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'Born Fighting' Celebrates Scots-Irish In America

  • Nancy Beardsley

More than 27 million Americans are of Scots-Irish descent. With roots in the United States that date back to the 18th century, they are among the nation's oldest and largest ethnic groups. Now a new book aims to make them better understood. Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America was written by James Webb, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, best selling novelist and Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration.

Mr. Webb cites a wide ranging group of influential Americans who have been of Scots Irish descent. They include country music stars like Johnny Cash. "Country music came out of this culture," the author says, "yet it is a uniquely American phenomenon today."

The frontiersman Davy Crockett was also Scots Irish, as were actor John Wayne, General George S. Patton, writer Mark Twain and Presidents Andrew Jackson and Ronald Reagan. James Webb is Scots-Irish himself, and he wrote Born Fighting partly out of pride in his heritage. "I kept thinking about the way that new immigrant groups in particular 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," the author explains. "I basically said, I want this culture to take its place in American history for the contributions that it has 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, and then fanned out across the country. "It has always been a restless, keep moving culture," says James Webb, "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. If you want someone to go out and settle wilderness, this is the culture you want to call on."

While they have intermarried with other 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," he says, "and the core of the Christian right actually comes out of the culture. And yet on the other hand, it is rebellious. It's hedonistic. It's famed for moonshine. 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."

The Scots Irish have become known as patriotic and loyal, writes James Webb, but also independent, resistant to authority and suspicious of elites. And they have been fierce fighters, their military skills forged in Scotland by centuries of struggle with England. One of their great heroes was the 13th century Scotsman William Wallace, portrayed by Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart. "He was the first national leader who really was a commoner," says James Webb. "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 to 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 that their history in Scotland made them not only combative, but also committed to populist democracy. "They had a sort of fundamentalist Christianity that came in and threw out the structure of the Catholic Church," the author explains. "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 is a leader revered by members of the Democratic Party. However, it was a Republican icon who may have reaffirmed that tradition more than a century later. "President Ronald Reagan took office celebrating the power of individuals to help themselves," says Mr. Webb. "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 were among the swing voters in Ohio and other states so critical in recent Presidential elections. He calls them "the molten core" of the American spirit…a rebellious people who still defy definition, even as they continue to help define America.

Born Fighting was published by Broadway Books, part of Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, New York 10019.

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