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HOME > Biographical > Harriet Beecher Stowe > CHAPTER X. “POOR WHITE TRASH.”
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When the public sentiment of Europe speaks in tones of indignation of the system of American slavery, the common reply has been, “Look at your own lower classes.” The apologists of slavery have pointed England to her own poor. They have spoken of the heathenish ignorance, the vice, the darkness, of her crowded cities,—nay, even of her agricultural districts.

Now, in the first place, a country where the population is not crowded, where the resources of the soil are more than sufficient for the inhabitants,—a country of recent origin, not burdened with the worn-out institutions and clumsy lumber of past ages,—ought not to be satisfied to do only as well as countries which have to struggle against all these evils.

It is a poor defence for America to say to older countries, “We are no worse than you are.” She ought to be infinitely better.

But it will appear that the institution of slavery has produced not only heathenish, degraded, miserable slaves, but it produces a class of white people who are, by universal admission, more heathenish, degraded, and miserable. The institution of slavery has accomplished the double feat, in America, not only of degrading and brutalizing her black working classes, but of producing, notwithstanding a fertile soil and abundant room, a poor white population as degraded and brutal as ever existed in any of the most crowded districts of Europe.

The way that it is done can be made apparent in a few words. 1. The distribution of the land into large plantations, and the consequent sparseness of settlement, make any system of common-school education impracticable. 2. The same cause operates with regard to the preaching of the gospel. 3. The degradation of the idea of labor, which results inevitably from enslaving the working class, operates to a great extent in preventing respectable working men of the middling classes from settling or remaining in slave states. Where carpenters, blacksmiths and masons, are advertised every week with their own tools, or in company with horses, hogs and other cattle, there is necessarily such an estimate of the laboring class that intelligent, self-respecting mechanics, such as abound in the free states, must find much that is annoying and disagreeable. They may endure it for a time, but with much uneasiness; and they are glad of the first opportunity of emigration.

Then, again, the filling up of all branches of mechanics and agriculture with slave labor necessarily depresses free labor. Suppose, now, a family of poor whites in Carolina or Virginia, and the same family in Vermont or Maine; how different the influences that come over them! In Vermont or Maine, the children have the means of education at hand in public schools, and they have all around them in society avenues of success that require only industry to make them available. The boys have their choice among all the different trades, for which the organization of free society makes a steady demand. The girls, animated by the spirit of the land in which they are born, think useful labor no disgrace, and find, with true female ingenuity, a hundred ways of adding to the family stock. If there be one member of a family in whom diviner gifts and higher longings seem a call for a more finished course of education, then cheerfully the whole family unites its productive industry to give that one the wider education which his wider genius demands; and thus have been given to the world such men as Roger Sherman and Daniel Webster.

185But take this same family and plant them in South Carolina or Virginia—how different the result! No common school opens its doors to their children; the only church, perhaps, is fifteen miles off, over a bad road. The whole atmosphere of the country in which they are born associates degradation and slavery with useful labor; and the only standard of gentility is ability to live without work. What branch of useful labor opens a way to its sons? Would he be a blacksmith?—The planters around him prefer to buy their blacksmiths in Virginia. Would he be a carpenter?—Each planter in his neighborhood owns one or two now. And so coopers and masons. Would he be a shoe-maker?—The plantation shoes are made in Lynn and Natick, towns of New England. In fact, between the free labor of the North and the slave labor of the South, there is nothing for a poor white to do. Without schools or churches, these miserable families grow up heathen on a Christian soil, in idleness, vice, dirt and discomfort of all sorts. They are the pest of the neighborhood, the scoff and contempt or pity even of the slaves. The expressive phrase, so common in the mouths of the negroes, of “poor white trash,” says all for this luckless race of beings that can be said. From this class spring a tribe of keepers of small groggeries, and dealers, by a kind of contraband trade, with the negroes, in the stolen produce of plantations. Thriving and promising sons may perhaps hope to grow up into negro-traders, and thence be exalted into overseers of plantations. The utmost stretch of ambition is to compass money enough, by any of a variety of nondescript measures, to “buy a nigger or two,” and begin to appear like other folks. Woe betide the unfortunate negro man or woman, carefully raised in some good religious family, when an execution or the death of their proprietors throws them into the market, and they are bought by a master and mistress of this class! Oftentimes the slave is infinitely the superior, in every respect,—in person, manners, education and morals; but, for all that, the law guards the despotic authority of the owner quite as jealously.

From all that would appear, in the case of Souther, which we have recorded, he must have been one of this class. We have certain indications, in the evidence, that the two white witnesses, who spent the whole day in gaping, unresisting survey of his diabolical proceedings, were men of this order. It appears that the crime alleged against the poor victim was that of getting drunk and trading with these two very men, and that they were sent for probably by way of showing them “what a nigger would get by trading with them.” This circumstance at once marks them out as belonging to that band of half-contraband traders who spring up among the mean whites, and occasion owners of slaves so much inconvenience by dealing with their hands. Can any words so forcibly show what sort of white men these are, as the idea of their standing in stupid, brutal curiosity, a whole day, as witnesses in such a hellish scene?

Conceive the misery of the slave who falls into the hands of such masters! A clergyman, now dead, communicated to the writer the following anecdote: In travelling in one of the Southern States, he put up for the night in a miserable log shanty, kept by a man of this class. All was dirt, discomfort and utter barbarism. The man, his wife, and their stock of wild, neglected children, drank whiskey, loafed and predominated over the miserable man and woman who did all the work and bore all the caprices of the whole establishment. He—the gentleman—was not long in discovering that these slaves were in person, language, and in every respect, superior to their owners; and all that he could get of comfort in this miserable abode was owing to their ministrations. Before he went away, they contrived to have a private interview, and begged him to buy them. They told him that they had been decently brought up in a respectable and refined family, and that their bondage was therefore the more inexpressibly galling. The poor creatures had waited on him with most assiduous care, tending his horse, brushing his boots, and anticipating all his wants, in the hope of inducing him to buy them. The clergyman said that he never so wished for money as when he saw the dejected visages with which they listened to his assurances that he was too poor to comply with their desires.

This miserable class of whites form, in all the Southern States, a material for the most horrible and ferocious of mobs. Utterly ignorant, and inconceivably brutal, they are like some blind, savage monster, which, when aroused, tramples heedlessly over everything in its way.

Singular as it may appear, though slavery is the cause of the misery and degradation of this class, yet they are the most vehement and ferocious advocates of slavery.

The reason is this. They feel the scorn 186of the upper classes, and their only means of consolation is in having a class below them, whom they may scorn in turn. To set the negro at liberty would deprive them of this last comfort; and accordingly no class of men advocate slavery with such frantic and unreasoning violence, or hate abolitionists with such demoniac hatred. Let the reader conceive of a mob of men as brutal and callous as the two white witnesses of the Souther tragedy, led on by men like Souther himself, and he will have some idea of the materials which occur in the worst kind of Southern mobs.

The leaders of the community, those men who play on other men with as little care for them as a harper plays on a harp, keep this blind, furious monster of the MOB, very much as an overseer keeps plantation-dogs, as creatures to be set on to any man or thing whom they may choose to have put down.

These leading men have used the cry of “abolitionism” over the mob, much as a huntsman uses the “set on” to his dogs. Whenever they have a purpose to carry, a man to put down, they have only to raise this cry, and the monster is wide awake, ready to spring wherever they shall send him.

Does a minister raise his voice in favor of the slave?—Immediately, with a whoop and hurra, some editor starts the mob on him, as an abolitionist. Is there a man teaching his negroes to read?—The mob is started upon him—he must promise to give it up, or leave the state. Does a man at a public hotel-table express his approbation of some anti-slavery work?—Up come the police, and arrest him for seditious language;[23] and on the heels of the police, thronging round the justice’s office, come the ever-ready mob,—men with clubs and bowie-knives, swearing that they will have his heart’s blood. The more respectable citizens in vain try to compose them; it is quite as hopeful to reason with a pack of hounds, and the only way is to smuggle the suspected person out of the state as quickly as possible. All these are scenes of common occurrence at the South. Every Southern man knows them to be so, and they know, too, the reason why they are so; but, so much do they fear the monster, that they dare not say what they know.

This brute monster sometimes gets beyond the power of his masters, and then results ensue most mortifying to the patriotism of honorable Southern men, but which they are powerless to prevent. Such was the case when the Honorable Senator Hoar, of Massachusetts, with his daughter, visited the city of Charleston. The senator was appointed by the sovereign State of Massachusetts to inquire into the condition of her free colored citizens detained in South Carolina prisons. We cannot suppose that men of honor and education, in South Carolina, can contemplate without chagrin the fact that this honorable gentleman, the representative of a sister state, and accompanied by his daughter, was obliged to flee from South Carolina, because they were told that the constituted authorities would not be powerful enough to protect them from the ferocities of a mob. This is not the only case in which this mob power has escaped from the hands of its guiders and produced mortifying results. The scenes of Vicksburg, and the succession of popular whirlwinds which at that time flew over the south-western states, have been forcibly painted by the author of “The White Slave.”

They who find these popular outbreaks useful when they serve their own turns are sometimes forcibly reminded of the consequences
“Of letting rapine loose, and murder,
To go just so far, and no further;
And setting all the land on fire,
To burn just so high, and no higher.”

The statements made above can be substantiated by various documents,—mostly by the testimony of residents in slave states and by extracts from their newspapers.

Concerning the class of poor whites, Mr. William Gregg, of Charleston, South Carolina, in a pamphlet, called “Essays On Domestic Industry, or an Inquiry into the expediency of establishing Cotton Manufactories in South Carolina, 1845,” says, p. 22:

“Shall we pass unnoticed the thousands of poor, ignorant, degraded white people among us, who, in this land of plenty, live in comparative nakedness and starvation? Many a one is reared in proud South Carolina, from birth to manhood, who has never passed a month in which he has not, some part of the time, been stinted for meat. Many a mother is there who will tell you that her children are but scantily provided with bread, and much more scantily with meat; and, if they be clad with comfortable raiment, it is at the expense of these scanty allowances of food. These may be startling statements, but they are nevertheless true; and if not believed in Charleston, the members of our legislature who have traversed the state in electioneering campaigns can attest their truth.”

The Rev. Henry Duffner, D.D., President of Lexington College, Va., himself a 187slave-holder, published in 1847 an address to the people of Virginia, showing that slavery is injurious to public welfare, in which he shows the influence of slavery in producing a decrease of the white population. He says:

It appears that, in the ten years from 1830 to 1840, Virginia lost by emigration no fewer than three hundred and seventy-five thousand of her people; of whom East Virginia lost three hundred and four thousand, and West Virginia seventy-one thousand. At this rate, Virginia supplies the West, every ten years, with a population equal in number to the population of the State of Mississippi in 1840. * * * * * She has sent—or, we should rather say, she has driven—from her soil at least one-third of all the emigrants who have gone from the old states to the new. More than another third have gone from the other old slave states. Many of these multitudes, who have left the slave states, have shunned the regions of slavery, and settled in the free countries of the West. These were generally industrious and enterprising white men, who found, by sad experience, that a country of slaves was not the country for them. It is a truth, a certain truth, that slavery drives free laborers—farmers, mechanics and all, and some of the best of them, too—out of the country, and fills their places with negroes. * * * * * Even the common mechanical trades do not flourish in a slave state. Some mechanical operations must, indeed, be performed in every civilised country; but the general rule in the South is, to import from abroad every fabricated thing that can be carried in ships, such as household furniture, boats, boards, laths, carts, ploughs, axes, and axe-helves; besides innumerable other things, which free communities are accustomed to make for themselves. What is most wonderful is, that the forests and iron mines of the South supply, in great part, the materials out of which these things are made. The Northern freemen come with their ships, carry home the timber and pig-iron, work them up, supply their own wants with a part, and then sell the rest at a good profit in the Southern markets. Now, although mechanics, by setting, up their shops in the South, could save all these freights and profits, yet so it is that Northern mechanics will not settle in the South, and the Southern mechanics are undersold by their Northern competitors.

In regard to education, Rev. Theodore Parker gives the following statistics, in his “Letters on Slavery,” p. 65:

In 1671, Sir William Berkely, Governor of Virginia, said, “I thank God that there are no free schools nor printing-presses (in Virginia), and I hope we shall not have them these hundred years.” In 1840, in the fifteen slave states and territories, there were at the various primary schools 201,085 scholars; at the various primary schools of the free states, 1,626,028. The State of Ohio alone had, at her primary schools, 17,524 more scholars than all the fifteen slave states. New York alone had 301,282 more.

In the slave states there are 1,368,325 free white children between the ages of five and twenty; in the free states, 3,536,689 such children. In the slave states, at schools and colleges, there are 301,172 pupils; in the free states, 2,212,444 pupils at schools or colleges. Thus, in the slave states, out of twenty-five free white children between five and twenty, there are not quite five at any school or college; while out of twenty-five such children in the free states, there are more than fifteen at school or college.

In the slave states, of the free white population that is over twenty years of age, there is almost one-tenth part that are unable to read and write; while in the free states there is not quite one in one hundred and fifty-six who is deficient to that degree.

In New England there are but few born therein, and more than twenty years of age, who are unable to read and write; but many foreigners arrive there with no education, and thus swell the number of the illiterate, and diminish the apparent effect of her free institutions. The South has few such emigrants; the ignorance of the Southern States, therefore, is to be ascribed to other causes. The Northern men who settle in the slave-holding states have perhaps about the average culture of the North, and more than that of the South. The South, therefore, gains educationally from immigration, as the North loses.

Among the Northern States Connecticut, and among the Southern States South Carolina, are to a great degree free from disturbing influences of this character. A comparison between the two will show the relative effects of the respective institutions of the North and South. In Connecticut there are 163,843 free persons over twenty years of age; in South Carolina, but 111,663. In Connecticut there are but 526 persons over twenty who are unable to read and write, while in South Carolina there are 20,615 free white persons over twenty years of age unable to read and write. In South Carolina, out of each 626 free whites more than twenty years of age there are more than 58 wholly unable to read or write; out of that number of such persons in Connecticut, not quite two! More than the sixth part of the adult freemen of South Carolina are unable to read the vote which will be deposited at the next election. It is but fair to infer that at least one-third of the adults of South Carolina, if not of much of the South are unable to read and understand even a newspaper. Indeed, in one of the slave states this is not a matter of mere inference; for in 1837 Gov. Clarke, of Kentucky, declared in his message to the legislature that “one-third of the adult population were unable to write their names;” yet Kentucky has a “school-fund,” valued at $1,221,819, while South Carolina has none.

One sign of this want of ability even to read, in the slave states, is too striking to be passed by. The staple reading of the least-cultivated Americans is the newspapers, one of the lowest forms of literature, though one of the most powerful, read even by men who read nothing else. In the slave states there are published but 377 newspapers, and in the free 1135. These numbers do not express the entire difference in the case; for, as a general rule, the circulation of the Southern newspapers is 50 to 75 per cent. less than that of the North. Suppose, however, that each Southern newspaper has two-thirds the circulation of a Northern journal, we have then but 225 newspapers for the slave states! The more valuable journals—the monthlies and quarterlies—are published almost entirely in the free States.

The number of churches, the number and character of the clergy who labor for these churches, are other measures of the intellectual and moral condition of the people. The scientific character of the Southern clergy has been already touched on. Let us compare the more external facts.

188In 1830, South Carolina had a population of 581,185 souls; Connecticut, 297,675. In 1836, South Carolina had 364 ministers; Connecticut, 498.

In 1834, there were in the slave states but 82,532 scholars in the Sunday-schools; in the free states, 504,835; in the single State of New York, 161,768.

The fact of constant emigration from slave states is also shown by such extracts from papers as the following, from the Raleigh (N. C.) Register, quoted in the columns of the National Era:

Our attention was arrested, on Saturday last, by quite a long train of wagons, winding through our streets, which, upon inquiry, we found to belong to a party emigrating from Wayne county, in this state, to the “far West.” This is but a repetition of many similar scenes that we and others have witnessed during the past few years; and such spectacles will be still more frequently witnessed, unless something is done to retrieve our fallen fortunes at home.

If there be any one “consummation devoutly to be wished” in our policy, it is that our young men should remain at home, and not abandon their native state. From the early settlement of North Carolina, the great drain upon her prosperity has been the spirit of emigration, which has so prejudicially affected all the states of the South. Her sons, hitherto neglected (if we must say it) by an un-parental government, have wended their way, by hundreds upon hundreds, from the land of their fathers,—that land, too, to make it a paradise, wanting nothing but a market,—to bury their bones in the land of strangers. We firmly believe that this emigration is caused by the laggard policy of our people on the subject of internal improvement, for man is not prone by nature to desert the home of his affections.

The editor of the Era also quotes the following from the Greensboro (Ala.) Beacon:

“An unusually large number of movers have passed through this village, within the past two or three weeks. On one day of last week, upwards of thirty wagons and other vehicles belonging to emigrants, mostly from Georgia and South Carolina, passed through on their way, most of them bound to Texas and Arkansas.”

This tide of emigration does not emanate from an overflowing population. Very far from it. Rather it marks an abandonment of a soil which, exhausted by injudicious culture, will no longer repay the labor of tillage. The emigrant, turning his back upon the homes of his childhood, leaves a desolate region, it may be, and finds that he can indulge in his feelings of local attachment only at the risk of starvation.

How are the older states of the South to keep their population? We say nothing of an increase, but how are they to hold their own? It is useless to talk about strict construction, state rights, or Wilmot Provisos. Of what avail can such things be to a sterile desert, upon which people cannot subsist?

In the columns of the National Era, Oct. 2, 1851, also is the following article, by its editor:

A citizen of Guilford county, N. C., in a letter to the True Wesleyan, dated August 20th, 1851, writes:

“You may discontinue my paper for the present, as I am inclined to go Westward, where I can enjoy religious liberty, and have my family in a free country. Mobocracy has the ascendency here, and there is no law. Brother Wilson had an appointment on Liberty Hill, on Sabbath, 24th inst. The mob came armed, according to mob law, and commenced operations on the meeting-house. They knocked all the weather-boarding off, destroying doors, windows, pulpit, and benches; and I have no idea that, if the mob was to kill a Wesleyan, or one of their friends, that they would be hung.

“There is more moving this fall to the far West than was ever known in one year. People do not like to be made slaves, and they are determined to go where it is no crime to plead the cause of the poor and oppressed. They have become alarmed at seeing the laws of God trampled under foot with impunity, and that, too, by legislators, sworn officers of the peace, and professors of religion. And even ministers (so called) are justifying mobocracy. They think that such a course of conduct will lead to a............
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