White Poverty and the Legacy of Slavery in the US South

While the moonlight-and-magnolias myth of the Old South continues to persist, the region’s history actually is much more sinister and grim – even for many white Southerners. Recently scholars have revealed the brutal, bloody realities of slavery in the late-antebellum Deep South. Yet to truly understand the gross inequalities endemic to slave societies, it is also important to acknowledge what happens to excess workers when a capitalist system is predicated on slave labor.

With the rising global demand for cotton, and thus, slaves, in the 1840s and 1850s, the need for white laborers in the American South was drastically reduced, creating a large underclass who were unemployed or underemployed. These landless poor whites simply could not compete – for jobs or living wages – with profitable slave labor. Though impoverished whites were never subjected to the daily violence and degrading humiliations of racial slavery, they did suffer tangible socio-economic consequences as a result of living in a slave society. These “masterless” men and women threatened the existing Southern hierarchy and ultimately helped push Southern slaveholders toward secession and civil war.

By recognizing that the lives of poor whites and blacks followed similar trajectories during the mid-nineteenth century, the far-reaching impact of slavery is ultimately revealed. Traveling through the South just a couple of years prior to the Civil War, one northerner plainly stated that the rather pitiful status of the South’s poor whites was a blight upon the entire country. A direct result of slavery, non-slaveholders’ “poverty, ignorance, and debasement, are not merely sectional” problems, he wrote, but “constitute a national calamity, an element of impoverishment, a running sore in the body-politic. The whole Union is weakened by it.”

A century and a half later a team of economists revealed similar sentiments. Finding that the “historical use of slavery is significantly correlated with current levels of inequality,” their research convincingly demonstrated that even today slavery’s legacy is undeniably visible in the economic circumstances – and thus the material well-being – of all non-elite southerners, both black and white. While the consequences were certainly far more severe and sustained for black Americans, it is important to recognize that the economic repercussions of slavery also greatly affected lower-class whites.

Indeed, acknowledging class conflict among whites also helps dispel several racist tenets and other maddeningly enduring myths concerning Southern history:

1. The Racist Stereotype: The most racist white Americans have long branded African Americans as lazy, ignorant, immoral, and/or criminal – the exact same words that upper and middling class whites once used to describe impoverished whites in the Deep South. Indeed, one scholar wrote, poor whites were generally characterized by “laziness, carelessness, unreliability, lack of foresight and ambition, habitual failure and general incompetency.”[1]

Kept uneducated and mostly illiterate, poor whites had few chances to rise out of poverty. Historian James Ford Rhodes compared the South’s poor whites to northern laborers, concluding that “they were in material things abjectly poor; intellectually they were utterly ignorant; morally their condition was one of groveling baseness.”[2] Accused of being sexually promiscuous, and prone to alcoholism, gambling, and violently fighting, poor whites served as the Old South’s social pariahs. Following emancipation, white racists simply used the same stereotypes – stereotypes ultimately stemming from dire poverty – to condemn and humiliate newly freed African Americans.

2. The “Black” Criminal: While criminality would become almost exclusively associated with African Americans during and after Reconstruction, the overwhelming majority of inmates in the antebellum Deep South’s prisons and jails were poor whites. During the 1840s and 1850s, some particularly disillusioned poor whites chose to drop out of the workforce altogether, preferring to live on the fringes of society. As Governor James Henry Hammond reported to the South Carolina Institute, many poor whites obtained “a precarious subsistence by occasional jobs, by hunting, by fishing, by plundering fields or folds, and too often by what is in its effects far worse—trading with slaves, and seducing them to plunder for their benefit.”[3]

Shut out of the formal economy, poor whites, free blacks, and the enslaved created their own informal, underground economy: the original “black market.” This illicit trading, coupled with the high numbers of young, property-less white men drifting from county to county in search of work, caused slaveholders to begin selectively enforcing behavioral laws, especially in places with both high slave populations and recent influxes of transient whites. By insisting that poor whites be arrested for vagrancy, buying liquor on Sunday, or engaging in lewd behavior, slaveholders incarcerated non-slaveholders whenever they needed to reinforce subordination to their authority.

But emancipation ultimately 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. The end of slavery, therefore, heralded many new freedoms for lower class white southerners, leaving black Americans to occupy poor whites’ former place at the bottom of “free” society.

3. The Myth of White Unity over Slavery (or, The “Proud” Confederate Myth): Poor whites supported slaveholder policies, and even fought for the Confederacy, the argument goes, because they greatly admired slaveholders and aspired to own slaves themselves. While there was certainly near-universal consensus among Southern whites regarding racism, support for slavery varied significantly, especially among members of lower economic classes. If historians would heed the work of recent economists regarding the valuation and cost of slaves, they surely would come to accept that most poor whites recognized the near-impossibility of eventually owning slaves.[4]

To be sure, class tensions between white southerners ultimately added to the causes of the Civil War. Angered by their lack of job prospects, poor white laborers – whose ranks were rapidly increasing in southern cities due to immigration – were becoming more and more militant in the decades leading up to secession. They began forming “associations,” or labor unions, and demanded freedom from competition with slaves and free blacks, whose wages always undercut their own. Vocal leaders of these groups even threatened to stop supporting slavery if something was not done to help raise their wages. Planters and pro-slavery men were already strenuously defending the peculiar institution from attacks by northern abolitionists and by slaves themselves. When poor whites created a three-front battleground, slaveholders had few viable alternatives other than secession to protect their main source of wealth and revenue.

Thus, people waving Confederate flags and glorifying the Confederate cause today are, in many cases, descendants of Southerners who were either Unionists or were anti-Confederates – they simply wanted to be left alone. They certainly had no desire to fight for the property of the rich slave-lords. And if their ancestors were soldiers, often their forefathers were conscripted or forced to fight. Many of these men eventually deserted the Army and returned home, hiding out for the duration of the war, and hastening the Confederacy’s demise.

My new book Masterless Men aims to challenge some of these remaining fictions by analyzing class alongside race. Indeed, these grave inequities – the direct result of the depravities of slavery – still enduringly plague the region. The South remains the poorest section of the nation; the Deep South, an area that had the highest rates of slavery, is poorer still. The indelible stain of slavery, it seems, not only serves as a constant reminder of a painful past, but it also unmercifully continues to dictate the future. As Charles Darwin so eloquently concluded, “If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”

Keri Leigh Merritt works as an independent scholar in Atlanta, Georgia. Her research focuses on race and class in U.S. history. Her first book, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. She has also co-edited a book on southern labor history with Matthew Hild (Reviving Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power, forthcoming), and is currently conducting research for two additional books. One is on radical black resistance during the Reconstruction era, while the second examines the changing role of law enforcement in the mid-nineteenth century South. It will ultimately link the rise of professional police forces in the Deep South to the end of slavery.


[1] A.N.J. Den Hollander, “The Tradition of ‘Poor Whites,’” in W.T. Couch, ed., Culture in the South (Chapel Hill: North Carolina, 1935), 414.

[2] James Ford Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the McKinley-Bryan Campaign of 1896, Vol. 1, 1850-1854, (New York: Macmillan Company, 1920), 344, Web.

[3] Quoted in George M. Weston, The Poor Whites of the South (Washington, D.C.: Buell & Blanchard, 1856), 3, Web.

[4] See Samuel H. Williamson and Louis P. Cain. “Measuring Slavery in 2011 Dollars.” Paper on MeasuringWorth.com.