Editor’s Note: I’m currently retrieving, rewriting and editing material from the archives. I’ve been contacted by many of our Scots-Irish readers through the P.O. Box and urged to write more about their history. We already have plenty of material in the archives to build upon.
In David Hackett Fischer’s Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas, we see that the Southern Backcountry had its own ideal of liberty:
“The Westmoreland men gave their rattlesnake a set of thirteen rattles, with a fourteenth beginning to form in the hope that Canada would join the cause. Beneath the rattlesnake was a blunt motto: “Don’t Tread on Me.” Above was the cipher JP, for John Proctor, and the letters I.B.W.C.P., for the Independent Battalion of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.
The design of its flag, its British Union Jack, and its hopeful allusion to Canada all date it in the first months of the Revolution, probably in mid-1775. This would make it one of the earliest rattlesnake symbols, but others may have been earlier. Another rattlesnake flag was adopted by the Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment, which had been raised in 1775. It was recruited throughout the colony, but the leading authority writes that “frontier areas had a disproportionately heavy representation.” Its second battalion came mostly from Lancaster, Cumberland, Northumberland, York, and Westmoreland counties and drew largely from North British and Ulster families. …
After the fighting began in 1775, the serpent became a rattlesnake and its symbolism changed in many ways. The serpent had been a generic European creature; the rattlesnake was an American species, unique to the New World. The European serpent had looked very weak and desperately wounded, even on the edge of death; the American rattlesnake was strong, healthy, and dangerous. His fangs were bared, his rattles were erect, and he was tightly coiled and ready to strike. Most important, the European serpent was an emblem of unity; the American rattlesnake became a symbol of liberty.
To observers from other cultures, it seemed a strange choice for a sacred emblem. Not many people have chosen to represent their most cherished principle as a poisonous reptile …
The solitary rattlesnake symbolized liberty of a special kind. The motto summarized it in a sentence “Don’t tread on me.” This was the only early American emblem of liberty and freedom to be cast in the first person singular. Here was an image of personal liberty, very different from the collective symbols of belonging that were widely used in New England but much like other backcountry expressions of liberty. The leading example was Patrick Henry’s famous cry: “Give me liberty!”
It also warned the world, “Leave me alone, let me be, keep your distance, don’t tread on my turf.” This was an idea that had a strong appeal to settlers in the American backcountry, and especially to the settlers who came from the borders of North Britain. These people came from northern Ireland, the marshes of Wales, the Scottish lowlands, and the six northern counties of England. They differed in ethnicity and religion but shared a common history and culture that had developed in the borderlands …”
Give ME Liberty. Leave ME alone.
Such was the Backcountry’s ideal of liberty: the rattlesnake warning the meddling outsider to f*** off, not some big brained abstract nonsense no one ever read anyway.
The “liberty” that the Backcountry was fighting for in the American Revolution had nothing to do with classical liberalism, modern liberalism, True Conservatism or libertarianism. It was a clannish version of liberty that had organically grown out of the Scots-Irish historical experience before it was transplanted from Ulster and Scotland to Appalachia. In fact, these people left Great Britain exactly as liberalism was triumphing there under the Georgians in the early 18th century.
Observe how the three versions of Southern liberty lack a sense of universal equality: the Carolina’s Chivalry’s sense of rank, the Virginia Cavalier’s libertas and the Scots-Irish’s leave me the hell alone. “Liberty” meant something else in the Northern colonies.
In the months ahead, we will explore the transplantation of Scots-Irish culture from Great Britain to the New World and its roots in their unique historical experience in the Early Modern Era.
Note: Yankees have never had the ability to see themselves objectively and realize their culture is hardly universal. It isn’t even shared by most other White Americans who bitterly resent the political correctness. The humble Southerner doesn’t claim to be universal.