L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 323, June 12, 2005
"News From The Belly Of The Beast"
An excerpt from the new book
Special to TLE
Published by Encounter Books and reprinted here with permission
These people are creating a terrible problem in our cities. They can't or won't hold a job, they flout the law constantly and neglect their children, they drink too much and their moral standards would shame an alley cat. For some reason or other; they absolutely refuse to accommodate themselves to any kind of decent, civilized life.
This was said in 1956 in Indianapolis, not about blacks or other minorities, but about poor whites from the South. Nor was Indianapolis unique in this respect. A 1951 survey in Detroit found that white Southerners living there were considered "undesirable" by 21 percent of those surveyed, compared to 13 percent who ranked blacks the same way. In the late 1940s, a Chicago employer said frankly, "I told the guard at the plant gate to tell the hillbillies that there were no openings." When poor whites from the South moved into Northern cities to work in war plants during the Second World War, " occasionally a white southerner would find that a flat or furnished room had 'just been rented' when the landlord heard his southern accent.
More is involved here than a mere parallel between blacks and Southern whites. What is involved is a common subculture that goes back for centuries, which has encompassed everything from ways of talking to attitudes toward education; violence, and sex—and which originated not in the South, but in those parts of the British Isles from which white Southerners came. That culture long ago died out where it originated in Britain, while surviving in the American south. Then it largely died out among both white and black Southerners, while still surviving today in the poorest and worst of the urban black ghettos.
It is not uncommon for a culture to survive longer where it is transplanted and to retain characteristics lost in its place or origin. The French spoken in Quebec and the Spanish spoken in Mexico contain words and phrases that have long since become archaic in France and Spain. Regional German dialects persisted among Germans living in the United States after those dialects had begun to die out in Germany itself. A scholar specializing in the history of the South has likewise noted among white Southerners "archaic word forms," while another scholar has pointed out the continued use in that region of "terms that were familiar at the time of the first Queen Elizabeth." The card game whist is today played almost exclusively by blacks, especially low-income blacks, though in the eighteenth century it was played by the British upper classes, and has since then evolved into bridge. The history of the evolution of this game is indicative of a much broader pattern of cultural evolution in much more weighty things.
Southern whites not only spoke the English language in very different ways from whites in other regions, their churches, their roads, their homes, their music, their education, their food, and their sex lives were all sharply different from those of other whites. The history of this redneck or cracker culture is more than a curiosity. It has contemporary significance because its influence on the economics and social evolution of vast numbers of people—millions of blacks and whites—and its continuing influence on the lives and deaths of a residual population in America's black ghettos which has still not completely escaped from that culture.
From early in American history, foreign visitors and domestic travelers alike were struck by cultural contrasts between the white population of the South and that of the rest of the country in general—and of New England in particular. In the early nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville contrasted white Southerners with white Northerners in his classic Democracy in America and Frederick Law Olmsted did the same later in his books about his travels through the antebellum South, notably Cotton Kingdom. De Tocqueville set a pattern when he concluded that "almost all the differences which may be noticed between the Americans in the Southern and in the Northern states have originated in slavery." Olmsted likewise attributed the differences between white Southerners and white Northerners to the existence of slavery in the South. So did widely read antebellum Southern writer Hinton Helper, who declared that "Slavery, and nothing but slavery, has retarded the progress and prosperity of our portion of the Union."
Just as they explained regional differences between whites by slavery, so many others in a latter era would explain differences between blacks and white nationwide by slavery. Plausible as these explanations might seem in both cases, they will not stand up under a closer scrutiny of history.
It is perhaps understandable that the great, overwhelming moral curse of slavery has presented a tempting casual explanation of the peculiar subculture of Southern whites, as well as that of blacks. Yet this same subculture had existed among Southern whites and their ancestors in those parts of the British Isles from which they came, long before they had ever seen a black slave. The nature of this subculture, among people who were called "rednecks" and "Crackers" in Britain before they ever saw America, needs to be explored before turning to the question of its current status among ghetto blacks and how developments in the larger society have affected its evolution.
Emigration from Britain, like other migrations around the world, was not random in either its origins or it destinations. Most of the Britons who migrated to colonial Massachusetts, for example, came from within a 60-mil radius of the town of Haverhill in East Anglia. The Virginia aristocracy came from different localities in southern and western England. Most of the common white people of the South came from the northern borderlands of England—for centuries a no-man's land between Scotland and England—as well as from the Scottish highland and from Ulster County, Ireland. All these fringe areas were turbulent, if not lawless, regions, where none of the contending forces were able to establish full control and create a stable order. Whether called a "Celtic fringe" or "north Britons," these were people from outside of the cultural heartland of England, as their behavior on both sides of the Atlantic showed. Before the era of modern transportation and communication, sharp regional differences were both common and persistent.
In some of the countries of colonial Virginia, from nearly three-quarters to four-fifths of the people came from northern Britain and similar proportions were found in some of the countries of Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as in parts of both the Carolinas. Although they predominated in many parts of the South, such people also had some Northern enclaves in colonial America, notably western Pennsylvania, where Ulster Scots settled. What is at least equally important as where particular people settled is when they emigrated from the borderlands, Ulster, and the Scottish Highlands.
Scotland in particular progressed enormously in the eighteenth century. The level from which it began may be indicated by the fact that a visitor to the late eighteenth-century Edinburgh found it noteworthy that its residents no longer threw sewage from their chamber pots out their windows into the street—something that passersby had long had to be alert for, to avoid being splattered. Such crude and unsanitary living had long been characteristic of earlier times, when rural Scots lived in the same primitive shelters with their animals, and vermin abounded. A similar lack of concern with cleanliness was found among others in the borderlands of Britain—and among their descendants on the other side of the Atlantic in the antebellum South. For example, a nineteenth-century politician "built up a political machine in the poor white districts of Mississippi" by such practices as this:
He did not resort to any conventional tactics of kissing dirty babies, but he pleased mothers and fathers in log cabins by taking their children upon his lap and searching for red bugs, lice, and other vermin.
Back in the British Isles, the life of the Scottish people was transformed dramatically, from the masses to the elites, as they advanced from being of the least educated to one of the most educated people in Europe. However, what is significant here is that much of the migration to the American South occurred before these sweeping social transformations. This timing was crucial, as Professor Grady McWhiney has pointed out in his book Cracker Culture:
...had the South been peopled by nineteenth-century Scots, Welshmen, and Ulstermen, the course of Southern history would doubtless have been radically different. Nineteenth-century Scottish and Scotch-Irish immigrants did in fact fit quite comfortably into northern American society. (Significantly the Irish, who retained their Celtic ways, did not.) But only a trickle of the ancestors of the vast majority of Southerners arrived in America before the Anglicization of Scotland, Wales, and Ulster had advanced very far.
In earlier centuries, Scotland was as poor and backward country, like Wale and Ireland—and like the turbulent northern borderlands of England, where the Scots and the English fought wars and committed atrocities against each other for centuries. Local feuding clans and freebooting marauders kept this region in an uproar, even when there were no military hostilities between the English and Scottish kingdoms. Ulster County had a different kind of turbulence, as the English and Scottish settlers there encountered the hostility and terrorist activities of the conquered, dispossessed, and embittered indigenous Irish population.
These were the parts of Britain from which most people migrated to the American South, before the political and cultural unification of the British Isles or the standardization of the English language. The rednecks of these regions were what one social historian has called "some of the most disorderly inhabitants of a deeply disordered land."
In this world of impotent laws, daily dangers, and lives that could be snuffed out at any moment, the snatching at whatever fleeting pleasures presented themselves was at least understandable. Certainly prudence and long-range planning of one's life had no such pay-off in this chaotic world as in more settled and orderly societies under the protection of effective laws. Books, businesses, technology, and science were not he kinds of things likely to be promoted or admired in the world of the rednecks and crackers.
Manliness and the forceful projection of that manliness to others—an advertising of one's willingness to fight and even to put one's life on the line—were ate least plausible means of gaining whatever measure of security was possible in a lawless region and a violent time. The kinds of attitudes and cultural values produced by centuries of living under such conditions did not disappear very quickly, even when social evolution in North America slowly and almost imperceptibly created a new and different world with different objective prospects.
What the rednecks or crackers brought with them across the ocean was a whole constellation of attitudes, values, and behavior patterns that might have made sense in the world in which they had lived for centuries, but which would prove to be counterproductive in the world to which they were going—and counterproductive to the blacks who would live in their midst for centuries before emerging into freedom and migrating to the great urban centers of the United States, taking with them similar values.
The cultural values and social patterns prevalent among Southern whites included an aversion to work, proneness to violence, neglect of education, sexual promiscuity, improvidence, drunkenness, lack of entrepreneurship, reckless search fro excitement, lively music and dance, and a style of religious oratory marked by strident rhetoric, unbridled emotions, and flamboyant imagery. This oratorical style carried over into the political oratory of the region in both the Jim Crow era and the civil rights era, and has continued into our own times among black politicians, preachers, and activists. Touchy pride, vanity, and boastful self-dramatization were also part of this redneck culture among people from regions of Britain "where the civilization was the least developed." They boast and lack self-restraint," Olmsted said, after observing their descendants in the American antebellum South.
While Professor Grady McWhiney's Cracker Culture is perhaps the most thorough historical study of the values and behavioral patterns of white Southerners, many other scholarly studies have turned up very similar patters, even when they differed in some ways as to the causes. Professor David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed, for example, challenges the Celtic connection these put forth by Professor McWhiney, but shows many of the same cultural patterns among the same people, both in Britain and in the American South. Popular writings of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have likewise described similar behavior, including the Indianapolis resident's comments on white Southern migrants to that city, which sound so much like what many have said bout ghetto blacks.
None of this is meant to claim that these patterns have remained rigidly unchanged over the centuries or that these are literally no differences between whites and blacks in any aspects of this subculture. However, what is remarkable is how pervasive and how close the similarities have been.
Pride and Violence
Centuries before "black pride" became a fashionable phrase, there was cracker pride—and it was very much the same kind of pride. It was not pride in any particular achievement or set of behavioral standards or moral principles adhered to. It was instead a touchiness about anything that might be even remotely construed as a personal slight, much less an insult, combined with a willingness to erupt into violence over it. New Englanders were baffled about this kind of pride among crackers. Observing such people, the Yankees "could not understand what they had to feel proud about/" However, this kind of pride is perhaps best illustrated by an episode reported in Professor McWhiney's Cracker Culture:
When an Englishman, tired of waiting for a Southerner to start working on a house he had contracted to build, hired another man to do the job, the enraged Southerner, who considered himself dishonored, vowed: "to-morrow morn, I will come with men, and twenty rifles, and I will have your life, or you shall have mine."
In the vernacular of our later times, he had been "dissed"—and he was not going to stand for it, regardless of the consequences for himself or others. The history of the antebellum South is full of episodes showing the same pattern, whether expressed in the highly formalized duels of the aristocracy or in the no-holds-barred style of fighting called "rough and tumble" among the common folk, a style that included biting off ears and gouging out eyes. It was not simply that particular isolated individuals did such things: social approval was given to these practices, as illustrated by the episode in the antebellum South:
A crowd gathered and arranged itself in an impromptu ring. The contestants were asked if they wished to "fight fair" or "rough and tumble." When they chose "rough and tumble," a roar of approval rose from the multitude.
This particular fight ended with the loser's nose bitten off, his ears torn off, and both his eyes gouged out, after which the "victor, himself maimed the bleeding, was 'chaired around the grounds' to the cheers of the crowd." This "rough and tumble" style of fighting was also popular in the southern highlands of Scotland, where grabbing an opponent's testicles and attempting to castrate him by hand was also an accepted practice. Scottish highlanders were, in centuries past, part of the "Celtic fringe" or "north Britons," outside the orbit of English culture, not only as it existed in England but also in the Scottish lowlands.
The highlanders lagged far behind the lowlanders in education and economic progress, as well as in the speaking of the English language, for Gaelic was still widely spoken by highlanders in the nineteenth century, not only in Scotland itself but also in North Carolina and in Australia, where immigrants from the Scottish highlands were unable to communicate with English-speaking people, including lowland Scots who had also immigrated. In the Hebrides Islands off Scotland, Gaelic had still not completely died out in the middle of the twentieth century.
What is important in the pride and violence patterns among rednecks and crackers was not that particular people did particular things at particular times and places. Nor is it necessary to attempt to quantify such behavior. What is crucial is that violence growing out of such pride had social approval. As professor McWhiney pointed out:
Men often killed and went free in the South just as in earlier times they had in Ireland and Scotland. As on observer in the South noted, enemies would meet, exchange insults, and one would shoot the other down professing that he had acted in self-defense because he believed the victim was armed. When such a story was told in court, "in a community where it is not a strange thing for men to carry about their persons deadly weapons, [each members of the jury] feels that he would have done the same thing under similar circumstances so that in condemning him they would but condemn themselves."
"The actions of southern courts often amazed outsiders," Professor McWhiney said. But what may be even more revealing of widespread attitudes were the cases that never even went to trial. As another study of white Southerners put it:
To many rural southerners, rather than a set of legal statutes, justice remained a matter of societal norms allowing for respect of property rights, individual honor, and a maximum of personal independence. Any violation of this pattern amounted to a breach of justice requiring a specific response from the injured party. Upon learning that a youthful neighbor had approached his wife in an overly friendly manner, Robert Leard of Trangipahoa, Louisiana, promptly tracked the young man down and killed him. Under the piney-woods code of justice, anything less would have invited shame and ridicule upon the Leard family."
"Intensity of personal pride" was connected by Olmsted with the "fiend-like street fights of the South." He mentioned an episode of public murder with impunity:
A gentleman of veracity, now living in the South, told me that among his friends he had once numbered two young men, who were themselves intimate friends, till one of them, taking offence at some foolish words uttered by the other, challenges him. A large crowd assembled to see the duel, which took place on a piece of prairie ground. The combatants came armed with rifles, and at the first interchange of shots, the challenged man fell disabled by a ball in the thigh. The other, throwing down his rifle, walked toward him, and kneeling by his side, drew a bowie knife, and deliberately butchered him. The crowd of bystanders not only permitted this, but the execrable assassin still lives in the community, has since married, and, as far as my informant could judge, his social position has been rather advanced then otherwise, from thus dealing with his enemy."
Again, what is important here is no the isolated incident itself but the set of social attitudes which allowed such incidents to take place publicly with impunity, the killer knowing in advance that what he was doing had community approval. Moreover, such attitudes went back for centuries, on both sides of the Atlantic, at least among the particular people concerned.
During the era when dueling became a pattern among upper-class Americans—between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War—it was particularly prevalent in the South. As a social history of the United State noted: "Of Southern statesmen who rose to prominence after 1790, hardly one can be mentioned who was not involved in a duel." Editors of Southern newspapers became involved in duels so often that cartoonists depicted them with a pen in one hand and a dueling pistol in the other. Most duels arose not over substantive issues but over words considered insulting. At lower social levels, Southern feuds such as that between the Hatfields and the McCoys—which began in a dispute over a pig and ultimately claimed more than 20 lives—became legendary.
It has been estimated that, while at least three-quarters of the settlers in colonial New England originated in the lowland southeastern half of Britain, a similarly large proportion of the population of the South originated in the Scottish highlands, Ireland, Wale, or the northern and western uplands of England. Thos arriving from Ireland in colonial times would have been from Ulster County, where Scots and Englishmen settled, since substantial immigration of the indigenous Irish did not begin until near the middle of the nineteenth century. Radically different cultures could develop and persist during this era before transportation and communication developed to the point of promotion widespread interactions among people in different regions.
In colonial America, the people of the English borderlands and of the "Celtic fringe" were seen by contemporaries as culturally quite distinct, and were socially unwelcome. Mob action prevented a shipload of Ulster Scots from landing in Boston in 1719 and the Quaker leaders of eastern Pennsylvania encourages Ulster Scots to settle out in western Pennsylvania, where they acted as a buffer to the Indians, as well as being a constant source of friction and conflict with the Indians. It was not just in the North that crackers and rednecks were considered to be undesirables. Southern plantation owners with poor whites living on adjoining land would often offer to buy their land for more than it was worth, in order to be rid of such neighbors.
Because there were no racial differences to form separate statistical categories for these north Britons and for other whites who settled in the South or in particular enclaves elsewhere, indirect indicators must serve as proxies for these cultural differences. Names are among these indicators. Edward, for example, was a popular name in Virginia and in Wessex, England, from which many Virginians had emigrated, but the first forty classes of undergraduates at Harvard College contained only one man named Edward. It would be nearly two centuries before Harvard enrolled anyone named Patrick, even though that was a common name in western Pennsylvania, where the Ulster Scots settled. This says something not only about the social and geographic differences of the times, but also about how regionalized the naming patterns were then, in contrast to the fact that no one today find it particularly strange when an Asian American has such non-Asian first names as Kevin or Michelle.
Even when there was no conflict or hostility involved, Southerners often showed a reckless disregard for human life, including their own. For example, the racing of ste3amboats that happened to encounter each other on the rivers of the South often ended with exploding boilers, especially when the excited competition led to the tying down of safety valves, in order to build up more pressure to generate more speed. An impromptu race between steamboats that encountered each other on the Mississippi illustrates the pattern:
On board one boat "was an old lady, who, having bought a winter stock of bacon, pork, &c., was retuning to her home on the banks of the Mississippi. Fun lovers on board both boats insisted upon a race; cheers and drawn pistols obliged the captains to cooperate. As the boats struggled to outdistance each other, excited passengers demanded more speed. Despite every effort, the boats raced evenly until the old lady directed her slaves to throw all her casks of bacon into the boilers. Her boat then moved ahead of the other vessel, which suddenly exploded: "clouds of splinters and human limbs darken[ed] the sky." On the undamaged boat passengers shouted their victory. But above their cheers could "be hear the shrill voice of the old lady, crying, 'I did it, I did it—it's all my bacon!'"
On the Mississippi and other "western" rivers of the United States as it existed in the early nineteenth century, it has been estimated that 30 percent of all the steamboats were lost in accidents. Part of this may have been due to deficiencies in the early steamboats themselves but much of it was due to the recklessness with which they were operated on Southern rivers. The comments of a fireman on a Mississippi steamboat of that era may suggest why a river voyage was considered more dangerous than crossing the Atlantic—at a time when sinkings in the Atlantic were by no means rare:
"Talk about Northern steamers," the fireman of a Mississippi steamboat sneered to an eastern traveler in 1844, "it don't need no spunk to navigate them waters. You haint bust a biler in five years. But I tell you, stranger, it takes a man to ride one of these half alligator boats, head on a snag, high pressures, valve soldered down, 600 souls on board & in danger of going to the devil."
This was not mere idle talk. Among the steamboat explosions in the South, one of the Mississippi in 1838 killed well over a hundred people, and another near Baton Rouge in 1859 killed more than half of the 400 people onboard and badly injured more than half the survivors. Southerners were just as reckless on land, whether in escapades undertaken for the excitement of the moment or in the many fights and deaths resulting from some insult or slight among people "touchy about their honor and dignity." Again, all of this went back to a way of life in the turbulent regions of Britain from which white Southerners came. Nor is it hard to recognize in these attitudes clear parallels to the behavior and attitudes of ghetto gangs today, who kill over a look or a word, or any action that can be construed as "dissing" them.
Pride had yet another side to it. Among the definitions of a "Cracker" in the Oxford dictionary is a "Braggart"—one who "talks trash" in today's vernacular—a wisecracker. More than mere wisecracks were involved, however. The pattern is one said by professor McWhiney to go back to descriptions of ancient Celts as "boasters and threateners, and given to bombastic self-dramatisation." Examples today come readily to mind, not only from ghetto life and gangsta rap, but also from militant black "leaders," spokesmen or activists. What is painfully ironic is that such attitudes and behavior are projected today as aspects of a distinctive "black identity," when in fact they are part of a centuries-old pattern among the whites in whose midst generations of blacks lived in the South.
Any broad-brush discussion of cultural patterns must, of course, not claim that all people-whether white or black—had the same culture, much less to the same degree. There are not only changes over time, there are cross-currents at a given time. Nevertheless, it is useful to see the outlines of a general pattern, even when that pattern erodes over time and at varying rates among different subgroups.
The violence for which white Southerners became most lastingly notorious was lynching. Like other aspects of the redneck and cracker culture, it has often been attributed to race or slavery. IN fact, however, most lynching victims in the antebellum South were white. Economic considerations alone would prevent a slave owner from lynching his own slave or tolerating anyone else's doing so. It was only after the Civil War that the emancipated blacks became the principal targets of lynching. But, by then, Southern vigilante violence had been a tradition for more than a century in North America and even longer back in the regions of Britain from which cracker sand rednecks came, where "retributive justice" was often left in private hands. Even the burning cross of the Ku Klux Klan has been traced back to "the fiery cross of old Scotland" use by feuding clans.
Observers of the white population of the antebellum South often commented not only on their poverty but also on their lack of industriousness of entrepreneurship. A contemporary characterized many white Southerners as "too poor to keep slaves and too proud to work." A landmark history of agriculture in the antebellum South described the poor whites this way:
They cultivated in a casual and careless fashion small patches of corn or rice, sweet potatoes, cowpeas, and garden products. Women and children did a large part of the work. The men spent their time principally in hunting or idleness.... The men were inveterate drunkards and sometimes the women joined them in drinking inferior whisky. Licentiousness was prevalent among them.... Among their equals, the men were quarrelsome and inclined to crimes of violence.... The poor whites were densely ignorant.
Their labors tended to be intermittent—often when they were pressed for money, rather that a steady employment career. Frederick Law Olmsted called it "lazy poverty," with whatever work they did being done in a "thoughtless manner." Summarizing his observations in the antebellum South, Olmsted said:
...I know that while men seldom want an abundance of coarse food in the Cotton States, the proportion of the free white men who live as well in any aspect as our working classes in the North, on an average, is small, and that the citizens of the cotton States, as a whole, are poor. They work little, and that little, badly; they yearn little; they sell little; they but little; and they have little—very little—of the common comforts and consolations of civilized life. Their destitution is not material only; it is intellectual and it is moral.
When Olmsted found work done efficiently, promptly, and well during his travels through the South—when he found well-run businesses, good libraries, impressive churches, and efficiently functioning institutions in general—he almost invariably found them to be run by Northerners, foreigners, or Jews. Nor was he the only visiting observer to reach such conclusions. Another observed that "nearly all of the Old South's successful storekeepers were either Yankees or Yankee-trained Southerners." A French visitor said that, when you saw a plantation in better condition than others, you would often discover that it was owned by someone from the North. A history of Southern agriculture presented this picture of North Carolina in the early eighteenth century:
Many of the in habitants were rough borderers who lived a crude, half savage existence. Some where herdsmen, dependent mainly on the product of the range and "under the necessity of eating meat without bread." There were also thriftless and lazy families who had been attracted to the country by the mild climate and the ease with which a bare livelihood could be obtained by hunting and fishing, raising a little corn, and keeping a few head of swine and possibly a cow or two on the range. On the other hand, there were small farmers, many Northern or European extraction, living industrious and thrifty lives amidst a rude abundance of considerable diversity of food supplies. They maintained good-sized herds of cattle, swine, and sheep, and the women made butter and cheese.
"Borderers" at that point would refer to people from the borderlands of Britain, those included in what Professor McWhiney and others have called the "Celtic fringe" and what Professor Fischer called "north Britons." While the making of butter and cheese might seem to be an unremarkable activity in most rural communities, butter-and-cheese-making by these farmers of non-Southerner origins was in fact exceptional in the South. One of Frederick Law Olmsted's complaints during his travels through the antebellum South was the scarcity of butter, despite all the cows he saw. Even among plantation owners, he said, "as for butter, some have heard of it, some have seen it, but few have eaten it." Hard data support his conclusions about the scarcity of butte rin the antebellum South, despite an abundance of cows. In 1860, the South had 40 percent of all dairy cows in the country but produced just 20 percent of the butter and only one percent of the cheese. As a study of antebellum Southern agriculture noted, "attempts to stimulate greater attention to commercial production were futile" and even the bluegrass regions "imported a large proportion of the cheese consumed." The study concluded:
In short, while the South abounded in cattle, the reported production of dairy products was very small. A table based on census statistics shows that some of the Southern States, such as Texas and Florida, had far more cattle per capita than important dairy states like Vermont and New York, and in most of the Southern States cattle per capita were nearly or quite as numerous as in the Northern States. Yet the production of butter and cheese per capita in most of the Southern States was insignificant as compared with per capita production in the principal Northeastern States.
A speaker before an agricultural society in Orange County, North Carolina, said: "it is a reproach to us as farmers, and no little deduction from our wealth, that we suffer the population of our towns and villages to supply themselves with butter from another Orange County in New York." In colonial times, butter was imported from as far away as Ireland. Where butter was not imported, it was often produced locally by people of non-Southern origins. As a scholarly history of Southern agriculture reported:
In 1858 the dairies producing whole milk for the city of Louisville, Kentucky, were described as "probably as well conducted as any in the country," but almost without exception managed by Swiss or German operatives.
Meanwhile, a newspaper in South Carolina said in 1857: "good butter is indeed a luxury to almost ever planter in the Southern country, and there is, perhaps, no one article of food that is more eagerly sought after." In antebellum Virginia, a Richmond newspaper likewise complained of the scarcity of good butter, saying that the quality of butter available in the local market "would hardly be thought good enough to grease a cart-wheel." When considering legislation to try to remedy the situation, a member of the Virginia legislature attributed the poor quality of that state's butter to the carelessness with which Virginia farmers prepared it.
One reason for the contrast between the abundance of butter and cheese produced by German farmers in states like Wisconsin, for example, and the scarcity of butter and cheese in the South was that German farmers, wherever they were located, tended to build fences and huge barns for their livestock, and to feed them there during the winter. Southerners more often let their cows and hogs roam freely during the winter, even thought his meant that "in the spring they turned up half starved and it took the summer for them to put on normal weight." This too was a continuation of patterns found among their ancestors in the British Isles, and was part of a more general pattern of carelessness;
Many other observers noticed the broken fences and the stunted cattle running at large, unfed and unprotected. Their manure was put to no use. Artificial pasture long remained a rarity, and a few farmers stored feed for the winter. In Virginia a French traveler of the late 17th century saw "poor beasts of a morning all covered with snow and trembling with the cold, but no forage was provided for them. They eat the bark of the trees because the grass was covered." Wild animals—wolves, bears, and savage dogs—attacked the helpless cattle, and made the raising of sheep difficult.
Germans were better able than Southerners to milk their cows regularly and prepare dairy products, while cows owned by Southerners were more likely to run dry after calves were weaned. A contemporary observer said that even Southern farmers with many cows "will not give themselves the trouble of milking more than will maintain their Family." As late of the 1930s, a scholar studying the geography and economy of the South wrote: "The close attention to duty, the habits of steady skillful routine accepted by butter fat producers of Wisconsin as a matter of fact, are traits not yet present in southern culture." At that point, the Southern states, with 26 percent of the country's dairy cows, produced just 7 percent of processed dairy products such as butter, cheese, ice cream and condensed milk.
There was a similar contrast between German farmers and Southern farmers when it came to clearing land for farming back in pioneering days. Germans cleared frontier land by both chopping down tress and laboriously removing their stumps and roots, so that all the land could be plowed thereafter. Southerners more often cut down the tree, or even simply girdled it and left it to die and rot, but in any case leaving the stump in the ground and plowing around it. Although the erosion-prone soils of the Southern uplands have been blamed for the poverty of the whites living on them, nevertheless on that same land Germans "were able to cultivate the hill soil, so as to avoid erosion and were willing to expend upon it the additional labor which its topography required" so that these soils in their hands" yielded excellent regular returns."
Comments on the lack of enterprise by Southern whites were made by numerous observers in various parts of the South. In Alexis de Tocqueville's classic Democracy in America, he contrasted the attitudes toward work among Southern and Northern whites as being so great as to be visible to the casual observer sailing down the Ohio river and comparing the Ohio side with the Kentuck side. These were not just the prejudices of outsiders. "No southern man," South Carolina's famed Senator John C. Calhoun said, "not even the poorest or the lowest, will, under any circumstances... perform menial labor.... He has too much pride for that." General Robert E. Lee likewise declared: "Our people are opposed to work. Our troops officers community & press. All ridicule & resist it." "Many whites," according to a leading Southern historian, "were disposed to leave good enough alone and put off changes till the morrow."
Very similar kinds of comments were made about these Southerners' ancestors in the parts of the British Isles from which they came. Although the term "lazy" appears frequently in comments on these people on both sides of the Atlantic, there has been no evidence of any such aversion on their part to strenuous physical activity in dancing, fighting, hunting and other recreational activities, so sloth was not the real issue. Nor have rednecks or crackers been prominent in such less physically demanding activities as entrepreneurship or scholarship, It is the nature of the particular activities in which they have taken an active interest and on which they have expended their energies, rather than the physical demands of those activities, that seems to have been crucial.
Not only did many of the groups who settled in the South disdain business as a career, as their ancestors had in those parts of Britain from which they came, they typically lacked the kinds of habits necessary to be successful in business. Among the habits needed to run a business, none is more basic than a steady application to the tasks at hand, doing things in a "business-like" way. But those relatively few Southerners who did run business often displayed no such business-like attitudes.
Even when there was business to transact, Southerners would often stop to go watch a cockfight or a parade, or visit a saloon or go hunting. "In traveling in the South," a Northern visitor commented in the 1850s, "you become astonished at the little attention men pay to their business." Such views were not confined to Northerners, however, nor to urban businesses. According to a noted history of the antebellum South, the Richmond Enquirer "attributed the success of Northern farmers where Southerners had failed to the social nature of the latter, which led them to gather around the courthouse and country stores to smoke, chew, talk politics, and, in general, to waste time. Many Southern businessmen were unreliable about either paying their bills or delivering good and services when promised.
Among Southerners in general, their improvident spending, and the indebtedness to which it often led, was widely commented on in the Untied States and in the places from which their ancestors came in Britain. Even large Southern plantation owners with lavish lifestyles were often deeply in debt. Among the Virginia gentry, "extravagant and even ruinous bets on horses" were common, according to a scholarly study.
Nor were Southerners alert to profitable investment prospects, according to observers in the antebellum South. For example, although there were large coal deposits and "a beautiful quality of marble" near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the people there bought coal from Philadelphia, and marble from tombstones was imported from Italy. In antebellum Virginia, as well, Olmsted observed "the natural resources of the land were strangely unused, or were used with poor economy." Nor was he alone in that conclusion. A twentieth century scholar also commented on the coal available in Alabama:
The Alabama iron district is one of the cheapest, if not the cheapest, iron district in the entire world. It possesses a phenomenal natural equipment. Jutting out of the hillsides that flank from one side of the broad open valley are thick deposits of iron ore. On the other side of the valley are the coal mines and coke ovens, and the limestone is at hand. Instead of carrying ore a thousand miles, as at Pittsburgh and the English furnaces, or fuel 600 miles as at Lake Champlain, the raw materials for these Southern furnaces are shifted across the valley by switching engines, and the local supply of cheap black labor helps to give a wonderfully low cost.
Yet it was more than 20 years after the Civil War before Birmingham became an iron and steel production center. As for the reasons for the belated development of such a promising combination of natural resources:
In spite of the favors of geography, the iron and steel industry in the South was slow in its beginnings and development. Like everything southern, the industry was retarded by lack of capital and technical skill.
Capital was available from outside the South, or indeed from outside the country, as foreign capital was used to finance the building of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Illinois Central during the same era. But the other factors had to be there to create a promising prospect of profitability that would attract investment. The difficulties of developing those factors in Alabama was shown by the fact that in 1888 "Birmingham saw its first ton of steel run through the furnaces of the Henderson Steel Company and burn out the crude furnace linings in the process."
Early explorers and settlers in the antebellum South "wrote in glowing terms of the wild fruits, especially the wild grapes of unusual size which excited extravagant hopes of the development of wine industries." Yet early attempts to find a market for Southern wine in Britain were ruined by the fact that a sample of wine that was sent across the Atlantic spoiled in the musty casks in which Southerners had carelessly shipped it. Later efforts to establish a wine industry in the South were undertaken by foreigners—French, German, and Portuguese. A German settlement in Missouri created a wine industry with an annual output of about 100,000 gallons. But the South as a whole produced less than one-fifth of the wine in the United States in 1849—and this was long before the development of the California wine industry.
As late as the beginning of the twentieth century, there were still laments about the opportunities in the South missed by Southerners and put to use by outsiders with different patterns of behavior. Landowners in Alabama were said to have "cheated themselves out of millions of dollars by failing to see the opportunities within their grasp" which "lumbermen from the North and East" seized by cutting trees and shipping the lumber around the world. Some Southerners along the Gulf coast likewise spoke of "the golden opportunities which they failed to grasp, of the numerous successes of Northern and Eastern men and lamented the passing of the old school of gentlemen, the midday mint juleps, and the easy-going business methods." Some of these Southerners, however, seemed to prosper "working shoulder to shoulder with the Yankees."
Not only in the South, but in the communities from which white Southerners had come in the Scottish highlands, in Ulster, and in Wales of an earlier era, most of the successful businessmen were outsiders. Even the poorest highland Scots would not skin their horses when they died. Instead, "Scots sold their dead horses for three pence to English soldiers who in turn got six pence for the skinned carcass and another two shillings for the hide." This was not due to a lack of knowledge of skinning. In earlier times, when Scotland and England were ate war, one of the atrocities committed by the Scots was skinning captured English officers alive. During the sixteenth century border feuds, the "Johnston-Johnson clan adorned their houses with the flayed skins of their enemies the Maxwells." It was not the skill that was lacking, but the enterprise.
Contemporary observers commented on another peculiarity of antebellum Southerners—fording rivers and steams, instead of building bridges over them. Nor was this due simply to poverty. A biography of famed nineteenth-century congressman John Randolph of Virginia referred to the "bridgeless steams" in the area where elite families like his lived. Thomas Jefferson noted that he had to cross eight rivers between Monticello and Washington, "five of which had neither bridges nor boats." This peculiarity was noted in other parts of the South and by observers in those parts of Britain from which Southerners came:
Commenting on just how lazy Southerners were, one man noted that "no Northern farmer" would neglect to build a bridge over a stream that crosses his property; indeed, two "live Yankees" would complete the work in a single day, but "the Southern planter will ford the creek lying between his house & stable a whole lifetime." The same complaint was made about Highland Scots, whose roads were equally bad as those of Ireland and the Old South. IN the 1790s a minister, noting that fords rather than bridges crossed streams on one of the most heavily traveled road in the Highlands, wrote: "From a desire to save labour or time, the ford is often attempted, when the... river [is] too high, and the consequence is frequently fatal."
Again, it is necessary to emphasize that the culture which Southerners brought over from the parts of Britain from which they came changed in Britain in the years after they left. But all this happened after the ancestors of rednecks and crackers had immigrated to the American South from the outer regions of British society, rather than from central England.
Given the historical background of crackers and rednecks in Britain, it could hardly be expected that intellectual activity would be a major interest of theirs in the United States. A study of 18,000 county records from seventeenth-century colonial Virginia showed that nearly half of all the white male Virginians "were so illiterate that they could not sign their names" and simply made a mark on legal documents. While the small Virginia aristocracy were often well educated and had impressive collections of books in their homes, these books were typically imported from England rather than purchased from local bookstores. Thomas Jefferson complained that the area where he lived was "without a single bookstore." As late as the census of 1850, more than one-fifth of Southern whites were still illiterate, compared to less than one percent of New Englanders.
In the Southern backcountry, levels of schooling "were lower here than in any other part of the United States," according to a landmark historical study, and "There were no institutions comparable to New England's town schools." Although the white population of the South was only one-half as large as that of the North, the total number of illiterate whites in the South in 1850 was larger than the total number of illiterates in the North. In the antebellum era, the total circulation of Northern newspapers was more than four times the total circulation of Southern newspapers. Moreover, many editors of Southern newspapers were themselves from the North. The North had four times as many schools, attended by more than four times as many pupils. Children in Massachusetts spent more than twice as many years in school as children in Virginia.
When it came to inventions, only 8 percent of the patents issued in 1852 went to residents of Southern states, whose white population was approximately one-third of the white population of the country. Even in agriculture, the main economic activity of the region, only 9 out of 62 patents for agricultural implements went to Southerners. The cotton gin, perhaps the most crucial invention of the antebellum South, was invented by a Northerner.
A Southerner said to Frederick law Olmsted: "The fact is, sir, the people here are not like you northern people; they don't reason out everything so." Olmsted himself likewise concluded from his travels in the antebellum South that Southerners were "greatly disinclined to exact and careful reasoning." As late as the First World War, white soldiers from Georgia, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi scored lower on mental tests than black soldiers from Ohio, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania. At higher levels of achievement, the contrast between the South and other regions was even more stark. A study of leading American figures in the arts and sciences in the first half of the nineteenth century found most clustered in the Northeast, while vast regions of the South—Virginia alone excepted—were without a single one.
The kinds of statistical disparities found between Southern whites and Northern whites in the past are today often taken as evidence or proof of racial discrimination when such disparities are found between the black and white populations of the country as a whole, while others have taken such disparities as signs of genetic deficiencies. Yet clearly neither racial discrimination nor racial inferiority can explain similar differences between whites in the North and the South in earlier centuries. This should at least raise questions about such explanations when applied to blacks of a later era who inherited the culture of white Southerners.
Southern whites were as different from northern whites when it came to sexual patterns as they were in other ways. Widespread casual sex was commented on by outside observers in both the American South and in those parts of Britain from which Southerners had come. Here again, the greatest contrast is with New England. While pregnant brides were very rare in seventeenth-century New England, they were more common in the Southern backcountry than anywhere else in the United States. A missionary estimated that more than nine-tenths of the backcountry women at whose weddings he officiated were already pregnant. In this, as in other respects, the "Sexual customs of the southern backcountry were similar to those of northwestern England." Meanwhile, the region of England from which New Englanders came "had the lowest rates of illegitimacy in England," just as their descendants had the lowest rates if illegitimacy in the United States.
Women dressed more revealingly in the South and both sexes spoke more freely about sex than was common in New England. In the seventeenth century, "most Virginia girls found a husband by the age of seventeen," while in Massachusetts, the average age at which women married was twenty-three. In that era, fornication and rape were acts severely punished in New England. Rape was a hanging offense in New England, while in the Chesapeake Bay colonies it was sometimes punished less severely than petty theft.
As with other North-South differences, differences in sexual behavior have often been attributed to the existence of slavery in the South—due, in this case, to the opportunities which this presented for sexual exploitation of slave women. But, again, history shows the same patterns among the same people and their ancestors in Britain, before they had ever seen a black woman. In colonial Virginia as well, the sexual exploitation of white indentured servant girls was common before the slave population had grown large enough for white servant girls to be replaced by black women.
Religion Denominations, practices, and churches differed as between the crackers and rednecks of the South and those of the white population in the rest of the country. As in other things, the greatest contrast was with the role of religion in New England. This did not mean that there was uniformity across the South, for the Virginia elite tended to be Anglicans and there were also Quakers in the South, for example, but most Southerners were either Baptists or Methodists. Those Northerners or foreigners who visited the South found the style and manner of religion among most white Southerners distinct—and distasteful. These visitors "viewed with contempt people who whooped and hollered, chewed and spit tobacco in church." Many Southern religious gatherings were not held in churches but at outdoor "camp meetings"—a style that went back to practices of these Southerners' ancestors in Britain. So too did the oratorical style of Southern preachers and the behavior of their congregations, whether in churches or outdoors.
Frederick Law Olmsted's description of a typical preacher in the antebellum South noted that "the speaker nearly all the time cried aloud at the utmost stretch of his voice, as if calling to someone a long distance off," that" he was gifted with a strong imagination, and possessed of a good deal of dramatic power," that he "had the habit of frequently repeating a phrase," and that he exhibited "a dramatic talent" that included "leaning far over the desk, with his arms stretched forward, gesticulating violently, yelling at the highest key, and catching his breath with an effort." Similar scenes were described a century earlier in Virginia and at a camp meeting in Scotland, where the preacher was "Sweating, bawling, jumping and beating the desk."
This melodramatic and emotional oratorical style could still be seen in twentieth-century America, not only in religious services but also in politics, both among white Southern politician of the Jim Crow era and among black leaders of the civil rights movement in the South and community activists in the Northern ghettos.
By contrast, religious services in colonial Massachusetts developed what has been called the "meeting and lecture" approach, where the style of preaching was a relentless cultivation of the plain style." These "addresses tended to be closely argued statements of great density, in which Puritans reasoned as relentlessly with their maker as they did with one another. This intellectual approach to religion carried over into their daily lives:
Even more than most people in their time, they searched constantly for clues to God's purposes in the world. It was this impulse which led so many English Puritans to study nature with that extraordinary intensity which played a central part in the birth of modern science.
There was a dark side to this intensity as well. The vast majority of the persecutions and executions of women for witchcraft occurred in New England. Quakers did not have the persecuting intolerance of the Puritans but they too had plain-spoken religious meetings, also in contrast to melodramatic services among the rednecks and crackers of the South. The Anglican services were likewise less emotional and dramatic, but Anglicanism in the South was largely confined to the Tidewater region. Catholics too had a quieter service, though more formal than the Quakers, but there was little Catholicism in the South, where even Irish immigrants tended to become absorbed into the Protestant religions, just as the Scots tended to become absorbed into Southern fundamentalist religions. The South was a region lacking the prerequisites for maintaining an educated clergy, as required by both Presbyterians and Catholics. Anyone familiar with religious practices among black Americans today will recognize the clear imprint of the white Southern pattern.
It was not just the Southern preachers who behaved differently from their counterparts in other parts of the country. So did the congregations. While many of those listening to hellfire-and-damnations sermons were moved to extreme emotional reactions of fear, confession, and repentance, many others took these sermons as dramatic performances of spectacles, and the young women and men often treated these religious gatherings as occasions for socializing and preludes to romantic encounters later. This pattern too went back to earlier centuries in Scotland where, while some at the camp meetings were "groaning, sighing and weeping" for their sins, there was usually also "a knot of young fellows and girls making assignation to go home together in the evening, or to meet in some ale-house."
While the keeping of the Sabbath as a day free of worldly activities and amusements was a common practice in many parts of the United States in centuries past, that was not the practice among the rednecks and crackers of the antebellum South. Southerners "had fun on Sundays," to the consternation of Northern observers:
"One of the strangest sights to a New England man, on visiting Southern states, is the desecration of the Sabbath," wrote a Yankee. "In some of the cities, especially if a good number of the business men are from the North, the churches are tolerably well attended,—there being but one sermon for the day. But even here the afternoon and evening are much devoted to amusements." Another Northerner declared that in the south "there is no Sabbath... they work, run, swear, and drink here on Sundays just as they do on any other day of the week."
Many Southerners did not go to church at all, or did so intermittently, or when not distracted by other activities. Again, this was a pattern found among their ancestors in Britain. Among the reasons given by contemporaries for low church-attendance among Southerners was that they often got drunk on Saturday night and were in no condition to go to church on Sunday morning.
Much of the cultural pattern of Southern rednecks became the cultural heritage of Southern blacks, more so than survivals of African cultures, with which they had not been in contact for centuries. (Even in colonial times, most blacks on American soil had been born on American soil.) Moreover, such cultural traits followed blacks out of the Southern countrysides and into the urban ghettos—North and South—where many settled. The very way of talking, later to be christened "black English," closely followed dialects brought over from those parts of Britain from which many white Southerners came, though these speech patterns died out in Britain while surviving in the American South, as such speed patterns would later die out among most Southern whites and among middle-class blacks, while surviving in the poorer black ghettos around the country. For example:
Where a northern said, "I am," "You are," "She isn't," "It doesn't," and "I haven't," a Virginia even of high rank preferred to say "I be," "You be," "She ain't," "It don't," and "I hain't".... These Virginia speechways were not invented in America. They derived from a family or regional dialects that had been spoken throughout the south and west of England during the seventeenth century.
From these same regions of England came such words as "ayller" for "yellow," "ax" for ask, "acrost" for "across," "y'awl" for "you," "bile" for "boil," "do" for "door," "dis" for "this" and "dat" for "that." Many of these usages have long since died out in England, though the word "chittlins" for hog entrails continued to be used in some localities in England, even in the twentieth century, as such usage remained common among black Americans. But no such words came from Africa. Nor did the holiday Kwaanza, which originated in Los Angeles. The slaves' custom of marking their marriages by jumping over a broomstick—a custom resurrected at a posh wedding among blacks in twentieth-century New York, as a mark of racial identity—was in fact a pagan custom in Europe in centuries past and survived for a time among Southern whites.
Complaints about the improvidence of whites in the south, and of their ancestors in Britain before that, were echoed in W.E.B. Du Bois' picture of his fellow blacks in the 1890s.
Probably few poor nations waste more money by thoughtless and unreasonable expenditure than the American Negro, and especially those living in large cities. Thousands of dollars are annually wasted... in amusements of various kinds, and in miscellaneous ornaments and gewgaws.... The Negro has much to learn of the Jew and the Italian, as to living within his means and saving every penny from excessive and wasteful expenditures.
It was not, however, from Jews or Italians that blacks had absorbed their culture. Du Bois' description of the spending habits of blacks in the 1890s was echoed by a contemporary observer, Jacob Riis, who said that the Negro "loves fine clothes and good living a good deal more than he does a bank account." Similar observations have been made by many others over the years, inside and outside the black community.
For the lower socioeconomic classes among blacks, Gunnar Myrdal's descriptions of them near the middle of the twentieth century still bore a remarkable resemblance to descriptions of Southern whites and their regional forebears in Britain, including "less resourcefulness," "disorganized" family life, "lax" sexual morals, and "recklessness," with tendencies toward aggression and violence. Despite a generally sympathetic approach to the study of blacks in his landmark book An American Dilemma, which has often been credited with a major influence on the advancement of civil rights, Myrdal also noted the "low standards of efficiency, reliability, ambition, and morals actually displayed by the average Negro." He observed "something of the 'devil-may-care' attitude in the pleasure-seeking of Negroes" and a general attitude in which "life becomes cheap and crime not so reprehensible."
Like other observers, Myrdal tended to attribute to slavery such aspects of black culture as "the low regard for human life," when in fact antebellum whites had exhibited this same reckless disregard of lethal dangers and so had their ancestors in Britain. Unlike many others, however, Myrdal also recognized the influence of the Southern white culture on the culture of blacks, pointing out that "the general Southern pattern of illegality maintained this low regard for human life." He also noted that "the so-called 'Negro dialect' is simply a variation of the ordinary Southern accent," that religious "emotionalism was borrowed from and sanctioned by religious behavior among whites" in the South, and that the "Negro trait of audaciousness is characteristic of white Southerners too." He quoted black scholar (and, later, statesman) Ralph Bunche: "White Southerners employ many of the defense mechanisms characteristic of the Negro. They often carry a 'chip on the shoulder'; they indulge freely in self-commiseration, they rather typically and in real Negro fashion try to overcome a feeling of inferiority by exhibitionism, raucousness in dress, and exaggerated self-assertion."
Although Dr. Bunche presented these as parallels, historically it was of course the Southern whites who first had these patterns, reflecting patterns among their ancestors in Britain. In much of the literature on black culture, however, the supposed influence of slavery has been far more sweepingly assumed and the cultural influence or white Southerners and their forebears in Britain largely ignored. Attempts to derive the black manner of speaking from slavery and its parallel among whites as an influence from black speech were answered by a Southern historian who asked, "from whence came the drawl of the people of the upper Great Plains and of the Blue Ridge, Smokey, and Cumberland Mountains, who have had little or no contact with Negro?" Another cultural historian of Southerners aptly observed that "southerners white and black share the bonds of a common heritage, indeed a common tragedy, and often speak a common language, however seldom they may acknowledge it."
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With permission from the publisher of Black Rednecks and White Liberals by Thomas Sowell, Encounter Books, San Francisco, California (ﾩ 2005), www.encounterbooks.com