*This post is part of our roundtable on Keri Leigh Merritt’s Masterless Men.
Toward the end of her valuable reinterpretation of southern slave society, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (2017), Keri Leigh Merritt argues that the Civil War-era emancipation of enslaved men and women also freed poor white southerners in many important ways. Her bold pronouncement serves as the dramatic culmination of a book unwavering in establishing that one-third of white southerners in the antebellum Deep South owned neither slaves nor land and endured such desperate circumstances that they were “not truly ‘free’ laborers” (23). The end of slavery brought them new opportunities for work, greater rights, and even land (285).
In concluding her hard-driving analysis with what amounts to a cliffhanger—a prequel of more fully substantiated research to come—Merritt is reviving and extending a controversial thesis. The notion that emancipation freed poor white southerners once resonated with scholars with less admirable aims than Merritt’s. They argued that poor white southerners were the true victims of slavery, not enslaved people, and that the end of the Civil War delivered them from the “second degree of slavery.” By the mid-twentieth century, however, historians roundly dismissed this interpretation, pointing to the precarious plight of all poor southerners during the late-nineteenth century.
I assigned Masterless Men to my graduate students last semester, and Merritt’s return to the “dual emancipation” thesis left all of us intrigued. But I also found myself troubled by the racist uses of the emancipation thesis in the past. Given that this argument was once advanced to minimize the horror of slavery, is it worth reprising? Should other historians follow Merritt in marshaling evidence for this provocative claim? Does her admirable focus on understanding the roots of mass incarceration and persistent poverty make her resurrection of this argument more salient despite its role in justifying an unequal social order in the past? Most importantly, can it be substantiated?
Before making her closing case for dual emancipation, Merritt convincingly shows how devastating life was for poor, non-slaveowning white people during the era of slavery. Deprived of work because of slaveowners’ exploitation of slaves, they had a liminal existence. Some lost their land as slavery expanded into the deep South. They traveled the countryside in search of seasonal work. They were victims of a violent criminal justice system. They were less likely to establish families because they lacked the means to support them. Merritt shows that poor white men resisted their predicament by establishing “Mechanics Associations” calling for protection from competition with slaves, but their situation remained dire on the eve of the Civil War. Hinton Helper’s 1860 treatise, The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It, is a significant inspiration for Merritt’s interpretation. More concerned with poor white southerners than the blatant crime against inhumanity embodied in slavery, Helper argues for the abolition of slavery to benefit poor white southerners, not the enslaved.
With the destruction of slavery, poor white southerners could develop their potential, Merritt argues. While the former slaves were denied freedom dues, poor white southerners benefited from the Homestead Act and the Southern Homestead Act, which made government-held land available to them for settlement: a massive entitlement program for white people. Southern elites shifted enforcement of the vagrancy laws that limited the freedom of poor white workers onto the former slaves, which Merritt characterizes as “foreshadowings of twenty-first century America” (338).
Merritt’s reintroduction of the dual-emancipation thesis is compelling in important ways. It highlights the fact that emancipation brought about the formation of a new class of white and Black working people, and reinforces the monumental changes wrought by the end of slavery. Yet the racist pedigree of the argument gives me pause. Historians writing during the early twentieth century argued that poor white southerners were the true victims of antebellum slavery. They presented a rosy picture of slavery to justify the Jim Crow order of segregation, disfranchisement, and limited occupational options for Black people. On the one hand, Ulrich B. Phillips argues that “the enervation of the poor whites [. . .] had as a contributing cause the limitation upon their wage-earning opportunity which the slavery system imposed.”1 On the other hand, he characterizes slavery as an institution vital for controlling uncivilized people of African descent. One of the assumptions of the writer Lydia Parrish is that poor white people had been worse off than slaves, and that abolitionists “did the Negroes no good service when they taught them to believe that they had been unjustly treated.”2
For historians who embraced the view that slavery had been tougher on poor white southerners, the Civil War was a major turning point. Walter Lynwood Fleming argues in his 1905 book Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama that “the ‘poor whites,’ so-called, arrived at true manhood, they fought their way into the front of affairs, and learned their true worth.” The dual- emancipation thesis had become so popular that by 1937, Charles Ramsdell reflects, “it is a favorite dictum of many writers, more especially the northern historians, that the emancipation of the African also set free the ‘poor whites’ of the South.” The only historian of the early to mid-twentieth century who seems to have embraced the dual emancipation thesis without accepting its racist trappings was William M. Brewer. Writing in the Journal of Negro History, Brewer asks, “was not Reconstruction a day of jubilee for the dejected whites who joined in shackling Negroes who, as slaves, had kept the poor whites proscribed in Southern society?” Brewer goes on to assert that there had been an “emancipation of the Negroes and the poor whites.”
Other historians most notably, C. Vann Woodward, challenged the notion that emancipation had brought about a “rise of the poor whites.” For Woodward the idea that “emancipation freed the poor whites more than it did the Negro!” had become a “cliché” by 1951 when his classic Origins of the New South first appeared. He decried the absurdity and ubiquity of this interpretation, “repeated even by respected Southern historians,” and “still a favorite generalization of modern textbooks.”3
Woodward surely rejected the dual-emancipation thesis because he was well aware of its racist roots. But he also opposed it because he viewed it as ahistorical. In his view it ignored the plight of farmers during the late-nineteenth century. Even if poor whites made gains during the post-Civil War period, they were short-lived. Like former slaves they faced desperate circumstances as early as the Panic of 1873. They also faced changes in the political economy, such as restrictions on hunting, fishing, and grazing animals on common lands. This made it hard for them to support themselves. Their grievances gave rise to decades of agrarian activism that culminated in the eventual rise of the Populist party.
Although Merritt’s interpretation of what the end of slavery meant for poor white southerners differs from Woodward’s, she is, in many ways, writing in the tradition of Woodward and other historians who challenged the racist scholarship of the early twentieth century. Writing during the era of segregation, Woodward was committed to debunking the myth of a unity of interests among white people and revealing the racism and inequality of southern society. With her unwavering commitment to justice, Merritt is writing in the context of a quite different moment and grappling with contemporary horrors that seem to exclusively, or at least disproportionately, fall on African Americans. In this context Merritt’s focus on the plight of white and Black southerners represents a search for historical antecedents to understand their current predicament. She has written widely in both scholarly and journalistic forums to bring attention to the historical roots of contemporary problems concerning racism and inequality.
Merritt’s provocative claim at the end of Masterless Men will leave readers hoping for the next chapter of the rich analysis she brings to the story of the antebellum South. Her thoughtfully rendered book is an inspiring “call to the archives,” as one of my students called it, for scholars grappling with southern and African American history about the intimate, historical, and ongoing connection between the plight of disadvantaged white people and the racism and inequality besetting African Americans.
- Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime (D. Appleton, 1918) 398. ↩
- Lydia Parrish to Melville Herskovits, February 4, 1936, quoted in Melissa L. Cooper, Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 92. ↩
- C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1951), 356. ↩