The Scots-Irish and McCain
0 comment Monday, July 7, 2014 |
The Scots-Irish, that group of people which is popularly held to make up most of the population (or at least the old-stock, pre-invasion population) of the South, are in the news again, thanks to the recent overblown anti-South piece by Michael Hirsh from Newsweek.
Daniel Larison dissects the absurd Michael Hirsh piece here, which laments the supposed Southern domination of our culture, particularly our politics. Larison disagrees; read the whole article for his take.
He then obliquely discusses the candidacy of John McCain, who is partially of Scots or Scots-Irish descent:
No one can look at American politics today, seeing the main presidential candidates who are now running for the White House, and conclude that the South has triumphed in any meaningful way: we have two out-and-out Northerners and a transplant whose ancestors may be Scots-Irish but whose loyalties are to the central state and the status quo and who has immersed himself fully in the culture of the capital. The South has become the most populous region, and yet it still wields vastly less cultural power than the major urban centers of the East Coast and California. Hirsh is free to prefer the urban, Eastern liberals, but he should give up on the idea that the power and influence of Easterners are meaningfully in decline.''
I agree with his conclusions.
The ancestry of John McCain, however, is often brought up in internet discussions, with some people using his supposed Scots-Irish ancestry against him, for example, in claiming that his genes make him volatile and bellicose. Most of the people who discuss the Scots-Irish seem to be content to generalize about that group as being 'warlike', despite the fact that otherwise, many of the same people disclaim any belief that race or ethnicity affects behavior at all.
Are the 'Scots-Irish' or Ulster Scots, as they are sometimes known, are described thus:
The Scots-Irish settlers made superb frontiersmen in early Colonial America. Their experiences over the previous few centuries, first in the Scottish Borders and then fighting the Irish Catholics in the north of Ireland had created a race of hardy unyielding people who were ideally suited to clearing the forests to build farms and pushing the borders further and further west.
Their experience of religious discrimination in Ulster by their Episcopal English landlords meant the Scots-Irish had no hesitation in taking the side of the rebels in the War of Independence. In the words of Professor James G. Leyburn "They provided some of the best fighters in the American army. Indeed there were those who held the Scots-Irish responsible for the war itself".
No less a figure than George Washington once said "If defeated everywhere else I will make my last stand for liberty among the Scots-Irish of my native Virginia".
The Scots-Irish provided 25 Generals and about a third of the revolutionary army. The Pennsylvania Line was made up entirely of Ulster-Scots emigrants and their sons. The Battle of Kings Mountain was a Scots-Irish battle where a militia of mainly Scots-Irish Presbyterians defeated an English army twice its size.
President Theodore Roosevelt said of the Scots-Irish "in the Revolutionary war, the fiercest and most ardent Americans of all were the Presbyterian Irish settlers and their descendants"
However, according to the same web page,
"The Scots-Irish embraced America and gradually lost their distinct Scotch-Irish identity to be Americans period.''
I would agree with that last statement. During my growing-up years, I was aware that some of my paternal ancestry was Scots-Irish or Ulster Scots, and yet this was not something that was made much of. I knew nobody in our environs, among a lot of old-stock Southrons, whose identity was tied to their Scots ancestry; there were no hyphenated Americans there. They had no ties to the 'old country,' their ancestors having left there centuries ago. Unlike Irish-Americans of more recent immigrant stock they have little or no identification with the 'old country'. To my mind, it seems that this emphasis on Ulster Scots ancestry in the South is a fairly recent development, fostered in part by the general trend, after the 1970s or so, to look to old-country roots among many Americans. Irish-Americans became more Hibernocentric, and made trips to Ireland and incorporated more genuine Irish culture into their lives; similarly with other ethnic groups in America, with the exception of those with English or Scottish or Welsh origins. The latter groups tended to identify simply as American, and in the case of those in the South, as Southron (or Southern, if you insist).
There are no 'Scots-Irish' enclaves or organized activities on a large scale. Yes, some areas have 'Highland Games' and Burns Nights, but I think these are more recent developments. I don't remember them from my childhood years.
So is Scots-Irish ancestry truly as significant as the Dixie-phobes make it out to be? Can we blame Scots-Irish genes for the warrior culture or the culture of honor (which does exist) in the South? Can we blame McCain's hair-trigger temper and bellicosity on his supposed Scots-Irish origins? And by the way: a recent article on the candidates' genealogies which I linked to here claimed that Hillary Rodham Clinton is also Scots-Irish, as is Barack Hussein Obama. Are they, too, irascible and temperamental by virtue of that ancestry? Or does it count only among those with Scots surnames, like McCain?
And speaking of surnames, McCain is only ONE of the names in John McCain's family tree. A look at his genealogy as displayed here
shows, by my reckoning, that he has probably more English and a little Welsh ancestry than he has Scots ancestry. Surnames like Wright, Fletcher, Kidwell, Atkins, Young, Small, Dickens, Higgins, White, Young, Howard, Clements, outnumber the identifiably Scots names like McAllister or possibly Garside.
Granted, the Youngs and the Whites seem to have come here from County Antrim -- but their names suggest their ancestors were English colonists in Northern Ireland, probably settled there in the 1600s as a few of my ancestors were.
My family name is Celtic-sounding, although I have relatively few Scots ancestors, so obviously to consider McCain as Scots because he has a Scottish surname is rather careless.
I just don't see all the Scots ancestry there in McCain's family tree. It looks to me as though McCain has more Sassenach blood than Scots, but it seems nobody wants to claim their English ancestors; so dull and whitebread, you see. And so oppressive, those Anglo-Saxon males. How much better to claim to be a descendant of Braveheart or Robert the Bruce (the latter is claimed as an ancestor by McCain.)
But if we decide that a candidate's ancestry is fair game for examination in deciding whether or not to vote for him, let's examine everybody's, including Obama's. Or would that be 'racist'? Of course it would.
This blog has a rather heated discussion of McCain's ancestry, with various voices (including the genealogist who was quoted in the article the blogger is discussing) claiming various nonsensical things about genealogy in general. See for yourself.
There are several genealogical bugbears contained in that discussion. The first: a number of commenters claim to be descendants of crowned heads of Europe, including Charlemagne. Someone counterclaims, in response to these rather extravagant claims, that ''nobody can trace their ancestry back to medieval times.' If that's the case, the remaining royalty in the world should be deposed from their respective thrones. But of course it's not true; it is possible though rather difficult. In the past, many of the privileged classes kept meticulous records of their family lineage; everything hinged on that. So it's absurd to say that none of us can know our ancestry further than a few generations.
The opposite extreme is expressed by the genealogist, who repeats a popular bit of nonsense. He says ''we are all descendants of Robert the Bruce and Charlemagne.'' Really? Any proof for that? I think it's based on a mathematical calculation that, given random mating among all members of a population, we would all be descendants of, say, George Washington or William the Conqueror or whoever. This presumes that people do mate randomly, ignoring the fact that in the past, particularly, social classes divided people considerably, not to mention geography and the relative difficulty of travel in past eras, as well as factors like religion and race being barriers to intermarriage or casual mating.
The idea that genes of past generations are all randomly, evenly distributed among all living people of today is just silly. People do not mate and reproduce randomly and genes are not distributed evenly.
If it's true that none of us can know who we are descended from, then there's no need for genealogical research at all. If it's true that 'we're all descended from Robert the Bruce' and that ''we are all connected'' as the genealogist claims, then there's also no point to genealogical study.
In the meantime, though, absent any proof of either of these wild assertions, I will continue to believe, based on the evidence of my eyes and my common sense and my life experience, that there are differing groups of people, and that our behavior is somewhat related to our genetics.
But I have a problem with not only the South being made the perpetual whipping boy, but now it seems this newly-discovered 'Scots-Irish' population of the South.
I've said before: look in the phone directory of most cities or towns in the South (before the current invasion) and you would see a preponderance of English surnames. The Scottish surnames in certain areas might be more numerous; I don't have as much knowledge of Appalachia, the supposed stronghold of the Scots-Irish people, but in the rest of the South, English and Welsh surnames combined far outnumber the Scottish names. Yet there is this popular notion that the old-stock Southron people are homogeneously 'Celtic' or Scots-Irish. I would like to see some documentation of this, and I don't think any is forthcoming. After centuries, I think most old-stock people in the South are a mix of Anglo-Saxon with Scots and Welsh and a dash of French (via the Huguenots in some areas) and a little German.
It's claimed that the culture of the South is Celtic but this is based on what? The writings of Flannery O'Connor, who was rather an anomalous Irish Catholic writer from the South? Or possibly the fictional O'Hara family in Gone With the Wind? It's fiction, people.
The usual argument is that the South is a 'vibrant' culture, expressive and high-spirited, and well, everybody knows that Anglo-Saxons are cold, impassive, phlegmatic people.
I would dispute that; I've had enough English friends (I won't say British, because British is a catch-all term these days) to know that they can be expressive, good-humored, jocular, fun-loving, and occasionally 'vibrant.' I think the contention that the South cannot be of Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Norman character is based, simply, on a stereotype of the cool, reserved English. Not all English people fit that description.
So is McCain one of these warrior Scots-Irish we are hearing so much about these days? I think those who hate the South and all it stands for would like to make him so, because they have decided that the South has a 'warlike' Scots-Irish character, which they dislike.
I don't consider McCain a real son of the South, regardless of whether he has much Scots descent or whether he is of mostly English descent. He has condemned the Confederate flag and by extension the Confederate cause for which some of his ancestors fought.
At one point during the 2000 race, McCain called the flag a ''symbol of racism and slavery,'' but the next day described the flag as a ''symbol of heritage."
How can a feisty Celt be wishy-washy, I wonder?
So on the flag issue at least, he has renounced his Southron citizenship and his connection to the people of the South. Sorry, the North is stuck with McCain.

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