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Unsung Orphans

James Webb writes the book on America’s Scots-Irish.

By 11.7.04

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Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America
By James Webb
(Broadway Books, 343 pages, $25.95)

As the sun beats down on the smoky blue Appalachian mountains, a car navigates the winding back roads that branch off I-81 through hills and valleys and clumps of small homes proudly bearing American flags. Traveling to the site where his great-great-grandparents are buried, the driver reflects on his ancestors and their magnificent migration across the Atlantic.

He makes an impassioned vow to himself: he will memorialize the contributions of the Scots-Irish -- a fiercely self-reliant and loyal people that produced a culture which gave America at least a dozen presidents, some of her greatest soldiers, the values of working-class America and populist American democracy.

Thus begins James Webb's Born Fighting, an epic work of nonfiction characterized by a novelistic style that skillfully interweaves Webb's own family anecdotes with the rugged history of the Scots-Irish people. Webb, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former Secretary of the Navy, has authored six best-selling novels and his Rules of Engagement, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson, was a box-office hit of April 2000. Webb traces his own roots to the Appalachian Scots-Irish who arrived in America in the 1730s.

From Hadrian's Wall all the way to Kensett, Arkansas, Webb charts the journey of the Scots-Irish, an individualistic and rebellious people largely overlooked in contemporary American society -- strange since this society, Webb contends, is otherwise consumed with group-identity politics. As they have historically been lumped together with the Irish or the British, the Scots-Irish and their tremendous cultural contributions have been virtually ignored. Born Fighting is Webb's meticulously-researched effort to fill this vacuum and to restore to his people the recognition he believes they have been so long denied.

NEARLY TWO THOUSAND YEARS ago, on the southern, English side of Hadrian's Wall, a highly structured feudal system developed that fostered a political, orderly culture. The warrior-like, weapons-wielding Scots-Irish character began to take shape on the northern side of that very same wall. In the rugged wilderness of early Scotland, the rough geographic conditions and constant warfare produced tightly-knit tribes that were both loyal to their leaders, yet fiercely independent at the same time. Webb devotes a considerable portion of his history chronicling the struggles and triumphs of two famed Scottish warrior-leaders in particular, William Wallace (more commonly known as Braveheart) and Robert the Bruce. Though Wallace was eventually brutally executed by King Edward I, his death and martyrdom only helped elevate him in the eyes of his people as a symbol of their Scottish character. The first great populist leader, Braveheart "fought not for fame or reward, but in pursuit of his nation's honor," notes Webb.

Qualities such as the warrior-like nature and Celtic kinship bonds have survived the trans-Atlantic migrations to take firm root in American soil. The Scots-Irish devotion to military service is present in American history books, Webb points out. Though the American Scots-Irish are often criticized for their fondness for guns, though they are often called stubborn and scrappy "rednecks," Webb reminds us that he and his people have fought this country's wars in greater numbers than most other ethnic groups who have received disproportionately more respect.

American politics has been undeniably shaped by the Scots-Irish as well. After Queen Anne's government passed her Test Acts in 1703, which aimed to effectively quash the dominant Presbyterian culture in Ulster, the Ulster Scots were infused with a burning dissatisfaction that would cause them to seek real individual freedom in the colonies of America. After the waves of their first great migration, Webb writes, "The Ulster Scots had brought with them not only a desire for a better life, but also a determination to live life under their own rules."

Out of this somewhat radical concept of the individual's right to dissent and defy unjust government sprung the sapling of American populism, made most famous by Andrew Jackson's presidency. Jackson, orphaned at a young age in the Carolina mountains, exemplified the tough but humble warrior nature of the Scots-Irish by displaying tenacity on the battlefield as well as a political devotion to the common people over the aristocracy. "Old Hickory" is one of many American leaders whose roots trace back to Scots-Irish ancestry, a group that includes Chester Arthur, Ulysses S. Grant, and Ronald Reagan, among others. Such wholly American cultural institutions as country music and NASCAR racing are also attributable to the Scots-Irish culture.

THOUGH WEBB FILLS chapter after chapter with the political, social and military contributions of his people, embedded within his celebration is a scathing social commentary. Webb's seething words drip with anger in writing about the misunderstanding of the Scots-Irish -- a misunderstanding that has bred the distinct cultural and social disadvantage of his people. In the throes and aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, media bias and the cultural elite, Webb argues, have made the "Southern redneck" the "whipping boy" for the wrongs done to African Americans. Economically and educationally, Webb believes the Scots-Irish in America have been marginalized and largely deprived of the same opportunities in terms of income and education. "The fight over ending legal racial segregation," writes Webb, "ended up demonizing people who had shared the same social and economic dilemma as the blacks themselves."

Devotedly patriotic but intensely individualistic. Fervently religious but passionately militant. Utterly human but almost entirely invisible. The Scots-Irish are people of great contrasts in character, contrasts which Webb believes make them all the more colorful. Like his very subjects, Webb's book, too, is an exercise in contrasts. His remarkable aptitude as a storyteller infuses his historian's attention to detail with energetic life. His singing praise is juxtaposed with fiery criticism, his familial anecdotes with historical facts. Both a celebration and a social critique, James Webb's Born Fighting writes these "unsung orphans" of Scotland and Ireland into the great history of America.

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