Amid the torrent of studies highlighting specific aspects of society in the antebellum American South, a precious few focus on the lifestyle of the less fortunate members of white society. Poor white southerners continue to be one of the least studied groups of any category of Americans. In this new study from Cambridge University Press, author Keri Leigh Merritt delves into the lives of the South's largely forgotten class of people.
Initial impressions of poor whites in the South were shaped by individuals such as Frederick Law Olmsted and Hinton Helper, both of whom Merritt relies on heavily. Olmsted could only identify three classes in the South—planters, slaves, and poor whites—while Helper regarded poor whites as victims of the slave system. A more comprehensive understanding of the complexities of southern society emerged nearly a century later through the work of Frank Owsley and his students, who employed statistical analysis to debunk Olmsted's view and reveal a vibrant class of [End Page 528] southerners they called the plain folk. Since the publication of Owsley's initial work, scholars have expanded upon and refined his interpretation suggesting that most white southerners owned land and enjoyed what may be regarded as akin to a middle-class existence.
Merritt sees little value in the work of Owsley and those who incorporate his conclusions into their work. Scholars using Owsley's interpretation of the South, even those relying on impressive statistical analysis, are little more than "Confederate apologists" (15) in Merritt's view. The famed Vanderbilt school of scholars, who offered an interpretation that challenged H. L. Mencken's view of southern worthlessness, are likewise reduced to "the Nashville group" (14). Such bold attacks on established interpretations may fill readers with anticipation that they are about to witness groundbreaking methodology that could finally answer the long-posed question, Whose South was it? Unfortunately, they are likely to be disappointed.
This book does have its moments. The discussion of the Homestead Acts, the focus on the early lives of individuals such as Andrew Johnson, and the descriptions of poor white misery and powerlessness are all engaging and welcome additions to existing literature. Merritt nonetheless seeks to recast understanding of antebellum society, and in this regard she is less convincing. Despite claims to massive use of less revealed primary sources of evidence, again and again she relies on the same secondary sources, including some whose conclusions have long been suspect, such as U. B. Phillips, Clement Eaton, and Roger Shugg, in an effort to recast interpretations of southern society. Merritt dismisses the scores of studies based on statistical analysis that challenge her conclusions without offering any substantive numbers of her own. Her rationale, which she explains at length, is that the manuscript census cannot be trusted. There are problems with the antebellum census returns, as there are with census returns today and likely will be in the future. Working with the manuscript census is also challenging and time consuming. Yet Merritt underestimates the value of their use, especially when supported by conveyance, mortgage, and other records easily found in most county courthouses. The author would have greatly advanced her case had she offered an alternative statistical methodology rather than simply dismissing time-tested methods to conclude "that truly impoverished whites comprised approximately one-third of the white population in the Deep South," while admitting "there is simply no way to prove any approximation" (347).
Factual errors, such as assigning the consequences and implications of Louisiana's regressive Constitution of 1852 to its progressive Constitution of 1845, as well as other suspect assertions unsupported by any comparative [End Page 529] or statistical data, such as "the Confederacy suffered incredibly high rates of desertion" (36), will give some readers pause. So too will the author's dismissal, or lack of awareness, with one exception, of recent studies demonstrating that though the system of education in the South did not remotely resemble the New England model, it was far more vibrant...