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Ethnic Hegemonies in American History, Part 1


Grant Wood, "Parson Weems' Fable," 1939

3,537 words

Part 1 of 3

Political Philosophy and Human Genetic Diversity

Western political philosophy tends toward moral and political universalism: the idea that norms are valid for all human beings. This presupposes either that human beings are biologically pretty much the same, or that human biodiversity is irrelevant to moral and political issues. Nevertheless, Western political philosophers initially limited their conclusions to ethnically homogeneous regions they knew and understood. Plato’s Republic, for example, portrays an ideal society for Greeks, not barbarians, and even well past the Enlightenment John Stuart Mill explicitly excluded many non-Europeans from his conclusions in On Liberty.[1]

Plato and Mill were prescient to do so. Few pre-modern people could travel widely. Consequently most people they knew were much like themselves. But during the Age of Discovery, which started at the end of the fifteenth century, European voyages throughout the world encountered the full richness of Earth’s botanical, zoological, and anthropological diversity, and efforts to understand it contributed to the seventeenth century’s Scientific Revolution.

By 1735, in the Enlightenment’s full flower, Sweden’s Carl Linnaeus developed the system still used to classify Earth’s biodiversity. He observed significant morphological differences between the human populations of the different continents, which led him classify these groups as distinct species.[2] Such human populations are now called races.

The great controversy of our time rages between those who acknowledge or deny the existence of distinct races. The race deniers are motivated by the conflict between human biodiversity and philosophical or religious forms of universalism. Nevertheless, the study of human diversity remained mainstream science until it was purged and proscribed for political reasons in the mid-twentieth century.[3] This is hardly the first effort to censor inconvenient scientific truths. The Catholic Church’s temporary suppression of heliocentric cosmology is only the most notorious example among many.

Suppressing the truth of racial diversity is proving as hard as maintaining belief in an earth-centered solar system or a flat earth. Even as early as 1979, the fundamental fact that innate and fixed racial mentalities cause distinctive cultures rather than result from them was proven, even though quietly ignored.[4] Now we know how truly stable these mentalities remain, even with the increasing mobility of populations. Few factors are as important in human affairs, since they offer the only reasonable explanation for the otherwise inexplicable stability of differences in seemingly disparate phenomena ranging from neighborhood school achievement to international development levels.[5]

For years genetics remained a crutch that permitted differences among races to continue being trivialized, since differences among genes were not readily apparent. Even genetic differences between clearly distinct species like humans and chimpanzees appeared to be few. Now we know better. Significant differences within genes and in non-gene DNA important for controlling gene activity correlate with race so well that DNA can now be routinely matched to racial phenotypes with complete reliability.[6] Claiming races are alike because they share the same genes is now equivalent to claiming all books written with the same 26 letters say the same thing.

Modern genetic analysis shows that Plato’s Greeks and Mill’s Europeans are an unusually homogeneous part of the earth’s human population. European mitochondrial DNA, for example, has fewer haplotypes and is thus more homogeneous in origin than that of the human populations on other continents including those superficially appearing more geographically isolated, a conclusion confirmed by other measures of genetic diversity.[7]

Nevertheless, it is an article of faith for modern political philosophy that races and even their associated cultures are trivial phenomena that should be ignored. What it considers significant are various universally applicable abstract concepts. Consequently it was an ideological bombshell when Samuel Huntington, a leading political scientist, acknowledged the obvious fact that continental fault lines between ethnic groups are more significant and stable sources of human difference and potential conflict than abstract philosophical concepts ever were.[8] Just as racial and ethnic diversity are relevant to understanding conflicts between societies, they can also illuminate conflicts within them. What follows is a sketch of American political history not in terms of abstract philosophical concepts, but in terms of the ethnic rivalries and hegemonies that have played a decisive role in shaping out destiny as a people.

Anglo-Saxon Hegemony

The first settlers of what became the United States came from the British Isles. Britons rapidly dominated other ethnic groups, both the aboriginal Indians they found and the Europeans (French, Dutch, Swedish, German, etc.) who followed, establishing the hegemony of English language, law, literature, religion, and general culture. By convention, this culture is called “Anglo-Saxon,” but this term conceals the considerable ethnic diversity of settlers from the British Isles. In fact, there was no unified Anglo-Saxon hegemony, but a series of shifting hegemonies of different British ethnic groups.

In the seventeenth century, East Anglians settled New England. People from the south and west of England settled Virginia and the coastal colonies to the south. Diverse English and non-English groups settled the Middle Atlantic colonies between them. In the eighteenth century they were followed by a large migration of lowland Scots and north English who often arrived after a sojourn in Northern Ireland. This second wave of migrants, collectively called the Scots-Irish, eventually brought their distinctive ethnic character to much of the future United States as they spread south and west across North America during the next century from initial settlements in valleys of the Appalachian Mountains.[9]

All these groups were once called “Native Americans.”[10] From a biological point of view, this is entirely accurate. Organisms are considered ecologically “native” to a place if they arrive there on their own initiative, irrespective of arrival time. They are non-native or introduced if they arrive due to another entity’s activities. For example, in the United States house sparrows are non-native birds because people introduced them around 1850. Cattle egrets, in contrast, are native because they arrived on their own initiative, even though it was in 1941, long after the house sparrows had arrived. Cattle egrets are considered non-native only in places they first reached with human help, like Hawaii.[11]

America’s European settlers are the authentic Native Americans because they invented the concept of America and arrived here on their own initiative. Only later, as part of the concerted campaign to generate self-hatred among Native Americans of European origin, was the title stolen from them and bestowed on the disparate aboriginal peoples called Indians, who had arrived in America earlier but never conceived of it as a unified entity. Non-native people did not exist in North America until slaves were imported from Africa.

The English settlers rapidly came into ethnic conflict with Indians. (There were, of course, many ethnic conflicts between Indians as well, but these fall outside of American history proper.) In 1622, Indians of the Powhatan tribal confederacy launched a genocidal attack that killed nearly one-third of Virginia’s settlers, and in 1675 the Wampanoag Indian leader Metacom or King Philip waged a nearly successful war of annihilation against the New England colonists.[12] America’s new settlers gradually increased in numbers and technological skills, which caused their conflicts with Indians to eventually become more one-sided. Their frontier, however, was most often defined by isolated and vulnerable Scots-Irish homesteads.[13] Until well into the nineteenth century, many of these pioneers faced death each night from Indian raiders, and from the 1840s to 1860s Comanches supported by Mexican Comancheros drove the Texas frontier back 100 miles while ethnically cleansing it of Scots-Irish families.[14]

Britain’s first colonies in North America were gradually surrounded to the north and west by a thin cordon of small French settlements along waterways of the St. Lawrence and Mississippi rivers connected through the Great Lakes. Between 1689 and 1763, a series of wars between France and England spilled over to their North American colonies. The last of these wars is called “the French and Indian War,” reflecting alliances between French and Indians that brought death and destruction to the British colonists in general and Scots-Irish frontier families in particular. Final victory over the French in 1763 brought British rule to the St. Lawrence Valley and the Great Lakes region and created colonies that eventually became Canada.

Soon after the first British colonies were founded in North America, the mother country passed, from 1642 to 1651, through a time of troubles that included two civil wars. In the colonies, this resulted in self-reliance and de facto independence that the inhabitants were reluctant to relinquish when the troubles ended and British power returned. English divisions leading to the civil wars, mirrored by differences between northern and southern colonies, also accentuated their pre-existing ethnic distinctiveness.[15] Britain’s effort to directly control New England under Edmond Andros was aborted in 1688, when locals resisted, and his patron, King James II, was replaced by William and Mary in England’s Glorious Revolution.[16] Increased eighteenth-century British efforts to directly control the American colonies eventually led to the Revolutionary War and independence in 1783, followed by the formation of a united national government in 1789.

The first US president, George Washington, initially united the coastal regions of the original thirteen states reasonably well, but discontent among Scots-Irish in the interior led to armed resistance.[17] After 1797, under John Adams, there was a significant shift of hegemony to New England. But this was abruptly ended by the election of 1800, in what might be called America’s first peaceful democratic revolution. The defeat of Adams by Jefferson gave the coastal South and Virginia virtually unopposed hegemony in America until Andrew Jackson’s 1828 election shifted it to the interior Scots-Irish, who largely retained it for the next thirty years. Opposition to Jackson and his unpopular Dutch-New York successor Martin Van Buren provided an opportunity, however, for growth of the Whigs, a rival Scots-Irish-centered party that won some elections during this period.

Two major new immigrations began in the 1840s with the arrival of large numbers of Germans, who often became farmers in the Middle West, and Irish, who found work as laborers in eastern cities like New York and Boston.[18]

In many nations a unifying nationalism develops around a central or core region, but America lacked such a region.[19] The post-1828 hegemony of the Scots-Irish and allied groups was America’s closest approximation to an authentic ethnic nationalism capable of uniting its regional ethnic cultures. Nationalist groups like the American Party and Young America[20] appeared during this period, which one modern historian disapprovingly calls the “White Republic.”[21] It didn’t last, but “white” is still used to this day as a term for European-Americans.

During the White Republic, New England increased its soft power by emphasizing education, manufacturing, and trade. Its early colleges like Harvard and Yale were academic models that still give America’s college towns a New England cultural character. New England’s weakness was a lack of political power, but it eventually gained that by exploiting divisions that weakened Scots-Irish hegemony. [22]

Civil War and Empire

Since colonial times Southerners had used imported African slave labor. Consequently they lived symbiotically with the most genetically different of Earth’s peoples.[23] Slavery continued after the Revolutionary War and became increasingly important as commercial cotton cultivation spread westward through the Gulf Coastal region at the start of Scots-Irish hegemony. The resultant Cotton Kingdom, ruled by a mix of Southerners from the old Atlantic coastal colonies and Scots-Irish from the interior, sought expansion into Latin America by conquest, while New England, which then valued ethnic, cultural, and religious homogeneity, opposed it.

The South was thus the region most tolerant of what is now called racial diversity. New England, for example, tended to liken all Indians to the dangerous heathens that nearly destroyed it in 1675.[24] Such attitudes led John Chivington, a clergyman and Union officer who defeated a Southern invasion of the New Mexico Territory at the Battle of Glorieta Pass in 1862, to perpetrate one of America’s most notorious massacres of peaceful Indians at Sand Creek in 1864. Confederates, in contrast, made Cherokee Indian Stand Watie a brigadier general in their army.[25] New England was also extremely hostile to newly arriving Irish Catholics, and many of its political leaders began careers in an Anti-Masonic Party opposed to Masonic religious tolerance. But because blacks were rarely seen outside the South, it was easy for them to be idealized in New England.[26]

The new Republican Party became the political vehicle for restoring New England’s hegemony by attacking slavery, but its support was initially limited to Greater New England, both the original coastal region as well as an area south of the Great Lakes settled by immigrants moving west from there.

That changed rapidly, however, when New England’s publishing dominance influenced public opinion through publications like Uncle Tom’s Cabin that demonized Cotton Kingdom whites and idealized its blacks. Calls from a small cadre of abolitionists for slaves to revolt and kill whites created great fear among southerners. They had already suffered through Nat Turner’s murderous slave revolt in 1831, and abolitionist John Brown’s abortive attempt to touch off another revolt at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 raised their fears to fever pitch.[27] Meanwhile, crude southern propaganda that justified slavery’s expansion by idealizing it as good for everybody raised widespread fears that it threatened the freedom of people who did not own slaves.

By 1860 enough Scots-Irish and German Midwesterners voted Republican to enable Abraham Lincoln to narrowly win a four-way race. In reaction, the Cotton Kingdom seceded from the United States to become the Confederacy, and the war that followed divided the once hegemonic Scots-Irish for more than 100 years.[28]

New England hegemony and Republican Party dominance was nearly continuous for the next 72 years, even though the Democratic Party of pre-war Scots-Irish hegemony still occasionally won national elections. Former Confederates, who won freedom from Republican occupation and local black rule through an eleven-year insurgency, found common ground as Democrats with urban Irish Catholics, who had themselves resisted discriminatory New England hegemony in the major New York City anti-war revolt of 1863.[29] Greater New England, however, was now largely free to economically and culturally dominate America. Regional centers of economic power like Chicago’s meat packing and manufacturing industries, Pittsburgh’s steel industry, Cleveland’s oil industry, and especially New York City’s commercial, financial, and railroad dominance arose throughout Greater New England. Its tycoons paid homage to New England’s traditional cultural hegemony by building opulent mansions in its heart at Newport, Rhode Island and by mimicking New England mores.

But even New Englanders began to question the consequences of the Civil War’s power shift as tycoons enriched themselves by depressing wages through mass immigration to the east coast from Southern and Eastern Europe and to the west coast from Asia. Meanwhile, railroad monopolies preyed on German and Scandinavian farmers in the Midwest by keeping costs high for the manufactured goods they bought and low for the crops they sold. Expansion into the third world, once anathema to greater New England when sought by the Cotton Kingdom, was now embraced as Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines were quickly added to an American Empire. Trusts and corporations gained new quasi-governmental powers, enabling them to increasingly encroach on elected local governments. The extremes of wealth and poverty these policies created caused the last quarter of the nineteenth century to be called the Gilded Age.[30]

Progressivism and Populism

Gilded Age excess met widespread popular resistance. Under often Irish Catholic leadership, labor began to organize in the face of fierce plutocratic resistance. A populist movement by immigrant and Scots-Irish farmers fighting predatory northeastern financial domination led to the foundation of the Populist Party, which was soon incorporated into the Democratic Party by the great Scots-Irish leader William Jennings Bryan. At the same time, Greater New Englanders created a Progressive movement to restore regional values by fighting the destructive effects of plutocratic policies encouraging corruption, imperialism, economic exploitation, and mass immigration. Populism was thus a bottom up movement among those living outside and harmed by the regional power core, while Progressivism was a top down movement inside it seeking to blunt power’s hardest edges.[31]

Both reacted to the increasing prominence of America’s Jewish population. Jews first immigrated to the United States in significant numbers from Germany before the Civil War and quickly became prominent in commerce. By the Gilded Age many of them had become tycoons who contributed significantly to its excesses, just as its importation of cheap labor brought a second and much larger wave of Jewish immigrants to America from the Russian Empire. In response, many populists began explicitly criticizing Jewish excess from below, just as progressive elites were attempting reform from above.[32]

Populism and progressivism both contributed to creating the Socialist Party, the primary voice of America’s first true left. Its social connection to populism was evident in the presidential election of 1912 when its candidate received his highest vote percentage of any state in heavily Scots-Irish Oklahoma, where two years later a Socialist gubernatorial candidate got nearly 20 percent. Left support swiftly disappeared in such Populist regions, however, as the Socialist Party and its later direct offshoot the Communist Party increasingly became vehicles for urban Jewish upward mobility.[33] (Most Russian Jews arriving in the United States during the Gilded Age were initially extremely poor, and many had previously participated in socialist and other leftist organizations that had violently confronted Russians and their government.[34] Consequently they were pre-adapted for socialist activity.) Thirty years later, Woody Guthrie was valued by the Left as much for his rarity as an Oklahoma Communist as for his music.


1. Edward Sankowski, “Political Philosophy, History of,” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)

2. George M. Frederickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

3. Carl N. Degler, In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991); William Tucker, The Science and Politics of Racial Research (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).

4. Daniel G. Freedman, Human Sociobiology: A Holistic Approach (New York: The Free Press, 1979).

5. Michael Levin, Why Race Matters: Racial Differences and What They Mean (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997); Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen, IQ and the Wealth of Nations (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002) and IQ and Global Inequality (Augusta, Ga.: Washington Summit Publishers, 2006); J. Philippe Rushton, Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Natural History Perspective (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1995); Vincent Sarich and Frank Miele, Race: The Reality of Human Differences (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004).

6. John M. Butler, Forensic DNA Typing: Biology, Technology, and Genetics of STR Markers, 2nd Edition (Burlington, Mass.: Elsevier, 2005).

7. Stephen Oppenheimer, The Real Eve: Modern Man’s Journey out of Africa (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003); L. Cavalli-Sforza, P. Menozzi, and A. Piazza, The History and Geography of Human Genes, abridged paperback edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

8. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

9. David H. Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989); Terry Jordan and Matti Kaups, The American Backwoods Frontier: An Ethnic and Ecological Interpretation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); James Webb, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (New York: Broadway Books, 2004); Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (New York: Viking, 2006).

10. Madison Grant, The Conquest of a Continent (New York: Scribners, 1933).

11. John Long, Introduced Birds of the World (New York: Universe Books, 1981); John Terres, The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds (New York: Knopf, 1980).

12. Gary Nash, Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early North America, 3rd edition (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1992).

13. Webb, Born Fighting.

14. T. R. Fehrenbach, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans (New York: Macmillan, 1968).

15. Kevin Phillips, The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

16. Alan Brinkley, The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People (New York: Knopf, 1993).

17. Phillips, The Cousins’ Wars.

18. Fischer, Albion’s Seed.

19. N. Pounds and S. Ball, “Core-Areas and the Development of the European State System,” in F. Dohrs and L. Sommers, eds., Cultural Geography: Selected Readings (New York: Crowell, 1967).

20. Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: Norton, 2005).

21. Alexander Saxton, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Verso, 1990).

22. Fischer, Albion’s Seed; Phillips, The Cousins’ Wars.

23. Oppenheimer, The Real Eve.

24. Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Phillip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Knopf, 1998); Phillips, The Cousins’ Wars.

25. Patricia Faust, ed., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper and Row, 1986).

26. A. J. Reichley, The Life of the Parties: A History of American Political Parties (New York: The Free Press, 1992).

27. Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: St. Martin’s, 1998).

28. Phillips, The Cousins’ Wars.

29. Barnet Schecter, The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America (New York: Walker, 2005).

30. Phillips, The Cousins’ Wars; Kevin Philips, Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich (New York: Broadway Books, 2002).

31. Fischer, Albion’s Seed; Phillips, The Cousins’ Wars.

32. Fredrickson 2002; Benjamin Ginsberg, The Fatal Embrace: Jews and the State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

33. Nathan Glazer, The Social Basis of American Communism (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1961).

34. Nora Levin, While Messiah Tarried: Jewish Socialist Movements, 18711917 (New York: Schocken, 1977); Howard Sachar, A History of the Jews in America (New York: Knopf, 1992).

Source: TOQ, vol. 9, no. 1 (Spring 2009)