Thurso, in the county of Caithness in northern Scotland, was my playground growing up, and it was here on March 23 1734 that Arthur St. Clair was born, who would become elected President of the United States on February 2, 1787, and he went on to make America really, really great.

Arthur St. Clair


Four weeks ago I was facing a gap in my publishing schedule for the Peoples's History blog and I received a timley email from author R. W. Dick Phillips, who has flown a flag for an unsung American Hero for almost two decades. Being a P.R. specialist by trade Phillip's knows how to attract attention to those who are not heard, but should be. His 2014 book Arthur St. Clair: The Invisible Patriot is a highly informative and wonderfully detailed account of a lost icon of both Scottish and American People's History, a revolutionary thinker and doer, who challenged the American institution and brought about the end of what was arguably the most cancerous aspect of modern American and British history - slavery.

Arthur St. Clair had noble blood in that his ancestors were the St. Clair Barons of Rosslyn in south east Scotland who had played a dominant role in Scotland's socio-political and military scene between the 13th and 19th century. Henry Sinclair, 2nd Earl of Orkney was protector of the young James Stewart, the later James I of Scotland and his son was Sir William St. Clair, 3rd Earl of Orkney, the builder of the enigmatic Rosslyn Chapel, which he founded in 1446. Some researchers claim Arthur St. Clair enjoyed a comfortable life in Thurso after an inheritance in his youth but Phillips argues that the unsurmountable  wealth of the St. Clair’s of Rosslyn's, enabling them “to dine on plates of silver and gold”, did not trickle down into the early 18th century and his great-great grandson Arthur St. Clair of Thurso, and his mother and father, were of modest means. 

Thurso, Caithness, Scotland, where both Arthur St. Clair and I were raised.

Arthur was raised by his mother who primed him for big things. Three options were available to children leaving school in Thurso back then; farming, fishing or military service.  His mother taught him languages and the social arts and he eventually flew the nest and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where he interned with Dr.  William Hunter, one of London’s first surgeons. But Arthur had an underlying adventurous spirit and when his mother died, leaving him with no family, he was inspired by the Duke of Cumberland to raise arms and drive the French out of their Canadian Colony. In 1755 St. Clair bought an Ensigns rank and sailed the Atlantic with the British army to Canada. 


For two decades St. Clair was steeped in the revolutionary cause and having been appointed by Governor John Penn to six different judgeships, during the latter of which, in 1774, he had prevented British Lord John Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, from annexing what is now metropolitan Pittsburgh. Recognising that his fellow Scottish settlers were being terrorised by Indians into leaving western Pennsylvania, St. Clair recruited experienced military volunteers to defend the settlers, while also establishing roving patrols to discourage the Native American Indians from attacking. It took one year to dispose of the Indian threat. St. Clair then rumbled a plot in which the Indians had been incited to attack by non other that Virginia’s Governor, British Lord Dunmore, to discourage more colonists from Pennsylvania from joining the revolution.

In 1774, after serving in several judicial appointments by Governor Penn, St. Clair, now a Magistrate, learned that Virginia Governor, British Lord Dunmore, was attempting to annex the fertile three-rivers area of Pennsylvania surrounding Fort Pitt (now metropolitan Pittsburgh), as part of Virginia. St. Clair had Dunmore’s men arrested and put in jail on two occasions. After repeated negative British actions against the colonists and their families St. Clair met President John Hancock and was commissioned a Colonel in the continental army under George Washington in 1775. Within two years he had earned Major General stars.

In the winter of 1776-77 in New York the British attacked Fort Ticonderoga. Congress had told the public that the old fort was impregnable and would be easily defended but the a fort designed for 10,000 troops, received only 1,000. With the 20 year-old fort falling apart and St. Clair outnumbered five-to-one he made a night-retreat to gain an advantage from the woods, for which he was unfairly court-martialled for “desertion and cowardice”. In reality, St. Clair’s tactical manoeuvre not only slowed down the British but he saved half his soldiers to fight at the battle of Saratoga, which saw the first surrender of a British army in the war.  When his case was finally heard by the next Congress, he was exonerated and even commended for his courageous decision.

Detail of a 1758 map showing the fort's layout.


As he aged St. Clair became even braver and more fearless and in the winter of 1776-77 he saved George Washington’s life, in an act of glory for which he was never credited. During the six months before December of 1776, Commanding General, George Washington had retreated from nine consecutive battles with the British in New Jersey and had lost ninety percent of his army and had only 300 remaining troops. Brigadier General, Arthur St. Clair answered the call with 2000 fresh troops, took over the leadership of a brigade and suggested the strategies of stealth which enabled Washington's army to win the next three battles over the British in just nine days after Christmas in 1776. This drove the British out of New Jersey and avoided what could have been the end of the American Revolution. Not only was St. Clair’s recruiting, but his strategic planning and brigade leadership were crucial in winning the three New Jersey battles, which reversed the momentum of the war.

Lord Stirling leading an attack against the British in order to enable the retreat of other troops at the Battle of Long Island, 1776.

Congress had been ready to replace Washington and needing to restore his reputation as a formidable adversary to the British Army he took all the credit for St. Clair's bravery and wit becoming celebrated around the world as the greatest military genius of the century. Knowing the credit really should have gone to St. Clair, within a couple of weeks Washington promoted him to Major General. In Phillip’s book The Invisible Patriot, the Washington-St. Clair relationship is the underlying theme of his biographical commentary and the author noted 135 references to St. Clair contacts with Washington which most historians don’t write about because they’ve already attributed the military successes to his superiors. Thus, for the past two centuries, many generations of school students have learned nothing about Arthur St. Clair from Thurso, the man who won the war and made America great.

As America’s first Federal Governor, St. Clair helped write and secure Congress’ passage of the Northwest Ordinance. He developed the judicial system for the entire Northwest Territory, now the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan ,Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The document is still in use today, having most recently been used as the guideline for the establishment of the State of Hawaii and the State of Alaska. And uniquely, in 1787 thanks to St. Clair, America’s first federal document was drafted with a provision to prohibit slavery.  

Thomas Jefferson in 1791 at 49 by Charles Willson Peale opposed St. Clair's motion to abolish slavery.

In 1788 when St. Clair first took office, America’s 16 states were equally divided on the abolition of slavery and Ohio would break the tie. St. Clair established Ohio’s first nine counties and their county seats but as a Federalist against slavery trying to ensure that Ohio would become a slave-free state, he came into direct conflict with Thomas Jefferson’s Anti-Federalist (pro slavery) party in Ohio for his next 14 years as Governor. Finally, in 1802, concerned that the Ohio Legislature would attempt to overturn the Ordinance provision against slavery, St. Clair made a fiery speech against slavery to the legislature. Paranoid that St. Clair would become elected Governor, disrupting his plans for a governor from his own party, President Jefferson played a dark, tactical move and removed St. Clair from office. However, in a twist of fate, when the legislature voted to overturn the provision, they lost by one vote, setting the precedent for Ohio and the next five states to be slave-free.


Arthur St. Clair didn't have his surname mounted in gold letters above his country farmsteads. No, he lived in wooden houses and apart from a few tourist signs marking the locations of St. Clair's home he is but a whisper in the fading historical landscapes of a handful of states, never having found a place in the American schooling curriculum, or that of the Scots. He is buried in Greenburgh PA , next to his wife Phoebe, who both died in 1818.

I urge you my fellow Scots, the next time you watch Braveheart and you feel those nationalistic winds rising the hairs on your arms, give a moments consideration to the Caithness lion, who travelled to America and saved the People's History from becoming that of a rouge-slave nation. Rather,  Arthur St. Clair took it upon himself to change people's philosophies and outlooks and standing against heritage, institution and highly-dangerous enemies, in his fight against slavery he helped to install two new paradigms - liberty and freedom - which that great nation s till enjoys today.

Essentially, a boy called Arthur left Thurso and smashed the chains of thousands of abused human beings. And we really do owe a debt of gratitude to dedicated independent authors like  R. W. Dick Phillips, who question beyond our given history, revealing the real heroes of our People's History . In this case, having such a close personal connection, maybe one day soon I'll turn my attention to writing a script and filming the life story of my fellow Caithnessian and his Presidential legacy in a documentary. Yup, the Scots sure do have a lot to answer for.



Printed editions available on Amazon and from the Rosslyn Chapel Gift Shop.