Born Fighting

How the Scots-Irish tradition of the frontier citizen-soldier republics made America great

“Like all truly successful emigrants, these Anglo-Celts abandoned a world in Europe they at heart hated. They were Israelites leaving Egypt. They had already burned most of their bridges to the traditional culture behind them when they sailed for America, but they were bringing their own brand of civilization with them. They were bound for the Wilderness, on an Old Testament trek to build the new Jerusalem. All such peoples, throughout history, have been the most fitted to seize new ground, because peoples, like children, must first sever their umbilical cords before they can stand alone. Those who would rather remain in Egypt tend to make poor pioneers.” 
– T.R. Fehrenbach, Lone Star, a History of Texas and the Texans

From the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains to the California coastline, the Scots-Irishman rarely knows himself as such. Formed by war and hardship on the frontier, this people became something greater than the descendants of their Ulster forefathers through an ethnogenesis that left its mark not only on the Scots-Irish themselves, but on the United States as a whole.

Their story is as old as the nation. “Call this war by whatever name you may,” a Hessian Officer wrote home to his family during the War of Independence, “only call it not an American rebellion: it is nothing more or less than a Scotch Irish Presbyterian rebellion.” After the end of the war, the trans-Appalachian lands beyond the Cumberland Gap today making up the northern half of Middle Tennessee and Southern Kentucky were set aside as land grants for North Carolina and Virginia veterans and their families composed mainly of Scots-Irish. “In the rolling, wood, well-watered valleys of the Alleghenies and Appalachians,” writes T.R. Fehrenbach, “which are a single chain, the new borderers found a country admirably suited to their ethnic and mythology. Conditions everywhere were much the same. Every man started equal.” Their culture of resilience and self-reliance, shaped by the war against the British and conflicts with the natives seeped into the soil, and left an indelible trace. 

Perhaps no one better manifested the culture of what was then known as the Cumberland Colony than its de facto Pater Patriae, General Andrew Jackson. Warrior, land-speculator, lawyer, planter, politician and hero of the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson embodies many of the overlapping qualities which define the Scots-Irish Tennessean. I was born for the storm,” he said, “and a calm does not suit me.” His death-defying courage, both in duels and in battle, together with his loyalty to his people, made him a popular legend for generations, while his fierce independence and disdain for the corrupting influence of centralized wealth and power laid the foundations for Jacksonian tradition in American politics: the fulfillment of the Scots-Irish tradition. 

In 1941, the federal government established Camp Campbell, now Fort Campbell, straddling the line between Tennessee and Kentucky. Fort Campbell took its name from Tennessee Governor William Campbell, a member of one of the earliest Scot-Irish families in the Cumberland. William had been a general in the Mexican-American war, leading the “Bloody First” Tennessee Volunteers who earned their name and were immortalized forever when they lost a third of their compliment attacking the citadel of Monterrey. The new army base would become the home of the 101st Airborne, the “Screaming Eagles,” a division whose WWII exploits were dramatized in the HBO series Band of Brothers

Like their predecessors following the War of Independence, in the decades after WWII thousands of army veterans retired and settled in the counties surrounding the Fort Campbell, further reinforcing the region’s longstanding citizen-soldier ethos. One outcome has been the development of an inter-generational tradition of service, with sons and now daughters, following their parents into the army. The counties surrounding Fort Campbell consistently have among the highest army recruitment numbers in the country. 

If the American military is to overcome its current recruiting crisis, it will need to remember how to embrace the military culture in communities like the one surrounding Fort Campbell. And military recruitment is not the only way in which the Cumberland offers a positive model for American society. Racial dot maps of most American cities paint a clear picture of lingering racial segregation, with black, white and Hispanic families inhabiting their own enclaves. But in maps of Clarksville, Tennessee, the city right outside the gates of the base, a different pattern emerges. Clarksville is the most racially integrated city in the American South, as people from every racial group and religious confession live side-by-side thanks both to Army culture and the seedbed from which Army culture grew: the Scots-Irish. 

Diversity is one of the greatest problems facing America today. An increasingly diverse population finds itself internally divided and therefore unable to defend itself from threats both foreign and domestic. But men who fight together become united by a shared experience of hardship, danger, and triumph. Men who train together learn order, respect, and hierarchy. This was how the Scots-Irish on the early colonial borders were able to easily integrate settlers from England, Wales, Germany, Ireland and even further abroad to become a people who primarily know themselves as “American.” The process, although handicapped by political directives, corruption and careerism, is still alive, and can set to work again.

The Hatfield clan in 1897
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Science fiction author Robert Heinlein was born in Southern Missouri to a family with a tradition of military service stretching back to the American Revolution. Heinlein’s forebears were among those German settlers who had been integrated into the broader Scot-Irish culture of the Upland South and Lower Midwest. In 1924, at the age of sixteen, he lied about his age to join the Missouri National Guard. He would go on to attend the US Naval Academy and serve in the Navy as a Lieutenant before being medically discharged with tuberculosis. 

Heinlein’s most famous work is the cult classic Starship Troopers, a story set in a future Earth governed as a timocratic warrior republic. In the book, Heinlein lays out parts of his own political philosophy which echoes the Scots-Irish and military culture that formed him: 

Military training and service is a means to instill values, “Man has no moral instinct. He is not born with moral sense. You were not born with it, I was not – and a puppy has none. We acquire moral sense, when we do, through training, experience, and hard sweat of the mind.” Citizenship requires sublimation of the needs of the individual to the needs of the collective, “Citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part… and that the part should be humbly proud to sacrifice itself that the whole may live.” Those who should be allowed to exercise the force of the state against their fellow citizens should demonstrate their own willingness to sacrifice for and serve the whole of society, the nation, before being granted that power. 

In the universe of Starship Troopers, the reigning timocratic regime is installed by veterans who seized power after a third world war and established a republic whose constitution required successful completion of military service to vote. All other rights were reserved to non-voting citizens, but the right to vote and the right to wield the sword of state, were only granted to those willing to die for the nation.

Despite its futuristic setting, in Starship Troopers this ethos is easy enough to recognize in its historical setting. Jim Webb, himself a military veteran, brings it to life in his book Born Fighting, an ethnic history of the American Scots-Irish. “The Scots-Irish,” he writes, “are a culture that has always mistrusted – even hated – any form of aristocracy.” Or, as Fehrenbach puts it: “The Anglo-Celts had not crossed the sea to become servile tenants.” 

Unlike many ideas currently popular among the new online Right, from techno-monarchism to integralism, Heinleinism is not alien to the American tradition. It is a natural development of the Republican model which the militiamen and soldiers who won the Revolution and then settled the Cumberland inaugurated. And it reflects the ethos of the Founders – all of whom were willing to risk their lives to establish the United States as an independent republic. 

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Americans are not a people naturally drawn to autocracy. We wish to govern ourselves, if necessary, through exploration and conquest. After the Borderers crossed the Cumberland Gap into Tennessee and Kentucky, they headed South by Southwest into Texas. Perhaps no man better exemplifies that generation than Sam Houston, a protégé of Andrew Jackson, and general of the Texan Army, President of the Republic of Texas, and the only American to be governor of two states. 

The Republic of Texas was a model of the republic as venture – an opportunity for Americans to carve out a new territory for freedom and profit. Room to breathe and room to dream. But Texas was not the end. The pioneer breed of Americans continued to strike further and further West by Southwest, from Baja California all the way to Nicaragua.

The frontier was a crucible which tested and refined the young American republic and infused the Scots-Irish ethos into communities across the continent. Following the closing of the Western frontier at the end of the nineteenth century, America immediately started searching for new frontiers to conquer and, a century after the death of Sam Houston, finally found one in the form of outer space. 

Houston, Texas, was the natural choice to become home to NASA’s mission control. Of the twelve men who walked on the moon, ten were Americans of Scots-Irish or Scottish ancestry, and the first Christian communion service held in space was Presbyterian. Today, NASA is still largely based in the South, in Houston, Huntsville, and Cape Canaveral, and SpaceX is assembling rockets in Texas as well. Space remains perhaps the greatest potential frontier for Americans to revivify our spirit in the model of our ancestors. Perhaps the next Texas Republic will be on Mars.

Nietzsche famously called upon his readers to “become who we are.” America is a warrior republic, a nation driven to greatness by the desire for exploration and conquest. The Scots-Irish American tradition of the frontier citizen-soldier republics is at the heart of that which made our nation great. If Americans are to recover their historic spiritedness… if America is to rise above its current malaise and again stand tall and proud, towering above our enemies and detractors, we must reignite that spirit and seek out new frontiers. 

Roland Thomas Gunn is an American writer. He can be followed @RolandGunnTN.


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