With the US presidential election season mercifully nearing its end, I thought it would be interesting to look at the long history of American presidents with Ireland. For today’s post, we’ll look at one of the key, distinctive elements which characterized the Scotch-Irish revival of the 1880s and 1890s: long lists of American presidents of Ulster descent.
These included Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison, although sometimes others with more dubious links were added.
(And add William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama since the late nineteenth century.)
The Scotch-Irish Society of America, founded in 1889, focused on celebrating ethnic pride while emphasizing the longevity of their group’s American settlement. Rather than contrast themselves with more recent Catholic Irish immigrants, they focused on the New England Puritans. The society emphasized that the Scotch-Irish were pioneers of civilization and guardians of American freedom. While Puritans dominated the writing of American history, the Scotch-Irish saw themselves as “doers” who had up till then neglected to record their own contributions. They asserted their unique role in the formation of the American republic, and were anxious to set themselves apart from the Puritans.
In emphasizing this historical role in the United States, the Scotch-Irish utilized the list of American presidents of Ulster descent to underscore the longevity of their group in America as well as the authenticity of their ties back to Ireland. Their most celebrated presidential link was Andrew Jackson, who represented the ascent to the pinnacle of American society, showing that the Scotch-Irish were key elements in shaping the direction and character of the country.
The Scotch-Irish Society of America also succeeded in attracting future presidents of the United States to speak at its congresses: William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, and Herbert Hoover.
In Ireland, unionists drew upon the Scotch-Irish revival to help form an “Ulsterman” identity with the aim of ideologically unifying all Irish Protestants. They celebrated the Scotch-Irish “backwoodsman” and frontier identities, the determination to seek liberty and to stand up for what they believed to be right.
Long lists of American Presidents of “Ulster stock” were also enumerated by unionists. James Logan, in Ulster in the X-Rays, wrote, “When he emigrates, the Ulsterman, like most Irishmen, ‘makes good,’ and he frequently rises to the highest positions. Almost one half of the great line of Presidents of the United States came of Ulster stock, and McKinley’s old ancestral home may still be seen in the neighbourhood of Dervock, County Antrim. This is a debt America owes to Ulster which is sometimes forgotten.”
Unionists called upon these American “debts” in an attempt to gain international support for their own movement in the face of widespread American support for Irish nationalism.
Of course, many others throughout Irish and Irish-American history may have tended to take an entirely different viewpoint on this subject, as voiced by William V. Shannon in 1963’s The American Irish: “On March 18, 1962, the United Press International distributed a dispatch from Philadelphia headlined, ‘Toast to President Starts Donnybrook,’ which read: ‘The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick were anything but at their annual dinner Saturday night when Sen. Joseph S. Clark (D-Pa), proposed a toast to President John F. Kennedy, the ‘only Irishman ever elected President of the United States.’… In this as in other matters of public controversy, I think Senator Clark is right.”
Next time: A look at visits by US Presidents to Ireland and some of the more recent political policies.