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Irish American Founding Fathers

Posted on Monday, March 14, 2022

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While American Colonists were willing to fight for their rights, the idea of true Independence from England was a worrying thought for many colonists. At the time of the Revolution, many Americans identified as English more than they did as Americans. At least initially, the goal for many patriots wasn't to break away from the English, but to rise up and convince them that they deserved their rights just as much as any Englishman in England. For the Irish living in America, things were considerably less complicated. After centuries of conflict between the Irish and the English, most Irish Americans held no reservations with separating from England. Therefore, Irish immigrants and their descendants had an outsized impact on the American Revolution and were leaders in many aspects of the conflict.

Military Service

While only about ten percent of the American population descended from Ireland at the time the American Revolution began, it is believed that the Irish served in the Continental Army at a much higher rate than their English descended Countrymen. Scholarly research indicates that as much as 40-50% of the Continental Army was comprised of soldiers of Irish descent. While many English Americans struggled to decide to fight against their King or declare independence from their homeland, most Irish Americans had no such struggle of allegiance.

Irish soldiers not only battled for America on the battlefields, Irish immigrants also held high ranking position in the military. Hercules Mulligan, an American spy who was famously portrayed in Hamilton: The Musical as one Alexander Hamilton's close friends, immigrated to America from Ireland when he was child. And perhaps most prominently, Commodore John Barry, the highest ranking officer in the Continental Navy and the captain of American's first Naval Ship immigrated to America from Ireland. Barry would go on to be known as the "Father of American Navy."

Commodore John Barry

Declaration of Independence

Numerous signers of the Declaration of Independence had Irish Heritage including Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the document. But for three signers of the Declaration of Independence, Ireland was not only their ancestral home, but it was also where they were born. Matthew Thornton who represented the colony of New Hampshire had immigrated to America from Londonberry, Ireland with his family when he was a child. James Smith, a representative of Pennsylvania came to America with his family from Ulster, Ireland when he was 10 years old. Another Pennsylvania representative, George Taylor came to Philadelphia when he was 20 years old as an immigrant from Ireland. The three immigrants from Ireland were the most from any country to sign the Declaration.

Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress

While he did not sign the Declaration of Independence, another Irish Immigrant was present in Independence Hall when the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia. Charles Thomson immigrated to America when he was 10 from Londonberry, Ireland along with his father and brothers. Thomson's father died on the voyage to American however and Thomson arrived in America without any means. Thomson was able to find work to support and educate himself and became a political activist. In 1774 Thomson was named Secretary of the Continental Congress, a position that he would hold throughout the entirety of its existence. While Thomson did not sign the Declaration of Independence, as the Secretary of the Continental Congress, Thomson's name appears along with President John Hancock's on the first printed copy of the Declaration of independence.

United States Constitution

Seven immigrants signed the United States Constitution; of the seven, more than half of them were from Ireland. William Patterson was born in County Antrim, Ireland before immigrating to America as a young child and going on to represent New Jersey in the Constitutional Convention. Also from Ireland was Pierce Butler who grew up in Garryhundon, Ireland and served in the British Army before immigrating to America right for the Revolutionary War. Pierce would go on to represent South Carolina at the Constitutional Convention. James McHenry was born in Ballymena, Ireland and lived there before immigrating to America as a teenager where he went on to represent Maryland at the Constitutional Convention. Thomas Fitzsimons represented Pennsylvania after immigrating to America from Ireland when he was 19. 

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