Review: Jim Webb’s Born Fighting, How the Scots-Irish Shaped America

A Hammock Publishing editor who reads this blog may kick me for posting the following on the rexblog before it gets published in the magazine she edits (I can say without any hesitation, this weblog and the magazine where it will appear have little cross-readership). However, because the blogosphere has lit up today with talk of U.S. Senator Jim Webb and his response to last night’s State of the Union Addrress, I thought I’d share the following review I wrote a month or so ago of his book, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. By the way, I highly recommend the book to anyone wishing to understand the redneck, Jacksonian heritage I share with Senator Webb.

The review (in an unedited version from my files):

First published in 2004, the national best-selling Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America took decades of research to complete, according to author James H. (Jim) Webb. It’s worth noting that during those decades, Webb did plenty besides researching the book, including service as one of the most highly-decorated Marine officers in the Viet Nam War, earning a law degree from Georgetown, serving stints as Assistant Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Navy, authoring six best-selling novels and producing a blockbuster movie. With the success of Born Fighting under his belt, what has the author been up to lately? Making some history of his own: Last November, in an election so close it took days to officially call, Webb was elected to represent Virginia in the U.S. Senate.

As “historian” is rarely on the résumé of newly elected U.S. Senators, it’s worth looking anew at Born Fighting. Webb’s book is a thorough exploration and explanation of the impact on the development of the U.S. of several 18th century waves of immigrants from the Ulster “plantation” of Ireland, a region heavily populated by lowland Scots who migrated there during the 17th century. Despite its big scope, Webb’s skills as a novelist provide him the story-telling talent to weave together a fluid narrative from a frayed and fragmented set of historical threads. As with any book involving Scottish history, Webb is challenged by the need to pull together many twists and turns and ever-changing characters dating back centuries. Before following this band of hearty souls to the New World, the reader must grasp the nuanced conflicts among Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation, the lines of competing claimants to the English and Scottish thrones, the cultural gap between lowland and highland Scots and the different paths of Protestantism of the Calvinist-Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Anglican Church of England.

Webb’s solution is to use a broad brush in painting the big picture of Scottish history and a delicate fine brush in tracing the story of Scots-Irish immigration to the New World. Born Fighting is at times an intimate family history in which he explores his own Scots-Irish roots (he uses the “ethnically proper” term Scots-Irish, but notes how others, including certain groups of immigrants, have used the term Scotch-Irish). On another level, it is a sweeping look at the entirety of U.S. history as re-examined through the prism of a segment of the population who Webb argues effectively have been misunderstood, mischaracterized, often maligned – and greatly underappreciated.

One reason for the lack of appreciation: Most modern-day Americans who can trace their lineage to the Ulster Scots (and others who could, but have no knowledge of their ancestry) don’t think of themselves in terms of any ethnicity but American. Also, rather than a self-proclaimed definition or national origin, throughout much of past century, the term “Scots-Irish” has been one of derision. Used with contempt in the manner of the words “redneck” and “cracker,” the designation of “Scots-Irish” was intended to ridicule those who settled throughout the pioneering regions of the 18th century, notably Appalachia. Yet just as Jeff Foxworthy has turned “redneck” into a term of endearment and a valuable business franchise, Webb has recast the term “Scots-Irish” into a designation worthy of Marine-styled pride.

Indeed, as the title of the book indicates, there were several factors and characteristics of colonial-era Scots-Irish immigrants that led them to be among the earliest Marines and other military defenders of the rebel cause in the American Revolution. One factor was religious, says Webb: “Although the trained minds of New England’s Puritan culture and Virginia’s Cavalier aristocracy had shaped the finer intellectual points of the argument for political disunion, the true passion for individual rights emanated from the radical individualism of the Presbyterians, and, increasingly, Baptist pulpits.”

Another factor dated back to historic clashes between lowland Scots and the English. Webb, quoting the English historian James Anthony Froude, says, “England had no fiercer enemies than the grandsons and great grandsons of the Presbyterians who had held Ulster again Tyrconne.”

Perhaps most significant to their contribution to the colonial cause was the special skill Scots-Irish immigrants had developed through generations of fighting homeland conflicts – the ability to “combine family homesteads with military expertise and to adapt to a battlefield on which they and their families actually lived,” explains Webb. “Many of them were indeed great soldiers, but unlike in most other scenarios, their family unit itself had become a part of a warrior culture as well.”

The Revolutionary War-era Scots-Irish immigrant “expected to fight” and every able-bodied man was automatically a member of the local militia, writes Webb. Such a spirit and tradition has survived throughout the nation’s history, he explains in both a broad and personal way. Such a legacy, the reader assumes, is what led its author to attend the Naval Academy and serve bravely in the U.S. Marines.

And perhaps it was such legacy — along with the wisdom that comes from spending decades researching ones family history – that led Webb, against the conventional “expert” opinions of most political pundits, to seek election to the U.S. Senate against a popular incumbent, and win.

[This review will appear in the March-April issue of American Spirit Magazine that I strongly encourage you to subscribe so its editor won’t be too mad at me. Also, the book link goes to an affiliate store of Amazon.com, all revenues from which (we’re up to about $10) go to charity.]

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