Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“Natural Liberty in the Bible Belt: An Explanation of Conservative Voting Patterns in Southern Appalachia,” By Barry A. Vann

The Ulster counties of Northern Ireland. Image of a map showing the English and Scots dialects spoken in Ulster.

This essay was authored by Barry A. Vann for Nomocracy in Politics.



As Americans ready themselves for another season of campaigning, it is interesting to take a look at recent voting patterns of one of the most conservative yet least appreciated and understood ethnic groups in America.  A majority of this group call southern Appalachia their home and they consider themselves amongst the most patriotic people in the country.  Most demographers acknowledge that the hill and mountain people of the South are descendants of the segment of Albion’s seed that David Hackett Fischer called “the border British.”  That label, however, excludes French, German, and Welsh Protestants whose ancestors lived for a time in Ireland before joining their Scots-Irish neighbors on hazardous transatlantic voyages.  The part of the emerald isle that served as their home was the ancient province known as Ulster, which includes modern-day Northern Ireland as well as three counties in the Republic of Ireland.  As immigrants in America, most of them sought rural homesteads where they cleared and worked the land.  As decades turned into centuries, and with the Industrial Revolution drawing away significant portions of Appalachian communities to the Rust Belt, especially in the post-WWII years, old world ways and ideas were preserved in many parts of the region.

Southern Appalachia forms the eastern portion of the American Bible belt, so it is not surprising that cultural conservatism is a fundamental part of the Ulster-American ethnicity, and it is certainly reflected in regional voting patterns.  As Fischer suggested, and as I pointed out in another essay, the heirs of the border British were keen to cast their votes for candidates who promised them the greatest opportunity to retain their sense of natural liberty.[i]  I will show in this essay that the ethnic hegemony of Ulster Americans in southern Appalachia forms a distinctive, more conservative voting pattern in comparison to the ethnically diverse counties in central Appalachia.  I will also reason that the two elections of President Barack Obama produced no significantly different voting patterns in either southern or central Appalachia.  That discussion argues that, despite the screeds of left-leaning pundits, the president’s biological race and ethnic identity made no difference in how the people of those two regions voted.  The votes cast for the two major parties in 2004, 2008, and 2012 instead show a regional preference among southern Appalachian people for candidates who have a regard for their culture and long-established way of life.

Roots of Disdain for Centralized Power

The anti-big-government mindset of the southern Appalachian voter was not forged in the British colonies or later in the United States.  It was born thousands of miles away and centuries ago in the contested spaces of Britain, Ireland, France, Wales, and the Palatine.  Because so many Protestant members of those nations were drawn to the north of Ireland during the reign of the Stuarts in the seventeenth century, it is difficult to know whether a person named John Sevier in East Tennessee should claim an Irish or French ethnicity.  The same can be said for descendants of Welsh, Scottish, and Germanic folk who live in Appalachia.  Nevertheless, just as the earliest immigrants from those lands brought their desire for religious liberty with them, they also brought to the western shores of the Atlantic a general disdain for centralized power in more secular matters.  In fact, what is often ignored is how the impetus for their migration to America was born in political oppression.  Beginning with the 1699 pro-English Woolens Act that was quickly followed by the discriminatory Test Act in 1703, many Ulster Protestants, regardless of ethnicity, could see that their lot on the emerald isle was changing.  The Woolens Act was aimed at protecting the economic interests of English producers of wool, so it restricted the sale of wool and woolen products from Ireland.  The Test Act was even more reprehensible to Protestants who worshipped outside of the Church of Ireland, which was an extension of the Church of England.  Members of Quaker, Baptist, and Presbyterian communities were not allowed to be married or buried unless the ceremony was conducted by the monarch’s clergy.  In fact, men and women who were married in either of those dissenting (non-official churches) were subject to arrest for illegal cohabitation.  The Test Act also led to the firing of workers from government offices, unless they joined the “official church.”  For some leaders among the Ulster Scots, the evolving political climate was made undeniably clear when George I suspended the Regium Donum, which was an annual payment to dissenting Protestant ministers that was instituted under Charles II some three decades earlier.  From 1699 to 1717, the plight of all Irish Protestants was made worse by a number of environmental problems, all perhaps symptomatic of the consequences of over-population; they included a smallpox epidemic, a disease that attacked sheep, and a protracted drought that temporarily paralyzed the flax-linen industry that was brought to Ulster by refuge-seeking French Huguenots after the revocation of Edit of Nantes in 1685. For Ulster Scots, the thought of returning to Scotland was dashed by the submission of their homeland to the rule of Westminster with the Union of Parliaments in 1707. With the absorption of Scotland into Britannia, punitive policies such as the revocation of the Regium Donum, and Woolens and Test Acts were inescapable on the eastern side of the Atlantic.  Adverse political and ecological conditions prepared many members of the Protestant population of Ulster to make a permanent trans-Atlantic crossing.  The “troubles” in Northern Ireland are the direct result of centuries-old government policies that granted preferential treatment to certain ethnic groups at the expense of others.  In fact, it has been pointed out by other writers that the Ulster element was disproportionately represented in the American Revolutionary Army, Andrew Jackson’s forces in the War of 1812, and the Confederacy.  It is worth pointing out that Andrew Jackson was the first American of Ulster descent to be elected to the office of president.  While it would take a much longer discussion to fully address how political policies left a bad taste in the mouths of the seed of Ulster, their experience with an oppressive government that pitted one ethnic group against another has made them especially repulsed by American politicians who have done the same.

It is important to point out at this juncture that a century after the exodus of Ulster Protestants the infamous Potato Famine added to the misery of politically oppressed Irish Catholics; for political and environmental reasons, millions of Irish Catholics were forced to leave for the “promised land” in America.  Unlike their Protestant counterparts who abhorred centralized religion and government, this portion of the Irish population saw refuge in their Catholic faith, which, at the time, was the largest and most geographically expansive social institution in Europe.  Also unlike their Protestant counterparts who settled in rural areas of the upland South, Irish Catholics arrived in America at about the same time as the Industrial Revolution.  Taking advantage of available work, they settled in urban centers in the northeast and along the Great Lakes.  Their settlement among other ethnic groups, who saw them as competition for jobs, arguably added to the newly arriving Irish immigrants’ view that an activist government could work to their political and economic advantage, although there was also a large contingency of Irish immigrants that came to the South during this time; Charleston, South Carolina, for instance, had one of the largest Irish Catholic populations in the United States prior to 1850.  The rise of the Kennedy dynasty in the northeast and the Daley clan of Chicago provide evidence of how they were able to get continually elected to office.

Conservative Voting Patterns Reflect Cultural Resilience

The lack of outrage among media personalities when Presidential candidate Barack Obama declared in 2008 that people who opposed his view of the world were “bitter clingers” shows how little they know about cultural diversity.  Just as the populations of Africa and Asia are made up thousands of ethnic groups, the descendants of Europeans represent dozens of ethnicities.  It is too tempting to think of voting patterns as nothing more than expressions of regional preferences for candidates.  Because of the simplistic way in which the federal government defines “cultural diversity,” which is based more on racial characteristics such as African-American or black, white, Asian, Native American, and Hispanics, than it is by ways of life, Americans are led to believe that all members of a particular racial group share the same culture.  Although the government recognizes that Hispanics can be of any race, it still sees a person of Costa Rican ancestry as the same as a Cuban American.  The government’s ethnic classification also views an American of Syrian origin as belonging to the same group as a person whose ancestors sailed on Viking long ships and thought Beowulf was a masterpiece when it was first published.  Those simplistic notions of ethnicity are far from the truth, including among Caucasians.  Ethnic values can be seen in regional voting patterns.

As a case in point, consider the differences between Appalachian voting patterns in Ohio and Alabama.  According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, 32 counties in Ohio are classified as Appalachian whereas 37 counties in Alabama are so named.  The 32 Appalachian counties in Ohio cast 54 percent of their ballots for George W. Bush in 2004.  In the same election, the 37 Appalachian counties in Alabama cast 66 percent of their votes for the Texan.  I conducted statistical tests on the 2004 voting patterns in the Appalachian counties of those two states, and there was a significant difference between them..[ii]  I then conducted further tests on the 2004, 2008, and 2012 voting patterns in Ohio’s Appalachian counties, and I found no significant difference among the three elections.[iii]  I also made a similar comparison with respect to those three elections in the Appalachian counties of Alabama.[iv]  As it turns out, there were no significant differences in the voting patterns among the counties in the uplands of that state.   This means that George W. Bush attracted the same percentage of votes as were cast for John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.  It also means that John Kerry and Barack Obama likewise attracted the same percentage of votes.


While uninformed observers may regard the voting patterns of southern Appalachian people as evidence of their desire to cling to their God and guns, a more thoughtful appraisal shows that their voting patterns demonstrate cultural resilience and a steadfast resistance to policies that pit one ethnic group against another.  I believe that the ethnic roots of the people who call these two sub-regions home have played roles in creating distinctive voting patterns between them.  Whereas the rural to rural settlement patterns among the folks who settled the hills and mountains of southern Appalachia helped to preserve old ways, the fact that until the recent arrival of ethnic Hispanics in the region there have been few new waves of immigrants to alter the overall impact of their voting patterns.  Given that Hispanics are heavily courted by Republicans and Democrats alike, it is anyone’s guess how this new group will vote in twenty years.  For the time being, at least, it looks as though newly franchised Hispanic voters in the South will vote with the Democrats.  An examination of other Appalachian counties in the Bible belt shows a similar pattern.  In Ohio, on the other hand, coal and industrial development in places like Youngstown helped make the eastern portion of the state a relatively attractive place to settle.  Ohio’s Appalachian counties have fairly large populations of eastern and southern Europeans.  Like their Irish Catholic counterparts, their ancestors began arriving in the mid-to-late nineteenth century; they brought with them very different views of religion and the state.  In contrast to the arguments of some pundits, neither sub-region of Appalachia produced more votes against Barack Obama in his two elections than were cast against John Kerry.  Failing to recognize the unique place that this region has in the American mosaic is unbecoming of leaders who claim to be the champions of cultural diversity.

Barry A. Vann has a Ph.D. in Historical Geography of Religion and teaches Geography at the University of the Cumberlands. He is the author of several articles and books, which include Rediscovering the South’s Celtic Heritage and Forces of Nature: Our Quest to Conquer the Planet

[i] Barry A. Vann, “Irish Protestants and the Creation of the Bible Belt,” Journal of Transatlantic Studies (2007), vol. 7, 1, pp. 87-106.

[ii] The results of the independent samples t-tests comparing Ohio and Alabama 2004 Republican vote percentages are (t[67] = 4.16, p < .001).

[iii] The ANOVA results for the comparison of the percentage of Republican votes for 2004, 2008, and 2012 in Ohio’s Appalachian counties are (F[2, 93] = .6618, p > .05).

[iv] The ANOVA results for the comparison of the percentage of Republican votes for 2004, 2008, and 2012 in Alabama’s Appalachian counties are (F[2, 108] = .3455, p > .05).

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