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The Scots-Irish connection to American common sense

Michael Barone writes in the Wall Street Journal -

Ask anyone reasonably well versed in American history to name our most populist-minded president, and you'll likely hear the name of Andrew Jackson. He was the son of Scots-Irish immigrants, raised on the frontier, and he ran the first democratic (and Democratic) campaign. A gang of Jackson's roughneck supporters, so the legend goes, rushed to the White House after his inauguration and tore the place apart.

But Jackson was not a "spread the wealth" populist. On the contrary, he opposed the American System of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay to have the government build roads and canals and other public works. He killed the central bank and paid off the national debt.

Jackson argued that government interference in the economy would inevitably favor the well-entrenched and well-connected. It would take money away from the little people and give it to the elites.

That view seems to be shared today in what I have called the Jacksonian belt, the broad swath of America settled by the Scots-Irish from the Appalachian chains in Virginia southwest to Texas. The Obama administration argues that Democratic big government and health-care programs will help the little guys. Jacksonians today, as in the 1830s, don't agree.

. . .Why has the politics of economic redistribution had such limited success in America? One reason is that Americans, unlike Western Europeans, tend to believe that there is a connection between effort and reward and that people can work their way up economically. If people do something to earn their benefits, like paying Social Security taxes, that's fine. But giving money to those who have not in some way earned it is a no-no. Moreover, like Andrew Jackson, most Americans suspect that some of the income that is redistributed will end up in the hands not of the worthy but of the well-connected.

These lessons were once well-known in Britain, where the creation of a free economy was repeatedly defended from the powerful in and out of government so that free people could earn the "fair fruits" of their labour. You can see this story in the Liberty Timeline - the protection of property rights and rights to common land in Magna Carta, the Great Revolt against the poll tax and wage controls of the 14th century, the end of serfdom by the 15th century. . .

The creation of the free economy is something we've written about in Share the Inheritance - the book we plan to share with you this year. It's a fascinating story, with terrible losses and shining victories.

Comments (4)


My Pennsylvania history taught me that there were three original streams of settlement to William Penn's experiment: the Quaker English, who centered in Philadelphia and made the laws; the Germans, who settled in Lancaster County and elsewhere and created our first "breadbasket"; the Scots-Irish, who went as far west as possible. expanding the border and staying as far as they could from the restrictive rules of Philadelphia.


Re: The Quaker English, who centered in Philadelphia and made the laws. . .

As a descendant of those Quaker English and Irish, I can tell you that they were out farming and brewing beer in the vast country that surrounded the small trading port of Philadelphia. . .As to making laws, Pennsylvania settlers had a Pennsylvania constitution, written by Penn, with property rights, freedom of religion, speech and association and English common law. Nor were they keen to make laws and regulate, unlike those now in the White House, Congress, Parliament and Brussels.


Well, no generalization is right, as the joke goes. Just as the English and Irish brewed some beer and tilled some fields, the German farmers were the nucleus of the "window tax revolt," even marching on Washington at one point. We all contribute in our own way.


At the risk of bringing the intellectual level of this blog waaayyyyy down, my wonderful husband is most grateful that each of these groups contributed beer, beer and then more beer. And don't get me started on his favorable opinion of Scotch/Irish whiskey...

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