Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Plain Folk Reconsidered: Historiographical Ambiguity in Search of Definition

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Plain Folk Reconsidered: Historiographical Ambiguity in Search of Definition

Article excerpt

STUDENTS OF SOUTHERN HISTORY ARE FAMILIAR WITH THE TERMS PLANTER, plain folk, and poor white. Most will acknowledge an understanding of who enjoyed status as a planter and who was a poor white, but the characteristics of plain folk are neither as clearly defined nor as well understood. This article examines the ambiguity surrounding the term plain folk, considers the reasons that its precise definition has remained elusive, and analyzes the historiographical usage that has perpetuated the imprecision. Then, after demonstrating the persistence of ambiguity and imprecision, the article employs statistical data derived from the 1850 census to suggest a precise definition of plain folk, a definition designed to advance the research on social groupings in the antebellum South.

Many historians resist the idea that class is a useful category of analysis for the history of the United States and the American South. For the South in particular, race is often assumed to trump class as a marker of group identity. Scores of southern historians, inspired by such studies as Edmund S. Morgan's groundbreaking American Slavery, American Freedom, identify events like Nathaniel Bacon's 1676 rebellion in Virginia as critical determinants in the departure from old-world class identity to new-world racial divisions. While Morgan's perspective on the dominance of race among social characteristics remains open to debate, few would dispute that class differences among antebellum white southerners were muted by the presence of African slaves. (1)

Racism was the flux that melded rich and poor whites together into a classless blend defined by their common whiteness. More than sixty years ago W. J. Cash labeled this racial affinity the "proto-Dorian" bond. As Cash interpreted it, proto-Dorian pride provided the white elite with reliable allies in the effort to subjugate and exploit blacks, while, in turn, the common man became an extension of the ruling class simply because his skin was white. According to Cash, "The grand outcome was the almost complete disappearance of economic and social focus on the part of the masses." (2) Such conditions, augmented by the non-elite white's "blindness to his real interests, his lack of class feeling and of social and economic focus," led, in Cash's view, to a "solid South" where "farmer and white-trash were welded into an extraordinary and positive unity of passion and purpose with the planter...." (3)

These observations help to explain not only the forces motivating the average Confederate soldier but also the resistance to social change common in much of the twentieth-century South. However, these assertions of a solid South obfuscate the social and economic complexities present in the antebellum South. Racially inspired unity did not contribute to the emergence of a homogeneous identity among antebellum white southerners. But emphasis on white racial unity has ensured that social distinctions among white southerners were only a secondary focus of scholarship. This study neither seeks to qualify the power of racial solidarity as a social determinant nor claims that something other than race-based polemics forged the southern political character. Instead, it focuses on identity among antebellum white southerners, suggesting that, even if class divisions were muted, social and economic distinctions were real and are now imprecisely defined for a variety of reasons. The difficulties of social identitification--whether in reference to class, culture, or political condition--focus on the middling group of southerners.

"So, who were the plain folk?" asked a member of the audience during a session on southern plain folk at a recent meeting of the Southern Historical Association. The question clearly challenged those assembled; the blunt query virtually silenced the panelists and aroused only a few speculations from the large audience. This meager response demonstrated the lack of consensus with regard to the characteristics of the common folk of the Old South. …

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