The Fighting Scots-Irish

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-Irish–also known as Scotch-Irish, Ulster Scots, or Borderers, because they hailed from Northern Ireland and the border counties of Scotland and England–have provided a disproportionate share of America's 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 America's 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 doesn't necessarily produce the sort of values that sustain liberty. Indeed, the democratic impulse toward comfort and safety often undercuts self-reliance and individualism. Webb's 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 there's quite a bit of dispute among historians about just how Celtic the Scots-Irish actually were. David Hackett Fischer, for instance, insists in Albion's 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 America–starting 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 regret–before 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 Year's Day, 1781, after not having been paid for more than a year."

The Scots-Irish have provided many of America's 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 Webb's portrait of Old Hickory whitewashes him and his impact on American politics, largely because he doesn't acknowledge the tensions in the Scots-Irish culture and its approach to politics. A fuller account of Jackson's 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 Jackson's "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.). He's 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 Georgia's 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 children's 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 that's 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 Indiana–tended 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 aren't 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. That's 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 areas–from smoking bans to zoning laws to the licensing of carpenters, mechanics, plumbers, and other blue-collar professionals–Southern 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 isn't 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.?