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.
State of Franklin / Watauga Territory bump
"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."
Wonder what this is suppose to mean?
Good point. I wonder if their libertarian sensibilities would extend to a neighbor with a collection of junk cars in his backyard. Or who has a smelly dairy farm, and who was there before the metrosexuals moved into the new development next door so they could experience the country life.
PING for the Scots-Irish!
This is a must read if you wish to understand the cultural and moral underpinning of America. It explains quite well the red state/blue state map of today, even with all of the subsequent migrations from Europe, Asia, Africa, et. al.
Sorry, but meth is a much faster ride to hell than booze. And it's much more dangerous to make than bathtub gin.
I think that's why their commentary is often reclassified to blogs or chat from editorials.
The Scots-Irish were the shock troops of the American frontier, and I'm damn proud to be descended thereof.
Thanks for that post. Having an Ulster Scot background, I just ordered that book the other day. Can't wait for it to arrive.
Tell that to the parents of a kid who died from acute alcohol intoxication or a motor vehicle accident while intoxicated.
And it's much more dangerous to make than bathtub gin.
It's a matter of volatility. Idiots using ethyl ether or ethyl alcohol are dangerous, regardless.
WHY did Bush win? My first experience of the American hinterland was more than 30 years ago, on a long, lazy car drive: down from Germanic Cincinnati in Ohio; across the Blue Ridge Mountains in West Virginia, where the radio stations play wall-to-wall country music; southwards through the Carolinas, where the red earth sticks to the magnolia blossoms; then northwards again along the bleak Atlantic coast where the Wright Brothers first took to the air.
It was a revelation: no New York skyscrapers, no urban sophistication, and my then American girlfriend had to slip a ring on her left hand lest the prim North Carolinan landlady in the gorgeous colonial B&B take Presbyterian offence at our unwed status. This is the America that has given George Walker Bush his huge popular majority in the teeth of world opinion and despite the ire of Americas coastal elites.
Here in Scotland, where the mainstream view is anti-Bush, the instant reaction will be to dismiss this other America as redneck, racist, bigoted, gun-loving and ignorant. But hold a mirror to thyself: the part of America that doggedly voted Republican on Tuesday is its ethnic Scottish-Ulster heartland. These are the descendants of the lowland yeoman folk who colonised Virginia in the 17th century, then crossed the Appalachian Mountains to open up the frontier in the 18th, joined by the refugees from the Govan slums in the 19th.
They brought with them a Celtic tribalism, a small-farmer self-reliance and a rationalist Presbyterian morality based on the Good Book. They also brought their own home-spun music, with its sentimental narratives and view of this world as a trial to be endured. From the bluegrass fiddle music of the Appalachian crofts to the Burns-like honky-tonk ballads of the itinerant oil workers in the Texas dustbowl, country music has evolved to dominate contemporary musical tastes. But beyond the saccharin-sweet commercialism of country rock, it is music that still defines the mental and moral landscape of a community that was prepared to defy the world last Tuesday. Never in a million years were Americas Scots-Irish going to vote for John Kerry, whatever the eastern pollsters thought.
That is not to say that many Americans were not legitimately critical of George Bush - for failing to capture Osama bin Laden, for overestimating Saddam Hussein, for letting Iraq slide into anarchy and for having a dangerously ad-hoc approach to economic policy. Mr Bush is a man for the grand gesture - much needed in the aftermath of 9/11 and the dot-com crash - but his interest in the subsequent follow-up has frequently proved a tad inadequate.
Yet when the political chips are really down, the American Scots-Irish prefer two things when choosing a leader: moral certainty in taking decisions (which is different from sexual morals) and a populist ability to speak in something approaching the vernacular. Thats why they ditched George Bush, senior, for folksy Bill Clinton, until they saw through Clintons synthetic political outrage. And thats why they stuck with Bush, junior, reformed drunkard and someone literally not afraid to overthrow tyrants.
I mention all this not to justify George Bush but to suggest a way for Europe to understand a resurgent American nationalism that conforms pretty much to what the Scots-Irish made it. Contrary to European myth, it is not an especially imperialist nationalism, but when provoked it sees things with a terrible, biblical simplicity.
The Scots settlers who first colonised America, and then illegally slipped across the Appalachians to live among the Indian tribes, were not out to found a new empire. Having been chased out of Scotland and Ulster for economic and religious reasons, then having clashed with the conservative English merchant elites who ran the eastern colonies, the Scots just wanted to be left to their own devices. To this day, their predilection for owning guns is less to do with the desire to blast away at dumb animals, as pique at the idea that someone should tell them what to do. Thats why it is not a good idea to try to frighten them by crashing airliners into tall buildings: it just makes them mad.
When roused, usually by a wholly correct moral indignation, Scots-Irish America believes it is the agency for Divine retribution. Dont snigger: you are here because of this gut reaction. Back in 1940, the United States was split down the middle - nothing new there - over the war in Europe. The large German immigrant communities of the industrial Mid-West (think Ohio) were fervently isolationist. They had just re-elected Franklin Roosevelt on a platform of non-intervention. The Americans in favour of dealing with the fascists were the Scots-Irish, who had a long tradition of military service, especially during the Civil War (on both sides). Otherwise, the capital of the EU would be called Germania.
OF COURSE, there are downsides to the Scots-Irish psyche in America. Historically, it has been prone to racism. It was socially conservative long before the rise of Christian fundamentalism (and I worry about a Bush administration packing the Supreme Court with reactionaries for the next generation). Mind you, I suspect that if we put gay marriage to the vote in Scotland, it would be rejected. And I think it is too easy to put the Bush victory down to an evangelical plot: the Catholic German strongholds of the Democratic Party in the industrial Mid-West are stridently anti-abortion.
Here is the saving grace of the Scots-Irish version of American nationalism: it would really rather finish the job quickly in Iraq, and go home and listen to Roy Acuff or Hank Williams. It does not like being drawn into the role of imperialist policeman. But anti-Americans should beware of getting what they wish for - living without the Americans may prove worse than living with them.
As a culture based on self-reliance and Mosaic rules of social conduct, Scots-Irish American nationalism cannot comprehend societies based on clientelism and endemic personal corruption.
Thats why it does not like the way the United Nations has developed into a talking shop, and why it gets exasperated by the Middle East. The Scots-Irish have given George Bush a mandate: but it says: "Finish the job quickly, or we will let the world stew in its own juice."
The world has woken up to four more years of George Bush with something of a headache. Personally, Im glad the incipient trade war that the Democrats were planning against Europe - to make good their promise of protecting jobs in Ohio - has receded into the distance.
I also think that by legitimising George Bush with a serious popular majority, the Scots-Irish have cut the diplomatic feet from under those who dismiss him as a usurper; as well as seeing off tiresome posers, such as the documentary-maker Michael Moore, who trivialise and personalise debate.
The world can now get down to some serious politics, starting at the G8 summit at Gleneagles Hotel in July. Remember that Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder will retire long before Bush. There is a space for a new generation of European politicians to rebuild the transatlantic alliance.
Like it or lump it, a Bush White House is now a fact of life. But if Scotland calms down a minute, we might discover that his America is a far less alien place than we imagine.
And it's illegal for kids to have alcohol, isn't it?
I've known a couple of former meth users. They say it is the worst drug going. Period. Far worse than booze, cocaine or heroin.
That being said, I can't imagine such a wrong take on this forum as on this thread, Why Do They Hate Us? Not Because of Iraq (it's-the-US'-and-Israel's-fault barf up a lung alert).
From time to time, Ill ping on noteworthy articles about politics, foreign and military affairs. FReepmail me if you want on or off my list.
"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."
Reason aspires to highbrow respectability, and tends to affect a sneering pose toward those kindred spirits who might happen to be, shall we say, a little on the embarrassing side, blowing right past the notion of their being natural allies. They'll grow up one of these days; they're like first-generation college attendees, ashamed of their own families.
Tribalism is much more universal than that. There's no one more tribal than the elite of New York or Washington.
Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali,Malcolm X... hmmmm very interesting!
This spew underhandedly tries to further promote the "wild men from the mountains, rednecks and outlaws" stereotype. What a bunch of crap.