White Trash: The 400-year Untold Story of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg
Viking: Penguin Random House, 2016
(Amazon | Powell’s)
White Trash begins by looking at our founding mythologies, of Jamestown and of the Pilgrims. During the three years that I taught American history (side note: don’t ask a fifteen-year veteran of the ancient history classroom to teach any sort of form of triumphal American history… our opinions of America’s longevity and exceptionalism are tepid, at best), I found these two colonization-point of American history some of the most difficult to teach, without having clarity about why I found them so uncomfortable.
Nancy Isenberg helped make that clear to me. She reminded me, in clean prose and deliberately, fact-based writing, that both Jamestown and Plymouth were founded as colonial ventures — that is, as profit-making machines intended to bring additional wealth to an English, aristocratic, wealthy, well-connected minority… back in England. The reports of cannibalism, of 80% casualty rates among the settlers, worried the aristocrats not at all. Rather, they reveled in it.
But why? The truth lay in the concept of transportation — England was full of a class of people called the wandering poor… the Vagrants. The American colonies were a perfect place to send the vagrants, as far as the aristocrats were concerned: rounding up those who refused to work, and sending them off to the Americas, made those who remained all the more willing to be hard-working and loyal. If they worked in America, the vagrants could rise to be wealthy landowners themselves; if they didn’t, and died instead, so much the better.
Isenberg’s book explores the foundations of American classism: the export of what the British called ‘waste people’ to the Americas, the establishment of a class of poor, landless white families on waste lands in southern Virginia and North Carolina (the “Dismal Swamp”), and their gradual removal to the rough lands of the piedmont and Appalachia. American writers and politicians of diverse opinions, from Cotton Mather to James Oglethorpe to Ben Franklin to Thomas Jefferson to Theodore Roosevelt, weighed in on the problems of the white ‘non-working poor’, whose origins were often in the indentured servitude that often resembled slavery; who rarely worked hard without supervision; whose goal was often to obtain strong drink and the bare minimum of comfort; and who resented the harsh treatment that had brought them to the Americas in the first place.
The story of James Oglethorpe of Georgia was particularly instructive. Setting out to make a colony of free whites about 1720 to serve as a buffer state against the French in Louisiana and the Spanish in Florida, Oglethorpe organized Georgia as a land of free and armed white men; slaves were prohibited, and rather than indenturing servants who came, they were given land by the colony’s proprietors, up to fifty acres. Richer settlers could buy up to five hundred acres, but they had to work and settle the land themselves: no absentee landlords in Georgia, said Oglethorpe.
But the great landholders of South Carolina, looking north to North Carolina and southern Virginia, saw the poverty of the Dismal Swamp and the ruinously bad habits of the inhabitants, wasteful of time and money and sneering at the idea of being ruled by aristocratic planters. So, they bribed Georgia’s proprietors in England with money, and bribed the white settlers weary of farming in Georgia. Several people tried to kill Oglethorpe over his obstinacy about slaves and indentured servants — paid assassins or angry loners, it’s hard to tell. Eventually, Oglethorpe gave up and went back to England. Inside a year, one Georgia planter had assembled 12,000 acres and four hundred slaves… and slavery gradually transformed working white farmers into languid overseers cracking the whip over other men’s slaves. It beat working…
After all, if you’re working in the field, you’re probably forced to it. The white and landless underclass had no one to lord their superiority over except the slaves from the Caribbean and Africa — thus, to work meant one was no better than a slave.
All through the book, though, Isenberg explores the central problem: In America, the poor are thought of as undeserving of help. Hard work is expected to result in success; laziness is equated with ruin, either personal or familial. Thus, any effort to help the poor, either through education or through retraining or through military service or through welfare, invites the inevitable backlash from the middle class and the wealthy — those people didn’t do anything to deserve the help, and why should I give up what’s mine, so that they can have something?
Isenberg’s point is salient to the present time, of course. This past election was as much about class as about any other issue. Her book urges that we address the problem in some real way, and not just with empty symbolism. Yet the fact that we’ve been continually struggling with class issues, all the while pretending they don’t exist in our nominally-classless society, suggests that her warnings and her urgency will go unheeded. Again.