Before readers get their drawers in an uproar, I should explain that my title merely repeats the title of a new book by historian Nancy Isenberg: White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (Viking: 2016). And a very fine book it is. I have to confess to an ingrained prejudice against the title group most typified by the Trump supporters who seem drawn in large part from this class. But reading Isenberg’s book opened my eyes to the long history of contempt, exploitation and prejudice faced by what may be a dying breed, and made me rather more sympathetic than I would otherwise be. To begin with, Isenberg takes great pains to show that the contempt for both America as a colony and the vagrants and beggars who would largely populate it had a long history in England. Starting from the earliest colonial forays, the English saw the new continent as “an outlet for the unwanted, a way to remove vagrants and beggars, to be rid of London’s eyesore population” (10). More than that, they saw America as not just a source of fertility and income, but moreso as a “place of outstanding wastes, ‘ranke’ and weedy backwaters, dank and sorry swamps” (10), literally a “waste-land” in itself and a convenient repository for “waste” people. Ship captains in London actually rounded up children from the streets of London to sell to planters across the ocean—it was known as “spiriting.” Those and others like them sold into indentured servitude were virtual slaves, unable to move or marry, subject to whippings, and able to be sold (the master could sell the indentured contract to another master.)
Accordingly, early tracts on the new land, like a famous one from Richard Hakluyt, saw America as “one giant workhouse,” a place where the waste people of England “could be converted to economic assets. The land and the poor could be harvested together…” (21). The language used could be even more graphic: to cure the “plague” of poverty in England, the colonies were called “emunctories, excreting human waste from the body politic” (an emunctory is a human organ like a kidney that serves to carry off wastes). And what Isenberg is at great pains to demonstrate is simple: this English class system that saw the poor as societal “waste” to be excreted was replicated in the new world and the new nation. In Virginia, for example, a planter elite quickly took over the best lands, grew rich on tobacco, and exploited not just slaves but their indentured servants. A 1662 Virginia law stipulated that children remained servants until age twenty-four; servants were classified as “chattel, as movable goods and property,” essentially equivalent to livestock. The same social system pertained among the Puritans in Boston. Far from being the cradle of democracy (Governor Winthrop labeled democracy “the meanest and worst of all forms of government”), Puritan Boston was dominated by class divisions where children were essentially the servants of their father, and where the “first slave cargo arrived in 1638” (31). The big divider in Boston and elsewhere was land. The landless were without station, without election, without power of any kind; their only recourse was to escape (usually to the frontier). The same held in Virginia. “The most promising land was never equally available to all,” because the “royal surveyors made sure that large planters had first bids on new, undeveloped land, and so the larger tracts were increasingly concentrated in fewer hands” (37).
This was dramatically clarified in Bacon’s Rebellion, which took place in 1676 in Virginia. Vagrants, frontiersmen, indentured servants and slaves all joined Bacon in rebellion, and were known to the powerful as “offscourings.” The word means “human fecal waste,” and it indicates both the contempt of the landowning elite for the marginal landless, and their fear that a united underclass might lead to bigger and far more lethal rebellions. One result was a hardening of racial lines and the more formalized class divisions in the South. Isenberg tells us about the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (1669), written by none other than that great hero of the founding fathers, John Locke. According to Isenberg, Locke’s tract not only endorsed slavery, it promoted “a semi-feudalistic and wholly aristocratic society” with noble titles taken from Germany (‘landgraves’), and categories of inherited servitude (“leet-men” were like serfs, tied to the land and their lord). Through it all—through the splitting of Carolina into North and South, with the South dominated by slavery; and the attempt by James Oglethorpe to create a slave-less colony in Georgia where poor whites could prosper with hard work—the contempt for and exploitation of poor whites continued. They were considered a new breed of human: lazy, slothful, interested only in procreating their miserable kind. Robert Byrd described Carolina as “lubberland,” a swamp of inferior, ungovernable people who had no desire or ability to make the land productive or profitable, and therefore literally “waste-land.”
In this situation, the main solution for poor, landless whites was escape to the “unoccupied” lands of the west. Indeed, the populating of the lands from the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi River was done mainly by the white squatters who simply squatted on land, built a shack on it, and survived as best they could. It was, Isenberg reminds us, “a recapitulation of the English tactic of getting rid of its ‘waste’ by shipping it west to the colonies” (105)—in this case, the territories west towards the Mississippi. And the attitude toward this “waste people” was the same on the part of the landed elites in the colonies as it had been by the British earlier: contempt. These frontier squatters did eventually get their heroes and representatives. Andrew Jackson was probably the first of note, dubbed the backwoods president who represented ‘cracker country.’ Daniel Boone was another—a Congressional hero in a coonskin cap who epitomized the frontier virtues of fighting spirit, contempt for Indians, and a love of boasting. Isenberg quotes James Agee about this latter trait, said to derive from the shame ‘crackers’ were said to be covering: “The poor…have merely internalized a kind of ‘anesthesia,’ which numbs them against the ‘shame and insult of discomforts, insecurities, and inferiorities’” (228).
Contempt or not, the elites were always ready to use the poor to fight in wars. Just as they formed the main battalions in the Revolutionary War, they were also the mainstay of the Confederate forces. Plantation owners were able to do this by redirecting “the hostility of the South’s own underclass, the nonslaveholding poor whites” (159) towards both the black slaves and the northerners trying to free them. Even though they themselves had been called the “degenerate race” before the war, now poor whites were told that Yankees were actually the degenerates, with an agenda not just of abolishing slavery, but “inciting class revolution in the South” (158). Such propaganda was necessary because it was common knowledge that this was “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” The rich could hire substitutes to fight in their place, while the poor were subject to a conscription that targeted all males from seventeen to fifty. As a result, there was strong resistance to the draft and to the war itself, with thousands deserting a Confederacy many felt little attachment to. Perhaps they knew what they were doing after all: in the reconstruction overseen by Pres. Andrew Johnson (himself a southerner), more whites than blacks actually got federal relief, with hundreds of thousands living off “Uncle Sam’s rations” (178).
This may help us to understand how the current politics of “redirecting white hostility” continues to work. That is, despite the fact that in recent years white trash has become almost chic, a virtual ‘ethnic identity’—with Elvis Presley a culture hero; with Andy Griffiths a TV hero; with NASCAR an entertainment phenomenon that tops the charts; and with Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton winning landslide victories for the presidency—the Republican party, since at least Richard Nixon’s southern strategy, still depends on the white population in the solid south to win its elections. And it does this in the same way Confederate leaders did: it redirects white hostility towards northerners, “eggheads,” government regulators, and urban blacks. Lyndon Johnson, in one of his remarks to Bill Moyers, probably put it best:
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you” (315).
In other words, poor whites, the ‘waste’ that the American Dream never seemed to reach, have always been exploited, one way or the other. But rather than directing their hatred at those who exploit them (land speculators or bankers or politicians) or the class system that keeps them at the bottom, the dispossessed hate those they can look down on (even if he’s President of the United States). And supplying someone to look down on seems to be part and parcel of the political fabric of America. This is evident in the campaign of Donald Trump in 2016; his most loyal supporters are those whose hatred he has been able to redirect, convincing them that he, a billionaire, is their ally in bitterness, in animosity towards the ‘government.’ In this sense—and we have no idea how successful Trump will eventually be in mining this traditional reservoir of Republican rancor—the Trump phenomenon validates Nancy Isenberg’s point in her book. Far from being some marginal aspect of the national story, the dispossessed have always been key to “our very identity as a nation” (320. They always have been, and still are, a fundamental part of our history—a history that tries to perpetrate the equal-opportunity-for-all myth, but which, in reality, becomes more and more dominated by inherited wealth and, yes, deep class divisions. As she puts it in her epilogue: though the labels have varied, from trash to wastrel to vagrant to squatter to cracker to trailer trash, “White trash is a central, if disturbing, thread in our national narrative” (321). It is the story of those who fail to rise in America and a far more important part of “who we are as a civilization” than most of us, especially our mainstream historians and politicians, have ever been willing to admit.