Founding fathers and past presidents

Two prominent figures in American history have connections with Paisley – one of the founding fathers, and a recent president who once made a surprise visit to the town.

Our tale begins with John Witherspoon, minister of the Laigh (or Low) Kirk in Paisley from 1758-1768.

Witherspoon emigrated to America in 1768 to take up the position of Professor at a small college in New Jersey – which subsequently became the world-famous Princeton University.

Witherspoon’s innovations at Princeton would have been enough to secure his place in history. But his impact on American life was made even greater as he became a leading figure in the Revolution and the fight for independence from the British. Famously, when told that the country was not yet ready for independence, Witherspoon replied that it was “not only ripe for the measure, but in danger of rotting for the want of it.”

Witherspoon would go on to be one of the Founding Fathers of the United States as a signatory to the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

A presidential visit

Paisley had another unexpected brush with American politics in 1991.

Former US President Ronald Reagan – who had served two terms of office in the 1980s – was startled to receive a letter from the minister of Castlehead Kirk in Paisley. It revealed that Reagan’s great-great-grandfather, Claud Wilson, had wed one Peggy Downie in the kirk in 1807.

Wilson and Downie’s fathers had been Paisley weavers in the early 19th century, ironically for the for the ancestors of a future president, a time when weavers and other skilled artisans were growing more radical in outlook, often clashing with government as they fought for better conditions.

Ronald and his wife Nancy visited Castlehead Kirk in late 1991 and received a painting of the church that delighted Reagan, who said it would be given place of honour in his home.

The couple also visited the Sma’ Shot Cottages to learn more about the weaving heritage of the former president’s ancestors.

A statue of John Witherspoon stands outside the entrance to the University of the West of Scotland on High Street, Paisley.

The Sma’ Shot Cottages have a number of mementoes of the Reagan’s visit. You can visit the cottages at Shuttle Street, Paisley.



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I think what makes Paisley great is our history. We have the Abbey, the mills, the Paisley Pattern and some great architecture. We have great heritage in music with the Tannahill Weavers and other great singers.

Phyllis Arthur
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