Many Excellent People: Power and Privilege in North Carolina, 1850-1900

Many Excellent People: Power and Privilege in North Carolina, 1850-1900

Many Excellent People: Power and Privilege in North Carolina, 1850-1900

Many Excellent People: Power and Privilege in North Carolina, 1850-1900


Many Excellent People examines the nature of North Carolina's social system, particularly race and class relations, power, and inequality, during the last half of the nineteenth century. Paul Escott portrays North Carolina's major social groups, focusing on the elite, the ordinary white farmers or workers, and the blacks, and analyzes their attitudes, social structure, and power relationships. Quoting frequently from a remarkable array of letters, journals, diaries, and other primary sources, he shows vividly the impact of the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Populism, and the rise of the New South industrialism on southern society.

Working within the new social history and using detailed analyses of five representative counties, wartime violence, Ku Klux Klan membership, stock-law legislation, and textile mill records, Escott reaches telling conclusions on the interplay of race, class, and politics. Despite fundamental political and economic reforms, Escott argues, North Carolina's social system remained as hierarchical and undemocratic in 1900 as it had been in 1850.


From its beginnings North Carolina seemed different from its Old South neighbors. Along the coast, colonists founded fewer large plantations and imported far fewer African workers than did the low-country planters to the north and south. In the backcountry small farmers with only a limited investment or belief in the slavery system far outnumbered would-be aristocrats. In the 1680s Governor Culpeper of Virginia dismissed North Carolina as "always . . . the sinke of America, the Refuge of our Renagadoes," and later patronizing Virginians like William Byrd referred to the colony as "poor Carolina." According to an old chestnut North Carolina was "a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit."

Though these stereotypes are true in many ways, they also are misleading. For North Carolina did evolve a powerful class of men who viewed themselves as aristocrats, men who may have drawn their wealth from commerce and manufacturing as much as from the soil but who nevertheless held beliefs as antidemocratic as those of a tidewater gentleman or low-country lord. Compared to their neighbors in Virginia and South Carolina, or still more to European nobility, these men hardly seemed aristocratic -- they were too simple, new, unpolished, and grasping. But their social position took its meaning from the conditions of life in a poor and undeveloped state. In that setting North Carolina had an aristocracy, and its leaders were powerful and hostile to democracy.

Despite recurrent challenge to the relatively closed and rigid social structure, this aristocracy has kept power tightly in its grasp for more than two centuries. In antebellum days the wealthy and influential were called the "gentry"; in 1949 political scientist V. O. Key, Jr., described the state's leadership as a "progressive plutocracy." Though the terminology changed, the fact of dominance by a small group remained constant, as did certain traits of this elite. From colonial times onward, these leaders often . . .

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