Southerners are different, to the bone
Actually, to the genes, argued a noted historian
By Heidi Dawley
Nov 13, 2006
It led to the bitterest war, fought nearly 150 years ago, and as is fitting of
great wars, the surrender was a moving one, among the most moving in American
history, as Robert E. Lee offered his sword to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox
Courthouse just west of the Confederate capital of Richmond.
It was 1865. A nation wept.
Historians for years after, and till this very day, argue the cause of that
great conflict. Was slavery at its heart, or was the struggle really an economic
one that then pitted these two regions against one another, and continued to
do so for more than a century, right up through the Sixties and after?
Or was it something else?
That’s where Grady McWhiney comes into the debate. McWhiney was a distinguished
Southern historian, and to say the least, controversial. He died earlier this
year but he left behind an entire unique understanding of the centuries-long
clash between the North and South. It annoys a lot of people.
McWhiney shot holes in the notion of America as one culture but argued for
two–two very conflicting cultures that just happened to fit the stereotypes
of the two regions. And how different they are, so totally different, the food,
the language, the music, the lifestyles.
McWhiney spent a great deal of time thinking about this subject as part of
his quest to understand the South and the American Civil War, and he came to
argue that the North and South were, in effect, genetic mismatches. He traced
it back to immigration. New Englanders tended to hail from England, he noted,
while Southerners were more likely to be from the Celtic fringes, Scotland,
Ireland, Wales and Cornwall.
Those roots reflect two different cultures and traditions, as McWhiney was
to observe in his 1988 book “Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South.”
The English immigrants, who became the Yankees, were farmers with a strong work
ethic and peaceful dispositions. They were sober, sensible and serious-minded.
The Celts, the Southerners, were something else. As descendants of warring
clans of their native lands, they suffered a tendency toward violent behavior.
They were herders who came up short on monetary ambition and ambition generally,
preferring the relatively easy pastoral life over the hard work of raising crops.
And they were social animals who liked to drink and gamble and cavort long after
the more sensible English sorts were in bed.
“The way McWhiney put it is that in the North you have a work ethic.
Work in and of itself is noble. It’s the idea that idle hands are the
devil’s workshop,” explains Donald S. Frazier, a professor of history
at McMurray University in Texas and president and chief executive of the Grady
McWhiney Research Foundation.
“In the South, idle hands are made for fishing,” says Frazier.
It was the land of the leisure ethic. People worked hard enough to support their
McWhiney, himself a Southerner, born in Louisiana, came to his understanding
in a most unusual way. It’s what Frazier calls the historian’s Eureka moment.
It was after he had returned from New York, where he had earned a PhD in history
from Columbia. In his passion for all things Southern, McWhiney loved fiddling,
and he judged fiddling contests.
It was through fiddling that McWhiney noticed a similarity between the American
South and the Celtic cultures. It came upon him while he was traveling about
the British Isles and happened to listen to fiddlers there. That set him about
looking for other similarities, particularly with the view of determining a
link between the Celts and the South in the antebellum period.
He undertook statistical research on last names, and there he discovered that
two out of three people in the American South of 1860 had Celtic names. Only
one in three in the North did.
McWhiney also looked at accounts of key English travelers to Scotland as well
as accounts of American Northerners who traveled to the South. He found the
Scots and the Southerners were similarly described as lazy, hard drinking, predisposed
to violence and disinterested in education. The historian came to believe that
to understand Southern whites in the antebellum period, particularly 1690 to
1750, one had to look at the Celtic culture. And from that he concluded that
a cultural clash was certainly a contributing factor to the Civil War.
McWhiney was not particularly troubled his theory would stir up controversy.
Says Frazier: “He was always a mischievous fellow and somewhat of an iconoclast.”