Myths follow power. A people’s dominant mythologies evolve to reflect the needs and fears of its most powerful and influential people. The Anglo-Saxonist mythology that spread in the earliest northern colonies didn’t resonate in the plantation economies that developed later in the South. There, a rival “Cavalier” mythology derived from the losers in England’s Civil War took hold.
England’s intensely Protestant “Anglo-Saxonist” mythology emphasized personal freedom, a nascent concept of equality, and a warm embrace of Enlightenment thinking. It envisioned a very broad “us,” though it still couldn’t incorporate African slaves, freedmen or Catholics, especially the Irish. Meanwhile, many of the Royalist losers in England’s Civil War fled with their remaining fortunes to build a new, Caribbean-style plantation system in the southern colonies. Their “Cavalier” mythology rested on an ancient code of martial honor and aristocratic hierarchy. It was suspicious of the Enlightenment, prioritized authority over liberty, and was marked by a romantic ideal of agricultural life over the grubby concerns of mercantile and industrial interests. Slavery fit comfortably inside this aristocratic ethic, but landless whites didn’t. This would cause problems.
England in 1740 opened citizenship to almost any Protestant resident of her colonies, one of the most liberal definitions of “us” to be found anywhere in the world at the time. That same year its distant slave colony in South Carolina was charting a different path. South Carolina’s 1740 Negro Code created a primitive Orwellian terror state organized to contain the threat of slave uprisings. Lacking the technology and resources of a 20th century dictatorship, South Carolina chose crowd-sourced terror, delegating almost unlimited authority to its non-Black free residents to surveil, interdict, and when necessary kill the colony’s African slaves and freedmen. This approach to slave control would quickly spread across the slave states.
South Carolina’s 18th century slaveholders had no means to support a centrally organized police state necessary to maintain their oppressive grip on a growing slave population. Their improvisation, essentially making every non-black free person a cop, demanded a cultural adaptation. They needed to build a mythological identity that would tie the colony’s non-black residents together as an “us.” This was no easy task. Until Reconstruction, the slave states never quite succeeded in building a white identity that could unite their free residents. Tensions between landless whites and slaveholders would not be resolved until the plantation class was humbled by defeat in the Civil War.
Northern Anglo-Saxonists struggled to build a coherent mythological “us” around whiteness due their difficulty absorbing immigrants who didn’t fit into their Protestant universe. Southern Cavaliers struggled to build a coherent “us” thanks to their loathing for growing ranks of poor whites, fed by the planters’ monopoly on quality farmland. Communities North and South were pursuing deeply incompatible mythological identities in the Antebellum years. Neither was safe for Blacks, likewise neither identity was broad enough to bring the country together as a stable whole or support the country’s industrial transition. By the 1850’s this failure of vision would lead the country to crippling dysfunction and civil war.
Debate continues today about the extent to which the Southern plantation culture was fed by a literal migration of Royalist refugees. However, there’s no doubt that the planters embraced this identity and propagated its Cavalier mythology. The University of Virginia mascot is still ‘The Cavaliers.’ Across the Antebellum era planters derided abolitionists as “Puritan radicals,” preserving a memory of an older rivalry in England.
This aristocratic mindset stunted the development of a unifying mythology of white supremacy in the South. For the planters, supremacy belonged to them alone. Wealth generated from slavery gave Antebellum “Cavalier” planters enough coercive power to largely ignore, impoverish and repress everyone else, white or black. Across the Antebellum period and beyond, wealthy Southerners remained deeply suspicious of less wealthy and especially landless whites.
Protecting slavery meant coopting despised, landless whites into the political system while somehow still blunting their power. This inspired an awkward formula in which Southern whites enjoyed greater apparent participation in state politics than their Northern peers, while the power of those elected institutions was hobbled. South Carolina was among the first states to grant voting rights to all white men, eliminating the property requirements that persisted elsewhere. Meanwhile the state government which those landless whites could help elect was toothless and impotent. The only power slaveholders wanted government to possess was the police power. Anything else would threaten their control.
While Massachusetts established public schools almost as soon as the colony was organized and launched Harvard University in 1636, among the Cavalier culture education was largely informal, important only for “the better sort.” Education for commoners was a dangerous threat to the social order. Few of the slave states established a free public school system before Reconstruction. Mississippi was still resisting public Kindergarten as late as the 1980’s.
Myths follow power. Powerful people in the Antebellum South feared landless whites almost as much as they feared their slaves. They struggled and largely failed to construct a mythology that could successfully bring white people together in a unifying identity.
Looking back on the Antebellum period through the lens of 20th century white supremacy, many assumed that the South was a “herrenvolk democracy” in which the borrowed dignity of whiteness replaced class tensions. There’s a case to be made that the planters were driven to secession by more than just Northern threats against the ‘peculiar institution.’ Their dangerous secession gamble was driven by the mounting cost of maintaining a terror state against not just their slaves, but the harder-to-control disenfranchised “white trash.” The very existence of this class undermined notions of white racial superiority. Remaining in the union sustained a constant threat that low income whites might join with slaves or their northern neighbors to seize power.
In the Antebellum South, whites accused of “vagrancy,” an endlessly elastic crime applied with little recourse to anyone found loose, unattached by land or obligations to a patron, could face punishment equal to manslaughter. Keri Leigh Merritt in her groundbreaking Masterless Men explored the tensions between slaveholders and poor whites in the South. Vagrancy laws and their application draw particular attention. Lines between landlessness and the prevailing slave system could wear thin in places. Vagrancy was one of those places. “In South Carolina vagrants could be publicly sold for terms of six months to a year and a day.”
Transient poor whites had no local kinsfolk, no ties to the area’s churches, and no real allegiance to the institution of slavery. Slaveholders, therefore, had no knowledge of which poor whites needed extra supervision – of who would help their slaves steal and drink, who would give birth to free black children, who would demoralize their work force, and who may try to lead their slaves into a bloody rebellion.
Prison in the Antebellum South was a white institution. “The Deep South’s penitentiaries almost exclusively housed whites. Out of these convicted whites, high proportions of them were immigrants (especially the “Famine Irish”) and city dwellers.”
Poor or landless whites, unattached to the slave system, had no place within a Cavalier mythology. They could never be beyond suspicion. And of course, the greatest fear was that their commerce with slaves could escalate into rebellion. Again, from Masterless Men:
As late as 1857 they [South Carolina’s legislature] passed a law requiring whipping as part of the punishment for white males who had been convicted of trading with slaves more than once.
To understand why slaveholders resorted so readily to secession after Harper’s Ferry, one has to recognize this paranoia around landless whites in the Cavalier mythology.
Just before the Civil War, Daniel Robinson Hundley published Social Relations of our Southern States, perhaps the most apt and explicit summary of Cavalier mythology written from the Southern perspective. Hundley was an undistinguished man who would lead an undistinguished Alabama Confederate infantry regiment into mediocre battlefield performance followed by captivity in a Union POW camp. However, his choice capsules of Southern Cavalier arrogance serve as an outstanding lens into Antebellum Southern mythology, highlighting the challenges the planter class faced in forging a unified white identity.
Hundley devotes lengthy passages to the racial inferiority of the South’s white poor, repeating the prevailing mythology that the poverty of landless whites was their own fault.
The Poor Whites of the South live altogether in the country, in hilly and mountainous regions generally, in communities by themselves, and far removed, from the wealthy and refined settlements. Why it is they always select the hilly, and consequently unproductive districts for their homes, we know not. It can not be, however, as urged by the abolitionists, because the slaveholders have seized on all the fertile lands.
He divides Southern society into “three classes – Cavaliers, Poor Whites, and Slaves.” These Cavaliers he grants an elevated, if slightly odd and ahistorical pedigree, explaining “the progenitors of the Southern Gentleman were chiefly Spanish Dons and French Catholics.” Then he extols the planter class Adonis.
Besides being of faultless pedigree, the Southern Gentleman is usually possessed of an equally faultless physical development. His average height is about six feet, yet he is rarely gawky in his movements, or in the least clumsily put together; and his entire physique conveys to the mind an impression of firmness united to flexibility.
By comparison, about the “Poor Whites,” among whom he tends to include the “yeomen” small-holders, little good can be said. He discusses claims made by some that these backward souls could be improved by placing them in factories. He disagrees in the most florid manner.
There are those who think their [poor white] blood has so long flowed through lazy channels–first in the veins of their remote English ancestors who lived and died in the poorhouses of England, and latterly through the veins of their immediate progenitors, who seem to have vegetated among the Southern sandhills something like the native mullein-stalks, which neither toil nor yet do spin –until there is no longer any possible method by which they can be weaned from leading the lives of vagrom-men, idlers, squatters, useless alike to themselves and the rest of mankind.
In a particularly prescient passage, Hundley describes the attitude of “white trash” toward slavery. Here he seems to hit on a truth, like a broken clock twice a day.
The Poor White Trash are pro-slavery from downright envy and hatred of the black man. We presume this feeling must have originated many years agone when the pauper ancestors of the Sandhillers were first “layd on shore,” as our worthy ancestors expressed it, like all other “goods, wares, and merchandise,” and very possibly met with a somewhat supercilious reception at the hands of the bepowdered and bejewelled body-servants of the grand old cavaliers of those times.
This last nugget is very important. Though Antebellum planters were unwilling to swallow their loathing of “poor white trash” to build a broad unifying white supremacy, one which might extend its definition of the “master race” to include these “idlers and squatters,” times and needs would change.
Myths follow power. After the Civil War, powerful people North and South found a new alignment of interests. That “hatred of the black man” felt by “poor white trash,” and to a large extent reciprocated by Blacks, would become a potent catalyst in a new crucible.