“Born Fighting”: Truth v. Myth, part 2

Posted on August 8, 2011. Filed under: American history, Politics, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , |

Part 2 of our Truth v. Myth on Sen. James Webb’s take on Scots-Irish history in America, the broadcast of “Born Fighting” recently aired on the Smithsonian Channel, finds us in post-Revolutionary War America, following the Scots-Irish in their ever-westerly travels.

Webb reaffirms the group’s “hatred of tyranny… and the belief that personal freedom should be a right, not a privilege.” Again, continuing with the theme of this investigation, it seems one could say that of any and all Americans, barring slaveholders, and one could point out that the entire population of the new nation had just ratified a federal government dedicated to the principle that freedom is a right. So it would not be just the Scots-Irish who felt this way. But Webb, a Senator, is anti-government, as he makes more and more clear in this documentary, and so he separates the principle of freedom being a natural right from the government and locates it fully in this one particular group.

Webb also says that the Scots-Irish believed that “only ability should dictate success”, and uses this as a springboard for talking about his greatest Scots-Irish hero, Andrew Jackson. We have dealt with Jackson here and here, and hopefully laid aside the idea that he was any kind of hero. But Webb buys into Jackson’s self-created propaganda that he was a man who stood up for the rights of the downtrodden, and gave power to the average American, the frontiersman, and the little guy. To do so, Webb first says that, thanks to Jackson, all white males had the right to vote by 1840.

Universal white male suffrage had begun long before Jackson’s Administation: Vermont had always had full white male suffrage, and New Jersey, Maryland, and South Carolina had it by 1810; states entering the Union after 1815 either offered universal white male suffrage or an extremely low landowner’s tax requirement (a small farm would count to pay this tax); by 1821 Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York had universal white male suffrage. So the white male suffrage revolution did not come after 1828 but before it, and it benefited Jackson rather than being a gift he gave the nation.

Webb says Jackson’s populism “undermined aristocratic elites and protected the weak… Jackson said the poor and humble require the arm and the shield of the law.” The Americans Jackson enslaved on his plantation in Tennessee might not have realized he felt that way. Neither would the Chickasaws whom he “removed” from their land, which he then sold and made a fortune on. Neither would the Cherokees, whom he did his best to destroy after they proved they had the right to stay on their lands. Perhaps it is only the poor and humble white frontiersman whom Jackson wanted to protect. Webb’s one nod to this reality is his statement that Jackson’s “legacy isn’t flawless—he was a product of his time… but he stopped the notion of a permanent aristocracy.” Excusing slaveholding because someone is “of his time” is perhaps the emptiest of all defenses. Plenty of abolitionists were of the same time. And it’s not as if people did not debate the morality of slavery during Jackson’s time. Finally, no one group defines “permanent aristocracy” in “their time” like slaveholders, whom Jackson sought to shore up at every turn. Jackson was “of his time” as well in his reliance on political machines to control who got into office, and his insistence on giving political office to and pushing through legislation for party loyalists, many of them rich business men in the East.

We reach the Civil War. Webb states that the Scots-Irish enlisted in droves for the Confederacy, but, predictably, that “few fought to preserve slavery… they fought against invasion, to save their homes, and protect their families.” We’ve dealt this this idea here; we can sum up this stance that the average Confederate did not fight for slavery this way: revisionists say that while powerful southerners fought for slavery, the average Confederate in the trenches was a poor man who didn’t own any enslaved people, who only fought because his homeland was invaded. Most notable in spreading this idea was Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’ documentary The Civi War, who quotes a Confederate telling a Union soldier that he fought “because you are down here.” This is the argument put about now—that the average Confederate soldier did not fight for slavery, and therefore bears no shame for his part in the war. But why was the Union “down there” in the first place? Because the southern states had seceeded so they could continue slavery. If the average poor Confederate really did have nothing in common with, and even hated and resented the rich whites who held slaves, why fight their war? Why fight and die so those rich whites could continue to control society and politics, have slaves, and keep poor white people poor? No war is simple. There’s no one reason why poor southern men fought for the Confederacy. They fought, as all people do, for a mix of reasons; in this case, fear and anger at being invaded, a sense of having no choice but to enlist once war began, wanting to join their friends in the army, loyalty to rich white leaders in their own towns and counties, excitement at the prospect of war, resentment of the North’s “anti-southern” policies, and a host of other, private reasons. Union soldiers had the same mix, and many of the same inducements. But no matter why they fought, they fought, and they fought to preserve the Confederacy, which was a slave society. There’s nothing noble about that.

But Webb buys into the blameless Confederate soldier myth, quoting what he calls a “beautifully put”Confederate war memorial in Arlington Cemetery as saying the Confederate fought “in simple obedience to duty, as he understood it.” This monument was installed in 1912 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy; here is a description:

“Completing the frieze are six vignettes illustrating the effect of the war on Southerners of all races. The vignettes include a black slave following his young master; an officer kissing his infant child in the arms of her mammy; a blacksmith leaving his bellows and workshop as his sorrowful wife looks on; a young lady binding the sword and sash on her beau; and a young officer standing alone. The base of the memorial features several inscriptions. On its front face are the seal of the Confederacy and a tribute by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, followed by the Latin phrase: “Victrix Causa Diis Placuit Sed Victa Caton.” This phrase means: The Victorious Cause was Pleasing to the Gods, But the Lost Cause to Cato.”

This is the sort of revisionist, pro-Confederate insult statuary that flourished from the end of the Civil War to basically the 1960s. It celebrates slavery as a benign, even good institution, and states that while the terrible heartless North may have won, the truly righteous were on the pro-slavery side. “Simple obedience” to that kind of duty is no honor.

Now Webb really lays into the current United States by lambasting the North for its overwhelming cruelty to the South after the war. “The North would go on to enjoy the victor’s spoils, while the South was left a devastated wreck… two-thirds of Southern wealth disapeared…[and the south was]occupied and controlled by the North… economic decline suffocated individual opportunity… Economically, it resembled a colony” owned and controlled by outside forces. This was the sad state of things until WWI.

It’s truly astonishing that a U.S. senator would make these statements. First, because they are so patently false; second, because they are anachronistically pushing a radical right, Tea Party agenda into the late 1800s, and third, because they are part of his lengthy attack on the validity of our federal government.

The North had few “spoils” to enjoy. Its industry continued profitably as it had done before and during the war. Its farms prospered as they had always done. In other words, regular life went on. The South didn’t lose 2/3 of its wealth to the North; it lost the bulk of that wealth because it lost its slaves. The majority of that figure is loss of slave labor and investment in slave trading. And one can only wish that the north had occupied the south like a colony, instead of abandoning it and the Reconstruction effort in 1877, because then the return to slavery in all but name and the grinding decades of economic decay the south experienced would not have happened.

Instead, the federal government (“the North”) did not re-distribute plantation land, which all remained in the hands of the original slaveholding owners; pardoned all Confederate soldiers and politicians except for those in high office; and allowed former Confederates to be elected to state governments and to Congress. There was temporary military rule in 1867, which was necessary to keep whites from stopping black Americans from voting for the first time. Southern leaders refused to industrialize or give up the plantation system, using sharecroppers instead of slaves, and local white southern merchants were the ones who gouged the poor, black and white, by miring them in unpayable debt.

It was the north deciding to wash its hands of the south, feeling that enough money and blood had been spent there, that led to the south being ground down into poverty and misery. The refusal of the white power elite to give up plantation agriculture with strictly human labor guaranteed a future of poverty. Their refusal to grant blacks their full rights guaranteed generations of crime, fear, and hate.

Webb clearly feels the federal government has not changed since the war and that it is an instrument of oppression. As we move away from his clenched-jaw description of the south’s self-inflicted wrongs, we move west once again with the Scots-Irish. Leaving the south, to Webb, means that Scots-Irish culture “became the basis for its greatest American legacy. New European immigrants gravitated toward the embrace of the Scots-Irish, their values spread wherever they went: self-reliance, equality, fighting any domination from above [see federal government]… their values and traditions were re-shaping America from the bottom up… over time, they lost their Scots-Irishness and became harder and harder to identify. They became more and more the mainstream of American development. Against all odds, the Scots-Irish working class ethics are now basic American values.” All country music is Scots-Irish, and everyone in the military is, too. Basically, any time you see a church, you are looking at the Scots-Irish.

So in fact you are Scots-Irish if you don’t know you are, the entire middle class is basically Scots-Irish, and those fight, sing, drink, pray values that no other group on Earth shares are the American Way. Of course, as always, we can say the same things of almost every group of Americans, every ethnicity: the Germans, the Irish, the English, the Dutch, the Italians… every group has intermarried beyond recognition and fanned out across the country with ethics of hard work and independence. Because they are all Americans.

“Over the centuries,” Webb goes on, “the Scots-Irish defined mainstream American life.” If you are individualistic and ambitious, you are Scots-Irish. Rosa Parks was Scots-Irish (through her great-grandfather; how might that have happened?). The Scots-Irish are “the molten core at the very center of the unbridled, raw, rebellious spirit of America… they faced the world on their feet, not on their knees. They were born fighting, and if their cause is right (like colonizing for Britain, killing Indians for their lands, or fighting for slavery) they will never give it up.”

This relentless emphasis on rebellion, fighting, and the sins of the federal government sound all too familiar to us today. This is the mantra of the far right, the Tea Party, which tells Americans their government is a terrible mistake and must be destroyed; terrible because it regulates business and provides social services and makes sure our water and air are safe. Americans, this theory goes, must always reject every demand on them—taxes, regulation, equal opportunity laws, etc. What Americans do is shoot guns, fight the government, and look out for themselves first and foremost.

This is not really America. This is not our “molten core.” These are not our core values. We don’t have an unstable, dangerous, molten core, we have a core of law, justice, and democracy. We cooperate to create a fair government that can protect everyone in this country without taking away our basic freedom. We do not primarily fight and drink. We all pray in different ways, or not at all. We all sing everyone’s songs. We are not all Scots-Irish, and the Scots-Irish are not as they are described here, as people who fight only for their own profit rather than for ideals of communal justice and freedom. People who hold slaves are not heroes of liberty. People who prevent their fellow citizens from exercising their full civil rights cannot blame someone else for the problems that causes. Re-writing history to validate whatever people do because of their ethnicity is not history. “Born Fighting” is a slur on the Scots-Irish, our government, and our nation that we hope will continue to be countered by factual histories of this nation and its people.

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