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The Scotch-Irish in America
Chapter 13


These Scotch-Irish were uncommonly "set in their ways." This is often said to their discredit. They are described as a bigoted, stubborn, pigheaded breed; as much given to contentions and quarrels about trivialities; as extremely quick to take offense, and very reluctant to be reconciled, and hence it is said, they were a hard people to live with, and that there were among them many life-long alienations and feuds arising out of matters utterly unimportant and even contemptible. There is a color of truth in this. Their blood was very red and their temper very hot, their heads were hard and their hands heavy, but they were by no means a quarrelsome people. They were not of kin to Paddy at the Donnybrook fair, strutting about with a chip on his shoulder and provoking a fracas. They seldom invited trouble or picked a quarrel, but once in, they could be depended upon to stay in to a finish. They were bound to have room for themselves, and refused to be too much crowded; hence they were sturdy fighters, and not likely to run away till the trouble was over. This was their way when contending for their civil and religious liberties in other lands; they showed the same trait in the struggle for American Independence, and continued to show it in all things. This mood, temper, or trait of the race was a very marked and persistent one. No doubt there was in the typical Scotch-Irish a vein of what may fairly be called asinine obstinacy. He sometimes thought he was governed by principle and conscience when in fact it was only prejudice and stubbornness. Consequently, many of the alienations in families, neighborhoods and congregations were silly, contemptible and wicked. But it was this very trait in its nobler manifestations, that gave them their strength and heroism. The very men who were sometimes misled into making battle where there was nothing worth while at stake were precisely the men who were ready to stand, and who did stand unto death for the rights of man and the truth of Christ. The noblest qualities are sometimes the most easily perverted, and they are the very worst when so perverted. It was the conscience and fiery zeal of Saul of Tarsus, perverted, that made him the scourge and the terror of the early Church. An earnest and determined man is always dangerous if he is misled. This is the snare of all able, conscientious and resolute people. Every strong and overcoming man is "set in his ways;" else he would not be strong and overcoming at all. Only the weak and willowy give way when they are challenged. The important thing to be seen to is, that the position taken is right, and that the matter at issue is worth contending for. Herein was the weakness, and sometimes the wickedness of my people. As a Scotch-Irishman by birth and breeding, in blood and marrow, I call them mine, and claim the right to speak of them freely. I have an honest pride in my race, but not in all their traits and doings. They often made themselves small and contemptible before God and all high-minded men, by their squabbles over things of no importance. Most frequently these contentions were concerning matters of doctrine, or worship, or church administration, for by far the most important interest of life to these people was their religion. Just here is the explanation of the manifold divisions of the common Presbyterians. All branches of this common Presbyterianism hold substantially to the same doctrines and policy, and yet they have been broken up into many divisions by differences of opinion touching a more or less strict construction of some points of doctrine, worship, or administration. This gave us two or three kinds of Covenanters, of Seceders, and of those who called themselves Regulars. These separated branches were not only alienated, but for most of the time, actively belligerent. If the Presbyterian Jew did not openly curse the Presbyterian Samaritan in his synagogue, he at least unsparingly denounced him, and warned his flock against his perilous wiles and pernicious delusions. This was in keeping with the temperament of the people, and we cannot boast of it.

But many of these lamentable alienations were found in families, and among neighbors and fellow-church-members, and often over some paltry social matter, or question of property. A dispute about a line fence between two farms, when only a few inches in width of land were in question, would sometimes lead to a bitter quarrel which would last for more than one generation. Two neighbors of ours, people of the first respectability and piety, for two or three generations could not agree on the precise location of the line between their farms, and for many a day two fences were kept up, not three feet apart, each claiming the little strip between. There was no open outbreak, but a fixed difference of opinion which could not be composed. The laying out of a new public road, or a small change in an old one, sometimes resulted in a bitter and lasting feud. These were not merely transient gusts of passion: they often degenerated into settled alienations which passed down from sire to son. I have known a brother and two sisters living near together, all members of the same church, all of unquestioned character and strictly religious; often gathering at the same communion table, and yet that brother never so much as spoke to either of those sisters for more than forty years, and till his death. He would not speak to his old mother while she lived, and would not attend her funeral when she died.

They never had an open quarrel, but he conceived that he had not received his full share of the small estate left by his father, and so he simply cut his mother and sisters, and all their married relations, dead, and so continued to the end. I knew two brothers living on adjoining farms, who fell out about a road running through their land, and in consequence neither ever spoke to the other for many years, though both members of the same church. And while they lived, no member of either family ever saluted a member of the other. Two men in the neighborhood, both men of substance and position, elders in adjoining congregations, both highly reputed for integrity and piety, and closely connected by family ties, for many years never so much as recognized each other, any more than if they had been Hebrew and Philistine, until once meeting in the highway, they fell into talk, which quickly grew hot, and resulted in a violent physical encounter, with sundry chokings, and smitings, and wallowings on the ground. No one witnessed it except the distressed wife of one of them, who also was sister of the other, and so the affair was never exploited. It ought to be said, however, to the praise of God's grace, and to the credit of regenerated human nature, that before either of them died, grace got the better of both. One of them coming to his deathbed, sent for the other, who quickly responded, and there these old, proud and stubborn men confessed their sins to God and to each other, and with prayers, and tears, and affectionate embracings, were completely reconciled. Examples of this trait were not at all uncommon among the people. Sometimes a congregation was thrown into confusion and strife by some paltry cause which would have made the whole contention comical if it had not been so sad. Within my own memory the old church of my nativity and of my fathers was brought into sore trouble by the question as to the kind of notes to be used in a congregational singing-school. Such a school was kept up through the winter, and it met once a week in the lecture room. An old-fashioned singing master was employed to drill the people, and thus encourage singing in public worship. A new music book had lately been published in which was used the system of notation known as "patent notes," or, as they were slightingly called, "buckwheat notes." It was claimed that this system was much more easily mastered than the common system. The question was whether this new book should be used in the singing-school. At first, the discussion was fairly rational and good-tempered, but not for long. Soon it waxed warm, quickly the fire was kindled and flew from one to another, until the whole community was aflame. For weeks it was the ail-but universal topic of conversation and of controversy. If you saw a bunch of young people with their heads together after sabbath-school, you knew what they were so earnestly talking about. If you saw two men on horseback in the middle of the road wildly gesticulating and loudly vociferating both at once, you were in no doubt as to the subject of dispute. Neighbors had angry debates, church-members fell out, and before long the people were arrayed in two hostile and belligerent factions. It resulted in the cleavage of the school into two rival and very unfriendly schools, and the war went on for a year or two. The comical part of it was that probably a majority, certainly very many, of the fiercest fighters could not for their lives have told one note from another; yet they stood by their guns and fought it out to a finish, as if some great principle of the kingdom of God had been at stake. Political feeling ran very high and discussion was apt to become very heated. These men were not office-seekers nor trading politicians, but they were often very strong partisans, and, according to their views, very patriotic. My family were whigs of the strongest kind, and the papers we read, and the talk we heard were of such a nature that it was ail-but impossible for me to understand how a democrat could be a Christian, or even an honest man. One of the elders of our church was a well-known democrat. I now know that he was one of the most exemplary and pious men in the congregation, but then it was hard for me to believe that he could be anything else than some sort of disguised scoundrel. If not, how could he vote so infamous a ticket, and for such rascals as were on it?

Certain political leaders were, in the estimation of some, little else than idols, while to others they were ail-but devils. Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay were such men. When Jackson was victorious many went almost wild with joy; when Clay was defeated, strong men clenched their fists and wept. Let me give an illustration: My paternal grandfather and James Taggart were near neighbors and close friends from boyhood to old age; they were elders in the same church for a great many years; men of the highest character for probity and piety. They were strongly attached to each other, and lived all through their lives in deepest confidence. They could talk freely and rationally on any subject but one, and that one subject was Andrew Jackson. His name could hardly be mentioned between them without putting their friendship in peril. Mr. Taggart deeply believed that Jackson was one. of the greatest and purest public men that ever lived, while my grandfather as deeply believed that that noted Scotch-Irishman was an unmitigated rowdy, bully, and all-round scoundrel. Neither of them ever introduced the name of Jackson in the company of the other, but it sometimes happened that when neighbors were gathered together, some mischievous fellow would interject the subject with some comment, his purpose being simply to have some fun out of these venerable men. Jackson had been dead for many years, but the introduction of his name was like throwing a dynamite cartridge between these old friends. There was an instant explosion. This usually gave much amusement to bystanders.


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