makeup of a future American republic, but also the grand classical tradition of political analysis running from Aristotle to the universally admired—even Kames and Smith quoted him— French philosopher Montesquieu.

How can a self-governing republic rule over a vast expanse of territory, which a future United States of America must inevitably do, without becoming an empire, and therefore acquisitive and corrupt? There seemed to be no clear answer. Montesquieu had summed up an entire body of thought in his Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748, which postulated that only a small community, composed of persons who all knew one another or nearly so, could perpetuate true liberty. A large continental republic was doomed. Geographic distance and conflicting interests, arising from differences in social development, bred civil conflict; the only solution would be tyranny, the rule of the strong in order to maintain order. Rome had succumbed to this ironclad rule, the experts said. If the former American colonies, stretching from Maine to Florida and pressing beyond the Appalachians to the Mississippi, tried to create a strong national government, they would succumb, too.

Madison thought otherwise. His rejection of accepted wisdom rested on his reading of a little-known text by David Hume published as part of his Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, titled, “The Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth.” In it, Hume broke with Montesquieu and proposed that a large or “extended” republic, for all its its geographic and socioeconomic diversity, might turn out to be the most stable of all. “In a large government which is modeled with masterly skill,” Hume declared, “there is compass and room enough to refine the democracy.” The masses find a place for themselves in the first level of elections and selection of magistrates. “Although the people as a body are unfit for government,” he wrote, “yet when dispersed in small bodies”—such as individual colonies or states—“they are more susceptible both to reason and order; the force of popular currents and tides is, in great measure, broken.” Meanwhile, the elite spend their time coordinating the movements of the various parts of the whole, rather than plotting its overthrow. “At the same time,” Hume observed, “the parts are so distant and remote, that it is very difficult, either by intrigue, prejudice, or passion, to hurry them into any measures against the public interest.”

As Douglass Adair has suggested, Hume’s words must have struck Madison like a hammer blow. He incorporated them into his plan for the new American constitution in his “Notes on the Confederacy,” published in April 1787, just eight months before he wrote his essay defending the Constitution as part of the Federalist Papers. In it (the tenth Federalist) Madison laid bare the heart of the new American system. The theme was not unity, but countervailing interests; in contemporary terms, gridlock. Federal versus state power, executive versus legislative, and judicial versus them both: add the disparate economic interests of bankers versus farmers, slaveholding southerners versus commercial-minded northerners, and thirteen semisovereign political units, plus indirect elections at the senatorial and presidential level to frustrate the raw, crude will of the people—and what you have is not chaos, as the critics might expect, but stability, and above all liberty.

Gridlock at the public level guarantees liberty at the private level: this was the dirty little secret Madison dared to unveil in the Federalist Papers. If scholars sometimes joke that David Hume is the “real” author of the Tenth Federalist, it is not just because it lays out Hume’s vision of an extended republic managing to govern itself into perpetuity. It is also because it co-opts Hume’s skeptical, cynical understanding of human motives into an American context. Madison states, “if men were angels, there would be no need of government”—a thoroughly Hume-like aphorism—and in the eternal struggle between liberty and authority in a modern society, the only way to preserve the one is to perpetually hobble the other.

The two other key figures in the making of the new constitution were both of Scottish extraction, and, like Madison, steeped in the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment. Alexander Hamilton was the son of a West Indies Scottish merchant, and prominent in New York political circles. He enthusiastically endorsed Madison’s federal plan, and helped author the Federalist Papers. Hamilton even signed the Constitution in defiance of the wishes of his own state of New York. But his vision of a strong nationalist government probably owed less to Hume than to Adam Smith’s mercantilist nemesis, James Steuart (although he knew the Wealth of Nations almost chapter and verse).

The other was a native-born Scot, the lawyer James Wilson. Born in Carskerdy, he attended St. Andrews and sat in on classes at the University of Glasgow before emigrating to Philadelphia. He found work as a tutor at the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania), which was, like Princeton, Scottish-dominated, before training for the bar and becoming a wealthy attorney in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, arranging land deals for his Ulster Scots clientele. His neat, tight-lipped, bespectacled figure became a familiar sight on the floor of the Constitutional Convention, where he spoke at virtually every session—more than anyone else, in fact, including Madison. It was Wilson who reconciled Madison’s plan for a strong national government with his opponent’s desire to preserve popular sovereignty, and it was Wilson who thrust into the midst of the debate the ideas of the man most associated with that third great center of Scottish Enlightenment, Aberdeen: the philosopher Thomas Reid.

Aberdeen sits on the Highlands’ east coast, comfortably nestled along a bay opening onto the North Sea. It was an active trading port; surrounded by fertile farmland, it became a thriving city with two distinguished educational institutions, King’s College, founded in 1495, and Marischal College. Thomas Reid was born only twenty miles from Aberdeen in 1710. The son of a minister, he entered Marischal at the age of twelve—not too precocious by Scottish standards—and took his degree in theology. Reid was what contemporaries identified as a Moderate, and owed his first post with the church in New-Machar to aristocratic patronage rather than election by the congregation— indeed, when he showed up, there was a riot and troops had to be called in. Eventually, however, his congregation came to like his sincere piety and straightforward manner, as well as his hardheaded, flinty intelligence. It was while serving as minister at New-Machar that Reid read the book that would change his life: David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature.

At first he was puzzled, then shocked—and then finally outraged by what he found. It was not just Hume’s religious skepticism, or his provocative assertion that morality was largely a matter of convention rather than conviction. What infuriated Reid most was the suggestion that seemed to permeate the entire book, that our world is not really as it seems: that our perception of the world, and the conclusions we draw from it, including our notions of right and wrong, are uncertain at best. That is why human beings come to rely on habit and accepted convention, Hume concluded, as well as the occasional insights of philosophers. They need these things to guide humanity through a reality that is itself ultimately unknowable. It is the sort of cautious, skeptical view summarized a century later by Benjamin Disraeli: “Few ideas are correct ones, and which they are none can tell, but with words we govern men.”

Reid considered this pretentious nonsense. The world was not a mysterious maze, Reid protested. It was an open and well-lit vista, rich with material for making clear judgments about up and down, black and white, and right and wrong. “Settled truth,” he wrote, “can be attained by observation.” Reality is not one step removed from us by our own limitations, but knowable and graspable by our own experience. All it took was ears to listen and eyes to see. “The evidence of sense, the evidence of memory, and the evidence of the necessary relations of things, are all distinct. . . . To reason against any of these kinds of evidence is absurd. . . . They are first principles, and as such fall not within the province of reason, but of common sense.”

That last term stuck. When Reid left New-Machar to become a “regent” or teacher at King’s College in Aberdeen in 1751, he became the central figure in a school of philosophy with which Aberdeen would be forever associated, the philosophy of common sense. Reid, James Beattie (his colleague at Marischal College), and Edinburgh’s William Hamilton (who edited Reid’s works after his death) all argued that all human beings came equipped with an innate rational capacity called common sense, which allowed them to make clear and certain judgments about the world, and their dealings with it. Common sense tells us that the world consists of real objects that exist in time and space. Common sense tells us that we can understand and navigate our way through that reality, and common sense tells us that the more we know about that outside world, the better we can act on it, both as individuals and as members of a community.

Knowledge is power—all Scottish philosophers recognized this— and the route to knowledge is through experience. But Reid insisted that that power belonged to every man, regardless of any other attributes. Human progress rests on expanding that capacity to its utmost and to as many people as possible, so that we can all become truly, morally free. It may not be going too far to call Reid’s philosophy a science of human freedom, and it is not difficult to see why it had such appeal to Americans, both of the revolutionary generation and later. It democratized the intellect, by insisting that the ordinary man could be as certain of his judgments as the philosopher was. Of course, ordinary men can make mistakes—and so do philosophers. And sometimes they cannot prove what they believe to be true—but then philosophers often have the same problem. But on some fundamental things, such as the existence of the real world and certain basic moral truths, they know that they do not have to offer any proof. These things are, as Reid put it, “self-evident,” meaning that they are “no sooner understood than they are believed,” because they “carry the light of truth in itself.”

Reid’s full-bodied attack on skeptics and moral relativists won him plaudits in Scotland—in 1764 he took over the chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow which had once belonged to Francis Hutcheson and then Adam Smith—and in Europe. In America, however, his impact was huge. Thomas Jefferson knew his writings, and put Reid’s best-known work on his recommended book list. It was very probably from Reid that he borrowed the idea of “self-evident truths” for the Declaration of Independence. He also put Reid at the center of his planned curriculum for the University of Virginia (Hume was very carefully left out).

John Witherspoon was certainly familiar with Reid’s commonsense philosophy. So was Benjamin Rush: he told his friend Tom Paine to use Reid’s key catchphrase as the title of his treatise on the necessity of American independence. It would go on to become the single most popular pamphlet of the American Revolution, with Reid’s motto emblazoned across the top: Common Sense. Reid’s ideas shaped American theories of education for the next hundred years. It helped to produce a cultural type that some consider typically American, but which is just as much Scottish: an independent intellect combined with an assertive self-respect, and grounded by a strong sense of moral purpose.

But it took the brittle, mercurial James Wilson to make Reid part of the grammar of American governance. Both at the Constitutional Convention and afterward, Wilson revealed how a philosophy of common sense could smoothe over the problems arising from Madison’s federalist blueprint, and how it also offered the best way to view the Constitution’s most startling and also most puzzling innovation: the creation of a United States Supreme Court.

On the one hand, the Supreme Court embodied a basic principle everyone could agree on, that self-government could only function under the rule of law, with an independent judiciary interpreting its key provisions. On the other, the possibility that such a court could, under the banner of “judicial review,” overturn duly approved legislative acts raised the hackles of those who saw Congress as enactors of “the will of the people,” an equally important principle. Wilson showed his colleagues, however, that they were wrong to worry about such a conflict. The purpose of a Supreme Court was not to “disparage the legislative authority” or to “confer upon the judicial department a power superior, in its general nature.” Instead, it added a power to the federal government that it would desperately need, the power of reflection, in order to decide whether a particular law fit within the frame of the Constititution. Judicial review would act not in defiance of the will of the people, but in addition to it, since judges would sit not as a body of legal experts but as a body of citizens. In Wilson’s mind, the Supreme Court would be one of the United States’ most democratic institutions; it would be, in Wilson’s words, “the jury of the country.”

The comparison was telling. Wilson saw being a “judge” as more than just a professional or legal designation. He used it in Reid’s sense: a judge is someone who makes judgments about the world, in matters of fact, of right and wrong, and of truth and falsehood. Wilson’s idea also reflected the role of the judge in Scottish law, whose job in court was not just to be a legal referee, but to find out what happened. From Wilson’s point of view, there was no essential difference between judge and jury (in Scotland, panels of judges did act in the place of juries). Both did the same thing in a trial or hearing: ask questions, weigh the facts presented, and then render a verdict, a judgment. The first relies rather more on his knowledge of the law, in order to make judgments. The second, in turn, has to rely on its most important resource: common sense. A Supreme Court for the nation would combine both. Its primary obligation would not be to the law, however, but to the community as a whole. As Wilson put it, “a judge is the blessing, or he is the curse of society.” It depended on whether he chose to use his common sense in deciding cases, or whether he chose his own professional vanity and ambition.

Wilson had hoped to be the Supreme Court’s first chief justice. That post went to John Jay instead. But Wilson did become an associate justice, and although his years on the bench were mired in controversy, he tried to use his approach to the law to create a distinctly American brand of jurisprudence. He lived by Reid’s maxim, “I despise philosophy and renounce its guidance; let my soul dwell in common sense.” He always insisted that decisions be written in clear and straightforward language, avoiding any legal or technical jargon, so that any citizen could read and understand them (Wilson’s insistence on this point impressed another Supreme Court judge who applied the same principle when he became chief justice, namely John Marshall). In Wilson’s mind, this was part of a judge’s responsibility to the principle of self-government, and part of the public’s education in the rule of law: because, as Wilson observed, the entire basis of the rule of law in a democratic society was “the consent of those whose obedience the law requires.” The better ordinary people understood the law, the better for the law, and the better for democracy.

This Wilson had also learned from Reid: that ordinary men could understand the law, because they were by nature equipped to do so. He endorsed Reid’s view that the common man was “a man of integrity” who “sees his duty without reasoning, as he sees the highway.” It led Wilson to trust people to do the right thing, particularly the American people (although he was no populist, and was very conservative on matters such as extending the franchise). The jury system was his model, not just for how the law works in a free society, but for how democracy works, as well. Its fundamental building block was man as knower, and as judger; a person who trusts his own senses, his grasp of the facts, and his grasp of right and wrong. A person who can recognize when he has the solution to a problem, or someone else does, and who goes along with what the majority finally decides.

Such a person—Common Sense Man, we can call him—was a necessary adjunct to the federal system Hume had inspired and Madison had created. Reid had been Hume’s great foe. Yet here, in America, Reid now rode in to his rescue. The only way such a complicated architecture of counterbalancing powers and “countervailing interests” could avoid permanent gridlock, and getting stuck in the same rut, would be if the people who made it up were able to agree on certain fundamental truths, “self-evident truths,” as Reid would say. In that way, they could trust their own judgment and that of others to arrive at a compromise solution to the crises that would inevitably arise.

Reid once defined common sense as “that degree of judgment which is common to men with whom we can converse and transact business.” Where no one was clearly in charge, common sense would have to reign. It was the moral of modern democracy, as the exponents of the Scottish school had conceived it, and as Scots in America, at least, had brought it into being.

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