Review of James Webb’s Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America

Mackubin T. Owens

December 1, 2004

Without really intending to do so, James Webb may have written the most important political book of 2004. Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America helps explain why George W. Bush won reelection by a margin much greater than the conventional wisdom predicted and why both Republicans and Democrats—Democrats especially—must take note if they wish to remain relevant in American politics.

The Scots-Irish (sometimes called the Scotch-Irish) are all around you, even though you probably don’t know it. They are a force that shapes our culture, more in the abstract power of emotion than through the argumentative force of law. In their insistent individualism, they are not likely to put an ethnic label on themselves when they debate societal issues. Some of them don’t even know their ethnic label, and some who do don’t particularly care. They don’t go for group-identity politics any more than they like to join a union. Two hundred years ago the mountains built a fierce and uncomplaining self-reliance into an already hardened people. To them, joining a group and putting themselves at the mercy of someone else’s collective judgment makes as much sense as letting the government take their guns. And nobody is going to get their guns.

These are the “red state” voters. They are family-oriented, take morality seriously, go to church, join the US military, support America’s wars, and listen to country music. They strongly believe that no man is obligated to obey the edicts of a government that violates his moral conscience. They once formed the bedrock of the Democratic Party—from the time of Andrew Jackson until the Vietnam era—but they have been moving to the Republicans since then. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Webb called the Scots-Irish in America the “the secret GOP weapon.”

This is James Webb’s first non-fiction book and it is a tour de force. In it he describes the migration of an individualistic, stubborn, rebellious people who from their origins in the mists of Northern Scotland to the 17th century feuds of Ulster to the highlands of America and thence by way of the “hillbilly highways” to the Midwest and Far West have refused to bend the knee to king, bishop, or modern American elites. It is important to recognize that we are talking about culture here and not “blood.” The fact is that the Scots-Irish culture is so populist and assimilative that other ethnic groups have gravitated toward it. Accordingly it arguably has become America’s strongest cultural force.

But for many Americans, these people and the culture they have sustained are either invisible or objects of derision. They are invisible because in today’s group-identity politics, the Scots-Irish are usually lumped into the WASP category, which illegitimately papers over many significant religious and cultural differences among white, “non-ethnic” Americans. When they are noticed at all, they are liable to be ridiculed by the coastal elites, the chattering classes who dominate academia, the mainstream media, and Hollywood, who call them hillbillies; ignorant, racist, violence-prone rednecks; trailer-park trash; or crackers. For instance after the elections, the novelist Jane Smiley wrote in Slate that

The election results reflect the decision of the right wing to cultivate and exploit ignorance in the citizenry. . . . Ignorance and bloodlust have a long tradition in the United States, especially in the red states. . . . Listen to what the red state citizens say about themselves, the songs they write, and the sermons they flock to. They know who they are–they are full of original sin and they have a taste for violence. . . .

Unfortunately, the left does not have a monopoly on this attitude. Commenting on a statement that Howard Dean made during the Democratic primaries, Charles Krauthammer opined that Dean was campaigning for the “white trash vote” by pandering to “rebel-yell racist rednecks.” In the Wall Street Journal, Webb called this “the most vicious ethnic slur of the presidential campaign,” noting dryly that Krauthammer “has never complained about this ethnic group when it has marched off to fight the wars he wishes upon us.”

Webb is a remarkable man. He is a graduate of the Naval Academy who, while serving as a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam was wounded twice and awarded the Navy Cross for valor (think non-posthumous Medal of Honor). He is a graduate of Georgetown Law School. He was an assistant secretary of defense and Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration. He is a man of letters whose most important fictional characters are representatives of the people whom he chronicles in Born Fighting: Robert Lee Hodges (Fields of Fire, the best novel about Vietnam); Bill Fogarty (A Sense of Honor and Something to Die For) and Judd Smith (A County Such as This).

Most importantly for Vietnam veterans such as myself, Webb is the man who time and again stood on the front lines of the culture war that still rages between those who served and those who didn’t, a culture war that played a major role in the recent election. And just as he stood up to the elites who peddled falsehoods about the Vietnam veteran, he now takes them on about this important group as well.

Not surprisingly, the two stories are related. The Scots-Irish have a military tradition that stretches back 2000 years. They have turned up disproportionately for all of America’s wars, including those like Vietnam that so many avoided. The link between war and the Scots-Irish is also illustrated in Born Fighting as the scene shifts seamlessly from Berwick, Stirling Bridge, and Bannockburn to Ulster and the siege of Derry, to Big Moccasin Gap and Gate City, Virginia and Kensett, Arkansas to the An Hoa basin of Vietnam where Webb led a platoon and a rifle company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.

In Born Fighting, Webb is writing about his own “people”—his forebears, the people the elites love to ridicule. He writes, “History becomes personal. And the personal becomes history.” Indeed it is. Readers of Born Fighting already will have heard of William Wallace of “Brave Heart” fame or Andy Jackson. But Webb also recounts the stories of his family among whom no one stands taller than his father, who passed on to Webb the Scots-Irish code of honor, courage, loyalty, and audacious leadership.

In his magnificent Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer described the four great migrations from the British Isles to America before the Revolution. First came the dissenters from East Anglia to Massachusetts Bay followed by royalists and Cavaliers from the South of England to the Tidewater areas of Virginia and later by the Friends from the Midlands to Delaware Bay and Pennsylvania. Last of all came the “border men” from lowland Scotland and Northern Ireland who migrated to the highlands of Appalachia and the Indian frontier. Fischer demonstrated how these groups imported their mores and folkways to America and how these mores and folkways still persist, shaping American culture and politics. Webb’s riff on Fischer is his claim that a segment of this last group has created America’s most definitive culture.

The Scots-Irish tend to see politics and religion from the bottom up rather than from the top down. In the British Isles, they resisted Norman feudalism, adhering to political relations based on personal honor and voluntary associations. In America, especially the South, they likewise fought against a top-down, three-tiered political system imported by the Cavaliers, creating Jacksonian democracy. In the British Isles, they resisted both Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism, preferring the Kirk and the rule of elders—Presbyterianism. In America they became Baptists and fueled the various Great Awakenings that have periodically swept America.

In Scotland, they lived in dugouts and cabins that reflected the reality of frequent English depredations. In America, they lived in cabins that reflected the reality of an often-dangerous Indian frontier. Unpainted barns and trailer parks are today’s legacy of an uncertain environment. The English imported Scots Presbyterians to Ulster to manage their unruly Celtic cousins, the Irish. They were repaid by the Test Acts of Queen Anne that essentially outlawed their religion. Growing tired of fighting Anglican England’s battles against the Catholic Irish in Ulster, they migrated in large numbers in the eighteenth century to America, where both the Virginia aristocrats and the Friends of Pennsylvania saw them as a buffer against the Indians. As in Ulster, the elites of Pennsylvania and Virginia likewise often repaid the Scots-Irish with legislation and policy that was disadvantageous to them.

Some 95 percent of the Ulster Scots who immigrated to America ended up in the South, so that region and the Scots-Irish are irrevocably linked. And of course, the mythic event for the South, even more than for the rest of the country, is the Civil War and Reconstruction. Despite the fact that poor whites, especially the Scots-Irish, had no stake in the preservation of slavery, the planter class was successful in recruiting them for the war: they formed the core of the Confederate armies that struggled against the odds for four long and costly years. But the impact of the Scots-Irish did not stop here. They also provided the bulk of Union soldiers in the Western armies—Hoosiers, Buckeyes, and other “butternuts” who had immigrated to the southern tier of the Old Northwest from south of the Ohio River as well as making up most of the unionist groups of east Tennessee, Western Virginia and North Carolina, and Northern Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana that resisted central Confederate authority just as assiduously as they had federal.

No matter the cause of the war, the Scots-Irish paid a high price as a result of the Civil War. Studies have shown that the economic status of the Scots-Irish is similar to that of black southerners. But since they are lumped in with other non-ethic whites, they do not benefit from “affirmative action.” America’s elites do not see this. All they see are rednecks waving the Confederate flag. But while the Confederate battle flag unfortunately has been co-opted by racists, most descendents of the Scots-Irish see it as I do, a tribute to honorable men who fought bravely against great odds.

If the Democrats ever want to be competitive in American politics again, they need to figure out a way to appeal to the Scots-Irish culture that is essentially coeval with the red states, indeed with the red counties within blue states. Maureen Dowd can petulantly stamp her feet all she wants but it is this culture that gave rise to true American-style democracy. James Webb has shown us that as long as the likes of Dowd and Michael Moore are the arbiters of the Democratic Party, the Democrats are unlikely to win another national election. But the flipside is just as important. The Republicans cannot afford to take this culture for granted.

Mackubin T. Owens is an associate dean of academics and a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, RI.