Spotlight: Jacobites - George Washington and the Scottish Jacobites

19 December 2022
In this latest edition of Spotlight: Jacobites, Calum Cunningham explores the professional relationships, personal friendships, and influence of two Scottish Jacobite exiles on the future first President of the United States of America.

In 1732, George Washington was born into one of the Colony of Virginia’s leading families who were loyal to the British Crown. [1] Several decades later, mounting turmoil in North America saw Washington, alongside those who would become known as his fellow Founding Fathers, lead a revolution against the British imperial state. This insurrection stemmed from a growing disillusionment with a lopsided patronage system as well as a British colonial policy that imposed what were seen as unfair taxes and a limit on the American colonists’ political representation at Westminster. [2] Consequently, Washington’s evolving ideological transition to republicanism and nationalism, based on the principles of the European Enlightenment, gradually led him to view the British state and its monarchy under King George III as an oppressive, tyrannical regime. [3] Tensions reached a crisis point in 1775 when the Second Continental Congress declared war against the Kingdom of Great Britain in opposition to its colonial policies and treatment of many colonists. Following Washington’s appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental army, he became an exemplary patriot to his colonial peers. To his British enemies, he was one of the highest-ranking traitors in what would be called the American Revolutionary War of 1775-83. [4]

Ironically, Washington began his journey toward rebellion by serving as a faithful and dependable British subject in colonial Virginia. He would encounter previous enemies of the British state in his own birthplace, which had accommodated the settlement of a group of transported and indentured Jacobites, including a considerable Scottish contingent. In the wake of the Jacobite army’s failures in Scotland and England under John Erskine, 22nd or sixth Earl of Mar, during the Rising of 1715-16, over two-fifths of captured rebels were transported to the North American and Caribbean colonies of Britain’s burgeoning empire. [5] This assortment of exiled Jacobites naturally stuck together through bonds of fidelity and, in many cases, friendship in a remote region far from their native soil. They nevertheless forged new and lasting relationships within this established colonial community, including its landed gentry, such as the plantation-owning Washingtons. [6]

George Washington was educated in Fredericksburg, where he encountered the first of two Scottish Jacobite exiles who would become colleagues and good friends. Washington wished to engage in the profession of county surveying and did so immediately upon leaving his formal schooling. He learnt his craft under the Scottish émigré George Home (or Hume), a member of the aristocratic, Episcopalian, and ardent Berwickshire Jacobite Home of Wedderburn family. [7] Home had served under his father in the forces of William Gordon, sixth Viscount Kenmure, at the Battle of Preston in 1715 and was captured in its aftermath. He was freed at some point following the passing of the Indemnity Act of 1717 and permitted to return to Scotland. His four brothers became officers in the Royal Navy, but this route was not an option for him as a convicted Jacobite. [8] Home tried to adapt but had little success, and after his father’s death in 1720 he decided to join his uncle, an indentured Jacobite exile named Francis Home of Quixwood, in Virginia. [9] However, flux took his uncle’s life shortly before Home arrived in Virginia in 1721. [10]

Owing mainly to his level of education, Home turned to surveying as it was an occupation looked upon with respect in the colony. [11] In 1728, Home was first appointed Surveyor of Spotsylvania County and later Surveyor of the Counties of Orange and Frederick. In 1729, he was also commissioned as a lieutenant in the colonial militia. [12] The colonies, by virtue of distance, offered some former Jacobites new opportunities, as time and distance made it more difficult for them to sustain Jacobite-related revolutionary ideologies. Still, risks remained for those publicly indicted because of previous Jacobite adherence. For instance, Lieutenant General Willem (or William) Anne van Keppel, second Earl of Albemarle, was appointed Governor-in-Chief of Virginia between 1737 and 1754. He commanded the government front line at the Battle of Culloden, becoming Commander-in-Chief of all British forces in Scotland in 1746-47. [13] Albemarle never set foot on Virginian soil, to the probable good fortune of George Home, for, as Edgar Erskine Hume notes, ‘his Lordship had no liking for Jacobites, past or present’. [14]

In 1748, surveying or ‘civil engineering’ would bring the two Georges – Home and Washington – into each other’s orbits. Under the patronage and employment of the Scottish peer Thomas Fairfax, sixth Lord Fairfax of Cameron, Washington eagerly took up an opportunity to learn this craft from the then well-established Home. [15] They worked closely together and are mentioned in several surveys of tidewater counties, with Home recorded as Crown Surveyor and Washington as Assistant Surveyor. [16] Home likely recommended Washington to the College of William and Mary so the younger man could assume surveyorship of the recently created county of Culpeper, which he did in 1749. [17] The adolescent Washington’s association with this one-time Scottish Jacobite was his most intimate professional relationship before his military and political careers commenced, and the two men remained good friends after their professional relationship through surveying ended. ‘Emigrant George Home’, as he became known to his descendants, died in Culpeper sometime in early 1760. [18]

Following the death of his half-brother, Lawrence, from smallpox in 1752, Washington gradually abandoned the surveying profession and attempted a new career inspired by Lawrence’s example: soldiering. On gaining a commission from the resident royal representative of Virginia, Lieutenant-Governor Robert Dinwiddie, Washington steadily rose through the ranks of the local Virginia Militia. He began as one of its adjutants with the rank of major, then became its commander and was promoted to its colonelcy in 1755, wherein Washington served on behalf of the British government in the ensuing colonial conflict known as the Seven Years’ War of 1756-63. [19] At its outbreak, Washington encountered another Scottish Jacobite exile. Born in 1726 in Pitsligo, Hugh Mercer had joined the Jacobite army under Charles Edward Stuart, served as assistant surgeon in the Rising of 1745-46, and was present at the Battle of Culloden. He evaded capture in its aftermath and escaped Scotland by disembarking from Leith as a stowaway before arriving in Philadelphia in the Colony of Pennsylvania in late 1746. [20] Though he continued to practise medicine as an apothecary, Mercer again became swept up in the martial affairs of the day. Like George Home, he sought a new path and also chose to serve alongside his former enemies in the British army, attaining the rank of colonel in 1758 whilst serving in the Pennsylvania Militia. [21] Over the succeeding years, he and Washington struck up an enduring bond. [22] At the war’s conclusion and encouraged by Washington, with whom he had now become well acquainted, Mercer resumed his medical practice in Fredericksburg amongst a thriving Scottish expatriate community. [23]

Washington also returned to civilian life and began his political career when he was elected to the Virginian house of burgesses, the colony’s legislative body. It was not until the 1760s that Washington’s ideological principles and loyalty to Great Britain began to wane. Like many other colonists, he furiously rebuked the oppressive Stamp Act of 1765. His personal vexation gradually mounted from this point onwards, leading Washington and the collective colonial political leadership to question whether it was time for the colonies to govern themselves and seek their own way forward. Relations between the colonies and their mother country continued to flounder. In 1774, as the revolution drew near, Washington rose to prominence amidst a growing group of decorated activists who were willing to defy the British state outwardly. Due to his previous military experience, and though opposed by other contenders initially, he became the delegate appointed by the Continental Congress as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental army on 15 June 1775. As Charles Royster notes, Washington held the status of ‘chief military man from the most populous colony [which] made his final, unanimous selection predictable’. [24]

Hugh Mercer, like Washington, had also opposed the Stamp Act and the subsequent turmoil it triggered. Drawn into this period’s political issues, the Scotsman allied himself to the American ‘Patriot’ cause. Following his friend’s elevation to command, Mercer also joined the Continental army soon after its creation on 14 June 1775. Fredericksburg’s ruling circles and the greater Virginian elite had gradually and grudgingly accepted the Presbyterian Mercer through their own Scotophobia, though early attempts at securing his command were met with resistance. [25] As one account shows:

Mr. Mercer was objected to for being a North Briton. In answer to this objection, it was admitted that Mr. Mercer was born in Scotland, but that he came to America in his early years, and had constantly resided in it from his first coming over, that his family, and all his other connections, were in this colony, that he had uniformly distinguished himself a warm and firm friend to the rights of America. [26]

Despite these objections, Mercer was appointed colonel of the 3rd Virginia Regiment and was later promoted to brigadier general on 5 June 1776 by the Continental Congress, to which he professed his ‘most grateful acknowledgement for this distinguished mark of their regard’. [27] In the Revolutionary War, Mercer would serve directly under his good friend General Washington, who had recently been appointed its commander-in-chief. By the time the Declaration of Independence of the United States was ratified in Philadelphia on 4 July, they had frequently written to each other as they prepared for the next phase of the conflict. [28] Washington expressed his faith in his Scottish friend’s martial abilities two days later in a letter to Brigadier General William Livingston, affirming, ‘In [General Mercer’s] Experience and Judgment you may repose great Confidence’. [29] Just one day after Washington’s victory at the Second Battle of Trenton on 2 January 1777, Mercer would be mortally wounded during the Battle of Princeton. [30] Mercer died on 12 January, nine days after he was injured, depriving Washington of a ‘brave and worthy’ soldier and a good friend. [31]

Two of the most significant and influential personal friendships and professional relationships of George Washington’s life were those with George Home and Hugh Mercer. Both were former Scottish Jacobites from different periods who successfully established new lives for themselves in the North American colonies. Washington did not share the prejudiced views of Scots – Jacobite or otherwise – widely espoused by some of his fellow colonists, one of the most famous of whom was Thomas Jefferson. [32] Washington was no Jacobite, but similarities are to be found in his personal ideologies and those of Home and Mercer. Their past Jacobite adherence was likely known by Washington during their respective acquaintances with him and could have contributed to the formulation of his later convictions. All three characters viewed themselves as patriots fighting a regime that they felt acted unlawfully and tyrannically, and all had different reasons and motivations to rebel. Nevertheless, both 18th-century Scottish Jacobite and American patriotism shared the national ideological principle in which their respective constituents desired to free themselves from the yoke of the British state and eventually its Hanoverian monarch. [33] Jacobite ideology promoted the indefeasible hereditary right of the senior Stuart line to the thrones of the three kingdoms, in opposition to the Williamite and Hanoverian regimes that were established in the wake of the Revolution of 1688-89. The Jacobites maintained that these post-Revolution governments had conducted an illegal assumption of power. The American colonists believed Great Britain had violated their liberties, which were enshrined in the English Bill of Rights in 1689. [34] To their British enemies, each argument was irrelevant. An insurrection was an insurrection, and treason was treason, no matter the reason.

The victorious Whig ideology professed to be founded on Enlightenment principles. Indeed, their opponents viewed the Jacobites as regressive, looking backward to ideologies grounded in the ancien régime and based on the concept of divine right monarchy. Consequently, supporting the Jacobite cause in its attempts to dethrone the de facto British monarchs resulted in mass political criminalisation. Likewise, Washington’s ‘treasonous’ behaviour was entwined with martial rebellion. However, Washington and the Founding Fathers’ idea of an American secular republic evolved under the influence of the later 18th-century Enlightenment period and was thus incompatible with Jacobitism. Colonial Patriots sought to replace the British Protestant state and its constitutional monarchy as ‘one Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’. [35] George Washington felt that his belief systems and reputation embodied this concept. Royster states that Washington ‘saw himself and wished to be seen as a man of unquestioned probity and disinterested patriotism’. [36] Meanwhile, the efforts of Home and Mercer, two Scottish Jacobite patriots, to restore the exiled Stuarts were even then resigned to history as a lost cause. Conversely, together with his fellow Founding Fathers and the support of a national movement, Washington was to succeed in founding the United States of America. He later served as the new nation’s first president and was honoured with the epithet, Father of his Country.

About the author

Calum Cunningham is a final-year PhD candidate at the University of Stirling. His thesis focuses on the political criminalisation of Jacobitism. He has recently written on the external Jacobite diasporas, and has several forthcoming publications, including a study concerning evolving British state treason legislation. He holds degrees in History, Classical Studies, Psychology, and Marketing Management.

Further Reading

  • Stephen Brumwell, George Washington: Gentleman Warrior (London, 2012).
  • Michael Cecere, Second to No Man but the Commander in Chief: Hugh Mercer, American Patriot (Berwyn Heights, MD, 2015).
  • David Dobson, The Scottish Jacobites of 1715 and the Jacobite Diaspora (Baltimore, MD, 2017).
  • Edgar Erskine Hume, A Colonial Scottish Jacobite Family: The Establishment in Virginia of a Branch of the Humes of Wedderburn (Richmond, VA, 1931).
  • Margaret Sankey, Jacobite Prisoners of the 1715 Rebellion: Preventing and Punishing Insurrection in Early Hanoverian Britain (Aldershot and Burlington, VT, 2005).


1 Charles Royster, ‘Washington, George (1732–1799)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Online ed., May 2008 [Accessed 15 November 2022].

2 Stephen Brumwell, George Washington: Gentleman Warrior (London, 2012), pp. 105, 177; Charles A. Kromkowski, Recreating the American Republic (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 116-19.

3 Brumwell, George Washington, p. 177. 

4 Royster, ‘Washington’, ODNB.

5 Margaret Sankey, Jacobite Prisoners of the 1715 Rebellion: Preventing and Punishing Insurrection in Early Hanoverian Britain (Aldershot and Burlington, VT, 2005), pp. 14-126.

6 In the first explicit connection between this exiled Scottish Jacobite faction and the Washington family, another individual captured following the Battle of Preston was Dr John Brown (or Broun) of Coldstream, Berwickshire, who later married Mildred Washington, George’s paternal aunt. David Dobson, The Scottish Jacobites of 1715 and the Jacobite Diaspora (Baltimore, MD, 2017), p. 11; Edgar Erskine Hume, A Colonial Scottish Jacobite Family: The Establishment in Virginia of a Branch of the Humes of Wedderburn (Richmond, VA, 1931), p. 66.

7 Home was born at Wedderburn Castle, Duns, Berwickshire, Scotland, in 1698. Dobson, Jacobite Diaspora, p. 73.

8 Erskine Hume, A Colonial Scottish Jacobite Family, pp. 61-2.

9 Dobson, Jacobite Diaspora, p. 73. Home's father and Quixwood’s elder brother was Sir George Home, Laird of Wedderburn. For his role in the rising, Home was tried for high treason and condemned, but he was spared execution and transportation following a pardon secured by the patronising efforts of Lady Grizel Baillie, née Hume. Home was nonetheless attainted and stripped of his baronetcy, and his estates were forfeited and confiscated. See Grizel Baillie to Isobel Hume (7 February 1717) reprinted in Erskine Hume, A Colonial Scottish Jacobite Family, pp. 40-1.

10 Ibid., pp. 61-5; Edgar Erskine Hume, ‘Memorial to George Hume, Esquire, Crown Surveyor of Virginia and Washington’s Teacher of Surveying’ in Tyler’s Quarterly Historical and Genealogical Magazine, 21:1 (1939), p. 71.

11 Home is remembered chiefly for his role as Crown Surveyor of Colonial Virginia.

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12 Erskine Hume, A Colonial Scottish Jacobite Family, pp. 72-5; Erskine Hume, ‘Memorial to George Hume’, pp. 90-1. In his new profession, Home became associated with Peter Jefferson, who, ten years his junior, was also a county surveyor. The Jeffersons were another notable Virginian plantation-owning family. Peter would later become the father of George Washington’s future fellow delegate, government colleague, and friend, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and third President of the United States.

13 Albemarle County, in the U.S. state of Virginia, is named in his honour.

14 Erskine Hume, ‘Memorial to George Hume’, p. 79.

15 Fairfax County and the Independent City of Fairfax, in the U.S. state of Virginia, are named in his honour. 

16 Erskine Hume, ‘Memorial to George Hume’, pp. 88-9.

17 Erskine Hume provides the court record of Washington’s appointment: ‘Culpeper County, 20 July 1749 – George Washington, Gent. produced a commission from the President and Masters of William and Mary College appointing him to be Surveyor of this county, which was read, and thereupon he took the usual oaths to His Majesty’s person and government, and took and subscribed the [Jacobite] abjuration oath and test, and then took the oath of surveyor according to law’. Erskine Hume, A Colonial Scottish Jacobite Family, p. 77; Erskine Hume, ‘Memorial to George Hume’, pp. 89-90.

18 Home’s second son, Francis, became an officer of the Virginia troops during the American Revolutionary War. Several of his grandsons also served in the conflict. Erskine Hume, ‘Memorial to George Hume’, p. 79.

19 This conflict was called the French and Indian War in North America. Brumwell, George Washington, p. 34; Royster, ‘Washington’, ODNB. Washington did continue surveying as a hobby and was last recorded doing so on 5 November 1799, five weeks before his death. See Sarah Hughes, Surveyors and Statesmen: Land Measuring in Colonial Virginia (Richmond, VA, 1979), passim.

20 John T. Goolrick, The Life of General Hugh Mercer (New York, NY, and Washington, DC, 1906), pp. 12-14, 23.

21 Though they never met, a connection between Home and Mercer lies in the fact that both men became vestrymen of St George’s Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg. Home is recorded in the vestry minutes from 1729 onwards. Mercer resettled in Fredericksburg in February 1761, shortly after Home’s death. Mercer’s name appears in the vestry minutes between 1767-75. Erskine Hume, ‘Memorial to George Hume’, p. 86.

22 In 1774, Washington sold his childhood home, Ferry Farm, to Mercer.

23 Washington’s mother, Mary, and several of his stepchildren became some of Mercer’s patients. Goolrick, General Hugh Mercer, pp. 12-31; Michael Cecere, Second to No Man but the Commander in Chief: Hugh Mercer, American Patriot (Berwyn Heights, MD, 2015), pp. 37-8.

24 Royster, ‘Washington’, ODNB.

25 Cecere, Hugh Mercer, American Patriot, pp. 40-1, 52; Proceedings of the Fifteenth Day of the Third Virginia Convention, 5 August 1775, p. 400.

26 Alexander Purdie, Virginia Gazette, 9 February 1776, p. 3; Cecere, Hugh Mercer, American Patriot, p. 53.

27 Goolrick, General Hugh Mercer, p. 41; Mercer to Congress (15 June 1776) reprinted in Peter Force, ed., American Archives (4th Series, 6 vols., Washington, DC, 1837-46), vi, p. 903.

28 Washington to Mercer (4 July 1776) republished in Founders Online, National Archives. The original source is Philander D. Chase, ed., The Papers of George Washington (Revolutionary War Series, 16 June 1776 to 12 August 1776, Charlottesville, 1993), v, pp. 206-7.

29 Washington to Livingston (6 July 1776), republished in ibid., v, pp. 223-4.

30 Goolrick, General Hugh Mercer, p. 105. Several places are named in Mercer’s honour. The most well-known are Mercersburg in Pennsylvania, and also Mercer County in New Jersey, where Trenton and Princeton are located.

31 Cecere, Hugh Mercer, American Patriot, p. 167; Mercer to Washington (30 July 1776) republished in Founders Online, v, pp. 522-3; Washington to John Hancock (5 January 1777) republished in ibid., (Revolutionary War Series, 21 October 1776 to 5 January 1777 [1997]), vii, pp. 519-30.

32 As Susan Manning explains, ‘Jefferson included a condemnation of “Scotch and other foreign mercenaries” in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence’. Reverend John Witherspoon, a Scots Presbyterian émigré and fellow signatory of the Declaration who had fought against the Jacobites during the ’45, opposed this xenophobic phrase and persuaded Jefferson to remove it. Susan Manning, ‘Scotland and America’, The Bottle Imp [Accessed 7 December 2022].

33 In the case of Jacobitism, this issue consisted of the differing national priorities of the three kingdoms. Murray G.H. Pittock, Jacobitism (Basingstoke, 1998), p. 132.

34 In 1773, some colonists, including Benjamin Franklin, discussed the possibility of enacting an American Bill of Rights. Kromkowski, American Republic, p. 116.

35 This later adopted phrase compromises part of the United States Pledge of Allegiance. 

36 Royster, ‘Washington’, ODNB.