Rotary Club of Belfast

Ulstermen Pivotal in the USA

PPBryan Presents2 13.01.20In an extremely interesting and well-crafted address to the Club Monday 13 January Past President Bryan Johnston discussed the remarkable influence of Ulstermen in their pivotal role in American Independence and the growth of the emerging development of the USA as well as their involvement and roles in the War of Independence. This tour de force presentation was very well received by a riveted audience.

PP Bryan reflected that the Plantation, together the Huguenots arrival in NI, meant that by 1700 the majority of the population in Ulster was of non-Anglican protestant stock most of whom being Presbyterian. In Ireland the vast majority of the population were Roman Catholic with Presbyterians being the 2nd largest religious group. PP Bryan highlighted the mid-18th Century scene of discrimination against the non-Anglicans noting that as a result the mainly Protestant population, the “Dissenters”, were the backbone of the emigration to the American colonies. He noted that according to the Ulster Scots Agency it is estimated that by 1770 250,000 had emigrated to American colonies (over 10% of the population) and they had a major impact on American history.

The most important he stressed was Francis Hutcheson. Born in 1694 in Saintfield he became Professor of Moral Philosophy in Glasgow University in 1730. Described by some as Europe’s 1st Liberal thinker, he was a philosopher of immense influence in the enlightenment in Europe and in America and also influenced the French Revolution. Those who studied under him and attended his lectures became his disciples preaching his philosophy. Notably:

  • James Witherspoon, a Scot, who became 1st President of Princeton; among those he influenced were James Madison (3rd President) and Aaron Burr (3rd Vice President) as well as 28 future Senators and 49 Congressmen
  • Francis Allison from Donegal, a Minister and teacher, was a personal friend of Benjamin Franklin; among his students were 5 who signed the Declaration of Independence and 15 future Congressmen and
  • many more academics espousing Hutcheson’s doctrine

Transfixed Audience 13.01.20Most of Hutcheson’s philosophical ideas were on the rights of human beings, born free & equal regardless of status or origin. He introduced the concept of Alienable & Unalienable Rights and he sought to establish human happiness and personal well-being as the objective of moral law and enlightened policy-making, claiming: You have a right to a contented and joyful life; You have an obligation to help others secure the same; No one stands alone; all must enjoy the benefits of liberty in society and if your Government did not offer Liberty and you were unhappy you were justified in seeking to overthrow it. The Claremont Institute in California, a highly respected think tank, in one of its publications in 2017 stated: “Francis Hutcheson provided the intellectual framework for two of the greatest achievements in world history in 1776 - Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and US Declaration of Independence”. Smith PP Bryan noted studied under Hutcheson and Thomas Jefferson who drafted the Declaration of Independence was influenced and mentored by William Small a Scottish Professor of natural philosophy at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Small, from Aberdeen, was a product of the Scottish Enlightenment and immersed in Hutcheson. Jefferson also had Hutcheson’s works in his private library.

PP Bryan reflected that disquiet from penal laws led to the War of Independence and PP Bryan quoted 19 Century US historian George Bancroft who stated “the first voices raised to dissolve the link with Britain came from the Scots/Irish Presbyterians”. PP Bryan revealed that the non-conformist Presbyterians left Ireland because of persecution and discrimination under an Anglican episcopacy and an Anglo Government, they were not going to be engulfed again by British rule even under the guise of an episcopacy. He mused if they hadn’t been there would American Independence in the 1770s prospered concluding – possibly – but their presence, their influence and that of Hutcheson secured it.

PP Bryan also highlighted other main NI immigrant players involved:

  • Charles Thompson - born in Maghera - Secretary to the Continental Congress wrote out the Declaration by hand as Secretary to the Congress. He also designed the great seal of the US used today
  • John Dunlap – who had emigrated from Co. Tyrone – printed it
  • 3 others born in NI also signed it plus 2 sons of immigrants

PPBryan Presents 13.01.20PP Bryan concluded by highlighting: Sons of NI immigrants who were President: Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan and Chester Arthur and Vice President: John Calhoun; Presidents whose Grandfathers or Great Grandfathers were immigrants from NI:  James Polk, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley and Woodrow Wilson; Presidents who claim or are claimed to have NI ancestry: Harrison, Roosevelt T., Truman, Nixon, Carter, Bush Snr. & Jnr. and Clinton; those born in NI who made a significant contribution to the US: Alexander T. Stewart (set up first Department Store and Mail Order operation), John Stevenson (invented and patented 1st street car to run on rails), William Mulholland (designed and oversaw the construction of the 235m Aquaduct bringing water to L.A. which led to its explosion and economic growth), Thomas Mellon (set up the Mellon Bank in Pitttsburg, the largest USA bank outside New York), James Gamble (jointly set up Proctor & Gamble), Richard Montgomery (Heroic General in War of Independence) and Major General Robert Ross (burned down the White House)The Ulster Scots Agency also claim among many others: Neil Armstrong and Jim Irwin (Moon Walkers), Stephen Foster (Ballad writer), Davy Crockett, Sam Houston (President of the Republic of Texas), Samuel Morse (of code fame), John Steinbeck, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), John Wayne and Dolly Parton.

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