Culture is amorphous; it isn’t immutable. Somehow, the borderland descendants accepted the polio vaccine in the 1950s. Somehow, the Puritan state of Massachusetts opposed Prohibition — led by a generation of Irish Catholic politicians (but banned “Happy Hour” during a spate of drunk-driving accidents in 1983). Fischer writes of the Scots-Irish: The people of the Southern hill country region “were intensely resistant to change and suspicious of ‘foreigners.’ … In the early 20th century, they would become intensely negrophobic and antisemitic.”
But how does one prove such an assertion? The only way is through the meticulous accumulation of detail. Over nearly a thousand pages, Fischer describes 22 different patterns of behavior or “folkways” for each of the four cultures — from dress and cooking, to marriage and child-rearing, to governance and criminal justice. These culminate in four distinctive definitions of liberty. Freedom, he writes, “has never been a single idea, but a set of different and even contrary traditions in creative tension with each other.”
Here is the nub of the book: The Puritan, Cavalier, Quaker and Scots-Irish notions of liberty were radically different, but each provided an essential strain of the American idea. The Puritans practiced an “ordered freedom” with the state parceling out liberties: Fishing licenses allowed the freedom to fish. This was a concept that would seem laughable in the Southern hill country — and would predict our current struggle over gun control. Puritan order also predicted two of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms: The state provided “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” — that is, freedom maintained by government regulation.
The Scots-Irish were the opposite: Their sense of “natural freedom” was deeply libertarian. You moved to the backcountry so that you could do what you wanted — within, of course, the ethos of the border culture. “Natural liberty was not a reciprocal idea. It did not recognize the right of dissent or disagreement,” Fischer writes. Scots-Irish leaders were charismatic — Andrew Jackson was the paragon — and their religion was evangelical, “illiterate emotionalism,” an aristocratic governor of South Carolina sniffed. Honor was valor, a physical trait (among the Puritans and Quakers, honor was spiritual). The American military tradition, and a disproportionate number of its soldiers, emerged from the descendants of Scots-Irish warriors in the Appalachian highlands.
The Virginia definition of freedom was complex, contradictory — and remains problematic. It was hierarchical, the freedom to be unequal. “I am an aristocrat,” John Randolph of Roanoke said. “I love liberty; I hate equality.” Freedom was defined by what it wasn’t. It wasn’t slavery. It was the freedom to enslave. It was a freedom, granted to the plantation masters, to indulge themselves, gamble and debauch. “How is it,” Fischer quotes Samuel Johnson, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” And yet, it was Virginia aristocrats, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who concocted our founding documents. Over time, this plutocratic libertarianism found natural allies, if strange bedfellows, in the fiercely egalitarian Scots-Irish hill country folk. Neither wanted to be “ruled” by a strong central government. Look at the Covid maps: The regional alliance remains to this day.
This content was originally published here.