on September 9, 2005
Born Fighting by James Webb is the history of the Scots-Irish over the last 2000 years. A few highlights:
1. Scotland was effectively created by the Roman Empire when Hadrian's Wall was built across Britain at the approximate location of the current border between England and Scotland. Rome controlled Britain south of the wall and the native Celtic tribes controlled the north. (Rome also effectively created the modern boundary between France and Germany when Caesar conquered Gaul but stopped at the Rhine.)
2. After the Norman Conquest, English kings attempted repeatedly to subdue the Scots and extend their rule to all of Britain. The victories of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce maintained Scottish independence through the rein of Elizabeth I. Upon her death, the throne passed to James I of the House of Stuart who already ruled Scotland as James VI. One could almost say that Scotland thereby absorbed England, but the relative population sizes of the two countries gave England the upper hand almost from the beginning.
3. In the meantime, the Protestant Reformation had been underway in northern Europe, leaving Scotland strongly protestant (Presbyterian), England more mildly protestant (Anglican), and Ireland still Roman Catholic. To bring Ireland into the protestant fold and increase its loyalty to the British Crown, James I established the Ulster Plantation and encouraged protestant Scots to settle in Ulster starting in about 1610. These settlers from Scotland to Ireland became the Scots-Irish (or Scotch-Irish).
4. In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the English Parliament deposed King James II principally because he attempted to reestablish a Catholic monarchy. The deposed king, with French (Catholic) aid landed in Ireland, rallied the Catholic Irish in southern Ireland and attacked the protestant settlers in Ulster. James was again defeated and exiled to France.
5. Meanwhile, various Test Acts had been enacted by the English Parliament and Crown that established the Anglican Church as the official Church of England and excluded non-Anglican Protestants, primarily Presbyterians and Puritans, from public office. A particularly harsh version was enacted in 1703 and led to the heavy migration of Scots-Irish from Ulster to America throughout the 1700s. They settled primarily in the Appalachian highlands, starting in Pennsylvania and migrating southwest to Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee and beyond. In numbers, the Scots-Irish far exceed the other groups of British settlers described in David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed: the New England Puritans from East Anglia, the Virginia Cavaliers from the south and West of England, and the Pennsylvania Quakers from the Midlands.
6. The Scots-Irish were characterized by poverty, family ties that extended both linearly across generations and collaterally to many degrees of cousins, strongly protestant beliefs, independence, distrust of governments in general, and a readiness to fight both individually as part of a local militia. Although the Scots-Irish Presbyterians shared a faith based on Calvinism with the Puritans of East Anglia and New England, there appears to have been little love lost between these groups.
7. The Scots-Irish provided the bulk of the Confederate Army although few held any slaves. During the decades following the Civil War, their poverty was worse than before the war, reaching a nadir during the Great Depression of the 1930s. This poverty prompted another mass migration to other parts of America which was accelerated by the mobilization for World War II. As a consequence, the Scots-Irish have been distributed through most of America, except perhaps New England. Their numbers and characteristics, especially their willingness to accept and absorb spouses from other ethnic groups into their extended families, have made the Scots-Irish folkways a key part of the American character.
So, is this a recommendation of Born Fighting to others? Yes, but a conditional recommendation. First, one should read David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed (see my review) which describes and contrasts the four British groups, including the Scots-Irish, that settled America. Fischer's book is better written, broader in scope, more objective, and based on real scholarship. In contrast, Born Fighting is repetitive, focused on one ethnic group alone (making conflicts with others harder to understand), strongly Scots-Irish partisan rather than objective, and draws much of its best material from other modern authors, including extensive quotes from Fischer's book and Churchill's Birth of Britain. Still, Born Fighting was worth reading and gave me new insights, especially on the history of the Scots-Irish before their migration to America. For the record, my heritage is largely Scots-Irish.
Here are two additional suggestions. (1) David Hackett Fischer's Bound Away (see my review) which describes the migrations of Scots-Irish and others to, within and from Virginia. This book repeats some of the content of Albion's Seed but also presents new material on the migrations within and from Virginia. (2) Kevin Phillips' The Cousins' Wars which traces the recurring conflicts between the Puritans of East Anglia and New England and the Anglican Aristocracy of South and West England and the American coastal south through the English Civil War, American Revolution, and American Civil War. This book also draws heavily on Albion's Seed but adds much detail on the three wars that are its central focus. However, it appears to have a mild bias to the Puritan side.
on January 31, 2005
I had to log on and write a review of James Webb's brilliant and wonderful book " Born Fighting : How the Scots-Irish Shaped America." I bought the book in November, and after skimming through it and reading the first two chapters, I immediately ordered a copy for my father as a Christmas present. After finishing it, he told me it was the greatest present he had ever received, and that many of Webb's passages brought tears to his eyes. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in American History, and for those millions of Scots-Irish Americans unaware of their heritage this is a must-read.
In "Born Fighting" author James Webb chronicles the millennial struggle of the Scots-Irish people from fighting to preserve their independence against the Romans and the English, through their migration to Ireland, then to the hardscrabble Appalachian frontier and beyond. Webb describes how the values of these fiercely independent, determined and impoverished people pervaded the society and culture of America, and how their influence is reflected in such diverse institutions as NASCAR auto racing, country music, the evangelical movement, the U.S. Armed Forces, and American Democracy itself.
Weaving distant history with personal family history, Webb details the struggle of these proud, impoverished people through their oppression by and resistance to the Romans, the English, the Irish Catholics, the Anglo-American pseudo-aristocracy of the Colonies, and the latter's successors, the so-called "Eastern Establishment." Through it all, the Scots-Irish survive oppression, scorn, war and poverty by drawing on their bottom-up, rather than top down social and political structure, and their collective fighting spirit to triumph. Webb's wonderful personal stories of his own family history cannot help but resonate with those Scots-Irish of today with similar backgrounds and experiences. It certainly did with me.
Until I read this book, like many of the millions of Americans of Scots-Irish descent, I never knew I had an ethnic heritage. I am now glad to know that not only do I have one, it is a proud one and storied one. I owe a debt of gratitude to Webb for imparting this to me through this magnificent book.
My father used to tell us as children that we were "Scotch-Irish." I didn't know what that meant at all until I took European History in high school. As an adult, I did some genealogical research on my family, gleaning what seemed to me to be loosely connected facts from church and census records. "Born Fighting" was invaluable in providing some context to what little I was able to learn.
Along with my aunt, I traced my family history to the mid-1700s in western Virginia, through my Great-Great Grandfather who enlisted in the Confederate Army in Charlottesville, VA on the day after First Manassas. He served in the 57th Virginia Infantry, part of Gen. Pickett's division at Gettysburg that was virtually wiped out on the third and decisive day of that bloody battle. My aunt found a picture of him at the Gettysburg Battlefield Visitors Center in his uniform, of which I have a copy.
My father, the son of a five-and-ten-cent store manager in the Depression-era South became the first of our Scots-Irish family to graduate high school. If that wasn't enough his high school grades got him into an Ivy League school, borrowing, washing dishes, waiting tables, and tending bar to pay his tuition and earn his degree. His sacrifice and hard work smoothed the road for his four children, two of whom are lawyers, one an economist, and the other a mathematics teacher. After reading this book, my father told me he had always been ashamed of his modest "white trash" or "redneck" background, but having read this book he could finally be proud of who he is and where he came from.
I have a 4 year old son and I am going to give him a copy of this wonderful account of our ancestors as soon as he is old enough to appreciate it. I want him to know what I now know about the hardships and difficulties of our ancestors and how they got us to where we are now. Their story has made me appreciate how far we have come.
To Mr. Webb, I say thank you for telling the story of our colorful and prominent ethnic heritage, and the role our forebears played in the evolution of our great republic.
on October 16, 2004
As my above moniker indicates, I teach school in Appalachia. I am also Scotch-Irish. Or, as the author of this book and other people say, "Scots-Irish." My ancestors settled in the Southern Highlands of Appalachia in the 1700s. This is where I was born and reared. I attended a university in the Northeast and then returned to Appalachia to teach, and here I will remain. The people about whom James Webb writes are "my people." I can relate to them and I love them deeply.
Webb refers to Scots-Irish as one of the most powerful cultural forces shaping America, producing great Presidents, soldiers, inventors, actors, and writers. He goes on to say that they have "remained invisible." I understand what he means with the word "invisible," but Scots-Irish are far from invisible in the legacy they have left for others to emulate.
Carl Mays, in his PEOPLE OF PASSION book, writes about the early Scots-Irish of the Southern Highlands as "...good-hearted people with faith in God, nature, themselves, and their neighbors." In this book, which makes a good parallel companion and somewhat of a contrast with Webb's book, Mays goes on to share 48 stories that cover the years from 1765-1965 that "demonstrate the principles, the spirit, and the character of the people upon which our nation has been built."
Unlike Webb's book, PEOPLE OF PASSION gives more credit to the Scots-Irish for working together and with others to help establish a backbone in the Southern Highlands. Mays also presents the stories of women who were extremely important to the individual families, communities, and region. I fault Webb for lacking in these two areas.
I also fault Webb for his over-emphasis on the "Fighting Scots-Irish," but, of course, this does reflect the name of the book. In the early days of our country, everyone had to "fight," so to speak. But Scots-Irish helped forge our country with much more than guns and knives. For example, as Mays writes in PEOPLE OF PASSION, John Ross, who was 7/8 Scots-Irish, 1/8 Cherokee, a graduate of private schools and college, was the main Cherokee chief for almost 40 years. His life shoots down Webb's assertion that Scots-Irish have been uneducated and imperialistic.
Is Webb's book worth reading and should it be recommended to others? Yes it should. For anyone interested in Scots-Irish or in the shaping of America, this book contains some valuable material. But it should be read with other books that cover the same subject. These books would include James Leyburn's SCOTCH-IRISH: A SOCIAL HISTORY; Nora Chadwick's THE CELTS, and THE DRUIDS; Bill Kennedy's FAITH AND FREEDOM: THE SCOTS-IRISH IN AMERICA.
on April 4, 2005
I am a Scots Irish who lives in the UK.I found this to be a splendid book,but probably for reasons which differ from those of Scots Irish Americans.
The Scots history part is probably broadly correct in its general conclusions,but is mistaken in a lot of detail,and needs some sub-editing.Braveheart was a minor detail compared with the relentless harrying of Scotland by England over 400 years,harrying which left it the poorest country in Europe.The Ochil hills are not in Ayrshire.And so on.
The Irish history is fascinating,however,and is excellent,although more social history would have been welcome.
For me,the book excelled in its American chapters,although American readers may find some of his conclusions irritating,and he glosses over some acts of wickedness. What it explained to me was,why the U.S.A. re-elected Bush,and just why so many Americans found his Boston rival unacceptable.As a primer of modern American politics,it is superb.
on January 5, 2005
That pretty much sums up the combative attitude of the Scotch-Irish, the people chronicled in James Webb's latest book, Born Fighting. Mr. Webb retells the history of this fiercely independent and combative people from their earliest conflicts with Rome at Hadrian's Wall through their blood soaked settlement of America's backcountry right up to the present day. In retelling the story of the Scotch-Irish Mr. Webb provides a unique insight into what some have called America's warrior subculture. These are the people who fill the ranks of our military and fight our wars. They have provided this country with its finest pioneers and fighting men, men like Stonewall Jackson, Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, Davy Crocket, Daniel Boon and Jim Bowie just to name a few.
Nevertheless, the Scotch-Irish have contributed more to this country than just martial prowess. As Mr. Webb points out:
"This people gave our country great things, including its most definitive culture. Its bloodlines have flowed in the veins of at least a dozen presidents, and in many of our greatest soldiers. It created and still perpetuates the most distinctly American form of music. It is imbued with a unique and unforgiving code of personal honor, less ritualized but every bit as powerful as the samurai code. Its legacy is broad, in many ways defining the attitudes and values of the military, of working class America, and even of the particularly populist form of American democracy itself. And yet its story has been lost under the weight of more recent immigrations, revisionist historians, and common ignorance."
The ignorance that Mr. Webb refers to explains why the story of the Scotch-Irish has previously been overlooked. However, this ignorance is also due to one of the most pronounced traits of the Scotch-Irish, their individualism. According to Mr. Webb:
"In their insistent individualism they are not likely to put an ethnic label on themselves when they debate social issues. Some of them don't even know their ethnic label, and some who do don't particularly care. They don't go for group identity politics any more than they like to join a union. Two hundred years ago the mountains built a fierce and uncomplaining people. To them, joining a group and putting themselves at the mercy of someone else's collective judgment makes about as much sense as letting the government take their guns. And no body is going to get their guns."
This individualism is particularly pronounced in the area of religion. Mr. Webb states, "Their religion was a harsh and demanding Calvinism that sowed the seeds of America's Bible Belt, its on-your-feet independence instead of on-your-knees rituality offending English Anglicans and Irish Catholics alike."
Aside from simply providing a well written account of the history of the Scotch-Irish, James Webb has given us a fascinating cultural analysis of a demographic that has more influence in this country's culture and politics than is popularly recognized. In fact, in the December 27th edition of National Review Mackubin Thomas Owens stated in his review of Born Fighting that Webb "may have written the most important political book of 2004." After reading this book I would unreservedly agree and enthusiastically recommend it to all.
Regarding the gentleman below who accuses Mr. Webb of claiming that "pure Scotch-Irish fighters are lurking in them hills today," I would submit that he has not read this book, or if he did he did not do so closely. Mr. Webb devotes a significant portion of his book discussing the assimilative nature of the Scotch-Irish. In fact he states that the willingness of the Scotch-Irish to intermarry with others of different nationalities and backgrounds is one of their distinguishing cultural features.
on March 27, 2007
If James Webb's "Born Fighting" gets the reception it deserves, it will go a long way in exposing the first and apparently last socially acceptable prejudice in America: that against the working class southerner. Webb's book explodes the stereotypes attached to this people, demonstrating a depth of cultural character running much deeper than the traditional portrayals of them as stubbornly ignorant, lazy, beer guzzlers living in trailer parks.
Webb recounts the fascinating history of the Scots-Irish, beginning with the Scottish resistance to the Roman Empire itself, moving on to William Wallace and Robert the Bruce and the Scottish was for independence from the new Rome of England. He gives us the high drama of the creation of the distinctively Scots-Irish character when the English crown settled the first Scots in Ireland. With the Scots-Irish as their vanguard, the English were able to hold Ireland against other European powers (and, unfortunately, against the Irish themselves). England thanked the Scots-Irish by outlawing their Presbyterian religion in much the same way they had done the Catholicism of the Irish several years before. And so the Scots-Irish packed their bags and headed to America.
We should gain a newfound respect for these people from Webb's recouting of how they opened the American frontier, acting as a collective picket line against Indian attacks on the more settled English colonists in the coastal areas, and the important and unexpected roles they played in the southern Revolutionary War in the battles of King's Mountain and Cowpens.
Unfortunately, after the Revolutionary War, Webb's book loses a bit of its steam. Much of the drama and portraits of singular individuals we get in the earlier chapters gives way to talk of general social trends. Webb is still informative. Without for a moment excusing slavery or prejudice, Webb gives us an unexpected and perhaps uncomfortable view of just what problems the south had with the north, and how the southern working class was systematically oppressed by southern large land owners and northern merchants and industrial barons. Webb gives us surprising statistics on how much of our armed forces in the World Wars and Viet Nam were supplied by the Scots-Irish. And he reminds us that the closest thing we have to a national muscial genre -- country western -- is basically Scots-Irish music. Neverthess, the most interesting parts of "How the Scots-Irish Shaped America" end with America only on the verge of becoming a nation.
There are a few other problems too. While the old line WASP establishment and the new PC media establishment have both unjustifiably despised the Scots-Irish, Webb celebrates aspects of their character that have made them their own worst enemies time and again -- their "sensuality", their constant competitiveness in all athletics and all things physical, their hard drinking. The fact is that that sensuality has broken many hearts and busted many lives, the athleticism has led to alot of children to waste time and energy they could have spent on bettering their situation in life, and the drinking ... well, that speaks for itself. Also, the later chapters are chock full of stories from Webb's own ancestry. Fascintating characters in their own right to be sure, but the number of these stories comes close to making the second half of the book more of a James Webb memoir and less of a work on how an entire people shaped an entire nation. And toward the end of the book, Webb gets on a bit of a political rant that, though I agree with in many points, makes this book sound like the first step in his campaign for the Virginia Senate seat.
So "Born Fighting" is probably seen better as a corrective to WASP and PC prejudice against the Scots-Irish than as the final word on who the Scots-Irish are and what they should be. And a corrective is certainly needed. After reading "Born Fighting", it occurred to me that no one, as far as I can tell, has ever written at length specifically on the Scots-Irish as a distinct people -- no one, either to champion them or to cast WASP/PC aspersions on them. And where the Scots-Irish have gained scholarly or media attention, it has often been from pseudointellectuals such as H.L. Mencken (at whom Webb directs a few broadsides) bent on showing them in the worst light possible. One manifestation of this prejudice is that "Born Fighting" is bound to -- indeed it actually has now been -- characterized as racist. Such accusations are utter nonsense. One of Webb's heroes, in fact, is his own grandfather who suffered tremendously under white southern landowners for alerting the African Americans of his community to the inequities they were suffering at the landowners' hands. But in the minds of many these days, being fair-minded just isn't enough to escape the racist epithet.
"Born Fighting" doesn't quite deserve to be the last word on America's Scots-Irish. But it seems to be close to the first word, and a well-spoken one at that, on a people who have perhaps shaped the American character more than any other.
on February 10, 2005
Of all the books I've read, James Webb's Born Fighting provides the most striking picture of what it's like to live in a Scots-Irish family, and see the the world through Scots-Irish eyes. My own ancestors came from Ulster in the mid-1800s, settling ultimately in southern Ontario and upstate New York. The fierce sense of right and wrong, the loyalty to country, the occasional hell-raising and love of "lubrication," and the conviction to never, Never, NEVER give in if you think you're right ... I saw them all around me as a child. Now I know why. As a former career military officer (RCAF) during the Cold War, I found Mr. Webb's description of his father's life and dedication on the mark, and particularly moving.
Leave it to others to write the dry histories, and wrap their tales in philosophical BS. If you want to understand the culture of the Scots-Irish, this book is the place to start. And the place where you'll grasp the spirit and the guts of the people who came across the Atlantic and made their mark in the New World. Thanks very much, Mr. Webb.
on March 22, 2005
This book presents an excellent history lesson for those otherwise unfamiliar with the history of the Scots-Irish. While Sec. Webb's personal accounts made the book very readable I was a little turned off by its self indulgence. As a historian and researcher I also found the lack of primary sources disappointing. However, as a former Marine of Scots-Irish heritage I found myself identifying with Sec. Webb again and again making the book a rarity in its genre, a real page turner. All in all I found the work to be a noble effort to bring the story of a noble people to the general readership.
on February 19, 2005
If you are one of the million's of Scots-Irish whose ancestors migrated to America during the 18th century this is a "must read". It's a well-written history of these people. It goes back to when the Roman's invaded Britan and were stopped from going beyond the Hadrian's Wall where the Scots would stand their ground, refusig to let the Roman's into Scotland.
It described for me the traits imbedded deep within m soul, and told me why I am the way I am.
It brings to life the journey my grandfather (five generations back) made with three brothers from the Ulster plantation of Ireland in 1774. The hardships the must have faced from the time they landed on the shores of Maryland and made their journey along the trails of the Appalachian Mountains to North Carolina just in time for service in the American Revolutinary War.
Let me say "Thank you" James Webb for taking the time and making the effort to write this book. You are a great author with a wonderful story to tell. Dixie Lackey, Strawberry, Arizona
on January 3, 2005
As a first generation immigrant to this country, this book should be required reading in all classrooms across America. Born Fighting reveals that revisionist history is being taught in schools today - among other things, that the Civil War was primarily about slavery, that affirmative action primarily benefits the descendants of American slaves, and that all whites in America are the same. The over-emphasis on political correctness today is the threat to the freedom that America represents, where America's history is vilified rather than remembered and honored, for both the good and the bad (primary example being the Confederate flag as a symbol of slavery rather than of those who justifiably and honorably fought for freedom). Born Fighting has made me appreciate more that the freedoms America provides are privileges rather than entitlements. We need to honor the Scots-Irish and others who fought to build this country and continue to fight for this country and yet are often overlooked when it comes to reaping the benefits accorded to newer immigrants, who generally don't appreciate fully the sacrifices of its past history. One need only look at the faces of the fallen soldiers in Iraq and where they came from to understand what James Webb is trying to tell us.