McCain's hot temper and intense patriotism are part of his Scots-Irish heritage. Where might they lead him?by Anatol Lieven / August 31, 2008 / Leave a comment
By ancestry, John McCain is a Scots-Irishman. That is to say, he comes from one of the oldest, most admirable and most worrying ethno-cultural traditions in the US. To a remarkable extent, that tradition is reflected in McCain’s character traits: his obstinancy; his tendency towards unshakeable friendship and implacable hatred; his hair-trigger temper; his deep patriotism; his obsession with American honour; and his furious response to any criticism of the US. These are not just the products of his military upbringing and experiences as a prisoner in North Vietnam, but also the result of his being the proud descendant of Indian-fighters and Confederate soldiers.
Non-Americans are not used to thinking of white Americans in terms of old ethno-cultural traditions, except when it comes to imported immigrants such as Italian-Americans. Yet the Scots-Irish cultural traits live on everywhere, from evangelical religion to country music. They have been examined by several great American scholars, including David Hackett Fischer and Kevin Phillips, as well as more popular authors like Walter Russell Mead.
Both sides of McCain’s family come from the old Confederate southwest: his father’s side from Missouri, his mother’s from Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma. McCain’s great-great-grandfather, Will-iam Alexander “Fighting Bill” McCain, was a Confederate soldier. His paternal family took the classic Scots-Irish route in the 18th century, from Scotland, down from Virginia through the Carolinas to the old frontier in the Appalachians and beyond. McCain’s mother was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, the setting for Merle Haggard’s iconic anthem of patriotic, conservative small-town America, “Okie From Muskogee,” where: “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don’t take our trips on LSD/We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street/We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.”
The Scots-Irish tradition has been praised, with reservations, by another Scots-Irishman, Democratic senator Jim Webb, in his book Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. Until he ruled himself out in early July, Webb was considered a favourite for Obama’s vice-presidential pick. This would have given the election a flavour of a Scots-Irish family feud—and you can’t get more combative than that.
The American Scots-Irish are the descendants of the Scottish Protestants settled in 17th-century Ulster by the Stuart kings, a process that involved the ethnic cleansing of much of the native Irish Catholic population. In the 18th century, those of the Scots-Irish who moved on to the…