'White Trash' argues that America has always been riven by class conflict

Historian Nancy Isenberg's book is a carefully researched indictment of a particularly American species of hypocrisy, and it’s deeply relevant today.

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America By Nancy Isenberg Penguin Publishing 480 pp.

In 1786, Thomas Jefferson articulated a founding myth of American democracy: “No distinction between man and man has ever been known in America,” he wrote. To make the new country sound even more idyllic, he added the wishful claim that the “poorest labourer stood on equal ground with the wealthiest Millionary.” It was a land of radical and unprecedented equality, free of “distinctions by birth or badge.”

This was complete hogwash, of course. The roughly 600 slaves that Jefferson owned during his life are one obvious proof that America was not a classless society. But even among men of European ancestry – the highly restricted group Jefferson likely had in mind – class distinctions were so pervasive that an entire vocabulary of scorn existed to describe the poorest whites. Some of these terms are now antiquated, but new epithets have emerged. Lubbers, squatters, crackers, clay-eaters, scalawags, hillbillies, rednecks, trailer trash, swamp people, bogtrotters, offscourings, mudsills – all these terms share a core of contempt. To adapt George Orwell, some people have always been more equal than others.

Historian Nancy Isenberg’s new book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, argues that our society was riven by class conflict and anxiety at every stage of its long history, from the first English colonists to the political upheavals of the present. This claim isn’t necessarily controversial, but the depth and variety of evidence she marshals in its support shows how class connects in startling ways to landscape, heredity, government policy, and popular culture. The book is a carefully researched indictment of a particularly American species of hypocrisy, and it’s deeply relevant to the pathologies of contemporary America.

Isenberg’s story begins with the 16th-century English clergyman Richard Hakluyt, a compiler of travel narratives from the New World who advocated its colonization. He envisioned North America as a wild and uncultivated wasteland that required “waste people” to settle it. Within the metaphor of the body politic, colonists were figurative excrement – unnecessary waste best expelled to a safe distance.

This expulsion had convenient economic benefits for those back in England. Not only could they get rid of beggars, thieves, and other perceived misfits, they could rely on these outcasts to subdue an inhospitable landscape for future trade and settlement. Death rates for colonists before 1625 were as high as 80 percent, a figure perhaps made more palatable by the belief that the majority of colonists were expendable.

After a few colonies were established along the Atlantic seaboard, the same pattern of driving “waste people” westward repeated itself. The wealthy American elite congregated in the cleared and cultivated lands closer to the coast, while the poor – often former indentured servants – endured raids and difficult farming conditions on the frontiers in search of elusive social mobility. In 1676, the governor of Jamestown voiced a common perception when he called the band of poor colonists behind Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion “offscourings,” a term for human fecal waste.

The idea that land of poor quality both produces and attracts people of equally low worth reappears in many guises across the centuries of American history that Isenberg examines. Thomas Jefferson championed the value of a society in which the intellectually gifted would be “raked from the rubbish annually,” a revealing agricultural metaphor which betrays his conviction that the vast majority of the underclass are, well, rubbish. Benjamin Franklin described inhabitants of the Pennsylvania backcountry as “refuse.” And Henry David Thoreau likened the Americans spreading into Western states and territories to manure: their only value was as a kind of fertilizer.

A different line of explanation attributed the supposed laziness of poor whites to slavery. James Oglethorpe, who founded Georgia in 1733, initially prohibited slavery in the colony so that free whites would develop a stronger work ethic. Franklin and Jefferson later elaborated the same essential arguments, claiming that because slaves perform the work that poor whites might otherwise, the institution of slavery promoted slothfulness and sundry other vices among poor whites. Slavery, in short, produced white trash. 

This argument became especially popular in the northern states during the Civil War. Calling slavery evil because of the mistreatment of African-Americans was persuasive only among relatively enlightened demographics. To convince more people that the Civil War was morally legitimate, the conflict was reframed as a way of rescuing poor whites from the dire economic and spiritual effects of slavery. 

The eugenics movement that swept Europe and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries provided a veneer of pseudoscientific plausibility to the older idea that poor whites were a separate and lower breed of humanity. As early as 1787, Thomas Jefferson wondered in his "Notes on the State of Virginia," “The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?” One hundred and forty years later, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes took this reasoning to its dreadful conclusion in the infamous 1927 Buck v. Bell ruling. He justified the decision to uphold state statutes permitting compulsory sterilization with this pronouncement: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

The coda of Isenberg’s study analyzes the rebranding of white trash as an ethnic identity. Shows like "The Beverly Hillbillies" initiated the transformation, and today an entire genre of television capitalizes on depictions of this demographic: "Swamp People," "Redneck Island," "Duck Dynasty," "Appalachian Outlaws," "Moonshiners," etc. But this mainstream visibility does not translate into the Jeffersonian ideal of equality. 

It’s fashionable for presidential candidates to campaign in blue jeans and eat barbecue, and it’s profitable for purveyors of music, clothing, and television shows to equate identity with a set of consumer preferences. Yet those who reside on marginal land – think trailer parks at the edge of towns or beside freeways – are still mocked and denigrated, and the wealth gap in America is by many measurements wider than ever before. It’s clearly advantageous for powerful businessmen or political candidates to ape the culture and values of poor whites. But such playacting doesn’t mean the poor are not treated like trash.

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