The Resilience on the Right

My grandfather once told me that I could be proud that no one in our family had been in jail or on the county. I’m not sure which he thought was worse, being locked up or accepting handouts, but they were both near the bottom of his list: they were individual failings, one’s own fault. Nothing could be worse. Well, one thing could be: they were both from the government.

His attitude carries back generations. Its beginnings can be found in the history of the borderlands between England and Scotland. It had arisen there even before British authorities tried to impose excise taxes (it took a generation for that to work) or had tricked many to cross the Irish Sea to Ulster Plantation. It had grown up long before among the people of those lowlands, one of Europe’s poorest areas where wars swept over every generation. Houses were built simply and cheaply—easy to rebuild; there was no idea of permanence. A person learned to rely on no one but family.

When they got to the colonies during the 18th century, the Scots-Irish Borderers found that they not only were not wanted but that no one was going to help them here, either. They headed to the backcountry, skirting the English settlements as they made their way across the ‘settled’ part of Pennsylvania and down the Great Wagon Road through the Shenandoah Valley. ‘Self-reliance’ was their watchword—but nobody would let them alone. Not the Native Americans whose lands they were appropriating. Definitely not the coastal ‘barons’ who held title, they would discover, to the acreages they had begun to clear.

Quitrents, taxes, mortgages, and unscrupulous traders from the coast burdened them. That land cleared and farmed could be land owned proved tom-foolery. So heavy were the burdens that many pulled up stakes and headed farther west. The pattern only ended when their Okie descendants reached the West Coast—and there was no place left to go.

Nowhere along the line had anyone helped them. The governments they’d experienced just wanted to aid the bankers exploiting them. They reacted either by refusing, by moving on, or by downright rebellion. On the eve of the American Revolution they had their own War of the Regulation in the Carolinas. Just after the Revolution, they were responsible for the Whiskey Rebellion. The new government of the United States, they were discovering, was no more interested in them than the British had been.

There were three things the dour Borderers expected to see from any government: tax collectors, jail, and charity. The first could be struggled against. Yet, the faster Borderers fled into the wilderness, the faster the “revenuers” followed. The second was a necessary evil. Sure, there were criminals who would never be behind bars, those East-Coast bankers and mortgage holders, but there needed to be a certain amount of keeping of the peace. The third, though, was the most pernicious, a means of keeping people down, of trapping them into dependency. Anyone who fell for it deserved what they got—and that certainly would not be respect.

The Borderers, unlike other Americans of British cultural descent, were not creatures of the Enlightenment. They were poor, uneducated, and had been continually exploited for generations. The idea of the Social Contract that guided so many coastal American settlements was foreign to them: the only ones you could rely on were your family and your friends. The motives of strangers, even idealistic-sounding ones, would, on examination, always prove mercenary.

Borderer experience, after three centuries in North America, continues to bear this out.
For the Borderers are still here. Their descendants are not just the Appalachians and their other physical grandchildren but form a major American culture that has drawn in people of many ethnicities. Today, they provide the home for the Tea Partiers and much of the force on the far right. Their attitudes, though often misunderstood by the spiritual descendants of the Enlightenment that make up the other major component of British-descended American culture, shape American politics and policies as much as their ancestors did, if not starting with Thomas Jefferson, certainly with Andrew Jackson, the first president who was one of their own.

The Borderers, whether we like it or not, are a part of “us.” Rather than seeing them as something that will go away as American demography changes, we need to recognize that they will continue to be a major force in shaping American society—just as they always have been.

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