Forgotten Whites: Keri Leigh Merritt Tells New Truths About South’s Antebellum Delusion

Another installment from WRGC's collaboaration with Georgia College's Center for Georgia Studies
Keri Leigh Merritt's book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South
Keri Leigh Merritt's book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South

In the book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, historian Keri Leigh Merritt explores the lives of the laborers who were left behind the South’s booming cotton economy.

Mining newly-digitized collections of primary source materials, Merritt pieced together the story of a people whom contemporary Secessionists and modern Lost Cause negationists wanted forgotten.

By looking at the South’s slave economy through the eyes of disaffected whites, Masterless Men identifies new fault lines in the run-up to the Civil War and offers insight into questions of race, class and inequality that continue to perplex Americans to this very day.

 

Mark Huddle is the Director of the Georgia College Center for Georgia Studies. He interviewed Merritt in May 2019.

 

You can learn more and purchase a copy of Masterless Men at kerileighmerritt.com

 

Interview Highlights

 

Q: As a study in southern political economy I think “Masterless Men” both complements and shifts the narrative of these histories of capitalism. Where do you see the work fitting in this conversation?

 

A: Well I like to look at whether or not the South was fully capitalist by looking at the lives of most people living in the South at the time. Essentially these poor whites, these people that didn’t own land and didn’t own slaves, were competing for both jobs and wages with brutalized enslaved labor. When you can beat a laborer to death basically, you’re going to have a preference for enslaved labor that you can fully and completely control. The kind of poverty that the South is still dealing with is not only due to the failure of any of kind reparations to African Americans after slavery, but also because of the long legacy of white poverty in the region as well. Of course, that is again tied to slavery, creating this incredibly unequal society.

 

Q: Do you see these people as collateral damage, in the sense that there is this system that is essentially taking root across the south that’s incredible lucrative that shapes political economic and social institutions or does this system require that this class exist?

 

A: … I argue that in many ways this growing pool of poor whites in the Deep South, that’s what pushes upper class whites into secession because they really don’t know how to deal with white laborers who are not enslaved.

These are white laborers who are often times militant, trying to form nascent unions, banding together and demanding rights. Some of these groups by the 1850s, in the lead up to secession, are actually telling slaveholders that unless you figure out some sort of way to protect our wages from being lowered by slavery, we’re going to withdraw our support for slavery itself.

So this created almost a three-front war in many ways on upper classes whites because not only were they constantly trying to keep the enslaved down and crush out any kind of slave rebellions or riots, they were defending the institution from the North and the rest of the country. And then poor whites basically open up a three-front war and I’m talking about in the lead up to secession and in the Civil War itself.

 

Q: People who are in the archives are sometimes considered voiceless. How did you go about unpacking those voices? What kinds of sources did you encounter in order to write your narrative?

 

A: So for people that look at illiterate Americans you have to go through reams and reams of information hoping to find a diamond in the rough. I did that with a lot of different record groups a lot of county court records, petitions to state governors, and different petitions from record groups. All these kinds of records just looking through constantly both criminal court and civil court. I was helped more than scholars that came 10 years before me by the digitization of some records. I think we can underestimate the power of digitization and revolutionizing history, especially the history of illiterate people because by the time I was changing my dissertation into a book, the newspapers of antebellum and 19th Century Georgia were online. That was an amazing help. To just search through hundreds and thousands of documents with one click of a button and actually have answers to things that most people don’t talk about. I also relied heavily on WPA Slave narratives and a group of records from Tennessee [of Civil War veterans] that was taken shortly after WWI. These were questionnaires to men who had fought both for the Union and Confederacy in the Civil War. They left very poignant quotes and stories about class in the South.

 

Q: How does the story you tell in Masterless Men explain something maybe about our current dilemma?

 

A: It is the classic American story of every time there are large numbers of poor people—poor people who aren’t usually given the education and the tools to fully understand why they are poor and what could be done to alleviate their problems—they are just completely manipulated by the upper-class elites, the white elites. It has always been this way in this country whenever there’s a moment where the white elite think poor whites, working class whites, might band together whether politically, economically, or socially with people of color, there is always an intense campaign of racism that they start rolling out. They really start stoking the racist flames and doing everything in their power to pull the wool over poor whites’ eyes and try to make them feel some common interests as white people, instead of as laborers or as poor people or as working-class people. They constantly thwart any working-class solidarity by starting to really embroil racism.