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ART HOBSON: America's wild streak

Did historic borderer culture inform Capitol riot? by Art Hobson | March 23, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

America's weaknesses were sorely exposed during the riot on our U.S. Capitol building. Who are these people? With nods to Pogo, on Jan. 6 we met the enemy and he is us.

We're an odd country, full of contradictions, but with a definable culture that clearly includes this invading mob as well as their oddly popular -- among some Americans -- stage manager, former President Donald Trump.

This phenomenon merits a historical lens. The most convincing explanation of the "American style" centers on the pre-revolutionary Scots-Irish immigration, a story beautifully captured by a proud descendent of that relocation, former Sen. Jim Webb (Democrat, Virginia), in his 2004 book "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish shaped America."

The story opens when the Celts of England were defeated by ancient Roman invaders and retreated north of England's bordering wall. The Romans referred to these enemies by the derogatory term "Scots." Centuries later, the Norman invasion brought a highly structured feudal culture to England in the south, but the conquest ran out of steam in the north where the Celtic "borderers" remained tribal, antagonistic toward outside authority and internally quarrelsome. England tried to rule them but the borderers' fighting spirit and leaders such as "braveheart" (there's a movie) thwarted such efforts. A populist resistance to government, supported by biblically literalist religion, developed among the borderers. By the 14th century, the Celts came to power in Scotland.

Partly due to Catholic/Protestant squabbles in England and Scotland, many borderers moved to "Ulster" (Northern Ireland) during the 16th and 17th centuries. Ulster became dominated by borderer culture, fundamentalist Protestantism, and internal feuds. The Ulster Scots played a defiant role supporting Protestant King William of Orange who in 1690 defeated the deposed Catholic King James in battle, consolidating English rule over Scotland and Ireland. Nevertheless, the borderers of Ulster and Scotland remained alienated by English laws restricting their rowdy fundamentalism in favor of the refined practices of the English Church.

A few were drawn to the unsettled lands of America as early as 1685. By 1715, this trickle became a flood as virtually the entire borderer "nation" migrated from Ulster and Scotland to America. By the time of the American revolution, some half million had migrated to the mountainous regions of modern-day Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. This in a nation whose population expanded from only 250,000 in 1700 to 2.5 million in 1775. They quickly spread westward and southward. As Webb puts it, "the sheer numbers and cultural power of the Scots-Irish would shape and define the mores of America's rural heartland, particularly in the South."

In America, the east-coast establishment looked down on them. They were told they could practice their religion provided they kept to the mountains. Nonconformity and mistrust of central power was now in their blood.

These people's military prowess proved vital as America expanded westward. They not only made great soldiers, but their families also became part of the warrior culture. They expected to fight, and every man was automatically a member of a local militia that protected settlements against constant raids by Indian tribes. Webb also documents that Southern whites of largely Scots-Irish descent contributed to the Southern military tradition seen in the many military bases that dot this region, and in the South's strong contribution to the military officers corps.

These skills helped achieve victory during the Revolutionary War, when the Scots-Irish comprised more than one-third of the rebel soldiers. A Hessian soldier in the British Army noted that the American Revolution "is nothing more or less than a Scotch Irish Presbyterian [fundamentalist] rebellion."

Although there was little in the way of law and order in the Appalachian Mountain settlements, two institutions held these pioneers together: The democratic organization of their church, and the military hierarchy that formed the basis of their local militias. These led, respectively, to our Constitution's First Amendment (freedom of religion) and Second Amendment (right to bear arms).

There was little support for intellectual development. There was not much in the way of schools and book learning, their only text being the Christian Bible.

The borderer culture influenced not only the Scots-Irish descendants themselves but also every later immigrant group: Irish, German, Italian, Mexican, etc. As Webb sees it, this culture shaped the attitudes of working-class America.

Did this culture contribute to the rise of the Tea Party? Donald Trump's popularity? The riot at the U.S. Capitol? Being a wary college professor, I will leave these touchy questions as exercises for the reader.


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