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Cracker Culture

Celtic Ways in the Old South

Grady McWhiney, Forrest McDonald

Publication Year: 1989

Cracker Culture is a provocative study of social life in the Old South that probes the origin of cultural differences between the South and the North throughout American history. Among Scotch-Irish settlers the term “Cracker” initially designated a person who boasted, but in American usage the word has come to designate poor whites. McWhiney uses the term to define culture rather than to signify an economic condition. Although all poor whites were Crackers, not all Crackers were poor whites; both, however, were Southerners.

The author insists that Southerners and Northerners were never alike. American colonists who settled south and west of Pennsylvania during the 17th and 18th centuries were mainly from the “Celtic fringe” of the British Isles. The culture that these people retained in the New World accounts in considerable measure for the difference between them and the Yankees of New England, most of whom originated in the lowlands of the southeastern half of the island of Britain. From their solid base in the southern backcountry, Celts and their “Cracker” descendants swept westward throughout the antebellum period until they had established themselves and their practices across the Old South. Basic among those practices that determined their traditional folkways, values, norms, and attitudes was the herding of livestock on the open range, in contrast to the mixed agriculture that was the norm both in southeastern Britain and in New England. The Celts brought to the Old South leisurely ways that fostered idleness and gaiety. Like their Celtic ancestors, Southerners were characteristically violent; they scorned pacifism; they considered fights and duels honorable and consistently ignored laws designed to control their actions. In addition, family and kinship were much more important in Celtic Britain and the antebellum South than in England and the Northern United States. Fundamental differences between Southerners and Northerners shaped the course of antebellum American history; their conflict in the 1860s was not so much brother against brother as culture against culture.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press

Cover Page

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p. 1-1

Title Page

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pp. 2-9


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pp. ix-11


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xx

IN Southerners and Other Americans (I973), which emphasized various similarities between Southerners and Northerners, I also recognized that important differences have separated the South and the North throughout American history. Noting that such an authority as Thomas Jefferson "characterized Southerners as hotheaded, indolent, unstable...

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pp. xxi-45

THE Celtic interpretation of southern history, to which this volume is a major contribution, can be summed up in two general propositions. One is that, by virtue of historical accident, the American colonies south and west of Pennsylvania were peopled during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries mainly by immigrants from the "Celtic fringe" of....

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I. Settlement

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pp. 1-22

HISTORIANS, in their much-argued efforts to determine the extent to which the antebellum North and South were similar or different,1 have paid too little attention to the abundant observations of contemporaries. Most of the people who traveled in antebellum America-Northerners, Southerners, and Europeans-concluded that the South and the North were significantly...

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II. Heritage

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pp. 23-50

THOSE Celts who migrated to the southern part of what became the United States brought with them from the British Isles a host of habits and traditions that distinguished them both from the Englishmen who stayed at home and from the Englishmen who settled New England. American...

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III. Herding

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pp. 51-79

Two dominant institutions-black slavery and the open-range system of grazing livestock-made it possible for most white Southerners to practice a leisurely lifestyle. At the middle of the nineteenth century fewer than 40 percent of the nation's twenty-three million inhabitants lived...

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IV. Hospitality

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pp. 80-104

SOME years ago a professor at a northern university claimed that the experiences of certain travelers "do not support all that has been asserted about southern hospitality." He argued that often visitors had to pay for what hospitality they received in the Old South; "that it was not always extended in good grace and sometimes was with ...

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V. Pleasures

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pp. 105-145

"THE slave States are proverbial for their amusements," noted a disapproving Yankee, who stated that Southerners "are seldom taught to labor, or to engage in any kind of business. Life is to them but a play-day, and the question of every morning is-how to kill time?" In the antebellum South, insisted a foreigner, "man's love of pleasure is the equal...

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VI. Violence

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pp. 146-170

VISITORS from Europe and the North to the Old South often described white Southerners as a "heathen race" of "barbarians" who were "more savage than the Indians." One foreigner complained that killings in Louisiana, which "would be called murder[s] in France," were as common...

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VII. Morals

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pp. 171-192

"THE state of morals differs so much in different parts of America," proclaimed an Englishman. In the South, he wrote, "the people ... all seemed degenerate .... Their general demeanour [was] .. . more rude and familiar [than in other parts of the country], and their conversations more licentious and profane." Most Englishmen and Northerners agreed...

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VIII. Education

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pp. 193-217

I have always been cheated most by men who could write," explained a Southerner, who owned forty slaves and considerable landed property but could not read or write; nor could his nine grown sons. "Send my sons to school to learn to read and write? No Sir," he informed a...

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IX. Progress

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pp. 218-244

VISITORS who complained about the nature of education in premodern Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and in the Old South rarely had anything more favorable to say about the conditions of travel in these areas. First of all, travelers, especially those from England and the North, were not...

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X. Worth

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pp. 245-267

THE values of Southerners and Yankees, like those of Celts and Englishmen, were not just different-they were antagonistic..1 Observers from the 1600s through the 1800s agreed that as a rule Northerners and Englishmen were industrious and business minded farmers, traders, and...

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XI. Collision

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pp. 268-272

To bring all this to a conclusion and a focus, it is clear that eye witness accounts of life in the United States before the 1860s reveal vast and important differences between Southerners and Northerners. Throughout the antebellum period a wide range of observers generally characterized Southerners as more hospitable, generous, ...


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pp. 273-277


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pp. 278-290

E-ISBN-13: 9780817384524
E-ISBN-10: 0817384529
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817304584
Print-ISBN-10: 0817304584

Page Count: 334
Illustrations: 36
Publication Year: 1989