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Scots-Irish Immigrants in America


The late Johnny Cash was a preeminent symbol of country music in America. He was also Scots-Irish, a product of the Southern rural culture where that music was born:

James Webb, author of the book, “Born Fighting,” says “country music came out of this culture, and yet it's a uniquely American phenomenon now.”

Scots-Irish helped shape America in other ways. Their ranks also include the frontiersman Davy Crockett, actor John Wayne, General George S. Patton, writer Mark Twain and Presidents Andrew Jackson, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. James Webb is Scots-Irish himself, and he wrote "Born Fighting" partly out of pride in his heritage. “And I also kept thinking about the way that particularly new immigrant groups over the past 25 or 30 years tend to think that white America is a monolith, that there are not all of these stratifications in it. And I basically said, I want this culture to take its place in American history for the contributions that it's made.”

Not to be confused with the English or the Irish Catholics, America's Scots-Irish immigrants were descended from the Celtic tribes of Scotland. They came to the New World by the hundreds of thousands starting in the 1700s, many by way of Northern Ireland. They became one of the dominant groups in the Appalachian Mountains of the American southeast, then fanned out across the country:

“It's always been a restless, keep moving culture, which worked against them in terms of ownership and passing things on to their families, but it certainly is a characteristic that sent people like Davy Crockett out,” says Mr. Webb, adding "If you want someone to go out and settle wilderness, this is the culture you want to call on.”

And while they've intermarried with their groups, James Webb says the Scots-Irish can still be distinguished by traits that helped define working-class America. “Many of them are very religious, and the core of the Christian right actually comes out of the culture. And yet on the other hand, it's rebellious, it's hedonistic. It's famed for moonshine (liquor brewed illegally). A lot of the great whiskey came out of the Appalachian Mountains, and that's how NASCAR racing evolved. The moonshine runners were famed for the way they could take those mountain roads, and they put it into a different format.”

They're patriotic and loyal, but also independent, resistant to authority and suspicious of elites. The Scots-Irish have also been fierce fighters, their military skills forged in Scotland by centuries of struggle with England. One of their great heroes was the thirteenth century Scotsman William Wallace, portrayed by Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart. James Webb says “he was the first national leader who really was a commoner, and he was able to rally the common people to his side when the English king wanted to conquer the country. And he epitomizes the character the Scots-Irish brought with them here.”

Scots-Irish immigrants accounted for at least one third of the troops in the American Revolutionary War, and they made up the bulk of the Confederate Army during the Civil War of the 1860s. Mr. Webb believes their history in Scotland made them not only combative, but committed to populist democracy. “They had a sort of fundamentalist Christianity that came in and threw out the structure of the Catholic Church. They replaced it with a form of populist religion, with elected officials in their church structure called the Scottish Kirk. And this unique combination created an extreme individualism and a notion that no individual had an obligation to obey a government edict if it violated his sense of morality or ethics.”

James Webb says Andrew Jackson exemplified those values, winning the Presidency in 1828 with a platform that emphasized patriotism and the dignity of the common man. He's a leader revered by Democrats. More than a century later, the author believes an icon of the Republican Party reaffirmed that tradition. "President Ronald Reagan took office celebrating the power of individuals to help themselves. Mr. Reagan famously said 'Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.' "

Mr. Webb believes “Reagan was probably the most Jacksonian President since Andrew Jackson. They both had the ability, I think, to motivate the average American, to show them they were valued and as a result to do things that people thought might have been impossible.”

James Webb says the Scots-Irish remain an important political force in the United States. Many are among the swing voters in Ohio and other states so critical in recent Presidential elections. He calls them the molten core of the America spirit, a rebellious people who still defy definition, even as they continue to help define America.

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