The Scots Irish of Early Pennsylvania by Judith Ridner

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

The Scots Irish of Early Pennsylvania
A Varied People
by Judith Ridner
Temple University Press/The Pennsylvania Historical Association, 140 pp., paper $19.95

The Scots Irish are recognized as among the largest non-English ethnic groups found in 18th-century Pennsylvania. But who, exactly, were they? In Judith Ridner’s eminently readable account, these migrants from Ireland’s northern province of Ulster are revealed as a diverse people indeed. Drawn from different regions within Ulster and varying socioeconomic backgrounds, the Scots Irish came with differing goals and expectations. Arriving at various moments in Pennsylvania’s development, they located in Philadelphia, market towns, the interior, and the backcountry.

To explain this “varied people,” Ridner looks beyond mythic (and often contradictory) stereotypes and confusing nomenclature to consider the Irish experience, the reasons for the transatlantic crossing, and the construction of community in Colonial Pennsylvania. The Scots Irish as a distinct group came into existence in early modern Ireland. The development of an indigenous Presbyterian church signaled the group’s singularity and paralleled the development of economic diversification. In the 18th century, Ulster Presbyterians had a continually growing number of reasons to emigrate, such as religious persecution by the established Episcopalian church and the increased land competition and sharply rising rents that bedeviled the majority who were tenant farmers. The close economic ties between Ireland and Britain’s North American colonies supplied the means and the destination.

Actual Colonial-era settlement patterns, Ridner indicates, did not conform neatly to later stereotypes. Once in Pennsylvania, the Scots Irish made a life in Philadelphia and in interior market towns as merchants, artisans and laborers. Many Scots Irish, of course, spearheaded westward European expansion, but Ridner observes “they never intended to become frontier people.” And although not all 18th-century Protestant Irish migrants were Presbyterian, the majority faith distinguished the Scots Irish from other ethnic groups and centered their communities.

In the second half of the 18th century, politics at times both united and divided Pennsylvania’s Scots Irish. Their shocking capacity to not only wage defensive war against native peoples but to also engage in murderous racial hatred marked them as a turbulent and divisive force in the province. United, they successfully contended for power and made a revolution that created the radically democratic state constitution of 1776. At the conclusion of the War for Independence, which they vigorously supported, the Scots Irish divided over the future of the new republic, then generally united behind Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party, and then split again.

Ridner’s concise short history of the Scots Irish builds on her A Town In-Between: Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the Early Mid-Atlantic Interior (University of Pennsylvania, 2010) and takes good advantage of recent scholarship on this seemingly familiar but frequently misunderstood group.

Peter Gilmore
Carlow University