Poor Whites in the Antebellum U.S. South (Topical Guide)

Jeffrey Glossner of the University of Mississippi offers H-Slavery the most recent in a series of topical guides concerning the study of slavery. A preliminary draft circulated to the subscribers of H-Slavery for feedback on July 12, 2019 (available here). We thank Dr. Kars for her comment. This revised version was published on July 29, 2019.


Poor Whites in the Antebellum U.S. South

Jeffrey Glossner

University of Mississippi




As a topic of historical analysis, the poor whites of the antebellum U.S. South have received little sustained interest despite being a significant portion of southern society and a presence that loomed over the North-South sectional crisis over slavery. Historians, at times, have pointed to white supremacy to explain the lack of poor white resistance to the slave labor system and the absence of a class consciousness that united southern laborers across the color line. Despite deep economic divisions among southern whites, the lack of a poor white voice in the historical record has led historians to downplay their influence on society. Yet, historians have located a distinct class of landless poor white people who constituted a political and social problem to the ruling class of the antebellum South, giving pause to the tendency to lump white southerners into a homogeneous whole. The southern poor white also has a complex history as an idea, appearing as an internal threat to the stability of the South and a rhetorical weapon wielded by antislavery northerners. Elite southerners justified slavery as a social system that elevated all whites above black enslaved laborers. Therefore, the presence of a large class of poor white people in the South created a fundamental problem for the southern ruling class as it sought to shore up slavery in the face of antislavery attacks. Samuel C. Hyde Jr., in his historiographical essay on “non-elite southerners,” observed that historians, as of 2002, had thus far failed to concretely define the difference between groups of white southerners (Hyde Jr., 2002). Recent work, though, is pushing us towards a more nuanced view of these people, finding that deep class divisions were reflected in racial, gender, and political ideology as well as in cultural images. Poor southern whites continue to be an under-analyzed population of the antebellum South, but, increasingly, historians have found them to be an important and revealing class that can be used to illuminate underlying tensions related to race and class in this critical period. Readers interested the topics addressed here should also see Hyde’s essay along with David Brown’s article (2013) and the introduction to Keri Leigh Merritt’s recent book, Masterless Men (2017).


Plain Folk and Poor Whites


The earliest academic work on antebellum poor white southerners downplayed their social significance and argued they did not oppose the slave labor system because of their racism. These historians saw poor whites as a large and distinct class that posed challenges for southern elites but found that elites were able to persuade them into supporting slavery through the promise of privilege under white supremacy (Buck, 1925; Craven, 1930; Phillips, 1929). In contrast, Frank Owsley, in his Plain Folk of the Old South (1949) argued that the vast majority of non-slave owners were not “poor white trash” but landowning self-sufficient farmers. These “plain folk” did not resent the planter class but looked up to them as examples of what they could become. A common southern culture united the plain folk and they were relatively happy with their lot amongst the bounty that southern life provided. Owsley’s work set the stage for a historiographical undertaking to illuminate the “average” southerner, an effort that largely downplayed the importance of class differences and thusly the importance of poor whites to the antebellum South.


Historians would continue to argue that southern white society was far more united by their common cultural and religious heritage than divided by their class differences. Eugene Genovese, for example, argued that racial hegemony convinced non-slave owners at large to adopt the social ethos of the planter aristocracy (Genovese, 1975). Other historians found deep economic inequality and resentment of the planter class but continued to adhere to Owsley’s plain folk thesis. Bruce Collins argued that the agricultural abundance of the South mitigated the suffering of the poor and allowed for social bonding between different classes of whites (Collins, 1985). Similarly, William J. Harris stressed an agrarian based republican ideal of white supremacy that united the vast majority of whites in defense of slavery (Harris, 1985). Bill Cecil-Fronsman found that poor whites and non-slave owners in North Carolina often clashed with the planter elite, but that racial hegemony diffused class conflict and diverted poor white energies toward conflict with enslaved blacks (Cecil-Fronsman, 1992). The plain folk thesis presented non-elite white southerners as a largely homogeneous and harmonious group, which in turn resulted in the downplaying of class as an important framework by which to view southern antebellum society.


The study of poor white interaction with enslaved blacks has provided one way for historians to illuminate the tensions that the presence of poor whites created. Craven found that the lifestyles of poor whites and slaves were similar and that poor whites participated in a biracial alcohol trade that created significant anxiety among slave owners (Craven, 1930). Later, Genovese highlighted how slaves held poor whites in contempt despite their interactions. Slaves perceived poor whites to be of a lower social status than other white southerners and often expressed a perception that they themselves were more respected than lower-class whites (Genovese, 1977). More recently, Timothy J. Lockley claimed that grouping white southerners together has led historians to overlook a more complex understanding of racial prejudice in which some non-slave owning whites often found personal interest in cooperation and alliance with black southerners (Lockely, 2001). Jeff Forret has similarly argued that the ways that slaves and poor whites interacted did not reflect a rigidly enforced racial hierarchy or social structure. Southern elites were very concerned with such interaction, especially in the late-antebellum period as they sought to shore up slavery and unite white southerners under the banner of white supremacy (Forret, 2006). The specter of slave insurrection added another element of elite fear to these interactions. Whether real or imagined, elite southerners believed that poor white meddling with enslaved blacks was a main cause of slave disloyalty and rebellion. Laurence Shore observed that the specter of rebellion exacerbated class tensions by forcing slave owners to contemplate the loyalty of non-slave owners to protect the slave system. Shore, and later Joshua D. Rothman, placed anxieties about poor white and slave interaction at the center of an insurrectionary panic that swept Mississippi in 1835 (Shore, 1982). For Rothman, these anxieties reflected the instability and social divisions of a slave society in the midst of a speculative cotton boom (Rothman, 2012).


As the plain folk thesis began to break down, historians started to explore the lives of poor southern whites in a more earnest and systematic way. In Poor Whites of the Antebellum South (1994), Charles Bolton defined poor whites as landless white tenants and laborers who had little to no property and found this group to be numerous and distinct from the landowning yeomen middle-class. While Bolton found poor whites to be a source of political tension, he argued that the class had little influence on southern social and political development. Separation of poor whites from the plain folk has also challenged the idea of herrenvolk democracy. This concept was originally applied to the non-slave owners of the antebellum South by historian George Fredrickson, who argued that racial prejudice and democratic culture merged into an ideological outlook that united the South’s “plain folk” with the slave owning elite in defense of slavery (Fredrickson, 1971, 1981). As David Brown argues, herrenvolk democracy could be applied to the yeomen middle-class but it did not extend to unpropertied white southerners who stood outside the mainstream of southern social culture (Brown, 2013). This social marginalization was particularly acute in regard to poor white women. Victoria E. Bynum has illustrated that the structures of the southern economy were even more difficult for women to penetrate due to the strict gender roles that defined the southern patriarchal social order. Poor southern white women had little chance of marrying into wealth or obtaining gainful employment let alone of entering the ranks of the extended plantation or yeomen family that represented the boundaries of respectable southern social culture (Bynum, 1992). Keri Leigh Merritt’s Masterless Men constitutes the most recent and extensive effort at challenging the idea of a united white antebellum South. Highlighting growing wealth inequality in the 1840s and 50s, Merritt explains that the class of landless poor whites was growing at the same time that the cotton boom was making the South increasingly wealthy. Finding a budding class consciousness instead of a race based social unity, Merritt argues that the southern ruling class went to great lengths to prevent poor whites from challenging the class and racial boundaries of southern society. While race was always a powerful social boundary in this period, support for slavery varied greatly among the lower class and some poor whites even challenged the planter class through the creation of labor organizations. For Merritt, the politics of white supremacy would always be met with tension in a slave society where an increasingly large group of white people understood that they would never own slaves (Merritt, 2017).


Poor Whites and Southern Culture


Historians often address poor southern whites in terms of their cultural image. This image saw its genesis in the colonial period, became entrenched in the antebellum period, and has since become a pervasive cultural stereotype. Placing poor whites into the context of antebellum southern culture helps to illustrate why they were marginalized from southern society as well as why they posed such a problem to elite efforts at defending the southern slave labor system. Poor whites did not live up to the ideals of mainstream southern social and cultural norms, which emphasized the importance of slavery, property ownership, and patriarchal responsibility. Though, in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, cultural historians presented non-slave owning southerners as having their own cultural heritage. This framework explained southern poverty not as a product of the slave labor system but of a cultural determinism that applied to the vast majority of the South’s plain folk. Wayne Flynt defined poor whites broadly and argued that they constitute a distinct ethnic minority with its own common Anglo heritage (Flynt, 1979). Similarly, Grady McWhiney found a “cracker culture” that dominated amongst the majority of non-slave owning southerners who were of Celtic heritage. For McWhiney, white poverty in the South was a choice driven by adhesion to a cultural ethos that did not value materialistic pursuits (McWhiney, 1989). According to James M. Denham, this cracker culture explains why the mass of non-elite southerners were content with migratory lives based in independent self-reliance and exerted little resistance against the slave owning elite (Denham, 1994).


As the plain folk thesis fell out of vogue with social historians, cultural historians began to take a look at the ways in which cultural developments reflected deeper social divisions. Bynum uses gender analysis to illustrate how southern cultural ideals disconnected poor white woman from their communities. The ideal of southern womanhood was based in an ideology of racial and gender control that grew out of the slave labor system and its constituent patriarchal structures. Poor white women could not live up to the ideals that defined this culture as they were based in connection to the slave owning community and marriage within a respectable family. Furthermore, behaviors outside of those ascribed to respectable white southern women, in particular sexual interaction with black men, was defined in southern social culture as deviant behavior (1992). In her study of antebellum literary representations, Susan Tracy argued that the image of the lazy criminal poor southern white was the product of efforts to defend slavery and southern society from antislavery attacks. In order to project social harmony in southern literature, poor white men either had to be ignored or marginalized as failed southern patriarchs (Tracy, 1995). Matt Wray’s analysis of the poor white stereotyping highlights the importance of the “white trash” moniker in merging American ideas of race with assumptions about class. Being at once a signifier of race and of class status, the term suggests that these two categories of analysis should be viewed as symbiotic and not as in tension with one another (Wray, 2006). Similarly, Nancy Isenberg argues that antebellum southerners justified the presence of poor whites by classifying them as a kind of distinct race of white people. This elite engagement with poor whites was the product of the rationalization of economic realities and the need to justify the American ideals of independence and self-sufficiency that seemed unattainable to so many poor white people (Isenberg, 2016).


Poor Whites and the Coming of the Civil War


Historians have occasionally used class tensions involving poor whites to explain the coming of the Civil War, though concerns over racial and sectional conflict have overshadowed this aspect.  By 1860 virtually all southern white men could vote, regardless of their economic lot. This gave impetus to elite fears that non-slave owners could turn against slavery. In the 1970s, social historians attempted to shift the focus of secessionist studies away from external threats against slavery and towards internal race and class tensions. Social history provided a new way to look at the coming of the Civil War through the lens of internal southern class conflict. With this new framework, secession became a rational response to both external and internal threats to slavery. William Barney and Michael Johnson both argued that elite southerners were driven to secession due to fears of black and white interaction and class solidarity. The planter class turned to appeals to white supremacy in an attempt to wed poor non-slave owners to proslavery politics but ultimately saw secession as a way to separate this group from a potential national alliance with the antislavery Republican Party (Barney, 1972, 1974; Johnson 1977). Stephen Channing argued that paranoia over abolitionist infiltration and the potential for the spread of slave insurrection magnified these fears (Channing, 1974).


Elite southerners perceived that class tensions with poor whites constituted a political problem. Multiple works (Watson, 1985; Ford, 1988; McCurry, 1995) have helped to explain why the yeomen middle-class, as opposed to poor whites, aligned with the planter class, especially through their beliefs in mainstream cultural and political ideas of independence, personal liberty, and patriarchy. These ideologies depended on slavery as a racial buffer to elevate white southerners. For the southern yeomen, especially those in slave owning districts, secession was a rational response to threats against slavery and their way of life.


The distinction between the yeomen class and poor whites helps to illustrate why the presence of a class disconnected from slavery was a problem for elite southerners who were fending off northern antislavery attacks. Isenberg explains that the tension created by class frictions in the South drove southern elites to turn the sectional conflict into a class conflict. Northern antislavery advocates put forth an economic vision in which free labor kept white men out of competition with enslaved black labor. In order to turn the free labor argument on its head, proslavery advocates emphasized that while the social hierarchy in the South was predicated on race in the North it was dictated by class. Therefore, elite southerners argued, the slave labor system elevated poor white men because they would never be part of the lowest class of society like they could be in the North (Isenberg, 2016). Furthermore, Merritt has located the presence of organizational resistance to proslavery politics from poor whites. This provides us some much-needed insight into some of the on-the-ground pressures being exerted by poor whites against the slave-owning ruling class. Elite appeals to poor whites after Lincoln’s election emphasized racial violence and amalgamation and the potential loss of white racial status that could come along with abolition or the prevention of slavery’s expansion. Ultimately, Merritt argues, southern leaders resorted to vigilante violence and intimidation in order to assure limited poor white meddling and antislavery activism during the secession crisis (Merritt, 2017). Merritt’s work is a huge step forward in understanding the influence of poor whites on secessionist thought, though this large and influential group needs to be further integrated into scholarship on the coming of the Civil War. This includes study into regional variation. Areas with larger slave populations seemed to have more acute fears of poor whites, despite the dominance of elite political interests there. And regions with fewer slave owners and more poor whites, such as western Virginia and eastern Tennessee, were less likely to support secessionist ideology. As Bynum points out, regional variation in wealth, slave ownership, and racial and gender make-up are often prescriptive of the ideology and behavior within those respective regions (Bynum, 1992). Comparative analysis of regional engagement with poor white southerners could help to illuminate the different ways that poor whites influenced developments in the antebellum period.




As the historiography now stands, poor whites have been defined as a distinct and separate group, both economically and culturally, from the mass of middling non-slave owning antebellum white southerners. Historians have established that this group was important to the world around them, especially in the context of the sectional conflict over slavery. Continued work is needed to understand the material reality of the lives of poor whites and how they influenced surrounding social and political structures. Finding the ways in which their influence radiated through southern society can give us an understanding of poor whites that is lost in the biased accounts handed down by elite contemporaries. The social and cultural history of this period needs to be further integrated to disentangle image-making from social reality. Poor white southerners were referenced regularly in the South and the North and it is clear that their presence was of profound influence within the context of the sectional conflict over slavery. While their voices are often unheard, we can gauge the broader importance of their presence through the social, political, and cultural developments of the period.





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