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The Scotch-Irish in America
Chapter 4

As already intimated, these pioneers of southwestern Pennsylvania seem to have had in unusual degree the marked characteristics of their race; great energy and general force of character, with uncommon intelligence, practical wisdom, self-command, and, above all, deep and controlling piety. Their mood was earnest, and they took life seriously. In their minds human life under the sun was not sport; it was very unlike sport; it was no mere holiday, no carouse, or frolic. It was earnest business. No man could play, or laugh, or dance his way through this world and come to anything good. And yet they were not a gloomy, morose, or ascetic people. If that had been their mood, they never could have done the work they did. They were cheery, hopeful, brave, steadfast. There was in them a rich vein of humor too, rather coarse in texture and rough on the edges, but not bitter or malicious. The younger sort of them was much given to practical jokes. The people were hospitable, social, neighborly. There was far more sunshine in their lives than is commonly supposed, and this despite the hard conditions under which they lived. Considering the close limitations of their lives and their isolation from the currents of the populous world, they were highly intelligent as a rule. They had not the training of the schools, but they had the training of practical life, and of much reflection. They had great respect for real learning. They would not listen to a minister who had not a classical and theological education. They cared but little for the trimmings, the mere filigree, but for solid learning they had very high regard. Especially did they exhibit in a high degree what we call practical wisdom and common sense. They searched out the good lands and were not backward in laying hold of them with a hand that could not be shaken loose. It never was found an easy job to "jump" the claim of a Scotch-Irishman, whether in Pennsylvania or California. Ex-Gov. Proctor Knott once said, "The Scotch-Irishman is one who keeps the commandments of God, and every other good thing he can get his hands on." In undaunted courage, inflexible resolution, and unwearied industry, they have never been surpassed by any people. They had great patience too, and were willing to work hard and wait long, believing that while they might have to die in faith without entering into the promises, God was preparing some better thing for those who were to come after them. They practised the closest economy in everything. To them waste was sin. However ample the table, everybody was expected to clean up his plate, else he ought not to have taken so much. They dug every smallest potato from the row, and wrenched every least nubbin from the husk. They gleaned their grainfields and raked their meadows clean. Men who would turn out their last dollar at some call of religion or humanity, would stoop to pick up a pin, and would patch their garments as long as they could be made to hold together.

Their family feeling was intensely strong and enduring, while there was but little effusive expression of it in words or caresses. Men were seldom seen kissing their wives or fondling their children, and almost never heard indulging in warm expressions of affection. They practised a stern repression of these emotional exhibitions. At the same time these very men shrank from no toil or exposure for their wives and children, and if called upon, as they sometimes were, to risk and give up their lives in their defense, they would not hesitate a moment.

No doubt they were a "pugnacious" people, as the Quakers said they were; quick to take offence and to resent an injury, and slow to be appeased and reconciled. Hence their feuds were many, bitter and lasting. If they had not been restrained by religion they would have been the terror of their neighbors, as their forefathers before their conversion were. Our far-away ancestors must have been very uncomfortable people to live with or near to. Their inclination to take whatever they wanted was extremely strong, and the fighting element was deep and hot in their blood. Until they were tamed by Christianity, they were grasping, aggressive, fierce. They were not much given to bargaining and trafficing for what they wanted; if strong enough, they simply took it, and left the trading to the Jew. Originally and constitutionally, they acted on the principle that might makes right, that the strong must rule, that the real king is the man who can. Christianity tamed this wild spirit, and yet at bottom, the christianized Scotch-Irishman even retains some of the basal elements of his original nature. Andrew Jackson, for example, was a typical Scotch-Irishman. There was nothing of the boodler, the grafter, the sneak-thief in his nature. Whatever he did, he did boldly, and openly. He had a sovereign contempt for the low fellow who did business in politics, or anything else, behind the door, or in a back room. The creature who crawled in the dirt, was the despicable one. Jackson was always ready to take the consequences. When he broke the United States Bank, and when he killed Dickinson, alike, he stood out in the open, and took the consequences. When the typical Scotch-Irishman does wrong, he does it openly and fearlessly. He does not believe in the sneak-thief. If he commits larceny at all, as he seldom does, it is always grand larceny, never petty. His crimes are those of force and violence; never of cowardice, meanness and treachery. If he breaks the law at all, he usually breaks it openly enough and badly enough to be hanged for it. Besides, there was native chivalry in these people. When once an enemy gave up they would treat him with princely magnanimity. But he must give up, give up completely. The weak and helpless for whom they were in any way responsible, they would protect and avenge at whatever cost. Whoever wronged the wife, the child, or even the slave of a genuine Scotch-Irishman did it at peril of his life. These people had their faults, many and grievous faults, but they were faults of force and sometimes of violence, and never of cowardice and treachery.

They had extraordinary tenacity in holding on to good lands when once they got possession of them. In the immediate vicinity of my birth-place many of the farms to-day are in the hands of the lineal descendants of the men who drove out the Indians and levelled the forests. There to-day on the same acres are living the fifth, and in some cases, the sixth generation of the original settlers, sitting under the same great oaks, drinking out of the same spring, and in some instances, dwelling under the same roof that refreshed and sheltered their great-great-grandfathers. This is quite unusual in this country. Even in Massachusetts and Virginia, the examples of the sixth generation living on the same land and in the same house are extremely rare. I can point to many such examples in the old neighborhood of my birth and of my fathers. If a family had several sons, some of them would strike out into the world, and thus the race was widely scattered, but nearly always one at least would cling to the estate and abide by the graves of his ancestors. Consequently the type so strongly set at the beginning is distinctly marked today. In whatever is soundest, strongest and best in the current life of that whole region, the genius of the Scotch-Irish pioneer is still living and ruling.

They had exceedingly stiff and strenuous notions touching strict integrity in business transactions. They are charged with being hard at a bargain, close-fisted, and exacting to the last penny, but when once the bargain was fairly made it was carried out to the letter. Failure to pay his debts or to stand by his agreement, was enough to make one disreputable among his neighbors. Unless his failure was plainly due to the act of God and to no fault of his own, he could hardly live longer with comfort in the community. Of course their transactions were small in comparison with modern standards, but they always showed, as their descendants show to-day, very strict ideas of commercial integrity. There are not a few bank and mercantile establishments in that general region which have been in the same family for several generations, and whose reputation for the highest integrity has never been questioned.

In their spirit of independence, their passionate devotion to liberty civil and religious, and in their unflinching loyalty to Christ and His truth as they saw it, they reached the highest levels of heroism. They bowed down to the earth in adoring worship before Jesus Christ, but they would be ground to powder before they would bend the knee to any other being or thing on earth or under it. They hated tyrants with all the strength of their powerful nature, whether the badge of that tyrant was the cowl of a priest or the coronet of a lord. This was not a merely superficial sentiment with them, nor was it wholly the result of education: it was constitutional, a fiery passion in the blood and marrow.

In our time, they are often mocked at as narrow-minded and bigoted. Very well: all strong and overcoming men, men who are girded by the tense sinews of strenuous convictions, are apt to be mocked at by easy-going Saducees to whom the truth and a lie are pretty much the same. These people in their inmost souls really believed that certain things were revealed to them by the High God, and they were ready to stand for these things unto death. In their judgment it made an infinite difference whether a man believed God's truth or the devil's lie. Possibly they were too much inclined to contend for what we deem the trivialities of religion, for the mere punctuation points of creed and catechism. They would divide on what seem to us very small issues. This is the reason there are so many divisions of our common Presbyterianism. But after all, and considering the work they had to do, this was not an unmixed evil. Many of the vitalest and most important movements of history have had their origin in what might be deemed trivialities. Very often movements of immense consequence to the Church of God have swung on what seemed a very small hinge. The question as to whether a single Greek letter should be kept in or put out of one word in the creed, gave the early Church three hundred years of controversy, and it was not unimportant either, for it involved the whole question of the Deity of our Blessed Lord. Later, the question as to whether one word, filioque, should be retained in the creed, led to bloody wars, vast changes in the map of Europe, and to the cleavage of Christendom into two great divisions, a
cleavage which twelve centuries have not healed. This tenacity, not to say stubbornness of conviction even as to small matters, was a most valuable trait in the character of men who were called to do the work our fathers had in hand. They had to make a fight at the outposts, on the picket line, if the fortress was to be saved. No doubt this proclivity to divide on trivial issues was sometimes misguided, and at times it has been the weakness and scandal of Presbyterianism. Our fathers would stand unto death for what seems to us but a punctuation point, but to them the punctuation point was important as part of God's teaching. They believed that no revealed truth of God was small; that nothing He ever said to men was unimportant. The fact that He thought worth while to say it made it worth while for men to give heed to it, to stand for it, to die for it, if need be. They had vital convictions in their heart of hearts, and they could be neither wheedled, bribed nor bullied into smothering them. These convictions could be torn out of them only with their lives. They were Calvinists and Presbyterians of the old-fashioned John Knox type. They were not only deeply devout and almost sternly pious, but they were minutely, intensely and strenuously theological. A congregation might be very drowsy of a warm Sabbath afternoon, but an Arminian squint or a heretical suggestion in the sermon would rouse them like a pistol shot. With them it was a matter of small moment comparatively, how one stood with men, but it was of infinite moment how he stood with God. It was not of supreme importance that he gain the world, but it was of supreme importance that he save his own soul alive. The first necessity of life after the cabin, was the meeting-house, and forthwith the school-house. They settled at first in colonies, because this secured mutual help against the Indians, and enabled them to establish their churches and schools. The last clap-board had not been put in place on the roof of the cabin when the log meeting-house was going up. The war-whoop of the savage had not died away in the forest when there were a half dozen churches and three classical schools established in what is now Washington county.

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