Keri Leigh Merritt’s work, Masterless Men, is a fascinating and long overdue examination of the difficult relationship between Southern slavery and poor whites in the Antebellum period. While it is common to focus solely on the effects that slavery had on the enslaved blacks, Merritt discusses in great depth and detail how the institution affected the supposed free whites living on its edges. Specifically, one of the important topics that she brings up in her book is the manner in which the planter class attempted to prevent the blending of race and class in Southern slavery, and the consequences of their failure to segregate poor whites and black slaves.

From the start, American slaveowners tended to defend the institution of slavery for religious rather than racial reasons, but as the system evolved over the course of the 17th century, skin color and culture became the established basis for American slavery. By the time of the antebellum period the Deep South planters took it for granted that slavery was the proper and natural condition for individuals of African descent.

At the same time, in addition to widespread, racial, slave labor, the South was also characterized by a sharp class distinction among its free white population. This class divide had existed with the very first immigrants that came from Britain to the American South, but as time went on the divide only solidified as the planter class used state power to subsidize their hold over the slave population as well as over large tracts of Southern land, with the goal of keeping poor whites disenfranchised, and with the added effect that poor whites were unable to competitively exchange the one thing they did own, their labor. “The region’s dependence on brutalized, enslaved labor rendered wage laborers superfluous, and white workers’ pay fell as job opportunities continued to disappear. Slave owners thus created a pervasive criminal system to deal with the impoverished.” (Merritt, Masterless Men, pp. 266-267). But the legal system was not enough to prevent Southern “white trash” from interacting with slaves and spreading dissent, and throughout the South the same means and organizations that were commonly employed to police blacks were also used against the lower class to enforce segregation.


[M]asters used slave patrols for constant surveillance of both blacks and poor whites. Similarly, slaveholders also relied on extralegal groups like vigilance committees and minute men organizations. Precursors to the Ku Klux Klan, these terroristic groups used violence and threats of violence to maintain the southern hierarchy, and their ranks proliferated with the rise of the Republican Party. Violating a spate of civil liberties laws, the Deep South was a heavily censored society, where speaking of abolition, or reading about class issues, or listening to a sermon on the humanity of slaves could end in a swift death of the accused. (p. 35)


A class of poor, landless whites thus became permanently tied to the bottom rung of a feudal, Southern society, having less social worth, and definitely less economic worth than black slaves. “They were certainly not slaves, but poor whites enjoyed relatively few privileges as whites. Instead, their class status doomed them to continuing cycles of poverty, and limited their civil rights as white American citizens” (p. 266). As a result poor whites and black slaves did not identify by their race, and instead naturally tended to socialize with one another.


Read the full article at Shot Glass of History