Review: Judith Ridner, The Scots Irish of Early Pennsylvania

Judith Ridner, The Scots Irish of Early Pennsylvania: A Varied People, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2018).

Judith Ridner opens The Scots Irish of Pennsylvania: A Varied People by asking, “Who are the Scots Irish?” Ridner suggests that popular and scholarly answers to this deceptively simple question tend to fall into one of two categories. One response conjures a mythic image of the Scots Irish as a “desperately poor” community that rose from “rags to riches” in America through hard work, individualism, and pragmatism. The other offers a more pejorative image of the Scots Irish as “hillbillies” living in abject poverty.[1] In classic historian form, Ridner suggests that the answer is far more complex than either conventional answer.

Ideal as a quick reference book, The Scots Irish of Early Pennsylvania is an important addition to the Pennsylvania Historical Association’s redesigned Pennsylvania History Series, which presents scholarly work in a “compact and accessible form” for use in classrooms and public history settings. The book’s narrative is approachable, structured along subheadings, and interspersed with relevant images, maps, and character sketches that help contextualize the overarching story. Ridner also offers the first comprehensive overview of early Pennsylvania’s Scots Irish since James H. Smylie’s very brief Scotch-Irish Presence in Pennsylvania (1990). [2]

Ridner’s begins her book with an important discussion of terminology. In eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, the label “Scotch Irish” carried class connotations, and Scots Irish of middling and lower status using it to distinguish themselves from neighboring Germans, Scots, and Irish. More privileged Scots Irish preferred the terms “Irish” or “Irish Presbyterian,” which highlighted their links to Ireland and their religious identity as dissenting Protestants. To avoid the derogatory connotations of the name “Scotch Irish,” scholars today prefer the labels “Scots Irish,” “Ulster Irish” or “Ulster Presbyterian.”[3]

Divided into six chapters, this concise book focuses on the experience and contributions of Scots Irish men and women to Pennsylvania from 1700 to 1820. The first two chapters trace the Scottish Presbyterians’ migration first to northern Ireland, mainly Ulster, in the seventeenth century and then to British North America, principally Pennsylvania, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The remaining four chapters examine the experience of Scots Irish men and women in Pennsylvania.

This narrative emphasizes several key themes. Most prominently, Ridner argues that the Scots Irish were a socio-economically diverse immigrant group that settled not only on the western frontier of Pennsylvania, but also in cities such as Philadelphia and towns like Lancaster. Individuals ranging from tenant farmers attracted by the reasonably priced land to merchants hoping to set up shop near Philadelphia’s wharves migrated to America.[4] To counter notions that all the Scots Irish arrived as poor individuals, Ridner notes that Scots Irish from Ulster overwhelmingly arrived as members of family groups (at most one-fifth came as bound laborers) and sought to re-establish Ulster ties upon arrival. She also emphasizes the communal nature of the Presbyterian Church, which largely structured life for Scots Irish immigrants. The fact that most Scots Irish could afford their own passage meant that the majority of Scots Irish were relatively well off financially and socially, even if it meant that they had to move west to locate cheap land upon their arrival.[5]

Ridner emphasizes that rather than forming a unified group of people, the Scots Irish in Pennsylvania were routinely plagued by class and regional divisions. Yet Ridner seamlessly and convincingly argues the Scots Irish’ responses to the Seven Years War, Pontiac’s War, and the American Revolution “mobilized” Pennsylvania’s Scots Irish communities by “uniting them against a common enemy.”[6] During the Seven Years War, and to a greater extent during Pontiac’s War, a mutual hatred of French and Indian “others” and a sense of self-defense helped mend class and status divisions as well as the Presbyterian Church’s schism between the New and Old Sides that arose after the Great Awakening. [7] The Revolution led the Scots Irish to overlook class, occupational, and regional divisions to become “Scots Irish American patriots rather than Irish Protestants,” thus functioning as an “essential vehicle for the group’s assimilation and identity formation.”[8] However, this shared identity did not persist after the conflict because class and regional differences hardened during post-war debates over the legacy of the conflict for the state and nation.

The Scots Irish of Early Pennsylvania notably addresses questions relating to gender, class, religion, politics, military events and economics.[9] In addition, Ridner’s analysis does justice to the complexity of frontier violence against Native Americans, skillfully recalling settler brutality while also probing the motivations and larger ramifications of these attacks for both Native Americans and the Scots Irish. However, the work’s relatively narrow focus on Scots Irish communities specifically in Pennsylvania is somewhat limiting. Relatedly, the degree of attention devoted to the Scots Irish experience in the period before the American Revolution does not fully carry over into the period after the Revolution, which feels condensed and rushed.

One of Ridner’s key intentions is to destabilize the prejudices that have historically influenced broader public discourse and scholarship on the Scots Irish. Notable, The Scots Irish of Early Pennsylvania exemplifies how scholarship has evolved beyond stereotyped portrayals. Yet, the book’s discussions of prejudices and race could be better contextualized, as readers might not be familiar with the differences between eighteenth-century conceptions of race and those of the present. These might be points where a teacher may need to intervene to provide supplemental information and to explain what race as a concept was during this period. Without this additional context, these references to stereotypes might reinforce prejudices students might not otherwise know about and thereby partially undermine the aim of the book.

Overall, The Scots Irish of Early Pennsylvania achieves its goal of showing that the Scots Irish were a diverse group of immigrants with varied class backgrounds and economic interests. As a work that is both scholarly informed and easily approachable, The Scots Irish of Early Pennsylvania offers a useful resource to those teaching about the early history of Pennsylvania or looking to gain more background information about the Scots Irish in early America.

[1] Judith A. Ridner, The Scots Irish of Early Pennsylvania: A Varied People, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2018), 2-4.

[2] James H. Smylie, Scotch-Irish Presence in Pennsylvania (University Park: Pennsylvania Historical Association, 1990).

[3] Ridner, The Scots Irish of Early Pennsylvania, 4-5.

[4] Ibid., 27.

[5] Ibid., 31–32.

[6] Ibid., 76.

[7] Ibid., 66.

[8] Ibid., 76.

[9] Ibid., 5.


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