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To Do The Work

Originally posted March 2006.  This issue has cost the Republican Party dearly, perhaps fatally.  Had conservatives realised the reality of what they were defending, they might have taken a different view.  Then again perhaps not…

It wasn’t so long after the first English settlers came to Jamestown, VA, that black slaves were forcibly brought from Africa to labour in the fields of the New World. That fact is a great tragedy of American history, but it seldom occurs to anyone to ask why it was so. The answer is both simple and obvious: “To do the work.”

Such a simple answer, however, overlooks the fact that the British Isles were full of people who could be brought over. In succeeding years, the British could and did bring people over against their will, either as indentured servants or prisoners. Many others were evicted through the enclosure system, and so came to find the land they had lost back home.

Now the English speaking peoples cannot be accused of having a general low self-esteem about themselves. It was they who overthrew “popery” and then made it stick with breaking the Armada. Surely such a race of people would be able to build a continent without the assistance of African help. Or anyone else’s for that matter.

Those who led the establishment of the Southern colonies, however, were successful men who set these up as business ventures either for themselves or on behalf of the Crown. They and their ancestors had good knowledge of the willingness of those they could bring over from Britain to do the work. Hence the early importation of Africans.

Eventually people realised that slavery was not good. But those who depended upon it decided to fight for their right to keep others in bondange. Unfortunately, in part because of their attitude towards the work, they had not built an industrial base large enough to sustain the “Lost Cause” in what turned into a modern war. As a result the North, with patently inferior military leadership, wiped them out. This is all too familiar to me: while one side of the family fought for the Confederacy, the other operated a foundry that kept Mr. Lincoln’s army in cannonballs.

Now we once again are treated to the spectacle of people coming to this county en masse to do the work, and others–both the desendants of those who came from Britain and those who have adopted their style of mind–are livid that they are here against the law and “taking jobs away.” But four centuries of North American experience tells us that their analysis goes against historical memory. Moreover these immigrants–mostly Hispanic–are receptive to the Gospel, certainly more so than those from the Magreb who are turning Europe into an extension of the Middle East.

At this point those who oppose illegal immigration–security considerations excluded–have two choices.

The first is to accept–and fairly regulate–the arrival of these people, who for the most part come to do the work. (We won’t delve into the problems of People’s Republics like California whose welfare systems make it attractive to come and not do the work. The welfare systems of most of the Old Confederacy is chintzy enough to cover that problem.)

The second is to do what we have not done these last four centuries–all of the work. If we are too old, we must inculate in our children the ethic to learn a trade or profession, arrive at the job at the appointed time and stick with the work until it is done. (That, by the way, is how the illegal immigrants won the support of the business community.) If we don’t like the idea of us or our children doing this kind of work, we need to push our schools to educate people in the basics so they can learn one or more job skills in a lifetime to keep ahead of our changing world.

This continent wasn’t a “closed door” proposition even when it took an ocean voyage in a sailboat to get here. It certainly isn’t now. We have to realistic choices. As always, it’s our move: we need to make it.


25 Replies to “To Do The Work”

  1. Wait, a sec. This post argues that successful, hardworking English businessmen imported Africans to America “to do the work” because the Scots-Irish were too lazy.

    But actually the English initially relied on a combination of Indian and white indentured labor. Only after the spread of malaria had decimated Indians and whites alike were slaves from West Africa with much higher genetic resistance to malaria (and yellow fever) were brought in. Slaves were more expensive to capture, transport, control, and train (they didn’t speak English) than Indians or indentured servants, but they weren’t wiped out wholesale by plagues. This is why the colony of Carolina was originally a net slave exporter (of Indians) at the beginning of the 16th century before becoming the nightmare African importer of _Amistad_. To this day, if you look at a US map of malaria carrying mosquitoes, you will see that it maps the borders of the old Confederacy almost to the county.

    Second, Scotland, a rocky land more conducive to herding than the more agrarian southern England, was in the 1700’s the land of the Scottish Enlightenment of Adam Smith, David Hume, and a growing merchant class. Its American scion ended up in Appalachia and were deeply suspicious of low land English-American aristocrats on large plantations in Tidewater, the Deep South, and French descended Louisiana. During the Civil War, Appalachia basically sided with the Union. That’s why West Virginia broke away from Virginia, and East Tennessee was invaded by the Confederacy.

    Slavery generally benefitted economic elites. To blame its creation or defense on lower class whites plays to those elite interests. And it misses the closer connections between the Scotch-Irish and the middle class Puritans who formed the Union and industrial north.

    I’m not sure about the comparison between modern Hispanics and early modern West African slaves, but I think it’s important to ask who benefits from cheap immigrant labor rather than blaming the middle class.


    1. 1) The importation of African slaves into the English colonies dates back to their beginning, i.e., Jamestown. While I wouldn’t discount Indian slavery (something my ancestors noted in their journeys to New Mexico) or indentured servitude, my comments re indentured servants (whose descendants I go to church with) are of a piece with the Scots-Irish. And the Indians didn’t speak English to start with, either.
      2) Many of the Scots-Irish ended up in Ulster (and ultimately here) because of the enclosures, which is why the Scots-Irish have always been so strong on property rights (something which they got enshrined in American law but is now eroding). To connect these with “high society” in Edinburgh is a stretch.
      3) I’m also aware of the heavy Scots-Irish present in Appalachia (I live there, for heaven’s sake) and of the strong support for the Union in Appalachia. But to limit their extent to Appalachia is a mistake. And I would point to the economic state of Appalachia as evidence of the industry of its inhabitants.
      4) The Scots-Irish came over here, among other reasons, to get away from the deferential, class-stratified society they found in the British Isles. But they didn’t make their escape very good, they worry too much about being a somebody. As a result the South still shows the strong influence of the Tory landholder society.
      5) The Scots-Irish and the Puritans are polar opposites in many ways, up to and including the parts of the British Isles they come from. And, until fairly recently, comparing the “middle class” in the South to its Northern counterpart was a non-starter, which explains why the South had such strong out-migration (both black and white) until after World War II and in some parts until the 1960’s.
      6) I really don’t think that “cheap immigrant labour” (as you put it) competes with the middle class, but with the working class. And I’m not really sure that the “cheap” part is the issue either, unless you include the effects of the legal status of the immigrants. I think we need to inculcate into our people the idea that, if you’re going to show up for a job, you need to do it. Same idea with education. That goes against what the Scots-Irish came over here for, as opposed to the inapplicable “Ellis Island Myth” you hear so often.

      Other more recent views of these tough people on this blog can be found here and here.


  2. These are interesting points, but I still don’t see an argument for linking sloth to Scotch-Irish culture, ethnicity, or race. Maybe, there’s an implicit argument here that equates poverty in Appalachia and English borderlands with sloth, but it’s not hard to imagine that those mountain regions like the Balkans, Alps, Himalayas, etc. are poor relative to coastal plains thanks to their isolation from water-based trading networks and dearth of good farmland.

    And do you think that Scots-Irish outside of Appalachia (3) are poor? I can’t find data on that claim directly, but Presbyterians are a good proxy, and they are the fifth richest denomination or religion in America with a higher average income in 2000 than Ellis-Island Catholics (6), the national average, and Baptists by $3k, $8k, and $27k per annum. The whole Max Weber Protestant work ethic thesis has been pretty strongly qualified by social science in the last few decades, but Presbyterians seem central to its argument.

    Historically, Scots-Irish outside of Appalachia played a key role in founding the American steel industry especially around Pittsburg, e.g. Andrew Mellon. And they spread out and intermarried with other racially indistinguishable British-Americans across the US from New York (Teddy Roosevelt) and New Jersey (Woodrow Wilson) to Ohio (Ulysses S. Grant) to Texas (Sam Houston) to the West (Bill Gates, John McCain, and Richard Nixon). That’s a pretty diverse list with wide-ranging politics unified by little more than hard-work, money, and power.

    Culturally, what was “the educational as well as religious capital of Scottish-Irish America” in the 1700’s? Princeton University. Founded by a Scottish Presbyterian Minister, the school was modeled on the University of Edinburgh, a center of the Scottish Enlightenment (2), and served as the home of the Continental Congress before Washington, D.C. became the capital. Again, not really a center for laziness.

    That said, I completely agree with you that hard work is important. But it seems to me that plenty of Scot-Irish Americans when presented with opportunity have proven themselves time and again.


    1. 1) Presbyterians are not a good proxy for the Scots-Irish. In Appachia proper and indeed throughout the South, Presbyterianism is a “Main Line” type of religion. Many of the Scots-Irish, in addition to having been ejected from their land in the old country, were religious dissenters, with little use for state church in either Scotland or England. (And by the “Scots-Irish” I should include those worthies from the Border Country between England and Scotland). Their preferred religion is Baptist, Wesleyan/Methodist or Pentecostal.
      2) The whole South is a good case against the “Protestant Work Ethic”. Why should the most Protestant (or least Catholic) region of the United States be its poorest? Or the least educated, since you brought up Princeton? These are questions that only Grady McWhiney’s thesis explains sensibly.
      3) Celts in general and Scots-Irish in particular are excellent polticians, with the gift of gab and relationship building without peer. That’s why they’ve wielded such political power over the years. Another good example of this–and probably the best in recent American history–is Bill Clinton, who outlasted many opponents. OTOH, as I noted the Confederacy lost the WBTS primarily because they didn’t have the industrial base to support a modern war. They were content to build an agrarian society where others did the hard work, and they got caught, as a SCV cousin of mine observed, at a “gun fight without a gun”.
      4) I’d make some distinction between Lowland Scots and their Highland/Border Country/Scots-Irish counterparts. And it will be interesting how well Scotland does if it votes itself out of the Union.


      1. 1) Ok, found income by ancestry. According to the 2000 US Census, GDP per capita was $26,150 in 1999 dollars. Scotch-Irish GDP per capita income was $27,968 coming in behind English at $28850 and Scottish at $32,228. So by some sort of evil, absurd logic that means that the Scotch-Irish are 6.952198852772% more industrious than the average American but 3.05719237435% lazier than Americans of English ancestry who in turn are 10.481568822142% lazier than Scottish Americans? I don’t think so. For the obvious reason that ethnicity is only one of many factors influencing an individual’s level of industry or income, many of which are environmental, e.g. regional cost of living differences, interests, racism, group size, the blurriness of ethnic groups, etc.

        * * *

        In any case, the majority of Scotch-Irish settlers were Presbyterian. See:

        Hanna, Charles A., The Scotch-Irish: or the Scot in North Britain, North Ireland, and North America, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1902, pg. 163

        Maldwyn Jones, Scotch-Irish, in Stephan Thernstrom, ed. Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (1980) pp 901-907

        Of course, many of their descendants have left the Presbyterian Church USA. All of the mainline churches have lost millions of adherents, but to the extent that Scotch-Irish Americans have converted and intermarried out of Presbyterianism they have lost a core element of the original Scotch-Irish identity. If you’re claiming that most Scotch-Irish are no longer Presbyterian, which is what drove them to the USA in the first place, to what extent is the Scotch-Irish identity a meaningful construct today?

        Also, the “mainline” refers to a rail line in Philadelphia, which as you acknowledge in Grady M post was where most Scotch-Irish entered the US. The prototypical Scotch-Irishman may be an Appalachian, but they were prominent throughout Pennsylvania and laid the groundwork for later Scottish immigration.

        2) Southern relative poverty is the product many historic environmental, political, cultural, and economic factors beyond simple ethnic essentialism. The North had better rivers for powering cotton gins and mills, more people, fewer plagues, less racial strife, etc.

        It’s also important to recognize the range of the South. You might like Colin Woodward’s division of the South into four separate regions–traditionalist Tidewater MD, VA and NC, Appalachia, the Deep South of state’s rights, and French Louisiana.

        I agree that the Confederacy lost thanks to its lack of an industrial base, but as we’ve noted, the Scotch-Irish were more Union than Confederate, so thank God, good Northern people of mostly English heritage beat tragically misguided Southern people of mostly English heritage in the Civil War.

        Woodward makes the interesting point that immigrants take on the culture of their surroundings, e.g. New York still has a tolerant Amsterdam trader culture despite the eclipse of the Dutch there. Maybe that clarifies some of our differences. Would you agree that while the Scotch-Irish gave Appalachia some of its rowdy redneck flavor and politics that many Appalachians are no longer Scotch-Irish and that the Scotch-Irish outside Appalachia are less pronounced in their rowdiness?

        3) This is an interesting discussion, and I’m glad it’s forced me to look more into the Scots-Irish experience. My family is mostly VA English, Appalachian German and English, and Michigan Northern Italian, but last year I dug through the records and uncovered a bunch of other English, German, Irish, and Scotch-Irish ancestors who made their way from the East Coast and New Orleans to the Deep South. I’m proud to claim all, but it’s not like I speak German or Italian despite being only second generation on one side and see myself primarily as an American thankful to live in a constitutional republic.


      2. 1) To say that the Scots-Irish (and that’s really the correct way to say it, not Scotch-Irish, Scotch is whiskey) are less of what they are because they departed from the Kirk is to say that Hispanics are less Hispanic because they’ve abandoned Roman Catholicism for the same kinds of churches that the Scots-Irish favour. Neither is really so. And I think it’s interesting that the Scots-Irish on the whole don’t look at themselves as an ethnic group. They frequently identify themselves as “American” (and some of my Scots-Irish friends bristle at my attempts to correct this) when in fact the closest approach to real “natives” on this continent are the Indians.
        2) My use of “Main Line” to describe churches like Presbyterian (and Episcopal for that matter) is to underscore the fact that these churches are favoured by upper income people. The class stratification of Christianity by denomination is a feature of Southern life that is unappetising but unavoidable.


      3. Genetically, the English, Irish, Scots, and Welsh are all basically the same:

        So, the “Scots-Irish” identity is based entirely on perceived social differences in accent, class, religion, trade, politics, etc. Remove or assimilate those already relatively minor differences and so goes the identity. I mean, what do you think has more explanatory force in explaining Bill Gates’s career the fact that some of his ancestors 400 hundred years ago were Scots-Irish ruled by the Stuart dynasty rather than Englishmen ruled by the Stuart dynasty or exposure to twentieth century high-tech business and big science? Is Mark Twain a Scots-Irish or a frontier humorist?

        (The Hispanic identity in the US is based on racial (not that race has anything to do with personal worth) and linguistic differences in addition to religion, social ties, etc. But it’s not hard to look at someone like Castro, a Communist atheist, as having traveled further from Philip II than most Hispanics. Does that make Castro less “Hispanic”? It does against a formal definition of “Hispanic” that includes Catholicism.)

        This is why trying to construct a meaningfully predictive Scots-Irish ethnic category is silly and racist to the extent it depends on attributing some sort of redneck Scots-Irish essence to people. The connection between the Scots-Irish and the mainline is an example of how not all Scots-Irish are or were rednecks. Concordantly, many rednecks are not Scots-Irish, e.g. the lowland Baptist rednecks. In my family, the Scots-Irish became agnostic railroad executives in Nashville and Atlanta while the German and Ben Franklin descendants ended up poor Methodists in the hills of NC. When they showed up at D-Day, the Nazis did not embrace them in a spirit of ethnic brotherhood but instead shot at them as Americans.


      4. You, sir, are beating your head against a brick wall.

        First: the English, Irish, Scots and Welsh are not the same. Ireland wouldn’t have left the Union and Scotland wouldn’t be preparing to vote itself out of it if this were so. More significantly, two events changed the ethnic makeup of Great Britain profoundly: the Roman invasion and rule (which lasted four centuries) and the Anglo-Saxon invasion following the break from Rome. (And I’m not considering the effects of the Norman conquest or Danish invasions, either). Roman rule was interesting in that England and Wales didn’t achieve the same standard of living after it until the late Middle Ages. Those events (and DNA evidence shows the separation) basically separated the British Isles into an English “core” and the rest as something of an “out-country”.

        Second, I think you’ve too tightly linked ethnicity and religion. Why shouldn’t Scots-Irish or Hispanics change their church to what suits them? And you yourself speak of your ancestors who didn’t follow the religious pattern you would expect. I had one Arkansas ancestor who was an atheist most of his life and was saved on his deathbed.

        The Anglo-Saxon business brings up the whole “WASP” umbrella thing, which McWhiney’s thesis attacks directly. If you had perused some of my other sites, you would have discovered that my ancestors who came last were Northern industrialists with English and Lowland Scottish background. And we were raised with the usual WASP legends, including the Protestant work ethic and how much better our British heritage was. But our moves into the South (both familial and corporate) put us square into a culture that was different in profound ways from the one we came from. It was white (in those days) all right, from Great Britain (except for the stopover in Ulster) and Protestant (unless you were a Baptist Succession fan like J.R. Graves) but it was very different. How could this be?

        I have to give credit to my Southern mother for cluing me in on McWhiney’s research. As Harper Lee wrote McWhiney after he first published it, it was something we all knew but couldn’t explain. With it many things fall into place. McWhiney’s thesis also pulls the plug for good on “white supremacy”, which has been the bane of this region for a long time.

        I know that it goes against a lot of what Americans are taught about themselves. But the genius of this country isn’t that we all are alike in enforced groupthink; it is that we are truly diverse and contribute to the greatness of the place. Until we get that back we’ll never be the country we were. The Scots-Irish have made their mark on this place, sometimes for the bad, but also sometimes for the good. We need to see it for what it is and not always try to fit it into a Procrustean bed of ideal construct.


  3. Check out this famous Richard Hofstader essay on indentured servitude:

    The most unenviable situation was that of servants on Southern plantations, living alongside but never with Negro slaves, both groups doing much the same work, often under the supervision of a relentless overseer… Even as late as 1770, William Eddis, the English surveyor of customs at Annapolis, thought that the Maryland Negroes were better off than “the Europeans, over whom the rigid planter exercises an inflexible severity.” The Negroes, Eddis thought, were a lifelong property so were treated with a certain care, but the whites were “strained to the utmost to perform their allotted labor.”


    And note that indentured servants who survived their often life-threatening working conditions or didn’t commit suicide as so many did, often immediately set up their own shops or bought cheap, readily available farmland. In other words, the majority of Scotch-Irish immigrants in the South survived brutal working conditions that they fled as quickly as possible NOT out of laziness but to pursue better and richer opportunities as independent farmers or tradesmen. I don’t see how even slave owning plantation masters could blame them for abandoning cotton picking for farming and the trades.


    1. The basic problem with indentured servants is that both they and their masters were working “against the clock”, i.e., for a limited time frame. Thus the masters were forced to work them harder and under worse conditions because they only had a limited time to get a payback. With African slaves, they could get their return on a longer term. The indentured servants who survived this ordeal understandably headed for the hills, and we’ve discussed the hills.

      I would highly recommend Thomas Sowell’s Black Rednecks and White Liberals for a more thoroughgoing discussion of this subject, and its impact on our country today.


  4. Just skimmed the Sowell and I’m glad you and he both recognize the import of environmental factors in economic development. They’re not everything, but if social psychologists are right about the fundamental attrition error are often underweighted.

    In the case of Scots-Irish and African-American culture, it seems to me that the adaptations both made in resistance to English power probably do more to explain any similarities than contact between whites in Appalachia and blacks on plantations.

    Still, I really like Sowell’s points about slavery’s scope as an economic system through the ancient world, Asia, and Africa. For all their faults, the English were first major civilization so far as I can see to voluntarily dismantle this awful system. What worries me about identity politics is the way it obscures the moral universalism of Christianity and the Enlightenment that underwrote universal freedom.


    1. The first chapter of Sowell’s book is probably the most thoroughgoing–and hilarious–trashing of an ethnic group I have ever read. But both Sowell and McWhiney make an important point: the slovenly ways of the Scots-Irish can be and are contagious.

      As far as a reduction in rowdiness is concerned, with the Scots-Irish it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, the raising of formal education and improving economic conditions has blunted the edge on some of the worst aspects of Scots-Irish life. OTOH, the general breakdown of the American family has thrown many back into trashy poverty.

      Sowell’s point about slavery is important but frequently ignored.


  5. And why does Sowell want to scape goat an ethnic group? I get the idealogical function for him–he’s trying to stigmatize promiscuity and other behaviors as inauthentically black in order to promote middle class values for black people. Fine goal but bad history:

    Just as the Scots-Irish fought against the idea of “born aristocrats,” there’s no such thing as a born redneck. Take away the glamour of royalty and Catherine the Great, Henry VIII, and Louis the XIV are as tawdry at heart as the worst ghetto rapper or hillbilly trucker. But the parable of the widow’s mite shows, the poorest widow can have the noblest soul.


    1. You are right re Sowell’s objectives, but I have answered your objections about his idea elsewhere.

      In thinking about it, I am amused with your last paragraph. I grew up in Palm Beach all too aware of how badly the wealthy can be and behave. But I come here to TN and have to work against the assumption amongst Scots-Irish middle class people that the wealthy are inherently virtuous!


      1. Well, I’m glad that you don’t find the wealthy inherently virtuous, but praising slaves for doing “the work”. . . for “successful men,” i.e. slaveholders, makes “the work” of economic exploitation seem legitimate. Yes, cotton picking provided a useful service, but flattering a group for performing it well under the worst forms of duress is to uphold that group’s usefulness to slavers rather than assess some group level universal property of industry.

        I don’t want to beat my head against a wall. I think it’s very easy to slip into a kind of ethnic mythology that explains results and social differences in terms of character based on vivid prototypes, but that approach has proven to be dangerously misleading and incomplete throughout history. It reinforces a hierarchy of winners and losers categorized by overdetermined “ethnic” typologies. Judging from the rest of your blog, you’re a well-educated thinker, so I hope that by challenging some of these ideas I can, if not persuade you to my exact viewpoint, at least open up space for more multi-factor, grounded theories.


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