Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Long Live the Scots-Irish!

In Jim Webb for Veep! I extolled the (hoped-for) sensibility of Barack Obama tapping this man to be his vice-presidential running mate:

The man is James Webb, recently elected senator from Virginia, a Democrat who takes a backseat to no one in his support of our fighting men and women in uniform — which is not the same thing as support for President Bush's ill-conceived war in Iraq, mind you.

Webb served with distinction in Vietnam and, at that time a Republican, became President Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Navy. He has since switched to the Democratic Party because he feels "it is now the Republican Party that most glaringly does not understand the true nature of military service."

As any reader of Webb's 2005 non-fiction bestseller Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America will tell you, Webb comes by his love for the military's fighting spirit honestly: it's in his Scots-Irish DNA. In his book, Webb traces the centuries-long journey of his people from the Scotland of William Wallace, proudly remembered as "Braveheart," to the Ulster Plantation of 17th-century Northern Ireland, site of the famed siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne, to the backcountry mountains of Appalachia during the formative centuries of American culture.

Scots-Irish Americans were the primary fighters of the Revolutionary War and of the Civil War. These hardscrabble Calvinist Presbyterians from Scotland by way of Ulster — who in America often became Baptists and Methodists — are the unsung backbone of our basic notion of what it means to be an American, as they have spread far and wide from their original Appalachian hill country and taken their instinctive indomitability with them wherever they have roamed.

oldstyleliberal, your intrepid blogger, figures he is anywhere from one-half to three-quarters Scots-Irish. His last name is Stewart, and his lineal Stewart forebear is known to have emigrated from Ulster to the United States at about the time of the War of 1812 ... well after the main tide of Ulstermen arrived here during the fifty years or so prior to the American Revolution. My Stewart progenitor's brother (or was it a cousin?) emigrated with him; he was named Alexander Turney Stewart and founded the first department store, A.T. Stewart's, later to become Wanamaker's.

Other names in my family tree include Berry, Henry, Armstrong, Robinson, and Stephens on my mother's side, and Warnes, Davis, Campbell, and Thompson on my father's side. Of these, the only name I know for sure didn't arrive here on a boat from Northern Ireland is Warnes; the Warneses came to America direct from England. Some of the other names may or may not be Scots-Irish. I have some detailed genealogical information on my line of Berrys, for instance, but it seems to stop at the water's edge and leave in doubt where the original Berrys came from, pre-America.

My people in general seem to have spent a lot of time in Scots-Irish haunts in Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. Some of those places are, of course, in the Appalachians, while others are mentioned by Webb as places that received an outpouring of the original Scots-Irish Americans, ever known (even before they were American) to have congenital wanderlust. Way back in the mists of prehistory, the Scots-Irish were descended from the nomadic ancestors of the Scottish people, the Celts.

The Celts pretty much had all of northern Europe to themselves when the Roman Empire conquered them ... anyone remember Caesar's Gallic Wars? The Gauls who held France in the Bronze and Iron Ages were Celts, related to the Celtic tribes whose territory included modern England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall. Even the Germanic "barbarians" before whose onslaught Rome eventually fell may have been Celts once. The Celts were everywhere, for two reasons. One, they loved to fight and conquer. Two, they hated to stay put in any one place.

Their fierce, uncivilized ways made it too hard for them to organize to fight off the well-disciplined Roman legions on the European continent, but it was a different story when Rome tried to subjugate the Celts in the far-flung extremities of Great Britain, where Roman supply lines couldn't easily reach. There the guerrilla tactics of the locals had a chance to win, and did win.

The Romans built Hadrian's wall and even another wall farther north to try to mark the top edge of their civilization. The Picts, Scots, and other Celts north of the wall weren't having any of it. They wanted their land back: the areas now known as the southwestern lowlands of Scotland and the border regions of England.

It was these areas that produced the heroes William Wallace, called "Braveheart," and Robert the Bruce, immortalized in song as the "Flower of Scotland," when another conquering civilization, that of the cruel Norman King Edward I of England, tried to force Scots to their knees in the late 13th century.

Starting in about 1610, during the period in England when the throne passed back and forth among Catholic and Protestant rulers and claimants, Northern Ireland's Ulster Plantation, controlled by England, was the target of Protestant colonization from Britain, following the mass exodus of the Catholic Gaelic leaders of that area in 1607. Many of those who arrived (were "planted") in Ulster then were lowland Scots or people from the English border areas who had basically the same culture.

Those people became known later as the Scots-Irish. When in the early 18th century the British throne tried to make these hardscrabble Presbyterians truckle to the Anglo-Irish Protestants who upheld the established Anglican faith in not-yet-independent Ireland, the Scots-Irish began decamping in large numbers to America.

Coming in largely through Pennsylvania, where they were quickly despised by the peace-loving Quaker power elite who had invited them there to act as a warlike buffer against the Indians in the western areas of the colony, they continued their trek southward and wound up in the Piedmont and Appalachian regions of Virginia and North Carolina.

Indian fighters and explorers who could not be content until they pushed further westward into the Ohio Valley and what are now the states of Tennessee and Kentucky — Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone were of Ulster stock — the Scots-Irish who did not move westward were tolerated (barely) by the Tidewater aristocracy of Virginia and the Carolinas, who allowed them to worship in their own Calvinist ways even though it was officially illegal so to do.

Those Scots-Irish Americans then proceeded to get ambushed by history. Many of them lived in states that seceded during the Civil War, and though few of them were rich enough to own slaves, their loyalty to the Confederacy was a foregone conclusion. After all, the North was in the political hands of those who reverently looked back, culturally, religiously, and philosophically, not to Celtic Scotland but to Norman England ... which made all the difference in the world to the people who were now America's Scots-Irish.

These people had always had a bottom-up way of organizing their loyalties. It was their local clan chieftain to whom they owed their sense of duty, no some far-off lord who may or not have cared one whit for their welfare. While England under the Romans and later under the Normans was evolving a top-down democracy with many layers of duty owed and duty received, the Celtic residues in the north kept to the old, bottom-up ways of owing personal, not institutional, fealty.

When the Protestant Reformation hit, the Celts were drawn to a Calvinist/Presbyterian version of Protestantism which was maximally suspicious of any sort of church hierarchy.

When their original homeland, Scotland, was becoming a leading light of Enlightenment philosophy in the 18th century, the Scots-Irish over in Ulster were fighting oppression where they now lived and trekking to the uncouth regions of America where the only reading matter — for those who could read — was the Bible.

When the tides of history turned against the African slavery so notable in their adopted new home, the southland of America, they found they were on the wrong side of history yet again. They fought valiantly and died for the Confederacy as the bastion of, again, their God-given right to liberty and self-determination as a free people.

It was the insult of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, during which those unspeakable bullies from the North rubbed the Scots-Irish southerners' noses in their own "backwardness," that the Presbyterian-Baptist-Methodist faith of the Scots-Irish hardened into an anti-Darwinist fundamentalism, as a way of saying no thank you, we aren't having any of your "better-educated" ways of doing business in the world. That was the real reason behind the Scopes "Monkey" trial of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee.

By the time yours truly was born in 1947, his father and mother had moved from the Ozarks of Missouri to the citified East, where they were upwardly mobile former Baptists (Mom) and Methodists (Dad), self-educated beyond their schooling and with modern lifestyles that were anathema to the old folks back home. When Mom and Dad took me to Springfield, Missouri, for a visit with Grandpa and Grandma Berry, they had to secrete themselves in their bedroom for a smoke and a drink of ... Scotch.

But they still delighted in watching southwestern Missouri's own version of Grand Ole Opry, called Ozark Jubilee, on TV. It was televised on a national hookup in Washington. D.C. and around the country. The music it featured was "country" music, just a hop, skip, and a jump from the music of the original Scots-Irish Americans.

Though their respective parents, my grandparents, were teetotalers, they relished a drink of spirits as much as any backwoods moonshiner of Scots-Irish derivation ever did. (Webb mentions over and over how the Scots-Irish were at one and the same time strong for God and religion and yet devoted to liquor, lasciviousness, and a life of the senses. This is something I don't suppose can ever be fully explained ... but I note that it is equally true of the African American descendants of slaves, whose sacred and secular music combined with that of the Scots-Irish to make rock 'n' roll.)

I grew up in a cultural atmosphere that derided everything my Scots-Irish forebears upheld: loyalty to one's local tribe over national aspirations, practicality over intellectuality, peace-loving ways over the love of a good fight, etc. Yet there has always been in me the sort of romantic who weeps at the end of the movie Braveheart and chokes up at a good old country music weeper like Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors."

Perhaps it is the Scots-Irish in me that keeps me a moderate oldstyleliberal and not a partisan of the far left. Perhaps it's why, after reading James Webb's book, I want to shout from the rooftops, "Long live the Scots-Irish!"

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