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  • Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South by Keri Leigh Merritt
  • Matthew E. Stanley (bio)
Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South. By Keri Leigh Merritt. (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. 371. $59.99 cloth; $29.99 paper; $24.00 ebook)

American slavery was not only a racial system. It was also a labor system—a part of what Cedric J. Robinson terms "racial capital-ism"—that was designed to control workers and prevent the unity of oppressed people across racial lines. Writing in 1855, abolitionist Frederick Douglass made clear which white people benefited and which white people did not when it came to American slavery—the slaveholders, "by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the black," succeeded "in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the black slave himself. . . . Both are plundered, and by the same plunderers" (pp. 62–63).

Keri Leigh Merritt's superb study, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, echoes Douglass's point, arguing that black slavery and white poverty went hand-in-hand. Overturning Frank Owsley's influential but outmoded analysis of southern "plain folk," Merritt maintains that slavery kept the Deep South's white underclass—roughly one-third of the white population—perpetually land scarce, unemployed, and poor.

Scholars have long debated the cause of material disparities between black and white workers and the degree to which slavery and constitutive race discrimination confer advantage—either in [End Page 113] the mostly psychological and illusory realm of Friedrich Engels's "false consciousness" and W.E.B. Du Bois's "psychological wage," or in terms of something more material—on white workers. In the context of the Old South, Merritt's stance is straightforward: slavery drove down conditions for all workers and, to the extent that poor whites accepted slavery and white supremacy, they contributed to the ability of planters to exploit them. Typically, the extent of what Theodore Allen theorized as their "white privilege" was to merely not be enslaved. "Burdened—not elevated—by the peculiar institution," it was not simply the case that poor whites experienced white privilege differently than propertied white, black slavery was actively bad for them (p. 61).

The portrait of the antebellum Deep South Merritt paints is one of extreme compressions of wealth and highly stratified socioeconomic divisions. Perpetuated by inheritable slave property, class barriers were largely nonporous. Slaveholders were shrewd capitalists, even if the region's social relations were not capitalistic. Poor whites—landless, slaveless, and mostly propertyless—were concentrated in the foothills, the mountains, the wiregrass, and the pineywood regions. The same elite and bourgeois institutions that sustained slavery also oppressed poor whites, leading to low wages and unemployment; an almost total lack of public schools and access to credit; slave patrols, behavioral laws, and community surveillance as forms of social control and retributive justice; and the slaveholders' monopolization of land, resources, and political power. In this sense, poor white existence constituted what antislavery North Carolinian Hinton Rowan Helper, whose writings and ideas Merritt heavily cites, deemed a "second degree of slavery" (p. 326).

Yet Masterless Men transcends neo-Helperism by sophisticatedly arguing that poor whites were, from food scarcity to sexual violence, subject to many of the same physical and material vulnerabilities as black slaves; that through "Snopesian crimes," they resisted oppression in many of the same ways slaves did; and that they developed class consciousness even as the South's rurality and lack of industrialization [End Page 114] stymied their solidarity and labor power.

Persistent class anxiety both spurred secession and contributed to Confederate defeat during the Civil War. Even though planters won support for secession by ginning up fears of neo-John Browns and an impending Haitian-style "race war," many poor whites remained deeply resentful of the planter class. Although poor whites joined the Confederate armies for a variety of reasons, ranging from being targets of conscription to adherence to the masculine or honor-bound values, deserters were disproportionately poor and from the laboring classes. Other pauperized dissenters, whom William W. Freehling labels "anti-Confederates," contributed mightily to Confederate defeat through...