Irish-Americans in Politics

The Irish have had a great influence in American politics. The Scotch-Irish from Ulster who came to the American colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought with them a Scottish ethos of independence and civil liberty. In a sense, they achieved the freedom in America that their relatives in Scotland and Ireland were denied. When the colonies declared independence in 1776, nine of the men who signed the declaration were of Irish descent.

The Scotch-Irish were a firmly established part of U.S. society from the very beginning. It took many more years before Catholic Irish immigrants were able to gain acceptance, but eventually, they too became established Americans. Catholic Irish political power came first from Democratic political machines, such as the Tammany Hall machine in New York. As immigrants' descendants moved into the middle class in large numbers, Irish-American politicians were able to extend beyond their local political machines and take office on regional and even national scales.

American Presidents

No fewer than sixteen American presidents are of Irish descent:

  • Andrew Jackson, seventh president (1829–37)

  • James Knox Polk, eleventh president (1845–49)

  • James Buchanan, fifteenth president (1857–61)

  • Ulysses S. Grant, eighteenth president (1869–77)

  • Chester Alan Arthur, twenty-first president (1881–85)

  • Grover Cleveland, twenty-second and twenty-fourth president (1885–89, 1893–97)

  • William McKinley, twenty-fifth president (1897–1901)

  • Woodrow Wilson, twenty-eighth president (1913–21)

  • John Fitzgerald Kennedy, thirty-fifth president (1961–63)

  • Lyndon Baines Johnson, thirty-sixth president (1963–69)

  • Richard Milhous Nixon, thirty-seventh president (1969–74)

  • James Earl Carter, thirty-ninth president (1977–81)

  • Ronald Wilson Reagan, fortieth president (1981–89)

  • George Herbert Walker Bush, forty-first president (1989–93)

  • William Jefferson Clinton, forty-second president (1993–2001)

  • George W. Bush, forty-third president (2001–present)

Why is JFK considered the first Irish-American President?

There were eight presidents before Kennedy of Scotch-Irish descent, but they didn't identify themselves as Irish. The Protestant Scotch-Irish tended to look down on the poorer Catholic Irish. Both the Irish and the Irish-American community considered Kennedy's election a major advance.

Most of these presidents came from Scotch-Irish rather than Catholic Irish families. The victory of Andrew Jackson in 1829 can be seen as a victory of Scotch-Irish values over the more aristocratic ones of the English-descended presidents who preceded him. Jackson's administration was known for favoring common citizens over wealthy landowners, a trait that can be traced to the Scotch-Irish value of individual freedom over hierarchy.

John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic Irish president. Kennedy's victory in 1960 was seen as the final sign of acceptance for the Irish-American community.

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