White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg is brilliantly-titled to capture the Zeitgeist of the recent election. The author teaches “U.S. Women’s History” at Louisiana State University and the book is an interesting window into contemporary American academic thinking.

Some background:

British colonists promoted a dual agenda: one involved reducing poverty back in England, and the other called for transporting the idle and unproductive to the New World. After settlement, colonial outposts exploited their unfree laborers (indentured servants, slaves, and children) and saw such expendable classes as human waste. The poor, the waste, did not disappear, and by the early eighteenth century they were seen as a permanent breed.’

Long before they were today’s “trailer trash” and “rednecks,” they were called “lubbers” and “rubbish” and “clay-eaters” and “crackers”—and that’s just scratching the surface.

Here was England’s opportunity to thin out its prisons and siphon off thousands; here was an outlet for the unwanted, a way to remove vagrants and beggars, to be rid of London’s eyesore population. Those sent on the hazardous voyage to America who survived presented a simple purpose for imperial profiteers: to serve English interests and perish in the process.

The colonists were a mixed lot. On the bottom of the heap were men and women of the poor and criminal classes. Among these unheroic transplants were roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores, and an assortment of convicts shipped to the colonies for grand larceny or other property crimes, as a reprieve of sorts, to escape the gallows. Not much better were those who filled the ranks of indentured servants, who ranged in class position from lowly street urchins to former artisans burdened with overwhelming debts. They had taken a chance in the colonies, having been impressed into service and then choosing exile over possible incarceration within the walls of an overcrowded, disease-ridden English prison. Labor shortages led some ship captains and agents to round up children from the streets of London and other towns to sell to planters across the ocean—this was known as “spiriting.” Young children were shipped off for petty crimes. One such case is that of Elizabeth “Little Bess” Armstrong, sent to Virginia for stealing two spoons.

It remained difficult to find recruits who would go out and fell trees, build houses, improve the land, fish, and hunt wild game. The men of early Jamestown were predisposed to play cards, to trade with vile sailors, and to rape Indian women.

A variety of efforts were made to help foster a middle-class society, but they failed in the agricultural areas due to differential accumulation of land.

Unique among the American settlements, Georgia was not motivated by a desire for profit. Receiving its charter in 1732, the southernmost colony was the last to be established prior to the American Revolution. Its purpose was twofold: to carve out a middle ground between the extremes of wealth that took hold in the Carolinas, and to serve as a barrier against the Spanish in Florida. As such, it became the site of an unusual experiment. Conservative land policies limited individual settlers to a maximum of five hundred acres, thus discouraging the growth of a large-scale plantation economy and slave-based oligarchy such as existed in neighboring South Carolina. North Carolina squatters would not be found here either. Poor settlers coming from England, Scotland, and other parts of Europe were granted fifty acres of land, free of charge, plus a home and a garden. Distinct from its neighbors to the north, Georgia experimented with a social order that neither exploited the lower classes nor favored the rich. Its founders deliberately sought to convert the territory into a haven for hardworking families. They aimed to do something completely unprecedented: to build a “free labor” colony. According to Francis Moore, who visited the settlement in its second year of operation, two “peculiar” customs stood out: both alcohol and dark-skinned people were prohibited. “No slavery is allowed, nor negroes,” Moore wrote. As a sanctuary for “free white people,” Georgia “would not permit slaves, for slaves starve the poor laborer.”

Georgia also instituted a policy of keeping the land “tail-male,” which meant that land descended to the eldest male child. This feudal rule bound men to their families. The tail-male provision protected heirs whose poor fathers might otherwise feel pressure to sell their land. Many settlers disliked the practice. Hardworking families worried about the fate of their unmarried daughters, who might be left with nothing. One such complaint came from Reverend Dumont, a leader of French Protestants interested in migrating to Georgia. What would happen to widows “too old to marry or beget children,” he asked. And how could daughters survive, especially those “unfit for Marriage, either by Sickness or Evil Construction of their Body”?

Oglethorpe was fighting a losing battle. Many of the men demanding slaves were promised credit to buy slaves from South Carolinian traders. Slaves were a lure, dangled before poorer men in order to persuade them to put up their land as collateral. That is why Oglethorpe believed that a slave economy would have the effect of depriving vulnerable settlers of their land. Keeping out slavery went hand in hand with preserving a more equitable distribution of land. If the colony allowed settlers to have “fee simple” land titles (so they could sell their land at will), large-scale planters would surely come to dominate. He predicted in 1739 that, left to their own devices, the “Negro Merchants” would gain control of “all the lands in the Colony,” leaving nothing for “all the laboring poor white Men.”

In 1750, settlers were formally granted the right to own slaves. … A planter elite quickly formed, principally among transplants from the West Indies and South Carolina. By 1788, Carolinian Jonathan Bryan was the most powerful man in Georgia, with thirty-two thousand acres and 250 slaves. … By 1760, only 5 percent of white Georgians owned even a single slave, while a handful of families possessed them in the hundreds.

18th century Americans, including Benjamin Franklin, wanted white settlers to have as many kids as possible so as to build a larger labor force. On the other hand, people didn’t see the point of a welfare state plus a larger population to feed:

Franklin was not sympathetic to the plight of the poor. His design for the Pennsylvania Hospital in 1751 was intended to assist the industrious poor, primarily men with physical injuries. The permanent class of impoverished were not welcome; they were simply shooed over to the almshouse. He felt the English were too charitable, an opinion he based on observing German settlers in his own colony, who worked with greater diligence because they came from a country that offered its poor little in the way of relief. When he talked about the poor, he sounded like William Byrd. In complaining about British mobs of the poor that raided the corn wagons in 1766, he charged that England was becoming “another Lubberland.” Most men wanted a “life of ease,” Franklin concluded, and “freedom from care and labor.” Sloth was in itself a form of pleasure. This was why he contended that the only solution to poverty was some kind of coercive system to make the indigent work: “I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.” The poor’s instinct of being “uneasy in rest” had been impaired; so what they needed was a jolt (of electricity?) to work again.

To be continued…


3 thoughts on “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

  1. So the colonies were the first Australia? The place they sent all the undesirables? What about the narrative of it being a place for religious types — Puritan, Quakers, et. al. — to find liberation from the Anglican Church? That was all 6th-grade social studies hokum?

  2. David: From my reading of Australian history, we definitely were the first Australia. The American Revolution shut down what had been a useful dumping ground and that was a major motivation for the British to set up Australia (otherwise a poor choice due to distance, etc.).

    There was colony-to-colony variation in the extent to which, for example, convicted criminals were being dumped involuntarily. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penal_colony says that Maryland and Virginia were the main destinations for transported British convicts.

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