Report by Sandra Millsopp
Bangor Historical Society met on the 9 November for a talk by Ronnie Hanna on American presidents of Ulster descent. The number of such presidents varies according to the source used, but was about thirteen. For his talk Mr. Hanna had selected six of them. Three were first generation presidents ie they were born in America to parents who had emigrated from Ulster. Indeed the USA has only had three first generation presidents and they were all from Ulster.
In the eighteenth century people emigrated to what was then British colonial North America. These Ulster Scots settled in the original thirteen colonies whose western boundary was the Appalachian Mountains. One of the causes of the American War of Independence was Britainís ban on movement beyond the mountains as they feared conflict with the Indians of the interior. The Ulster immigrants had settled close to the mountains as land was cheaper and more available. Mr Hanna argued that the Ulster Scots were one of the first ethnic groups to think of themselves as Americans.
The speaker focused first on Andrew Jackson whose parents emigrated from Carrickfergus in 1765. He was born in 1767 and the War against Britain was a formative experience. He became a lawyer, but also served in the Tennessee militia in fights against the Indians. His role in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 against the British made him a national hero and laid the foundation for his political career. He stands out as the first president who can be truly said to come from the people.
James Polkís ancestors came from Londonderry about 1680. His presidency was noted for the war against Mexico, 1846-8. It has been argued that he provoked the war so that the USA could acquire areas now in the western USA such as California, Arizona and New Mexico. In 1849 gold was discovered in California. The war divided opinion in America. Northerners thought the southerners were only interested in territory to which they could move and have slaves.
James Buchanan was the second of the first generation presidents. His parents moved from Donegal to Omagh and then left for the USA in 1783. Buchanan was president at the time the USA began to fracture over the issue of slavery and he has been blamed for not preventing the Civil War. Buchanan had a diplomatic career before he became president in 1856. His successor Abraham Lincoln was also unable to stop the drift to war.
Ulysses S Grant was one of the great heroes of the union victory in the Civil War. His great grandfather had emigrated to the USA from outside Dungannon. Grant had been cashiered from the army for a drunken brawl, but when the Civil War broke out he got a second chance and enhanced his reputation as commander of the army of the Potomac. He received the surrender of the southern general Robert E. Lee. There were no particularly notable events during his two terms as president, except perhaps the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. He wrote his memoirs to earn money following losses due to a bad investment.
Chester Arthur was the third of the first generation presidents. His parents came from Cullybackey. He became president following the assassination of James Garfield in 1881 and served out the remainder of the latterís term of office. It was a period of westward expansion, economic growth and mass immigration as well as the build-up of US naval strength.
The final president considered was Woodrow Wilson whose grandfather came from Strabane. He was the first US president to be an international figure. In his first term he focused on domestic reform. He brought the USA into the First World War in 1917. He then played a big role in the establishment of peace and the setting up of the League of Nations.
In conclusion presidents of Ulster descent played an important role in the USA out of all proportion to the numbers of emigrants from the province.