A rigorously researched study of the entrenched system of racial classification that dispels many myths about American national identity.
In this impressive work of social history, Isenberg (American History/Louisiana State Univ.; Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, 2007, etc.) challenges head-on America’s “fable of class denial.” From the first indentured servants brought to Plymouth and Jamestown to the caricatured hillbillies of Duck Dynasty, the existence of “waste” people, or impoverished, ignorant, landless whites, has persistently run against convenient notions of the upstanding American founder—i.e., moral, hardworking “entrepreneurial stewards of the exploitable land.” Dumped on the Colonies, the vagrant, often criminal poor from England and elsewhere were considered expendable and often exploited. As a key to the story, Isenberg looks at the early settlement of North Carolina, which became a “renegade territory, a swampy refuge for the poor and landless,” situated between elite Virginians and slaveholding “upstart” South Carolinians. Contrary to the mythmaking of the exceptional early American in writings by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson, based on theories of “good breeding” and yeomanry, a whole class of common people grew up as a byproduct of the slaveholding states, living on the margins of the plantations: dirt-poor Southerners (literally “clay-eaters”) who were considered lazy and racially degenerate. Moreover, the enormous new swaths of Western land were largely populated by a new class of “squatters” or “crackers,” considered “mangy varmints infesting the land” and represented by the first Westerner elected president, Andrew Jackson. Isenberg examines some surprising sources of these early stereotypes of white trash, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), in which the author “described poor whites as a degenerate class, prone to crime, immorality, and ignorance.” From the eugenics movement to the rise of the proud redneck, Isenberg portrays a very real and significant history of class privilege in the United States.
A riveting thesis supported by staggering research.