Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Keri Leigh Merritt, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2017)

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Keri Leigh Merritt, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2017)

Article excerpt

Keri Leigh Merritt, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2017)

IN 1857, A WHITE North Carolinian named Hinton Rowan Helper published The Impending Crisis of the South, a blistering assessment of the damages he saw wrought upon the South by the institution of slavery. To Helper, slavery retarded the economic and cultural development of the region relative to the free states, and he laid the blame for those limitations squarely at the feet of oligarchic elite slaveholders who falsely asserted that slavery served the interests of all white people. In fact, Helper concluded, slavery actively oppressed nonslaveholding whites by devaluing their labour and keeping them impoverished, ignorant, degraded, and without future prospects. Indeed, Helper insisted that poor white southerners effectively lived in a "second degree of slavery." (1)

Examining the circumstances of the nearly one third of white southerners in the antebellum era who owned neither land nor slaves, Keri Leigh Merritt maintains that in important ways, Helper was right. Slavery enriched slaveholders and it exploited poor white people, reducing demand for their work such that it was nearly worthless and pushing them to the economic margins with almost no hope for upward mobility or accumulating capital. Slaveholders in positions of power piled on. They used both legal authority and extralegal power to monitor, constrain, and control poor whites lest they create disorder, fight back politically, or even forge alliances across racial lines that could threaten slavery itself. Poor whites, in Merritt's account, lacked the privileges of whiteness that slaveholders often insisted slavery delivered to all white people whether or not they owned slaves. Moreover, poor whites knew it and they resented it, creating fissures in the supposed proslavery consensus among southern white people before and during the Civil War.

Merritt's depiction of the social positions and material lives of poor white southerners is utterly unsparing in its bleakness. She describes a southern world of severe economic stratification that only became more so over time. As slaveholders consolidated control over land and labour in the late antebellum period, they left poor whites mostly with the options of tenant farming, sharecropping, or competing with slaves for dangerous and poorly paid wage work. Poor whites faced sporadic employment and the constant need to be on the move to obtain the means of survival, all of which undermined the stability of their families and led a not small number of them to alcoholism, crime, or withdrawal from society altogether. Desperately poor women sometimes turned to prostitution, poor children sometimes ended up as bound labourers vulnerable to abuse, and as a class poor whites led lives of intense deprivation and ill health. Their existence was also suffused with a great deal of violence.

Getting out of what was effectively a cycle of poverty, meanwhile, was nearly impossible and, by Merritt's reckoning, it was designed as such. She argues that slaveholders preferred the masses of white people undereducated, and that they had no interest in creating a system of public schools that might have provided poor whites with avenues of advance, or at least the ability to write their own names. They also preferred poor whites politically impotent and disengaged, and therefore engineered something less than a true white democracy by making voting difficult, limiting the terms of political debates, and crafting apportionment schemes that were slanted toward the wealthy.

There were dangers involved with having such a large underclass. Merritt demonstrates how slaveholding elites systematically policed poor white people to keep a lid on any disorder. They especially sought to limit the potential disruption of slavery that they feared from an interracial underground economy and other activities by poor whites that crossed the colour line. …

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