The Son of Liberty from Islay by Marcia L. Barnes
The Scottish people of the Inner Hebridean Isle of Islay have a native son of whom they should be very proud; General Alexander McDougall. Yet he has unfortunately faded from historical records, so that very few people today are aware of his life and the impact he had on the world beyond the Isles.
True to the fiery spirit and audacious, independent nature of his Islay clansmen, Alexander McDougall's pursuit of liberty from the British for his fellow colonists in the mid-to-late 1700s, and his penchant for courageously fighting for his personal and political beliefs, earned him the distinction of shaping the face of the American Revolution.
McDougall, born on Islay in the summer of 1732, was the second of five children to Ranald and Elizabeth McDougall. The McDougalls were pious Presbyterians and a hard-working family, yet life on the isolated isle,only offered limited opportunities. Therefore, when the opportunity arose in the late 1730s to join a group of Highland Scots who were moving to America, they decided to sail to New York at the behest of Captain Lachlan Campbell, an enterprising Scottish army veteran who had already visited the colonies.
Campbell had enticed nearly 200 Highlanders to make the voyage by touting the beauties of America to them, and describing fertile land upon which they could settle. The McDougalls said their farewells and departed from Islay in July 1738, with little more than their clothes and a letter from the minister of Kildalton Parish who noted that they 'have lived here in said parish and island from their birth, for the most part behaving themselves soberly and honestly and industriously' " (MacDougall, 1977, p4)
McDougall was six years old when his family left Islay and the "black-house"- a damp, drafty, two-room cottage with stone-and-peat walls and a timber-and-thatched-straw roof . . ." (MacDougall, 1977, p. 6), which was their home. They had been tenants on both the Torrodale and Nether Killean farms on Islay, and had worshipped regularly at the "Church of Scotland on the lands of Ballynaughtonmore farm," where some of the island's children, such as Alexander, were taught primary skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic" (MacDougall, 1977, p. 8).
The family had planned to purchase land near Fort Edward, New York, but they discovered upon their arrival after their lengthy sea voyage that Captain Campbell had misrepresented his intentions to the Highlanders. He had "applied to the New York authorities for a huge estate of about 3O,OOO acres [referred to as the Argyle Patent], much of which he was to own and manage" (MacDougall, 1977, p. 5). Campbell's plan was for the immigrants to become tenants on his land, instead of free landholders, but many of the Highlanders had sold nearly all of their possessions to pay for their own passage to New York, and were not content to become mere vassals for Campbell.
The newly immigrated Scots consequently chose to pursue alternative means of settling into America. Ronald McDougall chose to remain in New York, and worked on a dairy farm on Manhattan Island. The farm became one of the primary suppliers of milk to the area, bringing relative prosperity to the McDougall family. Young Alexander helped his father deliver milk in the city, spawning his interest in trade and commerce at an early age.
McDougall, who spent his earliest years listening to the continual rhythm of the North Atlantic Ocean beating upon the shores of Islay, felt his love for the seafaring life emerge during his teens. He was drawn to the sea for both the challenging adventures and promising trade opportunities that it offered, and "at the age of fourteen, he signed on to a ship and sailed out of New York harbor to seek a fortune" (MacDougall, 1977, p. 10).
He worked aboard various merchant vessels, and returned to Islay during a voyage to Great Britain in 1751. The young, hard-working sailor was in Islay for just a short while, but remained long enough to court Nancy McDougall (a distant relative) and marry her. The couple stayed on Islay for a few months, and then Nancy accompanied McDougall on his return passage to New York, with a letter of endorsement from the parish minister, who said that "the couple had behaved 'while residing among us without any offense and modestly and Christianly' " (MacDougall, 1977,p. 11).
McDougall soon became the master of small cargo sloops, and then advanced to stages of ownership in the trade, eventually owning his own vessel, The Schuyler. Throughout the French and Indian war, McDougall amassed a small sum for himself. Eleven years after he first sailed from the harbor in New York, he commanded the privateering Tyger, a six-gun merchant vessel, and then advanced to a twelve-gun sloop, the Barrington', in 1759.
In early 1763, McDougall suffered the loss of his wife Nancy, and shortly thereafter, the loss of his father. Faced with the care of his three children and his mother, McDougall, who was deeply devoted to his faith and responsible to his obligations, invested his fortune in trade and land, instead of continuing his privateering career on the high seas.
He became a successful merchant from a variety of enterprises, and his wealth, at least superficially, gave him a higher social standing. But members of the traditional New York society didn't wish to accept him on equal terms, for they thought that he talked too much, his manners weren't polished, and his dress was gaudy.
McDougall, who bore a rugged and muscular appearance, spoke with a thick, stuttering brogue. Yet he was a self-educated man of principle, who was eloquent with the written word, a successful negotiator, and an ambitious businessman. By the age of 35, his financial estate included "an account with £4,191 in London; . . . nearly 3,000 acres of land in Albany County, New York; and other real estate as far away as Wilmington, North Carolina" (MacDougall, 1977, p. 21).
It was 1767, and McDougall, with his monetary affairs in good order, chose to invest some time into his personal life as well, and married Hannah Bostwick, daughter of his landlady. He also became immersed in political affairs around that time, especially regarding the enactment of new taxes imposed on the Americans by Parliament, such as the Stamp Act.
In 1769, he became an outspoken and persuasive leader of the New York Sons of Liberty when he authored an anonymously published broadside, in which he charged the New York Assembly with betraying the people's trust. He was arrested a few days later and charged with writing the "seditious and libelous" paper.
McDougall gained immediate fame when he refused to plead guilty or pay bail, opting instead to go to jail for 80 days, thereby " 'becoming one of the first Americans to be imprisoned in defense of freedom of the press. 'I rejoice,' he explained, 'I am the first sufferer for liberty since the commencement of our glorious struggles ....' " (MacDougall, 1977, p. 33). He was characterized as the John Wilkes of America, and his popularity increased so much that he had to schedule appointments to accommodate all of the supporters who came to his jail cell.
A biased jury declared him guilty, and the case was given to the Supreme Court for trial. The case, however, was dropped because the opposition's primary witness died. Yet the Assembly still expected McDougall to testify, and when he again refusedto confess his authorship, he was jailed for a second time. When a new governor took office in 1771, McDougall was released from jail.
Thus McDougall became an activist for freedom of speech and political liberty, challenging the practice of having a small, exclusive group hold supreme power over the populace. He possessed a deep conviction that the common people had the power to make and enforce their own political decisions. Accordingly, "his circle of friends grew to include future presidents of the United States and other eminent Americans" (MacDougall, 1977, p. 37), including Benjamin Franklin, with whom he frequently corresponded.
McDougall remained a proponent for nonimportation of British goods, and even assumed an active, radical leadership role for the Sons of Liberty against importation, in spite of the fact that his own financial income was adversely affected by the stance. In 1773, he was instrumental in devising a scheme to prevent the ship 'London' from landing its shipment of tea in New York, by helping organize a group of men, dressed as Indians, who dumped the cargo overboard.
The following year, a nonimportation resolution, drafted by McDougall, was passed at "The Great Meeting in the Fields," over which he presided. Alexander Hamilton, then only 17, appeared at that meeting and spoke out for American liberty. McDougall was quite favorably impressed with Hamilton, and the two remained close friends throughout and beyond the Revolution.
McDougall's dynamic involvement in the American Revolution included his serving on the Committee of 51, and being nominated as a deputy to Congress in 1775. He actively and enthusiastically recruited men for the First New York Regiment, aspiring toward personal military ranking for himself, to such extent that he "often [paid] bills with his own money" (MacDougall, 1977, p. 66).
His activism and progression through the military ranks were not without personal loss and trauma, however. He stated that " 'the northern expedition cost me my eldest son, and the other . . . was made a prisoner in Canada' " (MacDougall, 1977, p. 73)
In 1776, McDougall, mindful of the fact that "a well-trained fleet is essential to defeating the British" (MacDougall, 1977, p. 78), helped create an American navy. And when General Washington decided to evacuate his army from Long Island, rather than surrender to the British, he selected McDougall to organize the dangerous venture.
The operation was a success, and McDougall's "expert handling of one of the most difficult logistical operations of the war secured forever the trust and admiration of George Washington" (MacDougall, 1977, p. 85). He was promoted to major general in 1777, by recommendation from Washington.
In 1780, he was elected by the New York Legislature as a delegate to the Continental Congress, and in the following year, was elected to the post of Secretary of Marine, based upon the recommendation of Alexander Hamilton.
After the Revolution, McDougall "pitched into the [rebuilding] effort with characteristic vigor despite recurring bad health, a legacy of the war. He was once again elected to various political posts, including the New York Senate where he served from 1784 to 1786" (MacDougall, 1977, p. 155). He was also occupied with the process of"reestablishing the state's first bank, the Bank of New York, and was elected its first president. Among its directors was Alexander Hamilton . . ." (MacDougall, 1977, p. 156).
McDougall's health diminished quickly during 1786. He died at home on June 10th, at the age of fifty-three, "too soon after the war's end to have allowed him to contribute much to the organization of the new republic . . ." (MacDougall, 1977, p.xiii), which may explain why his name has faded from historical accounts of the Revolution.
It is hoped that this native son of Islay will be properly reinstated in the annals of American and Scottish history. The account of McDougall's dazzling exploits as the captain of a privateering ship, prosperous New York merchant, provocative essayist whose jail term for libel turned him into a hero in the thirteen colonies, soldier who rose to the highest rank in the American army under General Washington, politician who was a member of the Continental Congress, first and only Minister of the Marine (a post that later became Secretary of the Navy), and financier who became first president of New York's oldest bank (MacDougall, 1977, p. xi) are essential to the conscientious documentation and panorama of the American
Perhaps one day the inhabitants of New York and Islay will erect a fitting memorial to serve as a marker to honor and hold General Alexander McDougall's well-deserved place in history, and to inspire other bold individuals to prevail for a better life for themselves and political freedom as well.
Please note that the information for this article was compiled from the references listed below. Direct quotations and references are in accordance with APA writing style.
Portantruan near Laphroaig, Islay
Blanco, R. (Editor). (1993). The ,American Revolution 1775-1783: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, Incorporated.
Champagne, R. ( 1975). Alexander Mcdougall and the American Revolution in New York Schenectady, New York: The New York State American Revolution Bicentennial Commission in conjunction with Union College Press.
MacDougall,W.(1977).American Revolutionary-a Biography of General Alexander McDougall. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
Malone, D. (Editor). Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.