Did We’uns Win After All?

by Fred Ray on April 30, 2008 · 1 comment

This article on “Southernism” by Michael Hirsch in Newsweak is getting a good bit of buzz on the web. He thinks the South won after all.

Hirsch decries

the “radical nationalism” that has so dominated the nation’s discourse since 9/11 traces its origins to the demographic makeup and mores of the South and much of the West and Southern Midwest–in other words, what we know today as Red State America. This region was heavily settled by Scots-Irish immigrants–the same ethnic mix King James I sent to Northern Ireland to clear out the native Celtic Catholics. After succeeding at that, they then settled the American Frontier, suffering Indian raids and fighting for their lives every step of the way. And the Southern frontiersmen never got over their hatred of the East Coast elites and a belief in the morality and nobility of defying them. Their champion was the Indian-fighter Andrew Jackson. The outcome was that a substantial portion of the new nation developed, over many generations, a rather savage, unsophisticated set of mores. Traditionally, it has been balanced by a more diplomatic, communitarian Yankee sensibility from the Northeast and upper Midwest. But that latter sensibility has been losing ground in population numbers–and cultural weight.

Overall Hirsch thinks we’uns down here are a pretty unrefined lot. There is some little truth to what he’s saying here, although I take it as a compliment because I don’t need a bunch of sissified Yankees telling me how to run my life. The story of the Scots-Irish, whose ethos continues to dominate the South (and to hear Hirsch, much of the rest of the country as well) is also a theme taken up in Senator James Webb’s book, Born Fighting. There is a good review of it here by Macubin T. Owens.

Some 95 percent of the Ulster Scots who immigrated to America ended up in the South, so that region and the Scots-Irish are irrevocably linked. And of course, the mythic event for the South, even more than for the rest of the country, is the Civil War and Reconstruction. Despite the fact that poor whites, especially the Scots-Irish, had no stake in the preservation of slavery, the planter class was successful in recruiting them for the war: they formed the core of the Confederate armies that struggled against the odds for four long and costly years. But the impact of the Scots-Irish did not stop here. They also provided the bulk of Union soldiers in the Western armies—Hoosiers, Buckeyes, and other “butternuts” who had immigrated to the southern tier of the Old Northwest from south of the Ohio River as well as making up most of the unionist groups of east Tennessee, Western Virginia and North Carolina, and Northern Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana that resisted central Confederate authority just as assiduously as they had federal.

Hirsch thinks Blue America ought to secede, but that’s not a new idea either. Secession is by no means a Southern phenomenon. New England nearly seceded over the War of 1812, refused to send troops, and openly discussed the matter at the Harford Convention in 1814. In the 1850s New England radicals like Thoreau and Emerson favored “disunion” because they thought New England too good to be associated with all those horrible rednecks. This lasted until they gained political ascendancy in 1860, after which they were all in favor of preserving the Union.

I’ve certainly seen big changes in the South during my lifetime. After the Late Unpleasantness the South entered a sort of political dream time, a reverie of past glories that never really were. No longer. It is now the country’s most dynamic, industrialized, and fastest growing region. Charlotte, NC, is now second only to New York as a banking center. While traveling through Alabama recently I saw broken ground for two huge automotive plants. My Honda van was made there – a far cry from the rural South of recent memory.

In many ways, however, the situation now is like the South of the 1840s and 1850s. According to professor quoted in Hirsch’s article, one person in four who lives in the South wasn’t born here. This also is not new — one of the facts I uncovered in my research was that in 1860 Mobile (then the South’s second largest city) over half the population was foreign born.

Historian Guy Hubbs did an excellent job of documenting this in his look at the Greensboro Guards (Guarding Greensboro: A Confederate Company in the Making of a Southern Community). Hubbs found the social situation quite fluid in the thirty years before the start of the war, with little sense of or commitment to community, with a large influx of immigrants from other parts of the country and abroad. All in all, it’s rather similar, for better or worse, to what we are seeing now.


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