The historiography of White, Southern identity is expansive. However, while the rise of modern conservatism and the massive resistance to the African American Civil Rights Movement has received a great deal of attention, the identity of Antebellum poor whites has not. However, that does not mean that the topic has gone entirely unexplored. In reality, two Historians contributed far different interpretations of poor whites thirty-five years apart from one another.
Bertram Wyatt Brown’s Southern Honor: Honor and Ethics in the Old South (1982)and Keri Leigh Merritt’s Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (2017) serve as both complementary and contradictory pieces of the historiography. Intense ideological and economic pressures surrounded poor whites in the antebellum American South. Whether it was religion, economic insecurity, social divides, or the classical idea of southern honor, a wide array of social and economic factors touched the lives of every poor white in the region. However, determining which of these pressures existed at the core of their world has been the subject of decades of historical investigation. This conversation comes to the forefront in the conflict between Southern Honor and Masterless Men. To Wyatt-Brown, poor whites existed in a world of “frontier spirit” that entailed exerting social control through violent means to preserve their ideas of honor (Wyatt-Brown, 370). In contrast, Merritt considers honor to be a small part of a larger trend towards violence rooted in the economic and social divisions which surrounded it (Merritt, 139-140). However, to both authors, what laid at the center of the universe for poor whites drove every aspect of their existence.
The historiographic conversation between Wyatt-Brown and Merritt, the larger historiography around the identity of poor antebellum whites, and the need for further research on the topic will be the subject of this series of blog posts. Throughout the next several posts I will take a close look at both Wyatt and Merritt as they dismantle the ideological foundation that created a poor white identity in the American South. Through this, this historiographical foundation of their conflicting interpretations is clear.
Thanks for Reading!
Merritt, Keri Leigh. Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.