THE BIRTH OF THE NATION (3)

Both Bennington and King's Mountain showed that the British thrust was stopped when it met the solid resistance of the Scotch-Irish settlements along the frontier. These events marked the turning point of the British campaign both in the North and in the South. Such exploits by local militia do not become intelligible until one considers how military aptitude was instilled in the Scotch-Irish by Ulster training and American experience.

A signal example of this aptitude is presented by the career of Henry Knox. Born in Boston, July 25, 1750, of County Antrim stock, he took an ardent interest in military affairs from his boyhood. At the age of eighteen he was a member of a military company and when the Boston Grenadier Corps was organized he was chosen second in command. Meanwhile he was engaged in the book trade and he became proprietor of a shop much frequented by the officers of the British garrison and also by ladies of literary tastes. In this way he became acquainted with Miss Lucy Flucker. His marriage with her on June 16, 1774, made a stir in Boston society, as her father, Provincial Secretary under Gage, and a high Tory, had more ambitious plans for his daughter and was opposed to the match. Most of her friends thought she had sacrificed her prospects in life and they were confirmed in this belief when Knox rejected the efforts of General Gage to attach him to the Loyalist side. His vigorous personality, together with his active interest in military affairs, made him such a marked man that when he decided to to go to the American camp he had to slip out of Boston in disguise. After placing his wife in safe quarters at Worcester he joined the American forces.

At the battle of Bunker Hill Knox acted as a staff officer, reconnoitring the British movements. During the campaign that followed he was active in planning and constructing works of defense for the various positions held by the Americans. His ability as a military engineer and as an artillerist attracted attention and obtained General Washington's esteem. On November 17, 1775, although Knox was only twenty-five years old, he was commissioned colonel of the only artillery regiment in the Continental Army. He served throughout the war with distinction, enjoying the steady confidence and friendship of Washington. He took part in all the important engagements down to the siege of Yorktown, his arrangements for which were such that Washington reported to the President of Congress that "the resources of his genius supplied the deficit of means."

Knox reached the grade of major-general in 1782, and in 1785 he was appointed by the Continental Congress to the office of Secretary of War, which he continued to hold under General Washington after the national Government was organized under the Constitution. He was also Secretary of the Navy, the two portfolios being then united. He retained office until the close of 1794 when he withdrew from public life, retiring to an extensive estate in Maine, upon which he created and built up the town of Thomaston. He had here a fine library, part of it in the French language, and he was living the life of a hospitable country magnate when he died suddenly in his fifty-seventh year. It was a singular fate for a man who had escaped the perils of so many battlefields, for he choked to death on a chicken bone.

The War Department also owes much to the administrative genius of another Scotch-Irishman whose career presents a marked example of hereditary faculty. Among the early emigrants from Ulster to the Cumberland Valley, Pennsylvania, was John Armstrong. Some time before 1748 he settled in Carlisle and became a surveyor under the Proprietary Government. He took a leading part in organizing the settlers to repel Indian raids and was commissioned a colonel of militia. He was also a justice of the peace and was active and energetic in the discharge both of his military and of his civil functions. In 1755 he led a force of about two hundred and eighty frontiersmen against the Indian settlement at Kittanning, about twenty miles northeast of Fort Duquesne. Although Colonel Armstrong was severely wounded in the engagement, he completely routed the Indians and destroyed their stronghold, to the great relief of the frontier settlements. In 1758 he commanded a body of troops in the vanguard of the army with which General Forbes retrieved Braddock's defeat and captured Fort Duquesne. During this campaign he formed an acquaintance with Washington which ripened into lifelong friendship. He was a leader in the protest against the closing of the port of Boston in 1774 and was a member of the Committee of Correspondence appointed to concert measures of joint action by the colonies. His commission as brigadier-general in the Continental Army bears date March 1, 1776, and in 1777 he appears as a major-general in command of the Pennsylvania troops at the battle of Brandywine. In that year he left the regular army, his action being due to some grievance, but he did not abandon the cause. At the battle of Germantown he commanded the Pennsylvania militia. In 1778-1780, and also in 1787-1788, he was a member of Congress. His election was warmly recommended by General Washington, who recognized the value of having one of his military knowledge in the governing body. He died March 9, 1795, aged seventy-five years.

John Armstrong, Jr., born at Carlisle, November 25, 1758, was a student at Princeton when the Revolutionary War broke out, and he left his books to become an aide on the staff of General Mercer. When Mercer received his mortal wound at the battle of Princeton Armstrong bore him off the field. After the death of Mercer Armstrong joined the staff of General Gates and was with him in the campaign that culminated in the surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga. In 1780, when he was only twenty-two years old, he was made adjutant-general of the southern army, but owing to an attack of illness served only a short time in that position. He rejoined the staff of General Gates, continuing in that capacity until the end of the war.

Upon the close of the war Armstrong entered public life in which he rose rapidly. He filled successively the offices of Secretary and adjutant-general of Pennsylvania, and in 1787 he was elected to Congress. In 1789 he married a sister of Chancellor Livingston, and removed to that State. Early in the next year he was chosen United States Senator from New York, serving until 1804 when he entered the diplomatic service. He was Minister to France and Spain until 1810, when he returned to the United States. When the War of 1812 began he was appointed brigadier-general and placed in command of the district of New York. In March, 1813, he was called to the Cabinet as Secretary of War.

Armstrong's career as Secretary of War ended in apparent failure. The blame for American defeats was laid upon him and the British invasion of Washington was the finishing stroke, forcing him out of the Cabinet and retiring him to private life. The verdict of history is nevertheless in his favor as disinterested consideration of the case shows that he was the victim of circumstances that he tried to remedy, accomplishing results of permanent value. The bane of the army has been and still is government by Congressional committees. Armstrong selected officers for their merits, disregarding Congressional influence to an extent that excited a malignant opposition which pursued him relentlessly until it compassed his downfall. The chief authority for this period of our national existence is Henry Adams's History of the United States. While charging Armstrong with defects of temper and manners, the historian says:

"Whatever were Armstrong's faults, he was the strongest Secretary of War the Government had yet seen. Hampered by an inheritance of mistakes not easily corrected, and by a chief [Madison] whose methods were non-military in the extreme, Armstrong still introduced into the army an energy wholly new. . . . The energy thus infused by Armstrong into the regular army lasted for half a century."

The confidence with which he inspired the army was one of the causes of his downfall. He was charged with aiming at a military domination of the Government. His action in issuing a major-general's commission to Andrew Jackson aggrieved General Harrison and his friends and was at the time regretted by President Madison. The opposition to Armstrong became so strong that Madison dismissed him from office. He lived for nearly thirty years afterward but he never again accepted public office. He published a number of treatises on military and agricultural topics; and he prepared a military history of the Revolution, which from his intimate knowledge of the subject would doubtless have been a work of great value, but unfortunately the manuscript was destroyed by fire.

Andrew Jackson, the recognition of whose military genius by Armstrong was based upon his behavior in the Creek Indian War, splendidly vindicated Armstrong's judgment by his conduct of the southern campaign and his brilliant victory at New Orleans. His career is a well known instance of the military aptitude of the Scotch-Irish strain in American citizenship.

The origin of all the officers of the Revolutionary army cannot be determined with sufficient accuracy to admit of any statistical exhibit, but Scotch-Irish of Ulster nativity were so numerous that a provision of the Constitution of the United States was drawn so as to meet their case. When the qualifications for membership in the House of Representatives were considered in the convention it was in question whether natives only should be eligible or else how long a term of citizenship should be a prerequisite. In the course of the debate Wilson of Pennsylvania remarked that "almost all the general officers of the Pennsylvania line of the late army were foreigners," and he mentioned that three members of the Pennsylvania delegation in the convention, he himself being one, were not natives. The term was finally fixed at seven years, which admitted to Congressional eligibility the generation that participated in the Revolutionary War, whether native born or not. The immigrants thus provided for were mainly Scotch-Irish.

In the formation of the Constitution of the United States no racial or denominational influence can be traced. Such claims have been made but they belong rather to political mythology than to serious history. The breach in the continuity of political development due to the circumstances of the American struggle precipitated the States into constitution-making with unsatisfactory results. The character of the new State Governments was distrusted and their behavior viewed with dismay by the statesmen under whose leadership American independence had been achieved. Such feelings energized the movement for a strong national Government whose outcome was the Convention of 1787 and the framing of the Constitution of the United States. The winding and shifting of individual activity on the issues arising during the formative period sustain no relation to racial origins or to denominational attachments, but cut across them with entire facility. The debates of the Convention show that the accident of hailing from a small State or a large State had more to do with a delegate's course than any other consideration.

The Scotch-Irish supplied leaders both for and against the adoption of the Constitution. The movement for liberalizing the Constitution, extending the suffrage, and substituting popular election of the President for choice by the Electoral College derived its strongest support from the Scotch-Irish element of the population, and it triumphed in the national Government under the leadership of Andrew Jackson.

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The Scotch-Irish in America cover

There ain’t nothing like the real thing — get the softcover second edition to read The Scotch-Irish in America at your leisure and help support this free Irish library. The author, Henry Jones Ford had this to say about the book:

“This book tells the story of the Ulster Plantation and of the influences that formed the character of the people. The causes are traced that led to the great migration from Ulster and the Scotch-Irish settlements in America are described. The recital of their experiences involves an account of frontier manners and customs, and of collisions with the Indian tribes. The influence of the Scotch-Irish settlements upon American institutions is traced, particularly in organizing and propagating the Presbyterian Church, in spreading popular education, and in promoting the movement for American national independence. In conclusion, there is an appreciation of the Ulster contribution to American nationality.”


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