Immigration

Every people that has ever come to America has, for better or for worse, contributed to the collective frame of mind that is American culture in proportion to their numbers and/or the power of their ideas and their commitment to them. There are no exceptions—not Cavaliers, Puritans, Quakers, Huguenots, Germans, Irish, Poles, Jews, Mexicans, or Chechens. 

When the people that would become known in America as the Scotch-Irish came to the New World between 1710 and 1775, they brought with them the entirety of their Scotch-Irish culture, which was after all within them and not something carried on their backs. They spread throughout Appalachia and the Old Southwest in such great numbers that it may safely be said that their culture became the backbone of Southern culture and remains so today.

Who were these people from whom so many Southern natives can claim some descent? Well, firstly, they weren’t Irish.

Before England and Scotland were first united under one crown in 1603 by the ascension of the Scottish King James to the throne of England, the two nations had been in a state of almost continuous conflict for hundreds of years. It was from the Border Country, the arena of this ancient conflict, that were drawn the Northern English and Lowland Scots who would make up the heart of the people who became the Scotch-Irish of the American South.

Then why the Irish in the Scotch-Irish?

You might say that their history began when the English King Henry II began the long and bitter conquest of Ireland in 1171. By the reign of James I, the Irish had yet to reconcile themselves to being conquered and remained a great thorn in the side of the crown. Thus James encouraged large numbers of English and Scottish Protestant borderlanders to immigrate to Northern Ireland hoping to stabilise the Borderlands and simultaneously to suppress the Catholic Irish in the north of Ireland through the transfer of so many violent and battle-hardened Protestant frontiersmen. The Scotch-Irish people were the descendants of these Protestant English and Scottish immigrants to Northern Ireland. More or less. I’m painting with a broad brush.

Beginning in 1710, this same people, lean and tall and as violent and proud as ever, began their mass immigration to the British Colonies in America. The rest is history.

All people at all times carry with them the culture imprinted on them in their youth, and they will in turn hand their culture down to their own children. Thus culture flows continuously, generation after generation. It adapts to be sure, always weaving or blending with other cultures, and it shapes and is shaped by the time through which it travels. Peoples spin off to form new peoples, or they are weaved into a dominant one and are subsumed by it, much as a minority German immigration of the 18th Century that paralleled that of the Scotch-Irish was subsumed by the latter. Yet these Germans’ contribution to Southern culture, though not always easily traceable, was just as permanent and is as organic to it as tin to bronze or sugar in tea.

All cultures are not equal. Some are better in this or that regard and some are overall better or worse.  All possess collective qualities and foibles, and the Scotch-Irish were no exception and neither are we Southerners today.

Each people is a product of its history and cannot leave its identity at the border. People bring with them their perspectives, customs, and proclivities, as well as their qualities and dysfunctions, and, like an ingredient, once tossed in the pot, these characteristics forever alter and affect the taste of the stew.

But not every ingredient goes with every recipe and not every dish goes with every other dish. Dill pickles are good on a hamburger, but not so good on a banana split.

This idea ought to have a bearing on our immigration policy. Over the last four hundred years, disparate peoples have come here, clashed, sparked, and fused, and have made us who we are, done much good, and created the only reality that we know. But that is no reason not to learn from our own history and carefully consider whether or not the cultures of the peoples that we let into this country are compatible with our own.

Within these United States we have disagreements, divisions, and conflicts enough, and we continue to saddle our great-grandchildren with more. We should not add to their burden by a thoughtless immigration policy that disregards ancient cultural incompatibilities, and that will only tear at a garment that is already unraveling.

M.C. Atkins

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