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 leisure habits.

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.”

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