America Was Never Class-Free
On Foundational Myths and Deep-Rooted Inequality
We know what class is. Or think we do: economic stratification created by wealth and privilege. The problem is that popular American history is most commonly told—dramatized—without much reference to the existence of social classes. It is as though in separating from Great Britain, the United States somehow magically escaped the bonds of class and derived a higher consciousness of enriched possibility. After all, the U.S. Senate is not the House of Lords. Schoolbooks teach the national narrative along the lines of “how land and liberty were won” or “how ordinary folks seized opportunity.” The hallowed American dream is the gold standard by which politicians and voters alike are meant to measure quality of life as each generation pursues its own definition of happiness unfettered by the restraints of birth (who your parents are) or station (the position you start out from in the class system).
Our cherished myths are at once bolstering and debilitating. “All men are created equal” was successfully employed as a motto to define the promise of America’s open spaces and a united people’s moral self-regard in distinguishing themselves from a host of hopeless societies abroad. The idea of America was presented by its chief promoters with great panache, a vision of how a modern republic might prove itself revolutionary in terms of social mobility in a world dominated by monarchy and fixed aristocracy.
All that is bolstering. However, the reality on the ground was and is considerably different. In the most literal terms, as we shall see, British colonists promoted a dual agenda: one involved reducing poverty back in England, and the other called for transporting the idle and unproductive to the New World. After settlement, colonial outposts exploited their unfree laborers (indentured servants, slaves, and children) and saw such expendable classes as human waste. The poor, the waste, did not disappear, and by the early eighteenth century they were seen as a permanent breed. This way of classifying human failure took hold in the United States. Every era in the continent’s vaunted developmental story had its own taxonomy of waste people—unwanted and unsalvageable. Each era had its own means of distancing its version of white trash from the mainstream ideal.
By thinking of the lower classes as incurable, irreparable “breeds,” this study reframes the relationship of race and class. Class had its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from its intersection with race. It starts with the rich and potent meaning that came with the different names given the American underclass. Long before they were today’s “trailer trash” and “rednecks,” they were called “lubbers” and “rubbish” and “clay-eaters” and “crackers”—and that’s just scratching the surface.
Lest the reader misconstrue, I want to make the point unambiguously: by reevaluating the American historical experience in class terms, I expose what is too often ignored about American identity. But I’m not just pointing out what we’ve gotten wrong about the past; I also want to make it possible to better appreciate the gnawing contradictions still present in modern American society.
How does a culture that prizes equality of opportunity explain, or indeed accommodate, its persistently marginalized people? Twenty-first-century Americans need to confront this enduring conundrum. Let us recognize the existence of our underclass. It has been with us since the first European settlers arrived on these shores. It is not an insignificant part of the vast national demographic today. The puzzle of how white trash embodied this tension is one of the key questions the book presumes to answer.
America’s class language and thinking began with the forceful imprint left by English colonization. The generations of the 1500s and 1600s that first envisioned the broad-scale English exploitation of America’s natural environment employed a vocabulary that was a mix of purposeful description and raw imagery. They did not indulge in pretty talk. The idea of settlement had to be sold to wary investors; the planting of New World American colonies had to serve Old World purposes. In grand fashion, promoters imagined America not as an Eden of opportunity but as a giant rubbish heap that could be transformed into productive terrain. Expendable people—waste people—would be unloaded from England; their labor would germinate a distant wasteland. Harsh as it sounds, the idle poor, dregs of society, were to be sent thither simply to throw down manure and die in a vacuous muck. Before it became that fabled “City upon a Hill,” America was in the eyes of sixteenth-century adventurers a foul, weedy wilderness—a “sinke hole” suited to ill-bred commoners. Dark images of the New World accompanied more seductive ones. When early English promoters portrayed North America as a rich and fertile landscape, they grossly and perhaps knowingly exaggerated. Most were describing a land they never had seen, of course. Wary investors and state officials had to be convinced to take the plunge into a risky overseas venture. But most important, it was a place into which they could export their own marginalized people.
The idea of America as “the world’s best hope” came much later. Historic memory has camouflaged the less noble origins of “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” We all know what imagery springs to mind when patriots of our day seek confirmation that their country is and was always an “exceptional” place: modest Pilgrims taught to plant by generous Indians; Virginia Cavaliers entertaining guests at their renowned estates along the James River. Because of how history is taught, Americans tend to associate Plymouth and Jamestown with cooperation rather than class division.
And it gets ever more misty-eyed from there, because disorder and discord serve no positive purpose in burgeoning national pride. Class is the most outstanding, if routinely overlooked, element in presuppositions about early settlement. Even now, the notion of a broad and supple middle class functions as a mighty balm, a smoke screen. We cling to the comfort of the middle class, forgetting that there can’t be a middle class without a lower. It is only occasionally shaken up, as when the Occupy Wall Street movement of recent years shone an embarrassing light on the financial sector and the grotesque separation between the 1 percent and the 99 percent. And then the media giants find new crises and the nation’s inherited disregard for class reboots, as the subject recedes into the background again.
An imaginary classless (or class-free) American past is the America that Charles Murray has conjured in his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012). For Murray, an authority in the minds of many, the large and fluid society of 1963 was held together by the shared experiences of the nuclear family. When they watched The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, average Americans believed they were seeing their lives on the small screen. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even in its innocent youth, television caricatured people by class types. One only need consider a few of the other popular shows of those halcyon years to prove the point: Petticoat Junction (1963), which chronicled rural life at the Shady Rest Hotel and contrasted a simpler people with their savvier city relations; The Farmer’s Daughter (1963), featuring a Swedish-American maid from the farm who goes to work for a U.S. congressman; Green Acres (1965), where Arnold the pig is the smartest resident of the hick town of Hooterville; and, finally, that classic satire of social mobility, The Beverly Hillbillies (1962), whose mountain-bred oil millionaires seem like evolutionary throwbacks in the eyes of city folk. And lest we forget, Ozzie and Harriet began its long run at the same time as The Honeymooners, a brilliant send-up of a bus driver, a sewer worker, and their poor working-class wives. Everyone who tuned in understood perfectly well that Ozzie and Harriet’s world bore no resemblance to Ralph and Alice Kramden’s.
Selective memory allows us to romanticize a golden age that functions as a timeless talisman of American identity.
Parody was one way Americans safely digested their class politics. Selective memory allows us to romanticize a golden age that functions as a timeless talisman of American identity. For Charles Murray, who ignores the country’s long history, the golden age is 1963, when the essence of the American creed was somehow captured in a Gallup poll in which respondents refused to self-identify as either poor or rich: approximately half said that they were working class, while the other half perceived themselves as middle class. As if a single statistic could possibly tell a comprehensive story, the social scientist writes, “Those refusals reflected a national conceit that had prevailed from the beginning of the nation: America didn’t have classes, or, to the extent that it did, Americans should act as if we didn’t” (emphasis added). Murray’s fable of class denial can only exist by erasing a wealth of historical evidence that proves otherwise. The problem is, the evidence has never been effectively laid out, allowing gross misrepresentations to stand.
By gaining first a better understanding of the colonial context and, next, charting the steps by which modern definitions of class were established, we will be able to see how ideas and ideals combined over time.
By acknowledging the ongoing influence of older English definitions of poverty and class, we will come to recognize that class identity was apparent in America—profoundly so—long before George Gallup saw it as a creature of public opinion; indeed, class resonated long before waves of immigrants swept ashore in the nineteenth century and an awkward, often heated process of acculturation ensued. Above all, we must stop declaring what is patently untrue, that Americans, through some rare good fortune, escaped the burden of class that prevailed in the mother country of England. Far more than we choose to acknowledge, our relentless class system evolved out of recurring agrarian notions regarding the character and potential of the land, the value of labor, and critical concepts of breeding. Embarrassing lower-class populations have always been numerous, and have always been seen on the North American continent as waste people.
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Historical mythmaking is made possible only by forgetting. We have to begin, then, with the first refusal to face reality: most colonizing schemes that took root in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British America were built on privilege and subordination, not any kind of proto-democracy. The generation of 1776 certainly underplayed that fact. And all subsequent generations took their cue from the nation’s founders.
A past that relies exclusively on the storied Pilgrims, or the sainted generation of 1776, shortchanges us in more ways than one. We miss a crucial historical competition between northern and southern founding narratives and their distinctive parables minimizing the importance of class. The Declaration of Independence and the federal Constitution, principal founding documents, loom large as proof of national paternity; the six-foot-three-inch Virginian George Washington stands head and shoulders above his countrymen as the figurative “father” of his nation. With Virginia’s claim to an origins story in mind, another founding father, John Adams, heralded the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, as an earlier and stronger model for an American patrician-patriarch. The lesson is easy: then as now, origins are contested territory. What can’t be denied, however, are the class origins of the anointed leaders.
Beyond the web of stories the founding generation itself wove, our modern beliefs have most to do with the grand mythmakers of the nineteenth century. The inspired historians of that period were nearly all New Englanders; they outpaced all others in shaping the historical narrative, so that the dominant story of origins worked in their favor. That is how we got the primordial Puritan narrative of a sentimental community and a commendable work ethic. Of course, the twin attributes of religious freedom and hard work erase from the record all those settlers who did not live up to these high ideals. The landless, the impoverished, the progenitors of future generations of white trash conveniently disappear from the founding saga.
There were plays and poems, in addition to standard histories, owing from the pens of Bostonians as they praised the separatists who established the early settlements. As early as 1769, New Englanders began celebrating “Forefathers Day” in Plymouth. Boston artist Henry Sargent unveiled his painting Landing of the Fathers in 1815. But the first volume of George Bancroft’s widely praised History of the United States (1834) may be the best example of how the Mayflower and Arbella washed ashore and seeded the ground where love of liberty bore its ripest fruit in hubristic orations by the likes of Daniel Webster at well-attended nineteenth-century anniversary celebrations. These efforts were magnified as a result of promotional skills demonstrated by such organizations as the Colonial Dames, who worked to elevate the Mayflower Pilgrims and Winthrop’s Puritans into some of the foremost figures in our national memory.
In 1889, the Pilgrim Monument (now known as the National Monument to the Forefathers) was dedicated at Plymouth. Showing just how “colossal” the original plan was, the Boston architect and sculptor Hammatt Billings submitted a design for a 150-foot monument, which he conceived as the American version of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It does not nullify his purpose that the final sculpture proved to be of a smaller scale and (predictably) allegorical: a female figure of Faith points to heaven and clutches a Bible, much like the Statue of Liberty with her torch.
Monuments imperfectly record the past, as we all know. There is strange discrepancy between the chiseled female form (which could appear almost anywhere) and the event being recalled. John Gast’s famous 1872 painting American Progress has an ethereal female spirit flying above the pioneers’ transcontinental migratory march west across the plains; stagecoaches, wagons, railroad tracks, telegraph lines push aside Indians and buffalo that stand in their way. Billings’s statue also heralds Faith, who lofts above the actual people on the Mayflower: their names appear less prominently on the side of the structure. Thus the first English settlers’ personal motives for making the journey have been subsumed into a singular, overwhelming force of religious liberty. The settlers remain mute. The complex process of colonization is condensed and forgotten, because all human traces (the actual people tied to those names) are lost. There is no remembrance of those who failed, those without heirs or legacies. Instead, time has left subsequent generations with a hollow symbol: progress on the march.
The compression of history, the winnowing of history, may seem natural and neutral, but it is decidedly not. It is the means by which grade school history becomes our standard adult history. And so the great American saga, as taught, excludes the very pertinent fact that after the 1630s, less than half came to Massachusetts for religious reasons. The tall tales we unthinkingly absorb when young somehow remain within; the result is a narrowly conceived sense of national belonging productive of the most uncompromising of satisfying myths: “American exceptionalism.” We are unique and different, and the absence of class is one of our hallmarks.
Exceptionalism emerges from a host of earlier myths of redemption and good intentions. Pilgrims, persecuted in the Old World, brave the Atlantic dreaming of finding religious freedom on America’s shores; wagon trains of hopeful pioneer families head west to start a new life. Nowhere else, we are meant to understand, was personal freedom so treasured as it was in the American experience. The very act of migration claims to equalize the people involved, molding them into a homogeneous, effectively classless society. Stories of unity tamp down our discontents and mask even our most palpable divisions. And when these divisions are class based, as they almost always are, a pronounced form of amnesia sets in. Americans do not like to talk about class. It is not supposed to be important in our history. It is not who we are.
Instead, we have the Pilgrims (a people who are celebrated at Thanksgiving, a holiday that did not exist until the Civil War), who came ashore at Plymouth Rock (a place only designated as such in the late eighteenth century). The quintessential American holiday was associated with the native turkey to help promote the struggling poultry industry during the Civil War. The word “Pilgrim” was not even popularized until 1794. Nevertheless, the “first” Thanksgiving has been given a date of 1621, when well-meaning Pilgrims and fair-minded Wampanoags shared a meal. The master of ceremonies was their Indian interpreter, Squanto, who had helped the English survive a difficult winter. Left out of this story is the detail (not so minor) that Squanto only knew English because he had been kidnapped and sold as a slave to an English ship’s captain. (Coerced labor of this kind reminds us of how the majority of white servants came to America.) Squanto’s friendship, alas, was a far more complicated affair than the fairy tale suggests. He died of a mysterious fever the very next year while engaged in a power struggle with Massasoit, the “Great Sachem” of the Wampanoag confederation.
In spite of the obvious stature of a Washington and a Jefferson, and Virginia’s settlement thirteen years pre-Pilgrim, the southern states lagged behind the scribbling northerners in fashioning a comprehensive colonial myth to highlight their own cultural ascendancy in the New World. Here’s what we have: Less a story than a mystery, there persists to this day a morbid curiosity about the 1587 “Lost Colony” of Roanoke, a puzzle on the order of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance over the Pacific. A strange allure surrounds every vanishing people—recall the wildly popular television series Lost. Or Plato’s Atlantis. Ghost ships and ghost colonies invoke a marvelous sense of timelessness; they exist outside the normal rules of history, which explains why Roanoke’s mystery mitigates the harsh realities we instinctively know the early settlers were forced to face.
If Roanoke is a tantalizing curio of a lost world, Jamestown, its more permanent offspring, grew to represent the Virginia colony’s origins in a way that could compete with the uplifting story of the Pilgrims. The 1607 founding of Jamestown may lack a national holiday, but it does claim a far sexier fable in the dramatic rescue of John Smith by the “Indian princess” Pocahontas. As the story goes, in the middle of an elaborate ceremony, the eleven-year-old “beloved daughter” of “King” Powhatan rushed forward and placed her head over Smith, stopping tribesmen from smashing his skull with their clubs. A magical bond formed between the proud Englishman and the young naïf, cutting through all the linguistic and cultural barriers that separated the Old and New Worlds.
This brave girl has fascinated poets, playwrights, artists, and filmmakers. She has been called the “patron deity” of Jamestown and the “mother” of both Virginia and America. A writer in 1908 dubiously claimed that Pocahontas was actually the daughter of Virginia Dare, the youngest member of the Roanoke colony, making the Indian princess a child of European descent lost in the wilderness, much like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes, published three years later.
The best-known, most recent version of the story is the 1995 Walt Disney animated film. Strikingly beautiful, unnervingly buxom, and more like a pop culture diva than a member of the Tsenacommacah tribe, Disney’s Pocahontas fabulously communes with nature, befriending a raccoon, talking to a tree; she is nearly identical to other Disney heroines Snow White and Cinderella, who also boast a menagerie of animal friends. Why? Communing with nature draws upon the potent romantic image of the New World as a prelapsarian classless society. Old tropes meld seamlessly with new cinematic forms: women in Western culture have been consistently portrayed as closer to Mother Nature, lushness and abundance, Edenic tranquility and fertility. There is no rancid swamp, no foul diseases and starvation, in this Jamestown recreation.
Class and cultural dissonance magically fade from view in order to remake American origins into a utopian love story.
Scholars have debated whether the rescue of Smith ever took place, since only his account exists and its most elaborate version was published years after Pocahontas’s death. Smith was a military adventurer, a self-promoter, a commoner, who had the annoying habit of exaggerating his exploits. His rescue story perfectly mimicked a popular Scottish ballad of the day in which the beautiful daughter of a Turkish prince rescues an English adventurer who is about to lose his head. Though an Anglican minister presided over Princess Pocahontas’s marriage to the planter John Rolfe, one member of the Jamestown council dismissed her as the heathen spawn of a “cursed generation” and labeled her a “barbarous[ly] mannered” girl. Even Rolfe considered the union a convenient political alliance rather than a love match.
We should not expect Disney to get that right when the fundamental principle of the classless American identity—sympathetic communion—is at stake. The film builds on another mythic strand of the oft-told tale: it is John Smith (blond and brawny in his animated form), not Rolfe, who takes on the role of Pocahontas’s lover. Exaggerating her beauty and highlighting her choice to save Smith and become an ally of the English is not new. When a less-than- flattering portrait appeared in 1842, making her plump and ungainly, and not the lovely and petite Indian princess, there was a storm of protest over what one critic called a “coarse and unpoetical” rendering. Her Anglicized beauty is nonnegotiable; her primitive elegance makes her assimilation tolerable. Indeed, it is all that makes acceptance of the Indian maiden possible.
The Pocahontas story requires the princess to reject her own people and culture. This powerful theme has persisted, as the historian Nancy Shoemaker observes, because it contributes to the larger national rationale of the Indians’ willing participation in their own demise. Yet this young girl did not willingly live at Jamestown; she was taken captive. In the garden paradise of early Virginia that never was, war and suffering, greed and colonial conquest are conveniently missing. Class and cultural dissonance magically fade from view in order to remake American origins into a utopian love story.
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Can we handle the truth? In the early days of settlement, in the profit-driven minds of well-connected men in charge of a few prominent joint-stock companies, America was conceived of in paradoxical terms: at once a land of fertility and possibility and a place of outstanding wastes, “ranke” and weedy backwaters, dank and sorry swamps. Here was England’s opportunity to thin out its prisons and siphon off thousands; here was an outlet for the unwanted, a way to remove vagrants and beggars, to be rid of London’s eyesore population. Those sent on the hazardous voyage to America who survived presented a simple purpose for imperial profiteers: to serve English interests and perish in the process.
In that sense, the “first comers,” as they were known before the magical “Pilgrims” took hold, were something less than an inspired lot. Dozens who disembarked from the Mayflower succumbed that first year to starvation and disease linked to vitamin deficiency; scurvy rotted their gums, and they bled from different orifices. By the 1630s, New Englanders reinvented a hierarchical society of “stations,” from ruling elite to household servants. In their number were plenty of poor boys, meant for exploitation. Some were religious, but they were in the minority among the waves of migrants that followed Winthrop’s Arbella. The elites owned Indian and African slaves, but the population they most exploited were their child laborers. Even the church reflected class relations: designated seating affirmed class station.
Virginia was even less a place of hope. Here were England’s rowdy and undisciplined, men willing to gamble their lives away but not ready to work for a living. England perceived them as “manure” for a marginal land. All that these idle men understood was a cruel discipline when it was imposed upon them in the manner of the mercenary John Smith, and the last thing they wanted was to work to improve the land. All that would keep the fledgling colony alive was a military-style labor camp meant to protect England’s interests in the country’s ongoing competition with the equally designing Spanish, French, and Dutch governments. That a small fraction of colonists survived the first twenty years of settlement came as no surprise back home—nor did London’s elite much care. The investment was not in people, whose already unrefined habits declined over time, whose rudeness magnified in relation to their brutal encounters with Indians. The colonists were meant to find gold, and to line the pockets of the investor class back in England. The people sent to accomplish this task were by definition expendable.
So now we know what happens to our colonial history. It is whitewashed. Though New World settlers were supposed to represent the promise of social mobility, and the Pilgrims generated our hallowed faith in liberty, nineteenth-century Americans paradoxically created a larger-than-life cast of “democratic” royalty. These inheritors founded the first genealogical societies in the 1840s, and by the turn of the twentieth century patriotic organizations with an emphasis on hereditary descent, such as the General Society of Mayflower Descendants and the Order of the Founders and Patriots of America, boasted chapters across the nation. The highly exclusive Order of the First Families of Virginia was established in 1912, its members claiming that their lineage could be traced back to English lords and Lady Rebecca Rolfe—whom we all know as the ennobled and Anglicized Pocahontas.
Statues are the companions of elite societies in celebrating paternal lineage and a new aristocracy. They tell us that some families (and some classes) have a greater claim as heirs of the founding promise. Municipal and state leaders have supported the national hagiography in bold form by constructing grand monuments to our colonial city fathers. The version of John Winthrop that the Revolutionary John Adams had favored, dressed in Shakespearean or Tudor-Stuart attire and with an ornate ruff collar and hose, first graced the Back Bay of Boston in 1880. But the largest such memorial is the twenty-seven-ton statue of William Penn perched atop City Hall in Philadelphia. After it was completed in 1901, no structure in the entire city was permitted to be taller than Penn’s Quaker hat until 1987, ensuring that the founder’s sovereign gaze towered over the City of Brotherly Love, commemorating the colonizing act of territorial possession. In British law, ownership was measured by standing one’s ground—that is, holding and occupying the land. Land itself was a source of civic identity. This principle explains as well the totem value of “Plymouth Rock,” the large stone discovered long after the last Pilgrim breathed New England air, christened in the eighteenth century as the first piece of land on which the Mayflower settlers stood.
Commemoration of this kind begs the following questions: Who were the winners and losers in the great game of colonial conquest? Beyond parceling the land, how were estates bounded, fortunes made, and labor secured? What social structures, what manner of social relationships did the first European Americans really set in motion? Finding answers to these questions will enable us to fully appreciate how long-ago-established identities of haves and have-nots left a permanent imprint on the collective American mind.
Americans’ sketchy understanding of the nation’s colonial beginnings reflects the larger cultural impulse to forget—or at least gloss over—centuries of dodgy decisions, dubious measures, and outright failures. The “Lost Colony” of Roanoke was just one of many unsuccessful colonial schemes. Ambitious-sounding plans for New World settlements were never more than ad hoc notions or overblown promotional tracts. The recruits for these projects did not necessarily share the beliefs of those principled leaders molded in bronze—the John Winthrops and William Penns—who are lionized for having projected the enlarged destinies of their respective colonies.
Most settlers in the seventeenth century did not envision their forced exile as the start of a “City upon a Hill.” They did not express undying confidence in Penn’s “Holy Experiment.” Dreamers dreamt, but few settlers came to America to fulfill any divine plan. During the 1600s, far from being ranked as valued British subjects, the great majority of early colonists were classified as surplus population and expendable “rubbish,” a rude rather than robust population. The English subscribed to the idea that the poor dregs would be weeded out of English society in four ways. Either nature would reduce the burden of the poor through food shortages, starvation, and disease, or, drawn into crime, they might end up on the gallows. Finally, some would be impressed by force or lured by bounties to fight and die in foreign wars, or else be shipped off to the colonies. Such worthless drones as these could be removed to colonial outposts that were in short supply of able-bodied laborers and, lest we forget, young “fruitful” females. Once there, it was hoped, the drones would be energized as worker bees. The bee was the favorite insect of the English, a creature seen as chaste but, more important, highly productive.
The colonists were a mixed lot. On the bottom of the heap were men and women of the poor and criminal classes. Among these unheroic transplants were roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores, and an assortment of convicts shipped to the colonies for grand larceny or other property crimes, as a reprieve of sorts, to escape the gallows. Not much better were those who filled the ranks of indentured servants, who ranged in class position from lowly street urchins to former artisans burdened with overwhelming debts. They had taken a chance in the colonies, having been impressed into service and then choosing exile over possible incarceration within the walls of an over-crowded, disease-ridden English prison. Labor shortages led some ship captains and agents to round up children from the streets of London and other towns to sell to planters across the ocean—this was known as “spiriting.” Young children were shipped off for petty crimes. One such case is that of Elizabeth “Little Bess” Armstrong, sent to Virginia for stealing two spoons. Large numbers of poor adults and fatherless boys gave up their freedom, selling themselves into indentured servitude, whereby their passage was paid in return for contracting to anywhere from four to nine years of labor. Their contracts might be sold, and often were, upon their arrival. Unable to marry or choose another master, they could be punished or whipped at will. Owing to the harsh working conditions they had to endure, one critic compared their lot to “Egyptian bondage.”
Discharged soldiers, also of the lower classes, were shipped off to the colonies. For a variety of reasons, single men and women, and families of the lower gentry, and those of artisan or yeoman classes joined the mass migratory swarm. Some left their homes to evade debts that might well have landed them in prison; others (a fair number coming from Germany and France) viewed the colonies as an asylum from persecution for their religious faith; just as often, resettlement was their escape from economic restrictions imposed upon their trades. Still others ventured to America to leave tarnished reputations and economic failures behind. As all students of history know, slaves eventually became one of the largest groups of unfree laborers, transported from Africa and the Caribbean, and from there to the mainland British American colonies. Their numbers grew to over six hundred thousand by the end of the eighteenth century. Africans were found in every colony, especially after the British government gave full encouragement to the slave trade when it granted an African monopoly to the Company of Royal Adventurers in 1663. The slave trade grew even faster after the monopoly ended, as the American colonists bargained for lower prices and purchased slaves directly from foreign vendors.
To put class back into the story where it belongs, we have to imagine a very different kind of landscape. Not a land of equal opportunity, but a much less appealing terrain where death and harsh labor conditions awaited most migrants. A firmly entrenched British ideology justified rigid class stations with no promise of social mobility. Certainly, Puritan religious faith did not displace class hierarchy either; the early generations of New Englanders did nothing to diminish, let alone condemn, the routine reliance on servants or slaves. Land was the principal source of wealth, and those without any had little chance to escape servitude. It was the stigma of landlessness that would leave its mark on white trash from this day forward.
So, welcome to America as it was. The year 1776 is a false starting point for any consideration of American conditions. Independence did not magically erase the British class system, nor did it root out long-entrenched beliefs about poverty and the willful exploitation of human labor. An unfavored population, widely thought of as waste or “rubbish,” remained disposable indeed well into modern times.
From WHITE TRASH: THE 400-YEAR UNTOLD HISTORY OF CLASS IN AMERICA. Used with permission of Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Nancy Isenberg.