*This post is part of our roundtable on Keri Leigh Merritt’s Masterless Men.
Occasionally a book comes along at a timely historical moment. Keri Leigh Merritt’s Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (2017) is one such volume. Its appearance roughly coincided with the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the presidency. Many political commentators recognized Trump’s appeal to the nation’s lower-class whites struggling to survive in an increasingly high-tech, globalized economy in which well paying manufacturing jobs for less-educated workers vanished from American shores. A profound irony transformed a New York real estate tycoon of indeterminable wealth into the savior of the disaffected, rural white masses.
Republican attacks upon an array of governmental programs have frayed the social safety net designed to aid many of the very same voters who cast ballots for Trump. The recently passed tax plan will redistribute wealth upwards as it undercuts President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. Trump’s legions are already suffering self-inflicted wounds, with more pain to come. The year 2016 gave us a watershed election in which downtrodden, dispossessed, and poorly educated whites—precisely the type of people Merritt writes about—finally found their collective political voice. To their detriment, however, they chose a candidate hostile to their own best economic interests.
The sort of political sleight of hand that bamboozles people into identifying with and supporting leaders whose interests do not coincide with their own is nothing new or unique to the United States. Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks (1929-1935) offer an influential theoretical explanation of how capitalists exercise cultural hegemony over the masses, deftly convincing them to buy in to their own subjugation. In the Old South, as a spate of recent scholarship has amply demonstrated, slaveholders marked the indisputable capitalist overlords. They held the land, the slaves, the wealth, and the political power. Although Merritt devotes less than 9 percent of Masterless Men’s pages to the subject of electoral politics, she meaningfully contributes to our understanding of how the Old South’s have nots, who greatly outnumbered the haves, still fell victim to the machinations of the numerically inferior slaveholding elite.
As Merritt’s work on southern poor whites shows, the governing class successfully manipulated the masses and either denied or blunted their political impact. Slaveholders and poor whites fundamentally understood that their interests did not overlap. Slavery deprived lower-class whites of gainful employment and depressed wages for those fortunate enough to find work. The rapidly expanding disparity in wealth between the slaveholding elite and southern poor whites was creating a permanent underclass oppressed by the institution of slavery. Merritt observes that poor whites “consciously recognized [slavery’s] negative impact on their lives” (9), yet even as they grew more resentful of slaveholders and more vocal in their criticisms, the region’s masters maintained the political power.
Motivated by fears of poor whites’ latent electoral clout, slaveholders employed various strategies to quell dissent that in many ways served as precursors to techniques still employed today. Keeping voters poorly educated and ill-informed offered one way to defend the status quo. “[T]he master class deliberately denied a system of public education to the white masses,” Merritt writes, for “slaveholders knew that poor whites’ access to information would eventually lead to greater discontent” (31). Thus most poor whites remained illiterate. For the relatively few who could read, vigilant censorship kept incendiary literature from their hands. The monitoring of strange visitors to the region who perhaps harbored abolitionist sentiments also limited poor whites’ exposure to subversive ideas antithetical to the slave regime. Without formal schooling or a knowledge of alternative views, poor whites could more easily be made the tools and fools of the ruling class, not unlike the hordes of voters today who uncritically accept the misinformation peddled on television or absorb every false, vitriolic word spouted on talk radio or in a tweet.
The Old South’s slaveholding elite need not worry about the political inclinations of the masses if poor whites could be kept from voting. Akin to the modern-day obstacles erected to impede voter registration, purge voter rolls, or otherwise disfranchise people of color, various slaveholder efforts prevented southern poor whites from casting their ballots. Despite the rhetoric of Jacksonian “democracy” unleashing the pent-up might of the common man and opening the franchise to virtually all white males at least twenty-one years old, Merritt describes the roadblocks that remained firmly in place to poor whites’ suffrage. For them, poll taxes rendered voting an unaffordable luxury. Lingering property requirements also disqualified them. In addition, residency requirements struck hard at a class of people whose constant quest for work made them transients, unmoored to any particular community where they might register their political views.
When tactics of outright voter suppression failed, slaveholders still found the means to coerce and manipulate poor-white votes in support of the slave regime. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, voting was public in nature. Officials at polling sites announced aloud voters’ names along with their slate of candidates. In that politically exposed arena, Merritt observes, economically vulnerable poor whites often felt compelled to vote as local slaveholders wished or risk jeopardizing their own livelihoods. Those not frightened away altogether by the process hardly exercised genuine freedom of choice at the polls. What slaveholders’ threats and intimidation did not accomplish, bribery sometimes did. Masters whisked poor whites to the polls under the guise of munificence and successfully deployed the time-honored custom of treating: plying voters with food or drink so that they would happily endorse the candidates favored by their generous hosts. More basely still, some slaveholders gave cash payments to poor whites in exchange for votes. Sham and farcical elections kept a slaveholding, plutocratic oligarchy in power.
As Merritt notes, poor white men occupied a degraded position in southern society and did not often share in the spoils of “white privilege.” With so many other means available to suppress or influence poor whites’ votes, slaveholders did not always find it necessary to employ appeals based on race. But whenever convenient, particularly with the rise of the so-called Black Republicans to the national stage in the mid-1850s, slaveholders trotted out familiar race-baiting arguments to defend themselves from abolitionist critiques and preserve their allegedly benevolent system of slavery. They raised the specter of race war or the bugaboo of amalgamation, both frightening prospects for poor whites who commonly shared with masters a belief in white supremacy even if they opposed slavery. Not until Blacks’ emancipation, Merritt contends, did the benefits of whiteness trickle down to the impoverished masses. In a reconfigured world absent slavery, postbellum southern white politicians relied increasingly on overtly racial appeals to unify whites, regardless of economic circumstances.
The political tradition of evoking race whenever the ruling white majority feels threatened enjoys a long history in the American South and in the United States as a whole. In 2017, racism and white supremacy emerged from the shadows more blatantly than the nation had seen in many decades, emboldened by a president who has excoriated a Black man who took a knee to protest racial injustice while describing white nationalists and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, as “very fine people.”
Merritt’s work on southern poor whites documents the longstanding economic problems plaguing the rural South—problems that have, in the twenty-first century, expanded across a much wider swath of the country. The Americanization of southern, poor-white economic distress contributed to Trump’s rise to power. Whereas his recent Republican predecessors relied on cultural wedge issues such as abortion or gay marriage to attract the votes of less educated, rural, lower-class white voters, Trump shrewdly went straight to the economy and made himself—a Yankee businessman who got his start with a “small loan of $1 million” from his father—the unlikely champion of the nation’s white, working-class outcasts. Through a campaign based on misdirection, conspiracy theories, bluster, raw emotion, and provocative tweets rather than objective fact or reason, Trump gave poor whites the political triumph they never achieved during slavery. In effect Trump is the nation’s first poor-white president since Andrew Johnson, the latter a man whose poverty, lack of schooling, and personal, economic hardships gave him a far more authentic claim to poor whiteness. In casting ballots for Trump, lower-class white voters of 2016 conformed to a broad historical pattern in which they did themselves no particular favors at the ballot box.
Merritt’s book is not fundamentally about politics, but her work points us toward the need for additional study of southern, poor-white voting habits. Some of her poor whites were apolitical, but others voted or at least attempted to, and the formerly public nature of that act left behind documentation that historians may mine aggressively for historical lessons. How those in power achieve positions of political leadership and then divide us, transforming potential allies into enemies, remains as relevant today as ever.