56 The Mind of the South
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56 The Mind of the South W. J. CASH There remain the people who, under the classical interpretation, were lumped together as poor whites-the non-slaveholding masses of the South. Who were they? Obviously and simply, in the large and outside the oldest regions, the residue of the generally homogeneous population of the old backwoods of the eighteenth century, from which the main body of the ruling class had been selected out. The relatively and absolutely unsuccessful, the less industrious and thrifty, the less ambitious and pushing, the less cunning and lucky-the majority here as everywhere. The weaker elements which, having failed in the competition of the cotton frontier, or having perhaps never entered it, were driven back inexorably by the plantation's tendency to hog the good cotton lands into a limited number of large units, to the lands that had been adjudged as of little or no value for the growing of the staple. But driven back in degree, of course. Thousands and ten thousands-possibly the majority of non-slaveholders were really yeoman farmers. Some of these occupied the poorer cotton lands; but by far the greater number of them were planted on lands which, while they were reckoned as of no account for cotton, were fertile enough for other purposes. Nearly all of them enjoyed some measure of a kind of curious half-thrifty, half-shiftless prosperity-a thing of sagging rail fences, unpainted houses, and crazy barns which yet bulged with corn. And if they are to be called poor whites, then it is not at all in the ordinary connotation of the term, but only in a relative and broad sense-only as their estate is compared with that of the larger planters, and, what is more important, only as they may be thought of as being exploited, in an indirect and limited fashion, by the plantation system . But I must pause to explain more fully what I mean by this exploitation. It involved the fact, not only that the plantation system had driven these people back to the less desirable lands, but also that it had, to a very great extent, walled them up and locked them in therehad blocked them off from escape or any considerable economic and social advance as a body. (No, not even by flight beyond the Mississippi since the cotton planters, with their appetite for gain merely whetted by what they had already won, were presently seizing the best lands there, too-were moving out upon Arkansas and Texas armed with plentiful capital and solid battalions of slaves.) For this system, once on its feet, was a static one, the tendency of which was to hold each group rigidly in the established equilibrium. Moreover, having driven these people back, it thereafter left them virtually out of account . Wholly dominant, possessing, for practical purposes, absolute control of governFrom THE MiND OF THE SOUTH by W. J. Cash. Copyright © 1941 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., and renewed 1969 by Mary R. Maury. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Copyrighted Material 340 W.]. Cash ment and every societal engine, it took its measures solely with an eye to its own interests -which were not the interests, clearly, of most of the non-slaveholders. Worse yet, it concerned itself but little if at all about making use of them as economic auxiliaries-as feeders of those things which the plantation had need of but did not produce in sufficient quantities. It would be nonsense, certainly, to suggest that it had no traffic with them, or that it did not, in fact, furnish them a considerable market. Nevertheless, it is true that, in following its own interests alone, it always preferred to buy a great part of its hay and corn and beef and wool from the North or the Middle West rather than go to the trouble and expense of opening up the backcountry adequately. Roads, railroads, transportation facilities generally, were provided mainly with regard to the movement of cotton. And so, though the slaveless yeomen might wax fat in the sort of primitive prosperity which consisted in having an abundance of what they themselves could produce, they could not go much further than that-were left more or less to stagnate at a level but a step or two above the pioneers. The poor whites in the strict sense were merely the weakest elements of the old backcountry population, in whom these effects of the plantation had worked themselves...