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America's Founding Fathers

Some Scots are now more familiar with American history and icons than with their own. Yet were they to probe the roots of that history they would find that many of the key figures in the making of North America were Scots.

From the first settlements in Nova Scotia in the 1620s, to the explorations of land to the north and west, and finally the great Canadian Pacific Railway which became its backbone, Canada was shaped and led by Scots. In the United States, Scots may not now have as high a profile as the Irish or the Jews, but as recently as 1980 the Census recorded that 5.3 per cent of the population - over 12 million people - were of Scots descent. And 61 per cent of US Presidents have had Scottish blood in their veins.

But it was in the beginning of both nations - the United States and Canada - that the influence was most acutely felt. Nine of the 13 governors of the States that formed the initial union were Scots. Its first secretary of war, General Henry Knox, was a Scot, and its first surgeon-general was Dumfriesshire-born James Craik, a close friend of George Washington. The political agitation that brought about the American Revolution was led by Patrick Henry, the greatest orator of his generation, whose father was Scottish. Another American revolutionary with a Scottish father was Alexander Hamilton, a contributor to the Federalist Essays which helped shape the drafting of the US constitution. He became the first secretary of the US Treasury. The USís foundation document, the Declaration of Independence, was signed by two who played a huge role in shaping two key institutions in modern America - Princeton University and the US Supreme Court.

The first, Rev John Witherspoon (1723-94), was the only ordained clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. Witherspoon was born at Gifford in East Lothian and became a parish minister in Beith, then in Paisley. He was the leader of the evangelical party in the Kirk but also an adherent of the Common Sense philosophical school. In 1768 he emigrated to the American colony to become president of the College of New Jersey (known later as Princeton University). At first he declined the job since his wife was reluctant to leave Scotland, but a second offer persuaded him. He imported many of the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment to the curriculum at Princeton.

Although it is Thomas Jefferson who is credited with the fact that the United States made no pact with any church, keeping church and state strictly separate, there is no doubt that Witherspoonís ideas were influential in creating a climate for religious pluralism in the US from the outset. Among his students were a future president and vice-president, nine cabinet officers, 21 senators, 39 congressmen, three Supreme Court Justices and 12 state governors.

Another signatory was James Wilson (1742-98) who had received education at each of the universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow but did not graduate from any of them. Instead, at the age of 23, he set sail for the New World where, aided by some letters of introduction, he obtained a job as a tutor with the College of Philadelphia which swiftly conferred on him the honorary degree of Master of Arts. Attracted to law as a profession, he was admitted to the Philadelphia bar in 1767 and soon was so successful that nearly half of the cases which came to the county in Reading were handled by him.

In 1774 he wrote a legal opinion on the nature and extent of legislative authority which caused quite a stir. It averred that unless Americans had representation in the British parliament, it had no authority to legislate over them. This argument - no taxation without representation - was the constitutional ground on which the break with Britain took place.

The following year he made a passionate speech on the possibility of an unconstitutional act being made by Parliament. Here, in embryo, is the principle of Judicial Review, the American system in which acts passed by government can be checked against the constitution. This evolved later into the Supreme Court, of which Wilson became an associate justice.

Wilson was a stickler for legal principle and very nearly did not sign the Declaration (of which he approved) because the Middle States which he represented were divided over the issue and he did not have a clear mandate.

But when he did sign, his signature broke the deadlock in the Pennsylvania delegation.

James Wilson
Nation Builder (1742ó1798). Signer of the Declaration of Independence, Stalwart Nationalist in the Continental Congress, Great Leader in the United States Constitutional Convention, Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States on its Establishment. A Biographical Monograph by Lucien Hugh Alexander, M. A., of the Philadelphia Bar (1907) (pdf)

The Works of the Honourable James Wilson LL.D.
Late one of the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, and Professor of Law in the College of Philadelphia, published under the direction of Bird Wilon, Esquire in 3 volumes. (1804)
Volume 1  |  Volume 2  |  Volume 3

Wilsonís career ended inauspiciously, which cannot be said of the founder of the US Navy, John Paul Jones (1747-92). Naval historians have never been able to agree about the man whom Thomas Jefferson later described as "the principal hope of Americaís future efforts on the ocean". Was he patriot or pirate? Swashbuckling ladies man or self-serving gangster? Hero or hardman?

The early years point to the less flattering analysis, but by the end of his life Jones had acquired the aura of gallant gentleman. Born in a gardenerís cottage on the Arbigland Estate, Kirkbean in Dumfriesshire, as plain John Paul, he was apprenticed to sea at the age of 13 before winning his first command (the brig John) at the age of 21. He was at first involved in slave ships but quit what he called "the abominable trade" and began to make his fortune with other cargo such as sugar from the Caribbean. He was arrested and brought back to Scotland to stand trial for the murder of a sailor he had ordered to be flogged, but was able to produce witnesses who testified that the man died not of wounds but of yellow fever while on another ship.

Luck continued to smile on him. When he quelled a mutiny by running the ringleader through with his sword, he managed to escape to Virginia where his brother had left him a tobacco plantation. Adding Jones to his name, he built a new identity but had not lost his taste for swashbuckling. With the US on the brink of war he accepted a commission in the navy of the Continental Congress and was soon in command of the US Navy, carrying out daring raids, including one on his former laird in Solway, and winning battles. After the war of independence was over, Jones was made an admiral in the Russian navy by Catherine the Great but he was forced to quit, and died soon after. His diminutive body lies like that of a saint in the US Naval Academy chapel in Maryland.

Another physically small man with a large reputation, also unlikely to be associated with sanctity, is Andrew Carnegie (1838-1919) who played a crucial role in Americaís Industrial Revolution. Born in Dunfermline, to which he never lost a sentimental attachment, poverty forced his family to emigrate. He taught himself accountancy and by a mixture of hard work and shrewd decisions (taking railroad stock in lieu of salary) was soon able to benefit from Americaís industrial boom, for which the new railways were the infrastructure. Realising that raw materials of iron and steel were needed for locomotives, rails, and bridges, Carnegie was soon supplying a huge sector of the market.

His accurate stock-taking and appetite for new technology and methods soon saw off his competitors. But his ruthless approach to labour relations eventually tarnished his reputation. He used lock-outs and muscle to break strikes and when he sold his steel company in 1901 for an astonishing $480 million, becoming the richest man in the world, he set about restoring his reputation by preaching what he called "The Gospel of Wealth".

His idea was that since inheritance and trusts cannot be guaranteed to use riches wisely, the duty of the man of wealth is to give all his riches away and become a philanthropist. By his death in 1919, Carnegie had given away $325 million, mostly to build libraries and support education charities, but he had also paid for 7,689 church organs, over 1,000 of them in Scotland. The "Star-spangled Scotchman" retired to Skibo Castle in Scotland and in his later years was not averse to using the newspapers he owned to promote his political views, among which was Home Rule for Ireland.

Earlier in his career as the Man of Steel, the incident which did most to tarnish his reputation was the breaking of the Homestead Strike for which he employed the Pinkerton Detective Agency. This famous agency, whose logo was an all-seeing eye and led to detectives being called "private eyes", was the brainchild of Allan Pinkerton (1819-84), a Glaswegian who was to 19th-century America what J Edgar Hoover was to the 20th. The two men shared the same opinion of strikers. Pinkertonís views are summed up in the title of a book he wrote in 1877 called Strikers, Communists and Tramps.

But in his earlier years Pinkerton was forced to emigrate after getting into radical politics himself in Glasgow. He found work as a cooper in Illinois, until his citizenís arrest of a band of counterfeiters led to his election as a deputy sheriff. He soon saw that more unorthodox methods than he was obliged to employ would yield better results in crime detection.

The Pinkertons often operated undercover and had some early notable successes in infiltrating the Irish mafia, known as the Molly Maguires, foiling an assassination plot against President-elect Lincoln, and recovering $700,000 stolen in a robbery. During the Civil War, Pinkerton and his men operated undercover as spies for the Union and were highly successful in monitoring the troop movements of the Confederacy. If the American Secret Service has a patriarch, it is surely Allan Pinkerton.

John Muir (1838-1914) looked like a patriarch and his upbringing was one of strict Puritanism, but Muir channelled his passions into reverence for the created order. Born in Dunbar and taken by his tyrannical father to Wisconsin, Muir showed early promise as an inventor but after he nearly lost his sight in a workplace accident, he vowed to devote his life to the "inventions of God".

He travelled widely in western Americaís areas of natural beauty and through his articles in Century magazine began a mission which grew into the system of National Parks. His book in 1901 on the scheme led President Theodore Roosevelt to visit him at Yosemite where they laid the foundation of Muirís conservation programmes which are orthodoxy now, but were then innovative and prophetic.

No less successful in political lobbying on behalf of the land, if in a different sense, was James Wilson (1835-1920) whose career as US Secretary of Agriculture spanned three presidencies and set records which have never been equalled for tenure and achievement. Born within a few miles of the land Burns once farmed in Ayrshire, "Tama Jim" was one of 14 children who came with his parents to Iowa in 1852. Having mixed local politics, farming and teaching agriculture, he was an ideal candidate for Secretary of Agriculture when he was appointed in 1897. He revolutionised Americaís approach to agriculture, extending the influence of his department into research, soil conservation, reforestation, plant disease and insect control, and even into weather forecasting, improvements to rural roads, and the inspection of food. The effect was to give the United States the lead in agricultural science throughout the world.

The history of Canada developed very differently from the US. It might not have been so had a rebellion, supported by Montreal traders who saw their opportunities lying in America, been successful in 1837 . One of its leaders was William Lyon Mackenzie (1795-1861) who became Mayor of Toronto in 1834 after emigrating from Dundee where he had been a radical . Mackenzie was not the only man bearing this surname who was significant in shaping Canada in the 19th century, nor was he the only Scots Canadian who made his reputation through journalism, among them Chas Herbert Mackintosh (1843-1931), MP for Ottowa and editor of several newspapers, and George Brown (1818-80) who was even more influential in Toronto.

One might say Canada was hoaching with scotchmen at this time. Its north and west were opened up by the efforts of Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1764-1829). Mackenzie was born in Stornoway in the Western Isles. At the age of 24 he discovered and charted Canadaís largest river, the 2,500-mile stretch of water which reaches up to the Arctic Ocean and is now called Mackenzie River, one of 11 sites in British Columbia and the North West Territories that are named after him. In pursuing trade routes through to the Pacific he soon became one of Canadaís wealthiest men but failed in his attempts to take over the rival Hudsonís Bay Company.

It produced two other Canadian trade barons. George Smith (later Lord Strathcona) (1830-1914) was its governor from 1889 to 1914 and effectively ruler of a vast tract of land to the north west. He doubled as Canadian High Commissioner to London and was the inaugural chairman of Burmah oil, his last great venture. Another member of the commercial elite from within the Hudsonís Bay Company was George Stephen (later Lord Mount Stephen) who put together the syndicate for the project which was to define Canada - the great Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR).

It had the support of Canadaís first prime minister, Sir John Macdonald (1815-91), who was born in Dornoch. A charming Tory wheeler-dealer, unconcerned by what today is called sleaze, he was an ideal man to juggle the conflicting loyalties in North America at the time and bring confederation into being in 1867. He served most of the rest of his life as prime minister, with a brief break between 1873-78 when a scandal over the railway caused him to lose the election to the Liberals, led by yet another Scots journalist, Alexander Mackenzie (1822-92), born in Logierait, Perthshire. But Macdonald was soon back in power and the railway was finished in 1881.

Kirkcaldy-born surveyor Sandford Fleming (1827-1915) was in charge of the CPR project and noted the chaos caused on a transcontinental journey by frequent resetting of watches because noon was defined as the moment when the sun was overhead. Despite claims that time zones were against Godís will, in 1885 the International Prime Meridian Conference adopted his scheme for the creation of Standard Time Zones into which the world has been divided ever since.

Stewart Lamont
Thursday, 13th September 2001
The Scotsman



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