Skip to comments.The Fighting Scots-Irish
Posted on 07/22/2005 11:34:38 AM PDT by neverdem
They shaped America, but did they make it more free?
Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, by James Webb, New York: Broadway Books, 369 pages, $14.95
Long dismissed as rednecks, crackers, and hillbillies, the Scots-Irishalso known as Scotch-Irish, Ulster Scots, or Borderers, because they hailed from Northern Ireland and the border counties of Scotland and Englandhave provided a disproportionate share of Americas political leaders, military brass, writers, and musicians. As an ethnic group, James Webb argues in Born Fighting, they did not merely come to America, they became America, particularly in the south and the Ohio Valley, where their culture overwhelmed the English and German ethnic groups and defined the mores of those regions.
For Webb, a descendant of Scots-Irish immigrants who has written novels, fought with highly decorated distinction in Vietnam, and served as secretary of the navy and assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan, the political culture of the Scots-Irish is defined by hyperpatriotism, a devotion to strong leaders, and individualist self-reliance. It has shaped the emotional fabric of the nation, defined Americas unique form of populist democracy, created a distinctly American musical style, and through the power of its insistence on personal honor and adamant individualism has become the definition of American that others gravitate toward when they wish to drop their hyphens and join the cultural mainstream, he writes.
But the Scots-Irish impact on American politics is more problematic than Webb would have us believe. The populist politics they pioneered doesnt necessarily produce the sort of values that sustain liberty. Indeed, the democratic impulse toward comfort and safety often undercuts self-reliance and individualism. Webbs book, though well-written and often insightful, is more an exercise in ethnic self-mythologizing than an evenhanded attempt to judge the impact of the Scots-Irish and their culture on America.
How did this culture evolve? Webb tries to place the Scots-Irish within a larger framework of the Celtic tradition. But theres quite a bit of dispute among historians about just how Celtic the Scots-Irish actually were. David Hackett Fischer, for instance, insists in Albions Seed: Four British Folkways in America that the term Celtic is very much mistaken as a rounded description of their ethnic origins. Fischer notes the Scottish border area saw a mixing of Celtic tribes with Angles, Saxons, Danes, and Normans, a fact reflected in some of the common surnames carried by the Scots-Irish, such as Hall, Ridley, Potts, Jackson, Forster, Calhoun, Young, and Oliver.
They also generally referred to themselves as a mixed people, Fischer says. By the eighteenth century, the culture of this region bore little resemblance to the customs of the ancient Celts, he writes. The dominant language was English.
The Celticness of the Scots-Irish is a matter of dispute. But one thing all historians agree on is that their culture is one shaped by war. Webb notes that by the time of the great emigration to Americastarting around the turn of the 18th century--the Scots-Irish had seen more than 700 years of almost continuous warfare along the border between Scotland and England.
The Scots-Irish came to prize aggressiveness and cunning, and they insisted on choosing their own leaders based on those traits. They developed a distrust of government, which seemed to exist only to burn their homes, seize their property, and kill their kin. And they reserved to themselves the right to judge the laws they lived under and determine whether they would obey them or not. They lived in rough, simple, ill-kept shacks. They saw no reason to build better homes when they were only going to get burned down eventually. They were at once fervently religious and intensely sensual.
Webb notes that some of the Scots-Irish made their way to Massachusetts in the early 1700s, thinking the Puritans would welcome them as fellow Calvinists. Instead, the Puritans thought their women flirted too much, their men gambled too much, and all of them drank and fought too much.
The Quakers in Pennsylvania and the Cavaliers in Virginia shared that assessment but at the same time thought these feisty people would form a perfect buffer between them and hostile Indians, so they invited the new immigrants to settle their frontiers. It was an invitation they would soon regretbefore long the colonial governors were complaining that the Scots-Irish caused more trouble than the Indians, and that their presence inflamed the Indians even more.
But it was too late. They kept coming, spilling down the Appalachian Mountains into the Carolinas, Georgia, and westward, into what would become Kentucky and Tennessee. By the time the great migration had ended, almost half a million of them had poured into the colonies.
While New England merchants and Virginia aristocrats provided the philosophical and political leadership for the American Revolution, the Scots-Irish supplied the muscle and fighting spirit. Webb says between a third and a half of the rebel army was Scots-Irish.
The famed Pennsylvania line, perhaps the best unit in the regular Army, was mainly Scots-Irish, he adds. True to form, it is also remembered for angrily (and drunkenly) marching on the Continental Congress on New Years Day, 1781, after not having been paid for more than a year.
The Scots-Irish have provided many of Americas political leaders, including at least a dozen presidents from Chester Arthur to Woodrow Wilson. But Webb singles out Andrew Jackson as the pre-eminent Scots-Irish leader. Andrew Jackson was an original, an unusual and fearless leader who dominated the American political process more fully than any president before or since, he writes.
Webb argues that the wave of Jacksonian populism remains one of the most powerful forces in American politics. Indeed, he identifies it as no less than the basic governing philosophy not only of the South and the Ohio River Valley but of working-class America as a whole. That populism, he argues, is based on an ingrained distrust of elites and an emphasis on individual rights and responsibilities.
Jackson surely was a fearless soldier and capable politician, and in many ways he did represent a sort of rugged individualism. But Webbs portrait of Old Hickory whitewashes him and his impact on American politics, largely because he doesnt acknowledge the tensions in the Scots-Irish culture and its approach to politics. A fuller account of Jacksons military career and his presidency would show that he rarely allowed legal restrictions or constitutional requirements to get in the way of his use of power. And it would reveal that Jacksons populism did not extend much to outsiders, especially Indians or blacks.
This Jackson, historian Amy H. Sturgis has written in Reason (see Not The Same Old Hickory, May 2004), was a man who exemplified characteristics later associated with other national leaders: Before Abraham Lincoln, he represented selective adherence to the Constitution; before William McKinley, energetic imperialism; before Teddy Roosevelt, the cult of personality; before Bill Clinton, the personal made political. Perhaps it is no accident that three of the four presidents in that rogues gallery were of Scots-Irish descent.
Jacksonian populism requires that political leaders be responsive to the demands of the masses. Jacksonian politicians quickly learn that voters may say they want liberty, but what really gets their votes are new and expanded benefits and services.
Take former Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.). Hes best known to most Americans for his strident denunciation of his own Democratic Party for not being sufficiently willing to use military force overseas. Many observers point to Miller as an advocate of Jacksonian foreign policy. But Miller also represents Jacksonian domestic policy, or at least what it has devolved into.
In his home state, Miller long ago earned the nickname Zig Zag Zell for his ability to change his position on an issue if it proved politically damaging. And his signal achievement in his more than 40 years in Georgia politics was the creation of the HOPE scholarship, a middle-class entitlement funded by a lottery. The scholarship, which pays for local students to attend Georgias colleges and universities, is now one of the most popular programs in the state, and those hardy individualistic Scots-Irish voters scream if anyone suggests cutting the program and forcing them to pay a larger share of their childrens college costs.
The tensions inherent in Scots-Irish political culture are also reflected in Southern attitudes toward Franklin Roosevelt. Webb admits FDR centralized power in Washington and saddled the United States with a quasi-socialistic state. And Roosevelt was surely a member of the patrician elite those populist Scots-Irish typically loathe. Yet FDR is still revered among liberty-loving Scots-Irish of a certain age, as Webb is forced to concede.
In part thats because Roosevelt was a strong leader in a time of war, but Webb implies that his domestic programs are at least as responsible for the affection. At last, he writes, they had found a president who, when it came to their dilemma, was not afraid to lead and who was willing to address key issues rather than simply paper them over with rhetoric.
Leaving aside their histories of Jim Crow, Sunday blue laws, and restrictions on alcohol, the regions where Webb says Scots-Irish culture remains strongest are arguably freer and more individualistic than other parts of the country in several respects. For instance, the parts of America Webb identifies as having the largest Scots-Irish populations New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, northern Florida, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Illinois, and Indianatended to be ranked highly in the U.S. Economic Freedom Index put together last year by the Pacific Research Institute and Forbes magazine.
But they surely arent bastions of small, limited government. For generations, Southern politicians have been less noted for their devotion to liberty than for their skill at bringing home pork. Thats what their voters demand.
Do they also demand liberty? Southern voters, or at least a good chunk of them, may still get outraged if politicians try to take away their guns. But in so many other areasfrom smoking bans to zoning laws to the licensing of carpenters, mechanics, plumbers, and other blue-collar professionalsSouthern legislatures, city councils, and county commissioners nibble away each day at the liberties of their citizens. Maybe not as swiftly as those elites in New York and California, but just as consistently. At the very least, those individualist Scots-Irish meekly acquiesce as their liberties get snatched. In many cases they lead the charge for even more government regulation and oversight.
That isnt to say Scots-Irish individualism, with its screw-you attitude toward foolish authority, is dead. But it resides in people Webb neglects to mention. The spirit of the people who tarred and feathered tax collectors during the Whiskey Rebellion lives on in the man cooking meth in his kitchen, the family that violates local clean-yard ordinances by leaving cars jacked up on concrete blocks in front of their house, and the mechanic who breaks licensing and zoning rules by working in his backyard, while not declaring his cash income on tax forms.
Otherwise, the unbridled raw, rebellious spirit of the Scots-Irish grows tamer each day, domesticated by the government programs their democratic impulse demanded. Gradually, the Scots-Irish are becoming more and more like other Americans. Or maybe other Americans are becoming more like them.
Contributing Editor Charles Oliver is a Georgia-based reporter.
Gotta love this kind of slime. Gee, I never knew that the Scots-Irish were behind the meth craze. Guess I need to pay more attention.
And we NEVER see cars jacked up on blocks anywhere but in front of Scots-Irish homes.
And no one eve cheats on his taxes, other than Scots-Irish.
It was General George Washington, who said: "If defeated everywhere else, I will make my stand for liberty among the Scots-Irish in my native Virginia".
President William McKinley, said: "The Scots-Irish were the first to proclaim for freedom in these United States; even before Lexington Scots-Irish blood had been shed for American freedom. In the forefront of every battle was seen their burnished mail and in the retreat was heard their voice of constancy".
Confederacy leader General Robert E. Lee was once asked: "What race of people do you believe makes the best soldiers?" He replied: "The Scots who came to this country by way of Ireland".
Burp! Oh, pardon me -- BUMP!
I thought Teddy Roosevelt was of dutch descent?
Scots-Irish through my mom's side. She was a Clark, from the same family that gave us Revolutionary War Gen. George Rogers Clark and his brother, explorer William Clark, of "Lewis and" fame. This accounts for the reddish hair and height in our family.
Thanks for the link. This is one for me to bookmark. Always looking for more info on my Ulster Scot ancestors.
My Grandfather move from Arkansas to the West Coast during the great depression, a real Grapes of Wrath story. He claimed to be, what he called Black Irish because of his darker complexion and dark hair that my Dad carried also. After doing research it seems in all likelihood our ancestors were Ulster Scots, which would make seem to make sense because the darker Irish generally were found in Northern Ireland, the location of Ulster.
He was. But had a lot of Scots-Irish blood.
Do you remember hearing about moonshine and Prohibition? Don't sweat the small stuff. Mood altering substances have been used for at least a few millenia by all ethnic groups.
Good article, by the by. Pretty fairminded, if it is intended as a literary critique. You take the good with the bad (and there's plenty of both, though I think the good outweights the bad considerably). Although, I don't think the Scots-Irish had much to do with meth labs. lol
It looks like he's counting Jackson as one of the four. The funny thing is that TR was actually 3/4 Georgian and presumably Scots-Irish by ancestry. If you believe Webb, when TR "got his Dutch" up and became angry or aggressive, it may have been the Scots-Irish in him coming out. Fischer says about as much. FDR, by contrast was at least half New England Yankee.
Yeah, my Scots-Irish ancestors made a fair amount themselves.
But that pales in comparison to friggin' meth.
Oliver doesn't know what to do about Webb's association of states with large Scots-Irish populations and liberty. He more or less accepts it, then disputes it but doesn't offer anything more than anecdotal evidence.
The problem may be that Webb is writing ideal history -- giving people something idealized in the past to live up to -- and Oliver is pointing out the inevitable holes in any such conception of history.
Claims people sometimes make about the Scots-Irish can be exaggerated and deserve some criticism, but there's not much excuse for Oliver's snideness about meth, cars on cinder blocks and the rest -- especially coming from a libertarian publication. There's nothing like slamming those who agree with you to court those who never will.
Reason has problems that way. It tends to represent the "metrosexual" urban wing of libertarianism, and doesn't know what to do about the country cousins.
Pretty much describes my college days at the University of Arkansas
From the current criminal perspective, yes, but from a medical perspective, I can't grant you that point. Both are highly addictive and cause enormous pathology. I don't think you want to discuss medicine, do you?
Teddy was a heinz 57. There was Dutch on his father side that went back to the New Amsterdam days. But this is a very good article. I am of Ulster Irish (Catholic, though) decent on my father's side. Actually in Ireland at the time, the Presbyterians were not held in any high esteem and had to pay a tithe to the Anglican Church just as Catholics did. In the mid 1700's especially, the Sots-Irish came here in droves. The Celticness of these folks was probably greater than many of the Lowland Scots. There were Presbyterian congregations in County Antrim and County Down who spoke Gaelic. There was a lot of back and forth migration from Scotland and Ulster from before the Plantation of James the First---and the Reformation. Being second class citizens at home, America was the perfect place for the Scots-Irish. If it weren't for them I don't think the American Revolution would have gained momentum. For all the brillant philosophical ideas that came out of the Enlightenment and found their way to our shores, one needs anger and a sense of having been wronged to keep a war going. The Scots-Irish came over here p*ssed off to begin with, that's why they fought so gallantly against the Red Coats. Unfortunately on the other side of the Atlantic, at the time of the French Revolution and the Irish Rebellion of 1798, the British used religion to divide the people of Ireland. As in our revolution, the thinkers and theorists were from the upper middle class. In Ireland's case it was the Anglo-Irish who were the leaders (Wolfe Tone) and the Ulster Scots Presbyterians for the most part who did the fighting---the Catholics took up arms in the south around Wexford but for the most part stayed out of this rebellion because of the Roman Catholic Church's disdain of most ideas coming out of the enlightenment....ie; the idea of a republican form of government.