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Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South

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Analyzing land policy, labor, and legal history, Keri Leigh Merritt reveals what happens to excess workers when a capitalist system is predicated on slave labor. With the rising global demand for cotton - and thus, slaves - in the 1840s and 1850s, the need for white laborers in the American South was drastically reduced, creating a large underclass who were unemployed or u Analyzing land policy, labor, and legal history, Keri Leigh Merritt reveals what happens to excess workers when a capitalist system is predicated on slave labor. With the rising global demand for cotton - and thus, slaves - in the 1840s and 1850s, the need for white laborers in the American South was drastically reduced, creating a large underclass who were unemployed or underemployed. These poor whites could not compete - for jobs or living wages - with profitable slave labor. Though impoverished whites were never subjected to the daily violence and degrading humiliations of racial slavery, they did suffer tangible socio-economic consequences as a result of living in a slave society. Merritt examines how these 'masterless' men and women threatened the existing Southern hierarchy and ultimately helped push Southern slaveholders toward secession and civil war.


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Analyzing land policy, labor, and legal history, Keri Leigh Merritt reveals what happens to excess workers when a capitalist system is predicated on slave labor. With the rising global demand for cotton - and thus, slaves - in the 1840s and 1850s, the need for white laborers in the American South was drastically reduced, creating a large underclass who were unemployed or u Analyzing land policy, labor, and legal history, Keri Leigh Merritt reveals what happens to excess workers when a capitalist system is predicated on slave labor. With the rising global demand for cotton - and thus, slaves - in the 1840s and 1850s, the need for white laborers in the American South was drastically reduced, creating a large underclass who were unemployed or underemployed. These poor whites could not compete - for jobs or living wages - with profitable slave labor. Though impoverished whites were never subjected to the daily violence and degrading humiliations of racial slavery, they did suffer tangible socio-economic consequences as a result of living in a slave society. Merritt examines how these 'masterless' men and women threatened the existing Southern hierarchy and ultimately helped push Southern slaveholders toward secession and civil war.

30 review for Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South

  1. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    Excellent book. This is the book that I wished Nancy Isenberg's "White Trash" had been; if only Merritt's book would get similar press. Back when I reviewed Isenberg's book, I said, "Now, a lot of the people described were illiterate and we probably don't have too many of their thoughts and feelings. But there is archaeology; there are demographic or other kinds of records; there are folk songs, hymns, stories, and certainly from the 20th century onwards lots of recordings and interviews, I woul Excellent book. This is the book that I wished Nancy Isenberg's "White Trash" had been; if only Merritt's book would get similar press. Back when I reviewed Isenberg's book, I said, "Now, a lot of the people described were illiterate and we probably don't have too many of their thoughts and feelings. But there is archaeology; there are demographic or other kinds of records; there are folk songs, hymns, stories, and certainly from the 20th century onwards lots of recordings and interviews, I would guess. But all that would have required painstaking historian's work that Isenberg does not seem interested in..." Well, Merritt is interested, and has the skills to analyze the data. Her book only goes slightly beyond the antebellum period, but there is certainly value in sticking to pre-Civil War as a distinctive period. Merritt does use newspaper writings and the views of travelers, and so you do get outsiders' views of poor whites. But she also uses court records, demographic data, and personal testimony. And she confronts, head-on, the larger implications of class, economy, sociology, and attitudes towards the war. She also powerfully shows that the antebellum South was an oligarchic and terroristic state, both where slavery and where propertyless whites were concerned. Merritt is meticulous in her citations and thus makes it clear that her arguments aren't all completely unheard of or revolutionary. But they were new to me, since I'm not a specialist in this era of history, and they were clearly and compellingly made.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jessica Rodrigues

    It's usually paperback fantasy novels that keep me up reading late at night, but this book was fascinating and un-put-down-able. With an exhaustive amount of research, it challenges the image of a Jacksonian utopia promoted by neo-Confederate apologists, painting a picture of a surveillance society plagued by vigilante miscarriages of justice and a blatant disregard for the most basic of Constitutional (not to mention basic human-) rights. The author's basic argument (which is exceptionally well It's usually paperback fantasy novels that keep me up reading late at night, but this book was fascinating and un-put-down-able. With an exhaustive amount of research, it challenges the image of a Jacksonian utopia promoted by neo-Confederate apologists, painting a picture of a surveillance society plagued by vigilante miscarriages of justice and a blatant disregard for the most basic of Constitutional (not to mention basic human-) rights. The author's basic argument (which is exceptionally well-supported by the evidence) is that poor southern whites inhabited a social strata significantly below true freedom but still nominally better than the life lived by the enslaved. Their freedom of speech was severely restricted, in some places even under threat of execution; even if they could speak their mind, they were purposely denied a basic education, so the illiterate majority had little access to ideas. Their freedom of movement was closely monitored. And, of course, it was virtually impossible to compete economically with enslaved laborers, who the slaveowning class struggled to keep separate from the poor whites lest they should socialize and conspire together. (They did anyway.) This economy and society was not sustainable, and the slaveowning class lived in perpetual fear of 1) the enslaved population, 2) the large mass of poor whites who were bound to revolt once they became literate and noticed the score, and 3) those two groups working together. Following the Civil War, these two classes each took a step up socioeconomically. It can be argued that the Civil War did more for poor whites than for former slaves. Poor whites, now able to compete for wages, go to school, or find a homestead out west, found themselves less separated from the rest of white society. Newly-freed blacks found themselves nominally free, but facing many of the perils that once plagued the poor whites -- increased surveillance, limited civil freedoms and educational opportunities, strict labor and movement controls, and rampant over-incarceration for minor (or imaginary) infractions. I cannot stress enough how exceptional this book was, and how reading it has informed the way I consider the progression of lower-working class labor and race relations. My review does not do it justice. Highly recommended.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ammon Cornelius

    This was a disappointing read. The overall discussion of how the institution of slavery not only impacted African Americans, but also significantly affected poor whites is compelling and needed. However, the book itself is highly repetitive, overly speculative, and generalizes social classes so monolithically that there is no room for human agency. This final issue is the typical problem that faces Marxist histories, and the orthodox Marxist approach here has not done anything to avoid this prob This was a disappointing read. The overall discussion of how the institution of slavery not only impacted African Americans, but also significantly affected poor whites is compelling and needed. However, the book itself is highly repetitive, overly speculative, and generalizes social classes so monolithically that there is no room for human agency. This final issue is the typical problem that faces Marxist histories, and the orthodox Marxist approach here has not done anything to avoid this problem. All slaveowners, or the "master class," for example, think exactly alike, with the author not allowing for any divisions within their ranks. Every single action employed by the "master class" becomes part of a concerted effort to keep poor whites under their subjection. The poor whites are interpreted as being "class conscious" á la E. P. Thompson, and class conflict drives every aspect of her story, provocatively arguing that this should be how we understand the origins of the Civil War. Many of the author's general arguments will be found convincing, provocative, and uncomfortable by readers. The rigid structuralism placed on social classes and the inherent Marxist teleology, however, raise serious questions. Furthermore, an excessive number of speculations (which, of course, always strengthen her argument), are quite questionable.

  4. 4 out of 5

    JRT

    This book does a tremendous job articulating the full social, political, and economic consequences of the Southern slave society for not just enslaved Africans, but for "poor and middling whites." Merritt traces how antebellum slavery degraded the lives of every non-slave holder in the South. She explains how and why the preservation of slavery required various authoritarian and oppressive means not just towards the enslaved Africans and "free Blacks," but towards the non-slaveholding white popu This book does a tremendous job articulating the full social, political, and economic consequences of the Southern slave society for not just enslaved Africans, but for "poor and middling whites." Merritt traces how antebellum slavery degraded the lives of every non-slave holder in the South. She explains how and why the preservation of slavery required various authoritarian and oppressive means not just towards the enslaved Africans and "free Blacks," but towards the non-slaveholding white population who posed an existential threat to the institution of slavery. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way Merritt details how the system that we understand as "Jim Crow" had its roots in how the Southern slaveholding aristocracy treated poor whites during the slave era. From sharecropping, leased labor, vagrancy, over-policing and hyper-criminalization, deliberate undereducation, racial segregation, employment discrimination, and debt peonage, the treatment of poor whites in the antebellum South was a precursor for how "freed" Black folks would be treated post-Reconstruction. As such, based on the degradation that the white masses in the South suffered as a result of African enslavement, Merritt correctly observed that emancipation was two-pronged (Black emancipation and poor white emancipation), and that it actually benefitted poor whites far more than it did the newly "freed" Black folks. This book is also a great account of how the arbitrary construction of race is used to entrench the class privileges of the economic elite. To that end, Merritt describes how poor whites were racialized and depicted as a distinct and degraded form of "white" in relation to the white slaveholding class, for the purpose of justifying the oppression that poor whites faced during the slave era. I highly recommend this book for anybody who wants to learn more about the intersection of race and class in the antebellum era.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Ben D.

    Dr. Merritt has written an excellent book here. The text amplifies a social, cultural and economic evaluation of the impacts of slavery in the antebellum South. Dr. Merritt’s cultural and social assessment gives special attention to antebellum American life that is often overlooked. Slavery is safely presupposed as a moral evil. However, this book answers how slavery’s evil impacted economic circumstances, as well as social conditions for all residing in the South. The text argues that slavery k Dr. Merritt has written an excellent book here. The text amplifies a social, cultural and economic evaluation of the impacts of slavery in the antebellum South. Dr. Merritt’s cultural and social assessment gives special attention to antebellum American life that is often overlooked. Slavery is safely presupposed as a moral evil. However, this book answers how slavery’s evil impacted economic circumstances, as well as social conditions for all residing in the South. The text argues that slavery kept a majority of families in the South; poor. In addition, the text is filled with brief biographies as well as narratives of ordinary individuals whom were affected by the reality of slavery. Here, we recognize that the institution of slavery actually caused many to be the victims of an unbalanced legal system as well, as the victimization among social, racial, cultural, and even educational realities for all in the south. Slavery moved and affected everything-and everyone. Moreover, Dr. Merritt does an excellent job showing over and over again, the patterns of the slave-holder’s life. And, how power, intellectual manipulation, economic greediness, and social bereavement can influence all in its surrounding. Of course, many scholars attack slavery on its moral wickedness, as well as racism, and the confederacy of the antebellum south. And, rightly so. However, Dr. Merritt not only accomplishes that, Dr. Merritt shows how these immoral things also had a broader contribution to the life ordinary people in the south. This text furthers the discussion by acknowledging that not all known truths about the antebellum south and worldview rest in the famous lives of people like Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. Though, much is gained there, there is much more in the higher population’s cultural and social constructs, found in the content of their lives. I would recommend this book for academic learning as well as for non-academic settings, towards understanding a clear picture of antebellum Southern life.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Andy Kindle

    This book was fascinating. Expertly weaving in facts and historical accounts to show how slavery impacted the southern economy. I found so many relevant storylines relevant to today including the use in the south of vagrancy laws and other legal matters to keep classes in line; including poor whites prior to emancipation as they threatened the institution of slavery, and then to freedmen after emancipation. The control of society by the wealthy elite by withholding education, use of disinformati This book was fascinating. Expertly weaving in facts and historical accounts to show how slavery impacted the southern economy. I found so many relevant storylines relevant to today including the use in the south of vagrancy laws and other legal matters to keep classes in line; including poor whites prior to emancipation as they threatened the institution of slavery, and then to freedmen after emancipation. The control of society by the wealthy elite by withholding education, use of disinformation, maintaining poverty, controlling voting is reminiscent of conservative policies today. And as an economist, the impact of slavery on wages, productivity, employment, and comparisons to the economy in the North were really interesting. The stories of extreme violence of societal control in the south, both under slavery and to keep poor whites in line, seems to have strong connections to periods after emancipation not discussed in the book including reconstruction and later violence during the civil rights movement.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Laura Trombley

    This book is not the most entertaining read or particularly well written. It is hugely significant and puts the civil war into a whole other light. An estimated, (due to inaccuracies in the census process) 1/3 to 1/2 of all southern whites lived in abject poverty having no property, no job opportunities, pay well below a living wage when they could find employment, and virtually no vote. Their lives were in many ways worst than the slave ( not trying to belittle the enslavement experience). Vigi This book is not the most entertaining read or particularly well written. It is hugely significant and puts the civil war into a whole other light. An estimated, (due to inaccuracies in the census process) 1/3 to 1/2 of all southern whites lived in abject poverty having no property, no job opportunities, pay well below a living wage when they could find employment, and virtually no vote. Their lives were in many ways worst than the slave ( not trying to belittle the enslavement experience). Vigilante justice ruled the land and was focused on keeping the poor white trash in their place before the war. The oligarchy of the south wished to suspend democracy and rule as aristocrats. The war was a rich man's war fought by poor men, who often deserted due to not having any stake in its outcome. After the civil war, the newly emancipated slaves took the place on the bottom rung of the ladder. This set the stage for our ever ongoing issues with race. This is definitely a must read for everyone.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Crompton

    In Masterless Men, Merritt shows us the damage that the institution of slavery inflicted on the antebellum South beyond its obvious evil - that it poisoned every aspect of society. In a system built on forced, unpaid labor, poor white Southerners found that their labor had no value, and they were left without a role in that system. The slave-holding, landowning elite saw poor whites as a constant threat to the status quo, and kept that class subjugated and powerless through a wide variety of (so In Masterless Men, Merritt shows us the damage that the institution of slavery inflicted on the antebellum South beyond its obvious evil - that it poisoned every aspect of society. In a system built on forced, unpaid labor, poor white Southerners found that their labor had no value, and they were left without a role in that system. The slave-holding, landowning elite saw poor whites as a constant threat to the status quo, and kept that class subjugated and powerless through a wide variety of (sometimes shockingly brutal) means. Sadly, as Merritt says, "The violence borne by slavery had (and would continue to have) long-term consequences for all Southerners for generations to come." Impeccably researched, well-written and recommended for anyone interested in the history of the South.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Hunter

    If nothing else, given the general dearth of good literature focused on this aspect of Southern society in the period, the book is a welcome one, but it is hard to read without nevertheless looking askance at it from time to time. Many excellent components, but doesn't really come together for a convincing piece in total as it feels that the framework itself is lacking. The economic analysis is interesting, and welcome, but the push back against the mainstream racial analysis of Southern society If nothing else, given the general dearth of good literature focused on this aspect of Southern society in the period, the book is a welcome one, but it is hard to read without nevertheless looking askance at it from time to time. Many excellent components, but doesn't really come together for a convincing piece in total as it feels that the framework itself is lacking. The economic analysis is interesting, and welcome, but the push back against the mainstream racial analysis of Southern society in the period is, in the end, too cursory and unconvincing.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy Neely

    One of the most important books on 19th-century U.S. history to emerge in the past few years, Masterless Men has helped me to think about so many parts of American line—particularly in the antebellum era but also in our own time—in new ways. This is now *the* book to read on non-slaveholding Southern whites, but students of several other topics—land policy, labor, education, crime and punishment, and Civil War loyalties—would do well to consider Merritt’s forceful interpretations.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Emily

    Very well worth reading—changed my perceptions of Southern history before the Civil War. Things I hadn’t known: the South didn’t have universal public education before the war. Leased slaves were direct competition for white laborers. Poor whites were exhaustively policed for vagrancy before the war. After the war, state apparatus turned to policing black people. Cambridge UP has to step up its copy editing game though. Surprisingly large # of errors, typos, words missing.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Eric Bottorff

    A fascinating examination of racial formation and the tripartite class divide within the antebellum South and the extent to which the master class had to work to prevent their socioeconomic system from disintegrating at the hands of a coalition between slaves and poor whites. And though it touches on it only briefly, also very good on the ways in which the privileges of whiteness were extended to poor whites after the Civil War.

  13. 4 out of 5

    RN

    A must read Years ago I read a book that made reference to over 100,000 whites dying of starvation in the hills of Alabama during the civil war. I couldn't believe this, nor did I find any information to support it. So reading "Masterless Men": Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South was exactly the book I was looking for. A must read Years ago I read a book that made reference to over 100,000 whites dying of starvation in the hills of Alabama during the civil war. I couldn't believe this, nor did I find any information to support it. So reading "Masterless Men": Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South was exactly the book I was looking for.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Karla L Phelps

    yes this book mentions my great grandmothers relatives james chastain martha lousia sarah harriet emmeline mary cooper chastain i am now looking into why they were arrested in 1846 to 1856 cause from what i have read about theere family none of them were poor

  15. 5 out of 5

    Sve

    A fascinating look at the pre-Civil War southern society. What it takes to run a slave economy, and what's it like to try and sell your labor in that environment. This book give me new insight into southern thinking leading up to secession. Really well done. A fascinating look at the pre-Civil War southern society. What it takes to run a slave economy, and what's it like to try and sell your labor in that environment. This book give me new insight into southern thinking leading up to secession. Really well done.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Patrick Pettit

    Accessible, if a bit redundant at times.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Rosamarie56 Angelone

    Amazing book. Doing that thing that good history books can do..shift my view of an entire era of time and give me a path to find out more.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan Stegall

  19. 5 out of 5

    Tyler

  20. 4 out of 5

    sergio bueno

  21. 4 out of 5

    Linda Baughn

  22. 5 out of 5

    Matt M Perez

  23. 4 out of 5

    Mark Wolters

  24. 4 out of 5

    Charlotte

  25. 4 out of 5

    Adam

  26. 5 out of 5

    Dennis

  27. 4 out of 5

    Lindsey

  28. 4 out of 5

    Cheri Switzer

  29. 5 out of 5

    Peggy Lavinder

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kaleb Burns

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