400 years of poor white people in America

When I was a boy in western Maryland in the 1940s, I sometimes heard people say things like, “The Negroes aren’t so bad, compared to the poor white trash.”

The underlying meaning was that it was part of the nature of things for black people to be poor and marginalized, but there was something deeply wrong with white people who let themselves sink to the same status.

9whitetrash-iisenberg780670785971I just finished reading a book, WHITE TRASH: the untold 400-year history of class in America by Nancy Isenberg (2016), that tells how these attitudes go back literally to the first settlements at Plymouth Rock, Jamestown and before, and persist today.

Today’s poor rural Southern white people of today may literally be lineal descendants of the convicts, debtors, beggars, orphans, homeless vagrants and unemployed vagrants who were shipped to England’s North American colonies in the 17th century.

Many were victims of the enclosure movement, in which wealthy landowners privatized common lands formerly used by small or tenant farmers, leaving them without an obvious means of livelihood.  These displaced poor people were regarded as useless—much as workers replaced by automation are regarded by economists and corporate executives today.

The prevailing attitude then was that families were “the better sort” or “the meaner sort,” that they were “well-bred” or “ill-bred”.   Today we think of “good breeding” as applied to individual persons as meaning the person has been taught the proper way to behave.   Back then, roughneck poor people were regarded as inherently inferior.

Our American tradition is that the seeds of our nation were planted by freedom-seeking New England Puritans and adventurous Virginia Cavaliers.  This is true, but only a half-truth.    The ships that brought them to the New World also brought penniless, landless English poor people, who were regarded as surplus population.

What set the English poor white colonists apart was that they were not given land.  They were intended to be servants and field workers.  When black African slaves turned out to be more efficient and exploitable workers than indentured English servants, they lost even this role.

Even so some of the poor whites acquired property and a measure of social status.   White Trash is about the descendants of the ones that didn’t.

They fled to the western frontier of settlement.   But the wealthy and well-connected had already obtained title to most of the frontier land.  Poor whites became squatters.  They contended that clearing, improving and planting land gave them the right to have it; title-holders disagreed.  This was the source of much conflict both in the colonies and the newly-independent United States.

Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson were symbols of the frontier for eastern middle-class Americans in the early 1800s—both ignorant and uncouth, but the one a good-hearted figure of fun, the other violent, unpredictable and threatening.

As the Civil War drew near, the North and South developed two different views of the roles of poor whites.

Northern leaders envisioned a competitive society in which people rose by merit, and the losers didn’t matter.   The great New England reformers and philanthropists, who are rightly honored for defending the rights of black slaves and dispossessed Indians, had only contempt for poor white people in the South and the poor Irish immigrants in their midst.

In the South, leaders such as Jefferson Davis envisioned an aristocratic society, with well-born, well-educated and well-manned families on top, poor white workers in the middle and black slaves at the bottom.

They also rejected the values of the North, a society that recognized “mudsills and greasy mechanics” as social equals.   They despised the Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln for his humble origins, which was a big part of Lincoln’s political appeal in the North.

In the Civil War, poor whites in the Confederate Army fought as bravely as any Americans have ever fought.   Stonewall Jackson’s and Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troops won victories after marching barefoot and on short rations.

But not all Southern whites were willing to fight in defense of slavery.  Thousands of Southern whites fought for the Union.  Many others deserted from the Confederate Army and some even rose up in rebellion.   They particularly resented the rule that gave every Southern family one draft exemption for every slave they owned.

There was a parallel resentment of the economic elite in the North, which Isenberg doesn’t cover.   White working people, especially Irish immigrants, resented the role that allowed a man to evade the draft by hiring a substitute.  It took three days to quell draft riots in New York City.

Reconstruction following the Civil War was based on a political alliance of newly-freed slaves, Northern carpetbaggers and certain number loyal white scalawags, mostly of them drawn from the non-slaveholding class.   Political alliances between poor Southern black and white people also were attempted by the Populist movement of the 1880s and 1890s.

With the end of Reconstruction, the Southern aristocracy acted to break up any such alliance.  One of the purposes of the Jim Crow segregation laws, enacted in the 1890s, was to keep poor black and white people apart.

Techniques used to keep black people from voting, such as the poll tax and literacy tax, also limited voting among poor whites.  I read somewhere that the total voter turnout in the Presidential election of 1928 was less in all of the former Confederate states put together than in the single state of New York.

Alabama sharecropper family 1930s

Alabama sharecropper family 1930s (Medium)

During the New Deal era, reformers and left-wingers became champions of poor white people—sharecroppers in the South, striking coal miners in Appalachia, the “okie” migrants driven off the land by foreclosures and the Dust Bowl storms.   Of course the sharecroppers and miners included whites as well as blacks.

Researchers found that stunted growth and ill health, so common among poor whites, was due, not to heredity, but to poor nutrition and parasites such as ringworm.   The Tennessee Valley Authority elevated the living standards of a whole region.    The Kennedy brothers and Lyndon Johnson sought to help poor rural .

This changed during the civil rights era.  Progressives and leftists came to see poor rural Southern white people as enemies of racial integration, and then later on as enemies of abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, amnesty for unauthorized immigrants and other causes.

Meanwhile, as Isenberg relates, many middle-class Southern white people started to embrace the so-called redneck identity as an affirmation of their heritage and roots, much as middle-class class people embrace hip-hop and rap music.  They drive pickup trucks with little Confederate flags, listen to Country & Western music and go to gun shows and NASCAR races.

The final chapters of her book are devoted to images of Southern white people in the mass media—TV programs such as The Beverly Hillbillies, The Dukes of Hazzard and Duck Dynasty and public figures such as Elvis Presley, Andy Griffith, Dolly Parton and Tammy Faye Bakkerand also Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.   These chapters are more about social status than economic poverty.

When I was a boy, it was accepted that no Southerner (along with no black person, no woman and no Catholic or Jew) could be elected President of the United States.   Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton broke that barrier, but the so-called rednecks remain the only ethnic group that it is socially acceptable to ridicule.

Poor white people in colonial days were noted for being landless squatters.  Today poor white people are noted for living in trailer parks.  Isenberg wrote that social class is still based on land ownership and landlessness.


In this post, I made many sweeping generalizations in this post about poor Southern rural white people, and how they are regarded.  I did not intend to say anything hurtful or insulting to anyone.  All generalizations have many exceptions.  All people should be judged as individuals, not as members of an ethnic group or social class.  But it is necessary to generalize in order to understand the society we live in.


The Despair of Poor White America by Alec MacGillis for The Atlantic.

Scalawags, Rednecks, Mudsills and Swamp People: 400 Years on America’s Fringe by John Collins for In These Times.


Other Books to Read [Added 1/18/2017]

THE FREE STATE OF JONES: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War by Victoria Bynum (2016)

Victoria Bynum’s book is about the Knight Company, a self-organized militia of Confederate deserters and escaped slaves, who rebelled against the Confederacy during the Civil War.   Her account of the lives of the ancestors of Davis Knight and his followers, and their origins in the backwoods of the Carolinas during the American Revolution, gives a good picture of the lives of life on the southwestern frontier.

NIGHT COMES TO THE CUMBERLANDS: A Biography of a Depressed Area by Harry M. Caudill (1962)

Harry M. Caudill, a lawyer who lived all his life on the coal mining region of eastern Kentucky, wrote about his region’s history, culture and economic plight.  It gave a stark picture of what the people of the region were up against, and still are.  The book is out of print, but not out of date.  Look for it in the stacks of a public library.

DEER HUNTING WITH JESUS: Dispatches From America’s Class War by Joe Bageant (2007)

Joe Bageant, a native of Winchester, Va., who left and then returned in middle age, wrote t about life among struggling people who are despised by liberals and misled by conservatives.   It is the subject matter of a Thomas Frank combined with the writing style of a Hunter S. Thompson

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One Response to “400 years of poor white people in America”

  1. J Says:

    The division of people reminds me on what President Obama touched on during his farewell speech:
    If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class an and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves

    Of course he referenced white middle class, and the undeserving minority obtaining the same status. In his entire speech he mentions “work” 23 times and only “poor” one time. More specifically “rural poor”. It seems with work there’s plenty to go around, and poor is just an unappetizing word. I believe this is part of the problem. And the phrase “winners and loser” that you often read on the Wall Street Journal, or other media outlets.


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