Time and Frontiers
The assumption persists that the great South, the Old South that fought the Civil War, was the home of a genuine aristocracy, the ruling class, the planters, sharply set apart from the common people, as the 'poor whites', not only by economic condition but also by the far vaster gulf of a different blood and a different heritage.
To ignore the frontier and time in setting up a conception of the social state of the Old South is to abandon reality. For the history of this South throughout a very great part of the period from the opening of the nineteenth century to the Civil War is mainly the history of the roll of frontier upon frontier - and on to the frontier beyond.
Prior to the close of the Revolutionary period the Great South, as such, had little history. The land which was to become the cotton kingdom was still more wilderness that not.
How account for the ruling class, then?
Manifestly, for the great part, by the strong, the pushing, the ambitious, among the old coon-hunting population of the backcountry. The frontier was their predestined inheritance. They possessed precisely the qualities necessary to the taming of the land and the building of the cotton kingdom. The process of their rise to power was simplicity itself.
Take a concrete case.
A stout young Irishman brought his bride into the Carolina upcountry about 1800.
He cleared a bit of land, built a log cabin of two rooms, and sat down to the pioneer life. One winter, with several of his neighbors, he loaded a boat with whisky and the coarse woolen cloth woven by the women, and drifted down to Charleston to trade.
There, remembering the fondness of his woman for a bit of beauty, he bought a handful of cotton seed, which she planted about the cabin with the wild rose and the honeysuckle, as a flower. Afterward she learned, under the tutelage of a new neighbor, to pick the seed from the fiber with her fingers and to spin it into yarn. Another winter the man drifted down the river, this time to find the half-way station of Columbia in a strange ferment.
There was a new wonder in the world, the cotton gin, and the forest which had lined the banks of the stream for a thousand centuries was beginning to go down. Fires flared red and portentous in the night, to set off an answering fire in the breast of the Irishman.
Land in his neighborhood was to be had for fifty cents an acre. With twenty dollars, the savings of his lifetime, he bought forty acres and set himself to clear it. Rising long before day, he toiled deep into the night, with his wife holding a pine torch for him to see by.
Aided by his neighbors, he piled the trunks of the trees into great heaps and burned them, grubbed up the stumps, hacked away the tangle of underbrush and vine, stamped out the poison ivy and the snakes. A wandering trader sold him a horse, bony and half-starved, for a knife, a dollar, and a gallon of whisky.
Every day now when the heavens allowed, and every night that the moon came, he drove the plow into the earth, with uptorn roots bruising his shanks at every step. Behind him came his wife with a hoe.
In a few years the land was beginning to yield cotton - richly, for the soil was fecund with the accumulated mold of centuries. Another trip down the river, and he brought home a mangy black slave, an old and lazy fellow reckoned of no account in the ricelands, but with plenty of life in him still if you knew how to get it out.
Next year the Irishman bought fifty acres more, and the year after another black. Five years more and he had two hundred acres and ten Negroes. Cotton prices swung up and down sharply, but always, whatever the return, it was almost pure velvet. For the fertility of the soil seemed inexhaustible.
When he was forty-five, he quit work, abandoned the log house, which had grown to six rooms, and built himself a wide-spreading frame cottage.
When he was fifty, he became a magistrate, acquired a carriage, and built a cotton gin and a third house - a "big house" this time. It was not, to be truthful, a very grand house really. Built of lumber sawn on the place, it was a little crude and had not cost above a thousand dollars, even when the marble mantel was counted in. Essentially, it was just a box, with four rooms, bisected by a hallway, set on four more rooms bisected by another hallway, and a detached kitchen at the back. Wind-swept in winter, it was difficult to keep clean of vermin in summer. But it was huge, it had great columns in front, and it was eventually painted white, and in this land of wide fields and pinewoods it seemed very imposing.
Other "big houses" had been built.
There was a county seat now, a cluster of frame houses, stores, and "doggeries" about a red brick courthouse. A Presbyterian parson had drifted in and started an academy, as Presbyterian parsons had a habit of doing everywhere in the South. The Irishman had a piano in his house, on which his daughters, taught by a vagabond German, played as well as young ladies could be expected to.
One of the Irishman's sons went to the college of South Carolina, came back to grow into the chief lawyer in the county, got to be a judge, and would have been Governor if he had not died at the head of his regiment at Chancellorsville.
As a crown on his career, the old man went to the Legislature, where he was accepted by the Charleston gentlemen tolerantly and with genuine liking. He grew extremely mellow in age and liked to pass his time in company, arguing about predestination and infant damnation, proving conclusively that cotton was king and that the damyankee didn't dare do anything about it, and developing a notable taste in the local liquors. Tall and well-made, he grew whiskers after the Galway fashion, the well-kept whiteness of which contrasted very agreeably with the brick red of his complexion, donned the long-tailed coat, stove-pipe hat, and string tie of the statesmen of his period, waxed innocently pompous, and, in short, became a really striking figure of a man.
Once, going down to Columbia for the inauguration of a new Governor, he took his youngest daughter along. There she met a Charleston gentleman who was pestering her father for a loan. Her manner, formed by the Presbyterian parson, was plain but not bad, and she was very pretty. Moreover, the Charleston gentleman was decidedly in hard lines. So he married her.
When the old man finally died in 1854, he left two thousand acres, a hundred and fourteen slaves, and four cotton gins. The little newspaper which had recently set up in the county seat spoke of him as "a gentleman of the old school" and "a noble specimen of the chivalry at its best". The Charleston papers each gave him a column; and resolutions of respect were introduced into the Legislature. His wife outlived him by ten years, by her portrait a beautifully fragile old woman, with lovely hands, knotted and twisted just enough to give them character, and a finely transparent skin through which the blue veins showed most aristocratically.
Such is the epic, in little, of the rise of the ruling class in the great South.
There remain the people who were lumped together as 'poor whites', the non-slaveholding masses of the South. Who were they?
Obviously and simply, the residue of the generally homogeneous population of the old backwoods of the eighteenth century, from which the main body of the ruling class had been selected out. The relatively and absolutely unsuccessful, the less industrious and thrifty, the less ambitious and pushing, the less cunning and lucky - the majority here as everywhere.
The weaker elements which, having failed in the competition of the cotton frontier, or having perhaps never entered it, were driven back inexorably by the plantation's tendency to hog the good cotton lands into a limited number of large units, to the lands that had been adjudged as of little or no value for the growing of the staple.
But driven back in degree, of course.
Thousands and ten thousands of non-slaveholders were really yeoman farmers. Some of these occupied the poorer cotton lands; but by far the greater number of them were planted on lands which, while they were reckoned as of no account for cotton, were fertile enough for other purposes.
Nearly all of them enjoyed some measure of a kind of curious half thrifty, half shiftless prosperity, a thing of sagging rail fences, unpainted houses, and crazy barns which yet bulged with corn. And if they are to be called poor whites, then it is not at all in the ordinary connotation of the term, but only in a relative and broad sense, only as their estate is compared with that of the larger planters, and, what is more important, only as they may be thought of as being exploited, in an indirect and limited fashion, by the plantation system.
It involved the fact, not only that the plantation system had driven these people back to the less desirable lands, but also that it had walled them up and locked them in there, had blocked them off from escape or any considerable economic and social advance as a body.
For this system was a static one, the tendency of which was to hold each group rigidly in the established equilibrium. Moreover, having driven these people back, it thereafter left them virtually out of account. Wholly dominant, possessing, for practical purposes, absolute control of government and every societal engine, it took its measures solely with an eye to its own interests, which were not the interests of most of the non-slaveholders. Worse yet, it concerned itself but little if at all about making use of them as economic auxiliaries, as feeders of those things which the plantation had need of but did not produce in sufficient quantities.
It would be nonsense to suggest that it had no traffic with them, or that it did not furnish them a considerable market. Nevertheless, it is true that, in following its own interests alone, it always preferred to buy a great part of its hay and corn and beef and wool from the North or the Middle West rather than go to the trouble and expense of opening up the backcountry adequately.
Roads, railroads, transportation facilities in general were provided mainly with regard to the movement of cotton.
And so, though the slaveless yeomen might wax fat in the sort of primitive prosperity which consisted in having an abundance of what they themselves could produce, they could not go much further than that, were left more or less to stagnate at a level but a step or two above the pioneers.
The poor whites in the strict sense were merely the weakest elements of the old backcountry population, in whom these effects of the plantation had worked themselves out to the ultimate term, those who had been driven back farthest, back to the red hills and the sandlands and the pine barrens and the swamps, to all the marginal lands of the South, who, because of the poorness of the soil on which they dwelt or the great inaccessibility of markets, were most completely barred off from escape or economic and social advance.
They were the people to whom the term "cracker" properly applied - the "white-trash" and "po' buckra". They exhibited some diversity of condition, beginning at the bottom with a handful of Jukeses and Kallikaks*, with all the dassical stigmata of true degeneracy, and scaling up to, and merging at the top with the lower type of yeoman farmer.
Not a few of the more abject among them were addicted to "dirt-eating", but the habit was by no means so universal as has sometimes been claimed. Some of them were masters of hundreds of acres of a kind. Others had no claim to their spot of earth save that of the squatter.
The houses of the better sort were crude shells of frame or logs, with as many as seven or eight rooms at times. Those of the run were mere cabins or hovels, with shutters for windows, with perhaps no other door than a sack, and with chinks wide open to the wind and the rain. Very often an entire family of a dozen, male and female, adult and child, slept, cooked, ate, lived, loved, and died, had its whole indoor being, in a single room.
But whatever their diversity, their practice of agriculture was generally confined to a little lackadaisical digging, largely by the women and children, in forlorn corn patches. The men might plow a little, hunt a little, fish a little, but mainly passed their time on their backsides in the shade of a tree, communing with their hounds and a jug of what had been named "bust-head".
And finally, the whole pack of them exhibited in varying measure a distinctive physical character, a striking lankness of frame and slackness of muscle in association with a shambling gait, a boniness and misshapeliness of head and feature, a peculiar sallow swartness, or alternatively a not less peculiar and a not less sallow faded-out colorlessness of skin and hair.
This is the picture which no doubt has given rise to the whole classical notion of the poor whites as belonging to a totally different stock from the run of Southerners and particularly from the ruling class.
But, quite apart from the considerations I have already urged against it, that theory can be fully disposed of by a moment's reflection on what it is one is asked to believe in order to swallow it, that some fifty thousand indentured servants set down in tidewater Virginia in the seventeenth century account in the nineteenth for at least two million crackers, scattered all the way from the Great Dismal Swamp to the Everglades and from the Atlantic to the Mississippi and beyond, that these servants and their progeny were so astoundingly inferior that through two centuries they spread over the land, past a dozen frontiers and through vast upheavals, without ever in the slightest losing their identity, without ever marrying and intermingling with the generality, and breeding steadily only with their own.
Actually, there is nothing in the description of the cracker to give us pause, nothing which need raise any doubt that he derived from like sources with the mass of Southerners of whatever degree, nothing that is not readily to be explained by the life to which the plantation had driven him back and blocked him in.
For this life, in its essence, was simply a progressively impoverished version of the life of the old backwoods. The forest, which had been the rock upon which that life had been built, was presently in large part destroyed by the plantation and the prevailing wastefulness.
Hence the hunter who had formerly foraged for the larder while his women hoed the corn found himself with less and less to do.
Lacking lands and markets which would repay any extensive effort as a farmer, lacking any incentive which would even serve to make him aid the women at tasks which habit had fixed as effeminate, it was the most natural thing in the world for him to sink deeper and deeper into idleness and shiftlessness. More, the passing of the forest increasingly deprived his table of the old abundant variety which the teeming wild life had afforded. Increasingly his diet became a monotonous and revolting affair of cornpone and the flesh of razorback hogs. And so, increasingly, he was left open to the ravages of nutritional disease and of hookworm and malaria.
Take these things, add the poorness of the houses to which his world condemned him, his ignorance of the simplest rules of sanitation, the blistering sun of the country, and apply them to the familiar physical character of that Gaelic, maybe a little Iberian, strain which dominated in so large a part of the original Southern stocks, and there is no more mystery about even the peculiar appearance of the cracker.
A little exaggerating here, a little blurring there, a little sagging in one place and a little upthrusting in another - voila!
Catch Calhoun or Jeff Davis or Abe Lincoln, young enough, nurse him on "bust-head", feed him hog and pone, give him twenty years of lolling, expose him to all the conditions to which the cracker was exposed, and you have it exactly.
It is true that he sprang from the same general sources as the majority of the planters. In many cases, he sprang from identical sources, that he was related to them by the ties of family. In any given region the great planter who lived on the fertile lands along the river, the farmer on the rolling lands behind him, and the cracker on the barrens back of both were as often as not kin. The degree of consanguinity among the population of the old Southern backcountry was very great.
As I have suggested, economic and social distinctions hardly existed prior to the invention of the cotton gin. Certainly few existed to the point of operating as an effective barrier to intermarriage. And the thin distribution of the people often made it necessary for the youth of marrying age to ride abroad a considerable way for a wife.
Hence by 1800 any given individual was likely to be cousin to practically everybody within a radius of thirty miles about him. And his circle of kin overlapped more or less with the next, and that in turn with the next beyond, and so on in an endless web, through the whole South. Given a dozen cousins, one or two would carve out plantations at home,another or two, migrating westward, might be lucky enough to do the same thing there,four or five, perhaps attempting the same goal, would make just enough headway to succeed as yeoman farmers.
The rest would either fail in the competition or, being timid and unambitious, would try the impossible feat of standing still in this world of pushing men, with the result that they would gradually be edged back to poorer and poorer lands. In the end, they would have drifted back the whole way, would definitely have joined the ranks of the crackers.
That this is really what took place is a proposition which does not depend on mere supposition or dogmatic statement. Whoever will take the trouble to investigate a little in any county in the South will be immediately struck by the fact that the names of people long prominent locally, constituting the aristocracy, are shared by all sorts and conditions of men.
Stay awhile in any town of the land, and presently some gentleman native to the place will point you out a shuffling, twisted specimen, all compact of tangled hair, warts, tobacco stains, and the odor of the dung-heap, and with a grandiloquent wave of the hand and a mocking voice announce: "My cousin, Wash Venable!"
What he means, of course, is what he means when he uses the same gesture and the same tone in telling you that the colored brother who attends to his spittoons is also his cousin, that you will take him seriously at your peril. What he means is that the coincidence of names is merely a little irony of God, and that the thing he says is clearly not so. But, though he may know it only vaguely if at all, it more often than not is so just the same.
It is not necessary to rest on the reflection that, while it is plausible enough that some such coincidences should arise from mere chance, it seems somehow improbable that a hundred such coincidences in the same county, ten thousand such coincidences in the South generally, can be so explained. If one gets out into the countryside where the "cousin" lives, one is pretty sure to come upon definite and concrete evidence.
Maybe there will be an old woman with a memory capable of moving easily through a mass of names and relationships so intricate that the quantum theory is mere child's play in comparison. And scattered here and there all about the South are one-gallus genealogists, somewhat smelly old fellows with baggy pants and a capacity for butchering the king's English, and like the old woman, capable of remarkable feats of memory.
From such sources one may hear the whole history of the Venables, beginning with Big John, who used to catch squirrels with his hands and whoop with laughter when they bit him, down to seventh cousin Henry's third wife and the names that had been selected for the babies that were born dead. One may discover, indeed, that the actual relationship between the mocking gentleman in the town and "Cousin Wash" is somewhat remote. But, it was not so remote in the Old South.
In the late 19th century, sociologist Richard Dugdale published The Jukes: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity. Dugdale investigated the hereditary line of a family he called the Jukes in upstate New York. Hundreds of descendents of the Juke family (a pseudonym) were traced through successive generations that went as far back as Colonial times. Dugdale once estimated that if he were able to track every single member of the Juke family, the total would have exceeded 1,200 people. But of the 709 he was able to study, 180 had been in the “poorhouse” or received public assistance. Dugdale found 140 criminals or offenders. There were 60 “thieves,” 7 murder victims, 50 prostitutes and 40 women who had contracted sexually transmitted diseases. Dugdale was able to estimate that the Jukes had cost the State of New York almost $1.4 million dollars to house, institutionalize and treat the family of deviants.
The psychologist Henry Goddard later conducted a similar research project in 1912 published as The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Hereditary of Feeble-Mindedness. He studied two separate lines of the Kallikak family. One line originated from Martin Kalliak, a Revolutionary War soldier and a feeble minded bar maid. This union eventually produced 480 descendents of which more than half were described as deviant or criminal. The second line originated from the same Martin Kallikak and a Quaker girl from Philadelphia, a female with an ostensibly “better” hereditary ingredients than the barmaid. This union led to 496 descendents. None became criminals and only three were characterized as abnormal. However, Goddard’s work was highly questionable and some critics have said that the entire study was fictitious, invented by Goddard to promote his radical views and obvious distaste for people he labeled “feeble-minded.”
'Bad to the Bone', by Mark Gado