Our understanding of the past often relies on mythmaking or selective memory. So it has been with American history. We often think of ourselves as a “classless society,” but the impoverished and landless are often missing from our story. Using a wide range of sources, historian Nancy Isenberg seeks the truth in her superb White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. This survey of social class is sweeping, detailed, carefully documented and well written. It shows that, contrary to what we may believe, marginalized and expendable people have been part of our heritage from the start.
Most British colonizing schemes in the 17th and 18th centuries were built on privilege and subordination. Wishing to reduce poverty in England, those regarded as idle and unproductive, including orphans, were sent to North America where they worked as “unfree” laborers. Waste men and waste women, as they were called, were an expendable class of workers who made colonization possible.
The much admired thinker John Locke, who greatly influenced American revolutionaries, was also a founding member of and the third largest stockholder in the Royal African Company, which had a monopoly over the British slave trade. Contemptuous of the vagrant poor in England and preoccupied with class structure, Locke, in his Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (1669), basically declared war on poor settlers in the Carolinas. The area divided into two colonies in 1712, and Isenberg traces in detail the curious history of why North Carolina became, as she writes, “the heart of our white trash story.”
Government efforts to improve the lives of the poor have repeatedly met with strong resistance. The Freedmen’s Bureau, established in 1865 to extend relief to “all refugees, and all freedmen,” and the Resettlement Administration of the 1930s both failed to produce long-term success.
Isenberg writes: “Pretending that America has grown rich as a largely classless society is bad history, to say the least. . . . Class separation is and always has been at the center of our political debates, despite every attempt to hide social reality with deceptive rhetoric.”
Her incisive and lively examination of this phenomenon deserves a wide readership.