Show simple item record

dc.contributor.authorMerritt, Keri Leigh
dc.description.abstractBecause antebellum southern history has been interpreted primarily through studies of slaves and planters, poor whites remain understudied. Generally defined as owning neither land nor slaves, poor whites comprised between 30 and 50 percent of the South’s white population on the eve of secession. By the 1840s and 50s, slavery had notably reduced the demand for white laborers, creating a large underclass of impoverished whites who spent long periods of time unemployed or underemployed. Poor whites could not compete – for jobs or living wages – with profitable slave labor. Their rampant poverty sometimes led to the familiar accompanying psychological and social ills of alcoholism, domestic violence, and criminal activity. Preferring to live outside of society and sometimes outside of the law, poor whites made inviting targets for a southern legal system dominated by slaveholders, who generally incarcerated them for behavioral, non-violent “crimes” like trading, drinking, and other social interactions with slaves and free blacks. Poor whites’ discontent had reached a critical point in the few years before secession, as they began forming labor unions and demanding freedom from competition with blacks, at times even threatening to withdraw their acceptance of slavery. Ultimately, this divisive socio-economic inequality between whites helped to push planters to the brink of Civil War. Although many poor whites objected to the Confederate cause, slaveholders used threats of imprisonment or vigilante violence to impress them into service. During Reconstruction, poor white workers were finally able to compete in a free labor economy. And while freedmen waited in vain for forty acres and a mule, poor whites were granted land from the Homestead Acts. Black freedom also brought an end to the high rates of incarceration for poor whites who had threatened the stability of slavery. Instead, African Americans became the primary targets of the southern legal system, but their punishments were much more extreme and vicious than they ever had been for poor whites. Black emancipation, therefore, heralded many new freedoms for poor whites, while African Americans realized they now occupied poor whites’ former place at the bottom of “free” society.
dc.subjectPoor Whites, Slavery, Poverty, Labor, Unemployment, Living Wage, Class Consciousness, Criminality, Incarceration, Vagrancy, Civil War, Anti-Confederates, Reconstruction, Emancipation
dc.title"A second degree of slavery"
dc.title.alternativehow black emancipation freed the Deep South's poor whites
dc.description.advisorJames C. Cobb
dc.description.committeeJames C. Cobb
dc.description.committeeStephen Mihm
dc.description.committeeRonald Butchart
dc.description.committeeStephen Berry

Files in this item


There are no files associated with this item.

This item appears in the following Collection(s)

Show simple item record