The Scottish Influence
Most people are surprised to learn to what extent the Scots informed and supported American independence.
From the presence of Scots in congress, to the influence of common sense moral philosophy (Paine’s phrase was not coincidental), to the still-debated influence of the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath on the 1776 Declaration of Independence, Scots were, and are, credited with a disproportionate impact on American independence. One thing missing from Fleming’s excellent article, however, is the inconvenient truth that eighteenth-century Scots largely disavowed the American Revolution. In both Scotland and America, the overwhelming majority of Scots rejected colonial theories about the rights of Englishmen and remained loyal to the British crown. Scottish emigrants, more often than not, became Loyalists and participated in large numbers in the armed provincial regiments. The most sophisticated retort to the Declaration of Independence, The Rights of Great Britain Asserted Against the Claims of America: being an Answer to the Declaration of the General Congress, was penned by James Macpherson, a Scottish member of parliament who, in addition to his well-known fabrications of Gaelic poetry, also wrote for the North government. For a nation that had won its independence from England in the early fourteenth century and had fought numerous wars to protect this independence, such loyalty may seem bizarre. This article will attempt to explain, in part, why this was not as odd as it might seem.
As with most significant events in history, Scottish reactions to the Revolution must be situated within a broad chronology. The Union of the Crowns in 1603, which saw James VI of Scotland become James I of “Great Brittaine,” profoundly shifted the political culture of the British Isles. James, whose predecessors in Scotland had typically been killed off in palace coups, rebellions, or on the battlefield, ascended to a much stronger, stable, and powerful English state and wanted to unite the parliaments of Scotland and England under his leadership. The interests of parliamentarians on both sides of the border prevented this from happening during his reign but James left an important legacy in which the idea of Britain was as much a Scottish aspiration for equality as it was an English desire for hegemony.
During the British civil wars of the 1640s, in which James’ son, Charles I, lost a rather vital extremity, the idea of Britain developed as parliamentarians in Scotland and England found common cause in their opposition to monarchical absolutism. In fact, it was the Scots who sparked the war when they took up arms to resist the imposition of a book of common prayer; many Scots believed that Charles I’s efforts to enforce religious conformity over his kingdoms was an attempt to destroy Presbyterianism and introduce Church of England Anglicanism into a nation highly suspicious of high church doctrines. The Scottish invasion of England in 1638 and their occupation of Newcastle forced Charles to recall the English parliament, thus sparking the English Civil War. In that subsequent conflict, the Scots were an aggressive party, demanding that English parliamentarians adopt Presbyterianism in England in return for Scottish military support against the king. Under pressure, the English parliament agreed and signed the “Solemn League and Covenant” of 1643. But, in the British context at least, Presbyterians did not make good revolutionaries. While among the first to challenge the rights of the king, the Scots were appalled by the execution of Charles I in 1649 and immediately installed his son as Charles II. Oliver Cromwell’s subsequent invasion and occupation of Scotland was brutal but Scottish loyalty to the monarchy had become well entrenched.
Scotland thus had a long history of engagement with England on more complex levels than the resistance of “English oppression.” Even some of the most patriotic Scots looked to England for guidance; Scotland in the late seventeenth century was, despite its impressive levels of education, still an underdeveloped and often backward nation. Looking south, Scots saw a centralized state, relative stability, Newtonian science, political philosophers, greater enfranchisement, and, after 1689, a constitutional-circumscribed monarchy. The desire to be part of this was clear and, in 1707, Scottish parliamentarians, after realizing that the nation’s wealth would not permit her to compete in colonial ventures on the European stage, signed the Treaty of Union which unified the parliaments of Scotland and England.
It took a long time for Scotland to witness the benefits of Union. Major Jacobite rebellions in support of the deposed House of Stuart (which had been replaced as part of the revolutionary settlement of 1689) broke out in 1715 and 1745 and there were numerous plots and conspiracies as late as the 1750s. But slowly, the advantages of Union became clearer and placed Scotland firmly within a British political sphere. First, the economic benefits began to emerge as the Treaty of Union opened up English markets to Scottish traders. The increased burden of taxation as a result of the Union did provoke violent outbursts such as the malt tax riots of 1725 and the Porteous riot of 1736, just as they did in England during the infamous excise tax riot of 1733. But Scotland was largely spared the levels of taxation seen in England and, as a result, benefited economically from the Union. Under the Navigation Acts, which so frustrated American traders, Scots were permitted to carry on trade with British colonies without paying the tariffs associated with foreign states. The biggest beneficiary was Glasgow, which overtook centers such as London and Liverpool to become Britain’s leading tobacco port by the 1770s. In fact, so important was tobacco to Glasgow that the city’s merchants successfully pressured the burgh corporation not to submit a loyal address to the king after the battles of Lexington and Concord. The fact that seventy-seven other Scottish public bodies did submit loyal addresses and that Glasgow was the lone dissenting voice, however, suggests just how popular British policies were in Scotland.
Second, Scots were philosophically aware of how much they had benefitted from the Union with England. The economic transformation of Scotland was accompanied by a transformation in science, literature, philosophy, and newspaper circulation. This was the age of the Scottish Enlightenment and a time in which many of the most sophisticated theories in the science of man were emanating from Scotland. As a result, Scots began to seriously question the success of their nation as an independent historical entity and began to sees its fate bound up with that of England. As historian Colin Kidd has pointed out, Scots took to calling themselves “North Britons” and went so far as to disavow their own past. By 1750, it was hard to find a Scot who openly argued that Scottish institutions were as capable of protecting commercial society and the liberties of the subject as effectively as English / British Whig principles. This did not mean that enlightened Scots simply copied from English institutions, but it is fair to say that many Scots borrowed from the languages of English Whiggism in an attempt to re-write Scotland’s place in the world.
Third, the larger British state was far more capable of offering employment to Scots than the small Scottish state had been pre-1707. The biggest source for employment proved to be the armies of the British state and the East India Company. Thousands of Scots entered the British armed forces and some benefitted significantly from this. This was particularly evident in the Scottish Highlands (which was linguistically and culturally divided from the rest of Scotland) from where the Jacobite rebellions had typically gained their most determined support. From bitter opponents of British state interference in the early eighteenth-century, the Highlands emerged as a leading supplier of manpower for Britain’s armies by the 1760s. Highland soldiers would fight in both the French & Indian War and the War of American Independence in large numbers. While many officers of these regiments did attack colonial arguments for independence, they probably fought more for the economic and social benefits of service than anything else. The level of money and patronage coming into the Highlands as a result of government expenditures on the military was impressive; by the 1770s, even junior officers could retire on half-pay pensions and have enough money to cover their annual farm rentals with cash to spare.
Finally, the political benefits of Union permitted Scots to take a leading role in the creation of British power. From the 1760s especially, Scottish politicians were among the leading figures in parliament. In 1762, John Stuart, 3rd earl of Bute, became the first Scot to become prime minister of Great Britain. He was joined by a coterie of figures who would help guide British policy during the imperial crisis. Alexander Wedderburn, from East Lothian, served as the solicitor-general and the attorney-general during the American War of Independence and was an unrepentant critic of colonial rights. It was Wedderburn who was chiefly responsible for the incendiary attack upon Benjamin Franklin before the Privy Council in January 1774 in which Franklin was accused of being the “prime conductor” of agitation against Britain. It was another Scot, William Murray, 1st earl of Mansfield, who passed judgment on the famous Somerset case in 1772 in which a runaway slave, James Somerset, was prevented from being deported to Jamaica by his owner. Mansfield asserted that because slavery did not feature in the laws of England then his owner had no right to imprison him or sell him to a plantation. As he stated: “The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law … It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.” The case was significant not only in questioning the rights of slave-owners but was interpreted in the colonies as evidence of a British conspiracy to deprive Americans of their property.
Not every Scot was a keen supporter of British imperial power. In addition to John Paul Jones, probably the best known Scot to serve in the armed forces of congress, we can add the names of Arthur St. Clair from Caithness, Hugh Mercer from Aberdeenshire, Alexander Macdougall from Islay, Lachlan Macintosh from Badenoch, and New York-born William Alexander (who claimed the Scottish title of Lord Stirling), all of whom served as generals in the Continental army. Nevertheless, on balance, for every Scot in the service of congress, there may have been dozens who served the crown. The benefits of being allied to the British state and the long tradition of benefiting from engagement with England was a crucial factor in the anti-revolutionary stance taken by many Scots, both in the colonies and in the British Isles.
Indeed, one theme of considerable importance to the role of Scots in the Revolution is the perception of Scots among the revolutionary generation. Colonial Americans looked to England for their political cues and it is therefore not surprising that Americans should also have been infected with a distasteful contempt for the Scots. In the 1760s, John Wilkes had gained a large anti-establishment following in England based, in a large measure, on his denunciations of Bute and other Scots. To many Englishmen, the arrival of Scottish politicians was a portent of the corruption of their state into clannishness, Toryism, and tyranny. Americans borrowed from this language and molded it to their concerns over the corruption of political virtues in the British constitution. In 1746, for example, Americans had widely celebrated the defeat of the Scottish Jacobites. By the 1770s, American revolutionaries laid the blame for the major faults of parliamentary rule firmly at the door of the Scots. It was the Scots who were purportedly leading English rulers down a path of confrontation with their fellow nationals in the colonies. The Scots, it was said, were “the contrivers and supporters of all measures against you [congress]. Nor will they ever desist while the English have a penny to be plundered or a man sacrificed.” An Address to the Inhabitants of the American Colonies declared that the righteousness of the colonial cause would be vindicated in battles against the British: “Their principal muscular strength, at present, consists then in a number of mercenary, hackneyed, tattered Regiments, patched up by the most abandoned and debauched of mankind, the scum of the nation, the dregs of Irish and Scottish desperadoes.” Thomas Jefferson may have been influenced by Scottish philosophy but this did not prevent him from claiming in a draft of the Declaration that Britain had sent “Scotch and foreign mercenaries” to “deluge” the colonists in blood. The offending article was only left out at the insistence of Scottish-born John Witherspoon, the president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) and a signer of the Declaration. If these were the attitudes toward Scots present in the highest levels of the revolutionary leadership, the idea that Scottish support for the Revolution was widespread must be treated with some suspicion.
The only question left to ask is why Scotland has been the focus of so much attention with regards to support for the American Revolution? It is clear that Scottish philosophy did have a role in developing common sense moral codes and the belief that society could be improved by evaluating cause and effect. It was under Aberdeen’s-own William Small that Thomas Jefferson received his undergraduate education at the College of William and Mary. In some respects, American independence was one of the towering achievements of the applied enlightenment. One the other hand, Scottish philosophers were only one small group among many influences on American revolutionaries. Perhaps it is the case that Scottish philosophers had a greater role in influencing the subsequent development of the early republic rather than influencing initial support for independence. In Book V of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, the Kirkcaldy-born moral philosopher had advocated a federal solution to the imperial crisis and commented that the benefits accrued by Scotland as a result of the Treaty of Union could also be applied in an American context to prevent dissolution of the empire.
While this idea collapsed in the bloodshed of the revolutionary war, his ideas on federated unions and liberal economics did generate a powerful following in the early republic. Adam Ferguson’s work on civil society was also widely read in early national America and Scottish-born James Wilson was a major figure in drafting the Constitution.
But it may be that we are asking the wrong questions. As historians, it is our mission to understand historic shifts and look for the contingent factors that influence the decisions people make. People rarely make a decision based solely on their nationality or their ethnic heritage. It is interesting to note that those Scots who had lived in the colonies for long periods and were familiar with colonial politics tended to support the Revolution, even in areas of Loyalism. They supported the Revolution not because they were Scots; they supported the Revolution because they believed in the potential of the Revolution to challenge the corruption of the Old World and turn its back on the constraints of aristocracy and privilege. And surely that was the whole point. As Tom Paine had put most clearly in 1776, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” As far as the role of ethnic identity in the American Revolution is concerned, an old eighteenth-century adage, “just because one is born in a stable, doesn’t make one a horse,” is equally valid.