I never knew why I felt a natural tendency to let people live and let live. Just a visceral feeling. If any of those same people threaten the lives of my family, though, then my nature is to drive them away, or failing that, kill them. Visceral too. Curious, I guess — peaceable, but also ready to fight.
I suspect that’s a legacy of the Scots-Irish side of my family, a legacy many of us share. Jim Webb, former senator from Virginia, sees it that way. His book “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America” shed a lot of light for me.
As many as 400,000 Scots-Irish migrated to America in the 1700s. Rebels and outcasts, frontiersmen and guerrilla fighters, they brought to America fierce individualism, dislike of aristocracy, and a military tradition. Over time, the Scots-Irish defined the culture, attitudes and values of Appalachia, the U.S. military and American democracy.
The Scots-Irish made up 40% of the Revolutionary War army and a majority of the Civil War armies. They included pioneers Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark, Davy Crockett and Sam Houston; writers Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain; and numerous military leaders, including Stonewall Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and George Patton. About 95% of the soldiers of the Confederacy were Scots-Irish, largely foot soldiers fighting against the perceived invaders.
The Scots-Irish redefined American politics, creating the populist movement and giving the country a dozen presidents, including Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. The Scots-Irish background of isolation, hard luck, stubbornness, and mistrust of the elite still dominates working class America, the military services, the South, Midwest and country music.
The Scots-Irish tend to see politics and religion from the bottom up rather than top down. In Britain they resisted feudalism, sticking to politics of personal honor and voluntary association. In America, especially the South, they fought against royalist hierarchies imported by the Cavaliers and created the Jacksonian democracy.
My family goes back on my mother’s side to the Edinburgh area of Scotland in the 1600s and back on my father’s side to County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, commonly known as “McGuire County” because so many McGuires live there.
In the late 1700s my McGuire ancestors followed Daniel Boone to settle in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, then came to what is now Carter County, Kentucky. I’ve been to the McGuire graveyard on Sutton Branch in Carter County and seen McGuire headstones dating from the early 1800s. We were part of one of the four great migrations from the British Isles that David Hackett Fisher identifies in “Albion’s Seed”: the dissenters from East Anglia to Massachusetts, followed by royalist Cavaliers from the South of England to Tidewater Virginia, followed thirdly by the Quakers from the English Midlands to Delaware and Pennsylvania, and finally fourth by the Scots-Irish “border men” who migrated to the highlands of Appalachia and further.
They brought with them the dual sentiments I’m puzzling over here: a fierce fighting spirit, and a peaceable dedication to tolerance of neighbors. Next time, we’ll talk about exactly why.