“Poor Whites Have Been Written out of History for a Very Political Reason”


The material conditions of most poor whites in the Deep South were a major cause of secession, and eventually, war. Many of these people — who I estimate to comprise about one-third of the white population in the cotton South states — lived very hard material lives, enduring cyclical poverty, hunger, and want, primarily because they were surplus workers competing in a labor market with brutalized, unpaid enslaved people. After the forced migration of around eight hundred thousand enslaved laborers from the Upper South to the Deep South in the 1830s and 1840s, job opportunities for poor whites were scarce.

By the 1850s poor white men had either dropped out of the workforce altogether, cobbling together a meager existence by hunting, fishing, and trading with the enslaved in the underground economy, or by trying to work in non-agricultural jobs. These “mechanics,” as they called themselves, began forming labor unions, or “associations,” and by the late 1850s many of them were openly threatening to withdraw their support for slavery if something was not done to protect their jobs and their wages.

I argue that this push from poor and working-class whites essentially created a three-front battle for enslavers: not only were they defending the institution from Northern abolitionists and the enslaved themselves, but also from lower-class Southern whites. Slaveholders had little chance but to secede to preserve slavery.

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