FROM THE DOLLAR TO THE MOON
Chapter 7 - That "giant leap for mankind"
by Sarah Powell
Of all the remarkable achievements by Americans of Scottish descent perhaps none has quite caught the popular imagination to the same extent as that of Neil Alden Armstrong, the first man on the moon. In one of the defining moments of the space race, and history, Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, who both had Scottish ancestry, realised one of man's long-held ambitions, landing from their lunar voyage on 20th July 1969. Stepping down off the last rung of the ladder from the lunar module Eagle onto the surface of the moon was, as Armstrong exclaimed: "one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind". Over the next two-and-a-half hours, the two astronauts, watched by millions of fascinated television viewers the world over, collected dust and rock samples, took photographs and planted the Stars and Stripes.
Born on a small farm near Wapakoneta, Ohio, Armstrong was the first NASA pilot to become an astronaut. His achievement and that of the other members of the crew of Apollo 11, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins, demonstrated the "can-do" determination that is so marked among Americans. This characteristic surely mirrors the fortitude shown by so many of their forebears as they strove to survive and make good in a new land. And many of these were Scots.
Beyond the prominent Americans of Scots descent already chronicled – and these are only a selection among many – are others who have left a strongly symbolic mark on American culture or identity. Take, for example, Betsy Ross, the young Philadelphia seamstress engaged to make the first American flag. Then there was Francis Scott Key who in 1814 wrote America's national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner" and James Pollock who, later in the nineteenth century, was responsible for the engraving of "In God We trust" on US coins. The Cross of St. Andrew on the Confederate flag must also have been inspired by Scottish Americans as also, less felicitously, was the Gaelic imagery of the Klu Klux Klan.
"Uncle Sam" is another well-known symbol for Americans, sometimes depicted as a whiskered gentleman in a tailcoat and tall silk hat. But there is nothing fictional about the original "Uncle Sam" who was, in fact, Sam Wilson, a supplier of meat to the US Army during the 1812 War. Wilson's parents came from Greenock in Scotland and Sam operated a food business in Troy, New York. Sam’s casks of beef and pork for delivery to the army were stamped "U.S." which, the curious were told, stood for "Uncle Sam". The soldiers assumed "Uncle Sam" was a colloquialism for the federal government, which it subsequently became. Sam Wilson is buried in Troy where a monument commemorates his contribution to US history.
Two of the greatest symbols of America must be its Declaration of Independence and its Constitution. How fitting that "it was in response to the appeal of a Scot, John Witherspoon, that the Declaration of Independence was signed after it had been given to Thomas Jefferson, a descendant of a sister of King Robert I, the Bruce, to draft."¹ The architect of the US Constitution, James Madison, was also partly of Scottish descent while, as already noted in Chapter 2 – Striving for Independence, well over half of US presidents to the present day, including the "Father of the Country" George Washingon, had at least some Scottish blood – an astonishing proportion.
"History is the essence of innumerable biographies," wrote Thomas Carlyle, the nineteenth-century Scots essayist and historian. Certainly, like threads in some vast tapestry, the achievements of these and other notable people illustrate some of the remarkable contributions made by those of Scottish descent to the development of the United States, and indeed the shaping of the world as we know it today.
"Freedom and Whisky gang thegither"
Whether "Freedom and Whisky gang thegither", as asserted by Robert Burns, is a moot point. But, to focus briefly on Scottish traditions, Scotch whisky is as characteristic a part of life for many in America as tartan, pipes, reels, golf, Robbie Burns' suppers and perhaps even that "Great Chieftain o' the puddin'-race"*, the haggis... and let us not forget that most "American" of sports, basketball, which was introduced in Massachusetts in the late nineteenth century by Dr. James Naismith, a Scottish Canadian.
Scotland and America can be seen to have much in common. Beyond the shared heritage of many of their people and a resulting cultural affinity, nationals of both countries demonstrate a fierce pride in their history and nationhood and are passionate about independence, recognising their ancestors' historic struggles for rights and freedom. This was a cause that Scottish immigrants in America strongly espoused and promoted in their adopted homeland. As argued, Scotland contributed significantly to the developing shape of America while US economic and cultural influence has strongly marked Scotland's development, as it has that of many other parts of the world.
There seems little need "to prove again [that] Auld Scotland counts for something still".** The immense pride of the Scots in their history, traditions and values and the strong affection in which this small country is held among those in the Scottish Diaspora bear out Burns' contention that "old Scotia's grandeur
[...] makes her loved at home, revered abroad". But, of course, there is far more than this to Scotland today. With a population of some five million plus, the country finally has its own parliament while it boasts technologically advanced industries including a prominent Silicon Glen, flourishing tourism, and portfolio careers and home computing that have replaced crofting in many far-flung reaches of the Highlands and islands. Meanwhile the country's traditional strengths in fields such as medicine, law, the arts, publishing, education, business and administration, finance and politics persist, as can be seen well beyond its own borders.
"Sometimes people call me an idealist," said Thomas Woodrow Wilson. "Well, that is the way I know I am an American. America is the only idealistic nation in the world." Is it possible that the 28th US President and promoter of world peace through the League of Nations was forgetting his roots as a Scottish American? The extent to which Scotland has contributed to the shaping of contemporary America will always be open to debate, and clearly the challenges and experiences of adaptation to a new land and building of a new life led to development of a distinct American culture among Scots as among other immigrant groups. Yet an intriguing question remains: without Scotland, how different would America be today?
References and sources:
*Robert Burns, Ode to a Haggis.
**Charles Murray, Hamewith.
¹ Duncan A. Bruce, The Mark of the Scots.
Burke's Landed Gentry – The Kingdom in Scotland is a long-established source of past and present information on Scottish society – noble, influential and land-owning, past and present. Within its pages and through its new Internet database you can trace the origins of some of the many prominent Scottish families and individuals who have contributed to the making of American history.
Meanwhile Burke's Peerage and Landed Gentry is continually extending the range of resources offered to customers. October
2002 sees publication of the 19th edition of American Families with British Ancestry, which adds some 1,600 family records to the Burke's Peerage and Landed Gentry collection.
November sees the launch of a new edition of American Presidential Families, a book by Hugh Brogan and Charles Mosley presenting the family history of, and a personal essay on, every American President up to and including President Bill Clinton.