The Scotch-Irish and the savage South

Professor Fred Hobson of UNC-Chapel Hill has written about the image of the “savage South.” Talking with him set me thinking about why so many observers, from Colonial times until today, have characterized our region as being more violent than other parts of the United States.

Many reasons have been suggested, and the institution of slavery often tops the list. But Hobson maintains that the Southern colonies had a bad reputation even before slavery had deeply taken root. He blames some of it on the weather. During the summer, it was hot in the South, which contributed to bad temper and general misery. On the other hand, says Hobson, the warm weather made it easier to get subsistence crops out of the ground, meaning some farmers had too much free time, leading to “sloth” and sometimes violence.

Still, slavery and its accompanying brutality were major reasons for the South’s bad reputation until the end of the Civil War. Yet observers also tended to view the backwoods, mountain and other “frontier” areas, which never had a significant slave presence or culture, as part of the “savage South.”

Hobson got my attention when he explained that these areas were settled mostly by hard-headed, independent-minded people from what is now Northern Ireland who were accustomed to standing up to authority and fighting for whatever they considered to be rightfully theirs.

He was talking about my people. (I usually call them the “Scotch-Irish,” but the fashionable term these days is “Scots-Irish.”) Either way, these were hard-line Presbyterian Scots whose families had been in Ireland for many years, battling both the mostly Catholic native Irish (whom their settlements often displaced) and their English overlords (who tried to force the Anglican Church on them).

James Webb’s book Born Fighting (Random House, 2004) seems to support Hobson’s premise. Webb, a decorated Marine who was secretary of the navy in the Reagan administration, traces the history of the Scots-Irish from the time of the Roman occupation of Britain until today. That history, he argues, made these people tenacious fighters when it came to asserting or defending their rights.

The Romans conquered the southern part of Britain, but they never controlled what is now Scotland. In fact, they built Hadrian’s Wall across the island to keep the northerners from attacking them.

There followed centuries of border wars between the ancestors of the Scots-Irish and the people who lived to their south. After the Norman conquests, the Scots resisted the Norman feudal model and their kings’ attempts impose it on Scotland. These conflicts culminated in the great battles for Scottish independence made familiar to us by films such as Braveheart.

In about 1603, the Scottish King James VI became James I of England. Shortly afterward, thousands of Presbyterian Scots moved to the northern part of Ireland to take over lands confiscated from native Catholic Irish.

Eventually, waves of these Ulster Scots began migrating to the Colonies. Many of them wound up on the frontiers and in the mountains, including a significant presence in the South. In America, they fought Indians on the frontier and stood up to the English colonists who ran the Colonial governments. When the American Revolution broke out, the Scots-Irish provided more than 40 percent of the troops that fought the British. Likewise, the Scots-Irish were the backbone of American fighting forces in the Civil War, both world wars, Korea and Vietnam (where Webb himself fought bravely). But they also helped give rise to the image of the “savage South.”

Throughout their history, says Webb, the Scots and Scots-Irish tended to select their leaders, rather than merely blindly following whoever was put in charge. Those leaders were expected to be brave, assertive and tenacious, and they had to earn the people’s respect and loyalty.

Webb, however, believes these are basically positive values; the subtitle of Born Fighting is How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. And whatever he might say about linking the Scots-Irish with the “savage South,” he would undoubtedly maintain that the Scots-Irish traits of independence, suspicion of authority and resistance to oppressive government are important and healthy characteristics that have undergirded the American democratic experience.

Arthur Herman makes an even more expansive case in How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It (Three Rivers Press, 2001). Herman may be stretching a little bit, but he argues that the Scots “created the basic idea of modernity” that “transformed their culture and society in the eighteenth century,” and “they carried it with them wherever they went.”

Sixteenth-century reformer John Knox believed everyone should come to know God personally by reading the Bible, and Scots soon began reading all sorts of things that fueled their free-thinking ways.

By the end of the 17th century, Scotland was the most literate nation on earth, says Herman. In the 18th century, it became a center of philosophic and economic thinking, led by Adam Smith, David Hume and a host of others. Its universities were the envy of every country in Europe, and Scotland was also a hotbed of invention and business development, with James Watt’s 1781 steam engine becoming the workhorse of the Industrial Revolution.

But what does all this have to do with North Carolina today? The transformation of Scotland was in full bloom just as waves of Scots and Scots-Irish immigrants were landing in America and settling here. And those new Scottish values — especially the commitment to educational excellence and the freedom of the human mind to inquire in all directions — are a solid rock on which our state’s best traditions have been built.

[D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch.]

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