A Vagabond's Tale: Poor Whites, Herrenvolk Democracy, and the Value of Whiteness in the Late Antebellum South

Article excerpt

WILLIAM BYRD FAMOUSLY RECORDED A SCATHING DESCRIPTION OF poor whites in 1728 while surveying the border between his native Virginia and neighboring North Carolina: "Surely there is no place in the world where the inhabitants live with less labour than in North Carolina. It approaches nearer to the description of Lubberland than any other, by the great felicity of the climate, the easiness of raising provisions, and the slothfulness of the people." Byrd compared these men to their Native American counterparts, as both groups supposedly "impose all the work upon the poor women." Indeed, while "wives rise out of their beds early in the morning" to work, their husbands "lie and snore, till the sun has run one third of his course." Once awake, "after stretching and yawning for half an hour, they light their pipes"; but if it is too cold when they finally "venture out into the open air.... they quickly return shivering into the chimney corner." Even in more temperate climes, "they stand leaning with both their arms upon the corn-field fence, and gravely consider whether they had best go and take a small heat at the hoe: but generally find reasons to put it off till another time." Byrd concluded, "Thus they loiter away their lives, like Solomon's sluggard, with their arms across, and at the winding up of the year scarcely have bread to eat." It was "a thorough aversion to labor that makes people file off to North Carolina, where plenty and a warm sun confirm them in their disposition to laziness for their whole lives." (1)

Alabamian Daniel R. Hundley published a remarkably similar character assassination of poor whites 132 years later. "[W]ives and daughters spin and weave the wool or cotton," he wrote, while men pursue "idle habits--hunting, beef-shooting, gander-pulling, marble-playing, card-playing, and getting drunk." Laziness was "[t]he chief characteristic of Rag Tag and Bobtail," who wish "to live from hand to mouth; to get drunk, provided they can do so without having to trudge too far after their liquor; to shoot for beef; to hunt; to attend gander pullings; to vote at elections; to eat and to sleep; to lounge in the sunshine of a bright summer's day, and to bask in the warmth of a roaring wood fire, when summer days are over." These observations were made in very different contexts--colonial Carolina was barely more than a frontier settlement, while Alabama in 1860 was a flourishing, dynamic slave state--but the disdain with which both authors viewed their subjects was abundantly clear. From the lethargic and lackadaisical lifestyle, sustained by exploiting women, to the love of the warm sun and home fire, Hundley's poor white men were the descendants of those Byrd described. This group seemingly transcended time, ignoring the rules of historical evolution. "The instructive lessons of history convey no intelligence to such minds; the experience of the past serves not to guide their footsteps," Hundley declared. (2)

The "poor white trash" stereotype is one of the most enduring in the history of the American South, and the sentiments of Byrd and Hundley have been echoed by many others from a wide variety of perspectives. An array of authors and polemicists in the nineteenth century, from abolitionists to travel writers, were followed by playwrights, novelists, and film directors in the twentieth, producing works that collectively reaffirmed the basic traits of laziness, illiteracy, and debauchery. Surprisingly, perhaps, southern historians have also encouraged this stereotype. In the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, they did not make the poor white lifestyle seem quite as carefree as did Byrd and Hundley, but scholars wrote with equal disdain. Ulrich B. Phillips's classic Life and Labor in the Old South (1929) was one of few works to recognize significant status differences within the nonslaveholding ranks in different parts of the South. "Sweeping statements are likely to be as false as they are facile," Phillips conceded, and he warned that poor whites and yeomen were "two classes often but erroneously confused. …