Great Divide

The Scotch-Irish & the Great Divide

The two topics occupying most of my headspace these days are the history of my notorious grandfather and the high jinks of our new federal administration.

Gaston B. Means
Gaston B. Means

I am pondering the life and times of my grandfather Gaston B. Means because I have finally committed to telling his story from my point of view within his family. He career has been only too well documented, and under the Freedom of Information Act, there is even more material to work with. But as much as he loved publicity, he was always careful to keep his family out of the limelight. This is the material I’m privy to, and I’m the only one left to commit it to paper.

I’ve also been thinking about the new guys in Washington because, really, how could you not. But the daily cycle of tweets, executive orders, and alternative facts seems to me a mere sideshow to the main event, the fracturing of our country along the Great Divide.

On the one side are the denizens of either coast, the globalists, the kumbaya singers, the educated and the intellectuals, accompanied by the newcomers and minorities who expect to flourish on the crumbs from the progressive table. (This is the side on which I reside.)

On the other side are the “real” Americans from the Southland, the grain belt, the rust belt and the mountains whose mixture of Old Testament Christianity, rough-grained chauvinism, hoplophilia, and distrust of authority propelled Donald Trump into the White House.

This rancorous split in the American populous, the worst we’ve seen since 1865, deeply disturbs me. I would like to do my part to heal it. I’ve begun with listening, trying on the alternate point of view, stumbling along the proverbial mile in their shoes. I have also been reflecting on my experience of living for twenty-plus years in a small town in North Carolina.

One thing I know – it’s complicated.

The people I knew in Franklin County, North Carolina, were good people. They would go out of their way to help someone in need. They visited the sick and fed the hungry. They were kind to children and old folks. They were kind to me. But I would never have become one of them. My forebears had never plowed that land, I wasn’t from around there. My assumptions were not their assumptions, and at some basic level I was unknown.

My grandfather was from another small town in North Carolina, Concord in Cabarrus County. Through his paternal line he was descended from the Scotch-Irish who flooded into America in the early eighteenth century and poured down the Great Wagon Trail through Appalachia and the Shenandoah Valley into the Piedmont of the Carolinas and Georgia. When I heard Gaston and his brothers described as “meaner than hell” and “inclined to be quarrelsome,” I remembered R. D. W. Connor’s description of the Scotch-Irishman (Ulster Scot more accurately): “He was loyal to his own kith and kin, but stern and unrelenting with his enemies. He was brave and loved the stir of battle.”
The people we now call Scotch-Irish originated in the battle-torn border counties of Scotland and England where the crown’s law was weak and families turned to their kindred for protection and support. The men were fierce and ready warriors avidly recruited in time of war but forgotten in times of peace. It’s no surprise that they put little faith in the central government. (I am reminded of the battle cry of Terry Pratchett’s wee free men, the Nac Mac Feegles: “Nae king! Nae quin! Nae laird! Nae master! We willnae be fooled again!”)

Border ReiversCalvinistic Protestantism was instituted in Scotland in 1560. With its rejection of Anglican forms of worship and the emphasis on the local congregation as the organizing unit of the church, it found enthusiastic adherents in the Borders. In the first years of the 17th century, James VI, eager to rid himself of these troublesome subjects, opened the Ulster Plantations in northern Ireland, and some 16,000 Border Reivers were relocated, taking their Presbyterian faith with them.

Within a few generations, after years of fighting with their Catholic neighbors, after recu
rring droughts and increasing rents, many of the Ulster Scots set sail for the American colonies. Between 1717 and 1775, an estimated 200,000 Scotch-Irish migrated to the Americas, most entering through Philadelphia and New Castle, Delaware. Small groups of related families moved westward across the Alleghenies, and south into Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. There they settled, worshipped and intermarried, avoiding outsiders and begetting the over five million descendants identified by the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey in 2010.

I’m not sure how far the concept of “cultural DNA” can take us, but it’s clear to me that the social constructs of the Ulster Scots are alive and well among the voters who elected Donald Trump. The three pillars — the bonds of kinship, Protestantism, and a preference for fight over flight — somewhat modified by circumstance, still stand strong. I recognize these qualities in myself.

Where does that leave us? Is there a possibility of finding common ground, of building bridges, of healing the Great Divide? I’ll leave these questions for another post.

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