“Histories of lives are seldom entertaining, unless they contain something either admirable or explanatory”
Benjamin Franklin April16, 1722
If Hancock and Lee are known, the ninth in line is forgotten even in the country of his birth; and the Scots are not usually reticent about claiming their local boys made good. Arthur St Clair[i] was born on March 23 1736[ii] in Thurso a small town in Caithness in the far North of Scotland. His surname was probably originally Sinclair (pronounced as “Sink- ler”) and may have been changed to elevate himself socially above his very minor gentry roots.
His father was a merchant although a descendant of George Sinclair 4th Earl of Caithness. He studied medicine at Edinburgh University before taking a commission with the British Army I 1757. He served in the New World and the Seven Years War (which in America is known as the French and Indian War). He was with General Jeffrey Amherst at the capture of Louisberg, Nova Scotia and serving with Wolfe at the Plains of Abraham. It seems though that he felt this was to be the summit of his military career and in 1764 he moved to Ligonier Valley, Pennsylvania where he bought land and built mills. In 1771 he decided to take up a position as Colonel of the Pennsylvanian militia rising to Brigadier General in August 1776. He was President ICA during Shay’s Rebellion. He was the first and last President who was born outside the States and immigrated to rise to this office.
Brigadier General or no his military career was far from luminous. He was a less than successful General retreating from a safe position at Ticonderoga and losing the fort. He had felt his garrison was too weak to resist Burgoyne’s forces and he withdrew to a fall back situation for which he was court-martialed largely because the revolutionary authorities could not believe that he had not deliberately contrived to lose the action and they suspected him of being another British turncoat.
He was saved from this by his friendship with Washington who could be relied upon to know the difference between incompetent genera-lship and a double crossing spy having had so much experience of both in his staff. He was C-in-C at “St Clair’s defeat” or the “Columbia Massacre” or “The Battle of Wabush” where native Indians inflicted their worst defeat of an American Army. The loss of life was far higher than even at Custer’s last stand and proportionately far more damaging. This time he did lose his command but held his Governorship of the Northwest Territory until a further clash with President Jefferson cost him that job too. He died in poverty in 1818. He had no notable kin although his very pretty daughter lived a life of Calamity Jane excitement.
Alone of all the Presidents (In Congress Asembled) he has no fan club nor many web sites seeking to re-write his contribution to the nation. If any of these forgotten Presidents is forgotten then it is Arthur St Clair.
Copyright David Macadam 2010