When US president Donald Trump recently asked, “Why was there the Civil War?” and advanced the notion that his predecessor, Andrew Jackson, was angry about it, historians were quick to point out that Jackson died 15 years before the war began. But there is a thread that unifies Jackson’s era to Lincoln’s: the rise in prevalence of white Southern poverty over that time, and its impact on politics and the question of slavery. Historian Nancy Isenberg documents this in an excerpt from her recent book, WHITE TRASH: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America:
“Everywhere they are just alike, possess pretty much the same characteristics, the same vernacular, the same boorishness, and the same habits . . . everywhere, Poor White Trash.” — Daniel Hundley, Social Relations in Our Southern States (1860)
The sectional crisis that led to America’s Civil War dramatically reconfigured the democratic language of class identity. The lowly squatter remained the focus of attention, but his habitat had changed: He was now, singularly, a creature of the slave states. The terminology for poor southern whites changed too. Neither squatter nor cracker was the label of choice anymore. Dirt-poor southerners living on the margins of plantation society became even more repugnant as “sandhillers” and pathetic, self-destructive “clay-eaters.” It was at this moment that they acquired the most enduring insult of all: “poor white trash.” The southern poor were not just lazy vagrants; now they were odd specimens in a collector’s cabinet of curiosities, a diseased breed, and the degenerate spawn of a “notorious race.” A new nomenclature placed the lowly where they would become familiar objects of ridicule in the modern age.
Though “white trash” appeared in print as early as 1821, the designation gained widespread popularity in the 1850s. The shift seemed evident in 1845 when a newspaper reported on Andrew Jackson’s funeral procession in Washington City. As the poor crowded along the street, it was neither crackers nor squatters lining up to see the last hurrah of Old Hickory. Instead, it was “poor white trash” who pushed the poor colored folk out of the way to get a glimpse of the fallen president.
What made the ridiculed breed so distinctive? Its ingrained physical defects. In descriptions of the mid- nineteenth century, ragged, emaciated sandhillers and clay-eaters were clinical subjects, the children prematurely aged and deformed with distended bellies. Observers looked beyond dirty faces and feet and highlighted the ghostly, yellowish white tinge to the poor white’s skin—a color they called “tallow.” Barely acknowledged as members of the human race, these oddities with cotton-white hair and waxy pigmentation were classed with albinos. Highly inbred, they ruined themselves through their dual addiction to alcohol and dirt. In the 1853 account of her travels in the South, Swedish writer Fredrika Bremer remarked that in consuming the “unctuous earth,” clay-eaters were literally eating themselves to death.
White trash southerners were classified as a “race” that passed on horrific traits, eliminating any possibility of improvement or social mobility. If these Night of the Living Dead qualities were not enough, critics charged that poor whites had fallen below African slaves on the scale of humanity. They marked an evolutionary decline, and they foretold a dire future for the Old South. If free whites produced feeble children, how could a robust democracy thrive? If whiteness was not an automatic badge of superiority, a guarantee of the homogeneous population of independent, educable freemen, as Jefferson imagined, then the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were unobtainable.
Jefferson’s language of upward mobility had lost ground in the antebellum South. Jacksonian celebrations of the intrepid backwoodsman faded from view as well. By the 1850s, in the midst of fierce debates over slavery and its expansion into the West, poor whites assumed a symbolic role in sectional arguments. Northerners, especially those who joined the Free Soil Party (1848) and its successor, the Republican Party (1854), declared that poor whites were proof positive of the debilitating effects of slavery on free labor. A slave economy monopolized the soil, while closing off opportunities for non-slaveholding white men to support their families and advance in a free-market economy. Slavery crushed individual ambition, inviting decay and death, and draining vitality from the land and its vulnerable inhabitants. Poor whites were the hapless victims of class tyranny and a failed democratic inheritance. As George Weston wrote in his famous pamphlet The Poor Whites of the South (1856), they were “sinking deeper and more hopelessly into barbarism with every succeeding generation.”
Proslavery southerners took a different ideological turn, defending class station as natural. Conservative southern intellectuals became increasingly comfortable with the notion that biology was class destiny. In his 1860 Social Relations in Our Southern States, Alabamian Daniel Hundley denied slavery’s responsibility for the phenomenon of poverty, insisting that poor whites suffered from a corrupt pedigree and cursed lineage. Class was congenital, he believed, and he used the clever analogies of “runtish forefathers” and “consumptive parents” to explain away the plight of impoverished rural whites. For Hundley and many others, it was bloodline that made poor whites a “notorious race.” Bad blood and vulgar breeding told the real story of white trash.
Hundley’s ideology appealed broadly. Many northerners, even those who opposed slavery, saw white trash southerners as a dangerous breed. No less an antislavery symbol than Harriet Beecher Stowe agreed with the portrait penned by the Harvard-educated future Confederate Hundley. Though she became famous (and infamous) for her bestselling antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Stowe’s second work told a different story. In Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), she described poor whites as a degenerate class, prone to crime, immorality, and ignorance. North Carolinian Hinton Rowan Helper published The Impending Crisis of the South (1857), which many consider the most important book of the 19th century. He sold over 140,000 copies, making his the most popular exposé of slavery’s oppression of poor whites. Helper’s South was a “cesspool of degradation and ignorance,” and poor white trash a dwarfed, duped, and sterile population bound for extinction. In this and other ways, the unambiguous language of class crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and bound political opponents in surprising ways. We are taught that the Civil War was principally a contest about the sustainability of a world predicated on black enslavement. We are not told the whole story, then, because social insecurities and ongoing class tensions preoccupied the politicized population too, and exerted a real and demonstrable impact on the fractured nation—before, during, and after those four concentrated years of unprecedented bloodletting.
This excerpt is from WHITE TRASH: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg, published on April 4, 2017 by Penguin Random House. © Nancy Isenberg, 2016. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.