Kirkus Reviews QR Code


How the Scots-Irish Shaped America

by James Webb

Pub Date: Oct. 5th, 2004
ISBN: 0-7679-1688-3
Publisher: Broadway

Pugnacious, bibulous, restless, pious: the Scots-Irish have fueled stereotypes and filled the White House, to say nothing of the ranks of the military.

Though millions strong, writes Webb, these Scots-Irish backbone-of-America types “don’t go for group-identity politics any more than they like to join a union.” Instead, they live quietly independent lives marked by hard work and faith, punctuated by blasts of country music and shotguns. Chalk up one stereotype, that of the southern redneck, which has a lot of truth in it but needs complicating; as Webb sagely remarks, “In the American South it has always been said that one cannot shoot an arrow into the air without having it land on a soldier, a musician, or a writer.” Or an inventor, inasmuch as he reports the development in one Virginia country alone of the mechanical reaper and the sewing machine. Webb does a fine job of tracing the Scots-Irish—mostly Scottish Presbyterians first transplanted to Ulster, then to the American colonies—from antiquity to the American Revolution, when their cantankerousness and dislike for the English crown made them natural rebels. (Webb, a former assistant secretary of defense and Marine officer, likens them to Iraqi insurgents today, though he doesn’t press the point too hard.) He moves the narrative on to the Civil War, when the Scots-Irish comprised the bulk of the Confederate army, which Webb vigorously defends; and into modern history, with exemplars like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton to speak for the clans. (“It is even said that the patrician George W. Bush has a Kentucky-born, Scots-Irish ancestor,” Webb whispers.) His point that Scots-Irish people have a distinct culture in which they should take pride is not news to the people themselves, so some may wonder at Webb’s program when he urges, “My culture needs to rediscover itself, and in so doing to regain its power to shape the direction of America.”

But there’s plenty of good information and interpretation, amplifying David Hackett Fischer’s indispensable Albion’s Seed (1989) and Arthur Herman’s How the Scots Invented the Modern World (2001).