Free Spirits

Alex Greer, American Renaissance, August 2005

James Webb, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, Broadway, 2004, 384 pp., $25.95.

Who are the Scots-Irish, what sort of people are they, and what was their role in building the United States? James Webb, a retired Marine, Vietnam veteran, novelist and former Navy Secretary, has given us a best-selling portrait of this people in Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. Of Scots-Irish descent himself, he describes his people as America’s “invisible ethnic group.” Why “invisible?” Because they were among the first unhyphenated Americans. They considered themselves the norm, and never organized to promote their own interests.

Born Fighting by James Webb

Born Fighting is carefully researched but written engagingly for the layman. Mr. Webb’s story begins with the Scots at the time of Hadrian’s Wall, and continues right down to the American Scots-Irish of the present. Mr. Webb weaves his own family history and varied personal experience into this history, which ends with the “good ol’ boys” — often slurred as “red necks” and “white trash” — who gave us country music and NASCAR racing. Perhaps Mr. Webb’s major contribution is his portrait of the Scots-Irish character and values. Through the mists of time they are consistently individualistic and war-like.

The Scots-Irish hail from the Scottish Lowlands, and in particular from the English border regions. In the early 1600s, many Lowlanders moved to Ireland, some because powerful Scottish lairds planted them there as a check on the Catholics, others because they wanted land. This dual geographic origin accounts for the name “Scots-Irish.” Although a few early adventurers settled in New England, the first large boatloads of Scots-Irish families arrived in Pennsylvania in the 1720s and 1730s, when the largely Quaker colony recruited them as a buffer against Indians. The pacifist Quakers did not see eye-to-eye with just-war Calvinists, but it was said that the former could sleep better with the latter on guard. Again, hunger for land seems to have driven the newcomers across the water, as well as repressive religious laws in Ireland.

As the Scots-Irish gained a reputation as Indian fighters, Governor Gooch of Virginia invited a new generation to settle the river valleys of Appalachia and the Shenandoah Valley in the 1750s. The plain-spoken Scots-Irish did not always get along with the Cavalier aristocrats who dominated the coastal South, but pampered gentlemen lived in greater security because of them. The Scots-Irish had large families of “youngins,” and wanderlust pushed them toward the farther ranges of the continent: Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Ohio Valley in the 1790s, and then on to Texas in the 1820s, and California and Oregon in the 1830s.

Why were the Scots-Irish more willing than others to venture into unknown and dangerous Indian country? The English and the Germans gave the Scots-Irish the tools for frontier work — New Englanders like Colt and Marlin manufactured firearms, and the Pennsylvania Deutsch made Conestoga wagons — but tended to stay home.

Mr. Webb focuses on martial prowess. As the title of his book suggests, the Scots-Irish have been at war at least since the time the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall to keep them out. The Scots later fought the English in a long series of border wars, and in the 1600s the Lowland Scot settlers in Northern Ireland found themselves at war with the Catholic Irish. If they were not fighting external enemies, the Scots fought each other in clan feuds. They brought feuding with them to the Appalachians, and the fighting between the Hatfields and the McCoys is only the most famous. Moving to the wilderness and taking on Indians was just another chapter in a long history of warfare. The Scots and Scots-Irish have played a very disproportionate role in fighting wars for both Britain and America. These people were bred to conquer a frontier.

All this fighting made the Scots-Irish unruly, and they had a strong distrust of distant, top-down authority. They have been very anti-aristocratic, and would accept leadership only conditionally. They have been strong populists and adherents to Andrew Jackson’s ideas of democracy. They have been fervently Protestant, but on the frontier many Scots-Irish left the Presbyterian Church for the less structured Baptist and Methodist churches.

Mr. Webb writes that the Scots-Irish were imbued with “free-spirited individualism,” and valued initiative, self-reliance, independence, and personal honor. They were not crassly materialist, and of all the peoples of America, they stand out as the most individualist. Their individualism was tempered, however, by strong loyalties to extended families or clans, and by growing patriotism for their new country. They had what could be called “collective individualism.”

Mr. Webb often points out how different his people were from New England Puritans, Quakers, and Virginia Cavaliers. He claims this pattern of individualism pre-dates the Protestant Reformation, and is rooted in historic Celtic traditions of bottom-up loyalties, that is to say, organic loyalties to family and clan rather than feudal loyalties imposed by overlords. This clashed with the aristocratic Anglo-Norman top-down approach. William Wallace, the famous leader for Scottish independence, was a commoner who was sometimes at odds with the Scottish aristocracy. For the Scot, loyalty to leaders has always been conditional. The idea that loyalty could be withdrawn was formalized in the Scottish Presbyterian Covenants of the 1600s, and, most famously, in the Declaration of Independence.

Most of the English, Germans, and others settled in the relative safety of the coasts, and went further west only after the Scots-Irish had pacified the wilderness. The communal Catholic peoples from continental Europe who came later did so well after the frontier was settled, and most clustered in already-established cities.

The frontier was not a place for aristocrats or authoritarian communal cultures. With its vast distances and constant dangers, it required self-reliant people who would not worry about the edicts and whims of distant bureaucrats, aristocrats or prelates. The dangers of the frontier also gave rise to a particular kind of North American soldier, the ranger. Like the US Army Rangers of today, frontiersmen operated in small units, behind enemy lines, and lived by their wits. It was the Scots-Irish ranger who helped defeat the Indians and the British. The Scots-Irish were also prominent in fighting the Mexicans in Texas and the southwest, and they were the backbone of the Confederate Army. It may be that without the Scots-Irish the country would not have extended past the Appalachians, leaving the white man restricted to the eastern seaboard. Madison Grant’s Conquest of a Continent pays tribute to the pioneering role of the Scots-Irish.

Scots-Irish pugnacity, individualism, and hatred of hierarchy were the perfect combination for conquering a frontier. Some prominent Scots-Irish risk-takers were David Crockett, Merriwether Lewis, William Clark, Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, Ulysses S. Grant, and “Stonewall” Jackson.

But if the Scots-Irish won the frontier, and helped build the nation, how can they keep what they won? Born Fighting describes how European communal cultures began to take hold in the later 19th century, noting that today, “in political terms race and ethnicity continue to define government entitlements and inevitably, power.” Should Scots-Irish also organize collectively? They make up a good share of white blue-collar America, and are hurt by downsizing, outsourcing, and immigration. Mr. Webb asks why they have not formed voting blocs, and concludes that to “act collectively would require that they alter their historic understanding of what it means to be an American.” Mr. Webb then considers “the final question in this age of diversity and political correctness: whether they [the Scots-Irish] can learn to play the modern game of group politics.” If they do, Mr. Webb believes his people may “hold the future direction of America in their collective hands.”

However, it is hard to imagine a Scots-Irish political force that would not attract other whites. If there ever is such a force it may well once again serve as the advance-guard for less war-like whites. Here is yet another frontier — a political frontier — that the Scots-Irish may have to conquer, but one that will require more expanded loyalties than those they have traditionally shown. This may be the destiny of the descendants of Crockett and Old Hickory. Rednecks, unite!

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