Truth v. Myth: “Born Fighting”

Senator James Webb (D-VA) published his book Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America in 2004; the Smithsonian Channel just broadcast the video adaptation recently. It was aired in two parts. Part 1 focused on Scotland, beginning with Hadrian’s Wall, and followed the eventual appearance of Protestantism in Scotland, the conflicts with England over non-conformism, and the recruitment of Protestant Scots by England into the north of Ireland to settle land seized by the English government from Catholic Irish landholders (thus changing the Irish population, it was hoped, and calming the place down for English rule). The Scots encountered growing hostility from the native population they were helping to colonize, and after the siege and battle of Londonderry, in which they received no help from England in beating off the Catholic Irish, many of the Scots—now called Scots-Irish or Scotch-Irish by the native population who did not accept even those born in the country as Irish, left for another English colonial land: America.

This first part of the documentary was not perfect, but it was at least technically accurate in most of its details. The second part goes dramatically off-course into the damaging kind of us-vs-them, who’s-a-real-American, America-is-about-violence, and racial politics that is characteristic of myth. We’re going to take the time to rebut the myth perpetuated by one of our Senators because it’s important to call people in high office on the damage they do to historical truth and our own citizens’ perception of what our country stands for.

Like most people who have a thesis that one group of people, one invention, one idea, etc., has shaped the course of world history, Webb consistently makes statements about the Scots-Irish that could be true of any group. “This culture shaped America”, he begins, “…creating the very basis of American democracy.” Which culture that is part of America has not shaped it? Which culture has left no imprint on our government, political history, treasured ideas, or important battles? And since our democracy has been constantly evolving since 1775, no one group can claim to have established the basis of that democracy. (If you had to choose, you’d have to say Americans of English descent. The men who framed our government and put its ideals and principles into law were overwhelmingly of English background.)

Webb’s elevator description of the Scots-Irish is “fight, sing, drink, pray”. This to him sums up their willingness to fight any war, their resolve and determination, their rebellious refusal to submit to “outside” law, and their strict morality. Again, it’s not hard to think of other groups do not have the same reputation: the Irish, Greeks, and Mexicans come to mind. But Webb begins part 2 with the story of the first Scots-Irish in America, again recruited by the English to put down the locals and act as colonizers. Scots-Irish people settled in Pennsylvania on the borderlands between Quaker settlement and Native Americans. Webb describes their experiences there in what he calls “the unimproved wilderness”. The word “wilderness” comes up frequently, and is never questioned as inaccurate (as the land had been settled, hunted, and known by its native inhabitants for millennia). The Quaker refusal to fight is mentioned repeatedly, and seems to be put out there to deride the Quakers and anyone else who questions the value of violence and war. This is a theme that runs through the show.

Again, at the end of the Pennsylvania section, Webb says that the “flood” of Scots-Irish immigrants that followed “would eventually transform America”, and again it’s a claim you could make about anyone, including the English, French, and Germans who preceded  or came along with the Scots-Irish just about wherever they went.

It is almost funny when Webb describes the pioneers in the Shenandoah Valley who “carried their few belongings with them” (unlike all other pioneers?) into the “wilderness” only to discover “they weren’t alone”. The fact that the land was inhabited is, of course, the first indicator of its not being a wilderness. The Native Americans whose land the pioneers were settling are basically presented as threatening, though it is of course the natives who were threatened by white settlement and claims of land ownership.

When the French and Indian War began, Webb says, the Scots-Irish fought eagerly and made their name as “unflinching fighters”. He characterizes their attitude as “This is my land and I’m going to stay here and protect it and if I have to, I will fight for it.” Which again is the precise attitude of every group of people in human history who have been in a war on their own territory. Only the Native Americans, in this case, really had the right to say it.

Already, Webb is making a case he will repeat many times: the Scots-Irish a) like to fight, b) are brave (really braver than anyone else), and c) show their independence by fighting. The first tenet really discredits the second two. People who like to fight aren’t really brave, and they don’t fight for independence, but because it’s what they do. The Scots-Irish on the frontier fought because that’s what they had been hired to do by the British governors who brought them in (payment being the right to settle and the grant of religious freedom) and they wanted to keep the land they had settled. That is not really about bravery or independence.

In fact, we have seen the Scots-Irish now as established colonizers, people with no hesitation to help a colonial power destroy native people in return for those people’s lands. It is odd that this is never addressed in Webb’s tale of the Scots-Irish as freedom-loving people who always fought tyranny.

His description of the period between the end of the French and Indian War and the beginning of the Revolutionary War is, politely put, difficult to understand. “Britain tightened its grip over America’s east coast. And now, isolated from British colonial rule to the east, the Scots-Irish frontiersmen settled into their American roots… and turned their backs on bigotry in America’s colonial towns”.

The bizarre inaccuracies—British rule had always been most present on the east coast (which is why the British brought in the Scots-Irish to colonize the western frontier); but after the war concentrated more and more on controlling the western frontier; as frontierspeople the Scots-Irish had always been isolated from coastal society; and bigotry is never relegated to urban areas (see plantation life)—slowly make sense only as the show goes on and Webb talks about Andrew Jackson. Webb reveres Jackson, and has apparently bought into the idea Jackson and his followers evangelized for, that “elites” were running America and a cabal of “aristocrats” in the cities was ruining the nation. The idea that Jackson put power in the hands of average people is not true; he put his friends and financial backers into federal office regardless of their qualifications, he was a wealthy slaveholder, and he had no special regard for the rights of the “little guy”, as any Native or black American would tell you.

As for the idea that the previously isolated Scots-Irish were isolated still after the war, it’s not really true. Germans and Huguenots moved in large numbers into the American south from the mid-1600s right up to the Revolutionary War. Many of the Germans were Protestants unable to worship as they wished at home, and of course the Huguenots left everything behind in France to come to America in the name of religious freedom. Webb would have viewers believe the Scots-Irish were the only people in America (maybe in the world) who sacrificed for their freedom of religion, left everything behind, and braved the hardships of the frontier with no help from outside. All of the colonies of the south were first settled, of course, by the English. Most of them were non-conformists, just like the Scots-Irish, who refused to compromise their faith and left all behind in the name of freedom. In North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky, the Scots-Irish came in after the Huguenots and Germans.

The Revolutionary War saw many Scots-Irish enlist, just as it saw many members of all the groups in the colonies enlist. Webb focuses on the Battle of King’s Mountain of 1780, in which 900 Scots-Irish militia men routed 1200 British soldiers. The British, rigidly sticking to “European battle formation”, were mown down by the sniping Scots-Irish who were smart enough to use guerrilla tactics. Webb states there were 500 British casualties and 28 American. The ragged, poor militia “destroyed” the British army.

But it wasn’t completely that way. The British did not remain in formation, standing still waiting to get shot, but instead made repeated bayonet charges, which, while unsuccessful in winning the battle, at least made some sense. Of the five American militia leaders, one was of Huguenot descent (John Sevier), two were governors, two served in Congress, and two served in state legislatures; three were born into wealth, and one married into it. So the leadership was not completely rag-tag. The casualties were 244 killed, 163 wounded, and 668 taken prisoner for the British, and 29 killed and 58 wounded for the Americans. One reason for the high British death count was that the militia men continued firing after the British put up a white flag.

We’ll end this post with Webb’s second bizarre leap away from historical fact: he claims that “In 1783, America acknowledged the efforts made by the overwhelmingly Scots-Irish militiamen in the south in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution”. First, the Second Amendment was adopted in 1791 with the rest of the original Bill of Rights (the Constitution wasn’t written and ratified until 1787). Second, a starkly modern political agenda is expressed here as historical fact. Webb goes on to say basically that people in the south care so much about gun ownership because they were once frontiersmen, and the frontiersman’s duty to protect his family over time turned into a right “for people with a long history of mistrust of the central government. There’s a saying around here: I’ll give up my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

Where to begin. First, what region of our nation never had a frontier? Is it that the north was never frontier land? The west? Every region of the present United States began as frontier land, where people had muskets or rifles to hunt with and to fight Indians and to use as part of the local militia in times of war. Second, either gun ownership is about self-reliance (the frontiersman) or it’s about not believing in government. If it’s that southerners never trusted the federal government, that’s not about the frontier. That’s a mistrust of the federal government that was shared by New Englanders, Mid-Atlantic states residents, and every other region you can think of. That’s what made creating the federal government in 1787 so difficult; even the “elites” on the east coast had their doubts about it turning into a tyranny. (It’s funny that this suspicious government is the one that made a special Amendment to preserve the rights of the Scots-Irish. One wonders what prevented them from looking more kindly on such a government.)

Webb, I think it’s fair to say, is looking at 1791 through the lens of 2011 and 1865 to say that the south is right not to trust the unfair northern government that oppresses it today and has oppressed it since the end of the Civil War. (You’ll see why I say this in the next post.) But the Second Amendment was not written to give people a way to create a state; our Founders believed that our system of law, our democracy, would keep people safe and free. It’s our government and the laws it is based on and that it enforces that create our liberty, independence, freedom, whatever you like to call it. Guns are not law, they are an alternative to law. So I quarrel with Senator Webb’s description of the origins of the Second Amendment, and the validity of the southern (as he calls it) attachment to weapons. The Amendment was not written as a thank-you to the Scots-Irish, and it is not about substituting gun ownershp for centralized government.

Next time: Jackson, the Civil War, and how the entire middle class is Scots-Irish

6 thoughts on “Truth v. Myth: “Born Fighting”

  1. Webb is a Blue-Dog DINO.
    I saw this program and I had to turn it off it was so annoying for all the points you make.
    Webb ignores the fact the Scots after being suppressed by the English in their own homeland went on to be the enforcers for England in Ireland and in America.

    as for the “British” at Kings Mt the only non-American at the battle was Maj Patrick Ferguson the Loyalist Militia commander. every other “British” soldier was an American.


    1. Sorry, Ray, but this isn’t entirely accurate. The “enforcers for Ireland”, starting from the Tudor period and lasting into the 19th Century, were the Anglo-Irish class. The Anglo-Irish, like the Scots-Irish, were more of a class association than a “racial” element: they were an assortment of English and native Irish landowners who had converted to the Anglican Church, enforced the speaking of English on their Irish lands, and were culturally and politically “English”. Of course the only real matter of any importance was that they were members of the Anglican Church of Ireland.

      The aggravated Crown originally intended for the Ulster plantation to be a means of replacing the papists with the Presbyterians, who were seen as the lesser out of the two evils: dissenters and papists; but after a series of rebellions and a constant wave of tension, the Calvinists proved to be just as troublesome.

      As far as becoming the “enforcers for England in America” is concerned, I don’t even know what this means. The group that would ultimately become known as the “Scots-Irish” were not sent by England to enforce anything. They were, loosely speaking, a group of about 200,000 Irish Protestants from Ulster who participated in one of three 18th Century waves of migration from Ulster to the then British colonies. They do have a shared historical experience that’s worth me mentioning, but there is another gem below you who needs clarification on this same point.


  2. Protestant or Catholic, most of the original immigrants from Ireland regarded themselves as Irish, some who were only in Ireland a short time still considered themselves Scots or from whatever homeland.

    The whole theory of Scotch Irish “people” is a laugh, they can’t even define themselves well, except as what they didn’t want to be seen as in the mid 19th century: Irish Catholics ie.poor starving foreign papists looked down on by “respectable” Americans.

    Scotch Irish society of the USA:
    “Scotch-Irish” generically designates those persons who are descended in either the male or female line from an ancestor or ancestors who emigrated to America, directly or indirectly, from Ulster, and whose families, hailing from Scotland, Britain, France, and other places in Europe, had previously settled in Ulster about the year 1600 or thereafter.”

    Considering Scotland is in Britain which like France is in Europe, basically anyone who is European & moved to Ulster is Scotch Irish by that designation, but it’s better than the traditional claims. Traditionally they tend to exclude real Scots who emigrated around 1600 & were Catholic & include native Irish who became Protestants.English, Welsh, French various Europeans can be Scots Irish but Catholic Scots are excluded.

    As for accuracy in many of their claims …
    They claim General Stark as one but his parents were born & raised in Scotland and only lived a decade or so in Ulster before emigrating to America where the future general was born. They also claim Stonewall Jackson whose ancestors were English Anglicans, General Sheridan who was a Catholic with an “Old English/Norman Irish” name, General Wayne who was of English ancesytry & whose forbearers lived in Southwestern Ireland. They’ve made fake claims of being the first settlers into an area & it is clear that their settlements were mixed & included many native Irish & continental names.

    I’ve even seen one S-I society definition that included any people living in Scotch Irish settlements…. in America. So settlers Schultz or Wagner that relocated to the Tidewater became Scotch Irish by that definition. By that definition someone named Chang living in Bensonhurst could probably join the Sons of Italy.

    The whole concept is so nebulous it’s a joke.


    1. Well, James, modern groups do indeed have a tendency to complicate what they mean by “Scots-Irish”, but this doesn’t nullify the very existence of the group, nor does it mean we can’t confidently assign any historical value to them. The problem I have both with this article and Jim Webb is that, they are the two competing romances who like to present their back-and-forth as a contest between romance and reality.

      Jim Webb engages in ancestral hero-worship and, like ancestral hero-worship of every character, entertains eugenic fantasies about the ethnic composition of the group his forbears belonged to. He will throw around terms like “in their DNA”, “in the blood”, and will ascribe historical outcomes to the deliberate hand of “destiny”; and while these terms all have a figurative meaning as well, Webb relieves us of our confusion by continually reminding us that this particular group, unlike every other human group to ever inhabit this planet, faced unique circumstances wherever they went, which prohibited the admixture of foreign genes and culture; the only thing more extraordinary than this claim is the tendency of almost everyone, whatever their inclination, to accept it. He then goes on to exclude any and all other groups from sharing a similar experience in British America, and leaves one to believe the Scots-Irish were the first Europeans to do just about anything in this country, provided it didn’t involve forming an aristocracy.

      The difficulty in rejecting Webb’s claims rests in the fact that, in many cases, the Scots-Irish truly ‘were’ the first group of Europeans to pioneer a variety of places and social structures. As is often the response, the careful labor necessarily involved in genuine historical research is then substituted with a scorched-earth approach, where the author will rob the group of any positive distinction altogether: here it is no surprise that, an article such as this has aroused the suspicions of those claiming the group known as the Scots-Irish is practically a myth, or at most whatever one wants it to be.

      But the Scots-Irish did exist and can be readily identified as a unique cultural group (and ethnic group, to a lesser extent) in early America. Like all the other groups that have migrated to this country, they are defined on three grounds: their origin, migration history, and historical experiences. We will start with origin.


      Scots who were native to the Scottish Lowlands and came to British America by way of Ulster: this is the ethnic narrative Webb encourages, and few, on either side of the dispute, challenge it. This necessarily leads to each of the following assumptions: one, the group we call the Scots-Irish is comprised entirely of Lowland Scots; two, all Lowland Scots on the Ulster plantation migrated to the British American colonies; and three, these Lowland Scots were entirely isolated from any genetic and cultural influences outside of the Lowlands. Each one of these assumptions is wrong.

      Since a comprehensive genetic genealogy project on Scots-Irish families has already been underway for many years now, I will simply quote some of the findings and explain what we now know about the genetic composition of the Scots-Irish.

      From the project’s blog:

      “There is a stereotype of all Scots-Irish being descendants of Ulster Scots that in turn were descendants of Lowland Scots who settled in Ulster during the Ulster Plantation in the seventeenth century. It is true that many were; it is also true that many families that were Scots-Irish have other origins. As many as 35% of the Scots-Irish are of Highland Scots ancestry, usually from mid and northern Argyll or Lennox. These two areas in the Highlands were influenced by the reformed church movement in Scotland at an early date and also had migration to the north of Ireland beginning in the 1500s and continuing into the 1600s. Two of the most numerous ‘Scots-Irish’ surnames are Campbell and MacDonald, both of Highland Scots origin.

      Other families also became Scots-Irish. In east Donegal and in the Bann valley area, there were many native Irish families that converted to the reformed church and later the Presbyterian faith, and also were part of the Ulster migration to the New World in the 1700s.

      There were also a number of Welsh and English families that were living in Ireland and participated in the Ulster Migration and that became part of the Scots-Irish society in the Colonies.

      While most Scots-Irish came from the nine counties that make up the province of Ulster in the north of Ireland, some Scots-Irish came from other parts of Ireland. By the 1700s there were families of Scottish origin living in many parts of Ireland and some Scots-Irish have ancestors that migrated to the Colonies from Mayo, Sligo, Dublin, Cork, etc. ”

      About half, or just under half, of the Scots-Irish were of Lowland ancestry. 35% were from specific regions in the Highlands. As many as 13% were native Irish who were already members of the reformed church and who had converted to the Presbyterian faith, either on their own accord or through marriage. The remaining were a mix of those of English and Huguenot ancestry, and, to an even lesser extent, Palatine.

      So we can claim a certain ethnic composition of this group: broadly defined as “British Isles” for the most part, but not nearly as rigid and as limited to the Scottish Lowlands as Webb would have us believe. What initially united this group was their faith — they were all Protestant dissenters, mostly of the Presbyterian faith, and certainly Calvinist in their theology — and their place in Ulster before the migration. That brings us to migration history.

      Migration History:

      Around 200,000 Irish Protestants, largely from Ulster, migrated to the colonies in the 18th Century in three big waves, starting about the year 1718 and continuing to the period just before the American Revolution. If your ancestors were dissenters in Ulster and came to the colonies in one of these waves, we can identify them as ‘Scots-Irish’.

      Historical Experiences:

      Ulster dissenters that came to the colonies in the 18th Century were universally rejected by the Anglo-Saxon landed class who had already settled the land on the eastern coastline, which forced most of them to settle in what was then the western fringes of British America. Even Pennsylvanians were not entirely without criticism of this group: it was James Logan, an Irish Quaker, of all people, who said, “The settlement of five families of Scotch-Irishmen gives me more trouble than fifty of any other people.” Out of the main body that settled in Pennsylvania, a subgroup crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains and settled in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, whence an even smaller element found their way into the Piedmont of North Carolina — and on they went until Scots-Irish settlements were in place all over Appalachia, and the South more generally (There were Scots-Irish settlements in the Northeast, but then, too, this is another matter.).

      I wanted to talk about the hybrid culture they shared (which, contrary to Webb again, was more Northern Irish than Lowland Scottish), but I am tired of typing for now.

      It is the combination of origins, migration history, and historical experiences that make the Scots-Irish. They were not the only Protestant dissenters in this country at the time. They certainly weren’t the only British Isle settlers in the 18th Century. They weren’t even the only group out on the frontier or that participated in the American Revolution. But they were dissenters from Ulster who migrated here in the 18th Century and played a notable role on the frontier, in the Revolution, and during the westward expansion of the early 19th Century. There is no need to pretend they didn’t exist or that they didn’t do anything significant, nor is there a need to exaggerate their significance in the manner Webb does.

      There is a balanced way to honor our ancestors without going overboard. The Huguenot Historical Society seems to have the proper formula.


  3. The whole concept of the “Scotch Irish” is BS. The number of Scots that migrated to Ireland was tiny compared to the over population of the one area they settled in – Ulster. Also the Scotch and Irish never mingled either, staying so separate that there was not an mix of genes. The Languages also stayed separate, the few Scotch in Ireland never learned Gaelic. The Scots that moved to Ireland moved because of the lure of very very cheap land – NOT religious or political persecution. This whole BS about Scotch Irish was invented by the Scotch that then migrated to America and did not want to be identified with the “low class” Irish immigrants considered the trash of the British Isles. “Scotch Irish” is a fabrication, it’s the equivalent of someone being French and moving to the Bronx and then claiming to be “French Bronx”. It’s idiotic.


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