The Scots-Irish based Appalachian culture that thoroughly imbues at least a third of Americans is becoming a focus of interest ‘on the coasts’ as a result of Trump’s ascendency and, now, proof (the victory of Roy Moore in the Alabama Republican primary runoff) that his success is not his alone. Traditionally, most American intellectuals have approached this culture witheringly (see Richard Hofstater’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life or Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee’s Inherit the Wind). In my own 2013 book The Cult of Individualism, I try to be a bit more dispassionate. I am, after all, of Scots-Irish descent, parts of my family having come to the mountains from the Scottish lowlands through Ulster Plantation, and other parts coming out of the general mélange that joined that culture as it spearheaded the westward movement of the 19th century.
Today, without naming them, Thomas Edsall continues his attempt to understand these people in The New York Times, joining the growing chorus of confused coastal denizens trying to make sense of the resurgent power of, as Steve Bannon convinced Donald Trump they are, the supporters of Andrew Jackson. Edsall does this through a 2013 study by Peter Rentfrow and four other scholars for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, one I wish had been completed before I was writing my own book.
Looking at the map Edsall takes from the Rentfrow article, one that divides the country into sections based on surveys for “traditional values,” you can see that it conforms well with those states with the greatest Scots-Irish influence. The entire south, except for Texas and all of the middle of the country are included. Texas, with a separate tradition stemming from its Hispanic legacy and Utah (along with Idaho), where the Mormons (who had been expelled by, essentially, the Scots-Irish from their homes east of the Mississippi) stopped the spread of the culture further west. The California Gold Rush, a different type of migration, never allowed it to flourish there (witness the un-welcome it gave the Okies in the 1930s).
Rentfrow and his fellow scholars are psychologists, not cultural historians, so there would be no reason for them to delve into the causes of the differences they note. Nor does Edsall, though he does touch on that when coupling the seemingly odd friendliness of the people in their states with their authoritarian or, as Edsall quotes Marc Hetherington as describing it, “fixed worldview.”
For me, none of this is surprising. It fits with the model of the Scots-Irish culture as I see it and with the reasons for its growth—out of all proportion to the actual number of descendants in America of Scots-Irish immigrants—and endurance.
Shunned by the earlier English settlers when they started moving in numbers from Ulster Plantation in the 18th century, the Scots-Irish moved west to get away from them but came up against the Appalachian Mountains. Thousands of them turned southward through the Shenandoah Valley on what came to be known as the Great Wagon Road from Carlisle, Pennsylvania down to Salisbury, North Carolina (where some of my own ancestors settled), populating the foothills and setting the staging ground for the great movement west during the next century. Often, the first families over the mountains were from this culture, and they established many of the first towns.
A huge percentage of the people heading west, especially at first, were single men. The only single white women they saw tended to be daughters of Scots-Irish families. As long as these newcomers were willing to take on the customs of their new families, they were welcomed, as were the families that followed, no matter their background. They just had to fit themselves into the older local community. The Mormons, who were developing their own different and rigid culture, were not welcome—were often burning out and driven away. Jews, who tended to keep to themselves, to dress a little differently and to observe Sabbath on a different day, were not always tolerated either. Blacks were fine, as long as they stayed in their “place” (lynchings being one means of keeping them there). These Scots-Irish could be, obviously, quite nasty.
Outsiders had abused the Scots-Irish for centuries. The Scottish lowlands, one of the poorest places in Europe in the 16th century, had been trammeled by Scottish and English armies in periodic wars stretching back generations. Those who escaped to the promise of better lives in Ulster in the 17th century found their welcome not so warm. When their grandchildren fled to America in the 18th, they were pushed aside by the established colonists who wanted nothing to do with them. All of these outsiders had looked down on them—so they had learned to distrust anyone who did not enthusiastically join in with them. That, coupled with a strongly Calvinist religious base, created a hardy culture with a high regard for self-sufficiency and suspicion of anyone who wasn’t willing to adapt to their ways.
Once the Scots-Irish had found a place where they could set themselves up without being run over by others (including, by the way, absentee landlords and bankers—the situation is far more complex than my simple depiction here), they became both protective and welcoming. They are protective of their own prerogatives and welcoming of those willing to join them without pushing them aside, without establishing their own exclusive cultural structures. This is what led to the paradox Edsall notes, of a friendly yet potentially violent culture. They are, as Edsall says, “authoritarian voters with a sense of besieged white identity” but they will also give you the shirt off their back, should you need it and pose no threat to them.