It’s Time for Historians of Slavery to Listen to Economists

Historians in the News
tags: slavery



Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt works as an independent scholar in Atlanta, Georgia. Her research focuses on race and class in U.S. history. Her first book, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. She has also co-edited a book on southern labor history with Matthew Hild (Reviving Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power, forthcoming), and is currently conducting research for two additional books. One is on radical black resistance during the Reconstruction era, while the second examines the changing role of law enforcement in the mid-nineteenth century South. It will ultimately link the rise of professional police forces in the Deep South to the end of slavery.

Due to the extremely alarming rise of Donald Trump, the American public is once again questioning the political beliefs and actions of lower-class whites. Often considered to be voting against their own self-interests by supporting elite white politicians, the nation’s poorest whites are generally stereotyped as uneducated, uncouth fools whose beliefs are dictated by an insidious form of racism. Yet poor white support for this aristocratic class has not always been so unwavering. Indeed, during the late antebellum period in the plantation Deep South, class tensions between whites were rife; and as conflicting views over slavery mounted, a deep distrust – and at times, hatred – divided the rich and the impoverished.

By simply acknowledging that whites have not always aligned in solidarity against black Americans, several persistent falsities regarding Southern history are revealed. Perhaps the most important myth to dismantle, however, is the myth of white unity over slavery. Poor whites consistently supported slaveholder policies, and even fought for the Confederacy, the argument goes, because they greatly admired the slaveholders and aspired to own slaves themselves. To be sure, there was certainly near-universal consensus among Southern whites regarding racism, but support for slavery varied significantly, especially among members of lower economic classes. Instead, the vast majority of poor whites recognized the near-impossibility of eventually owning slaves.

One of the main reasons this myth continues unchallenged is due to the disconnect between historians and economists. Especially over the last decade or so economists have produced some incredibly significant work concerning the nineteenth century South, yet their work goes virtually unheeded by many in the historical profession.

For instance, a recent paper written by a team of three economists confirms with quantitative data what several historians have been arguing for years. Using a dataset of nearly four million whites in Confederate states, the economists concluded that slaveholders were more likely to fight for the South than non-slaveholders. “Although in general wealthier individuals are less likely to fight in such conflicts,” they wrote, “when their wealth is tied to existing institutions that civil conflict threatens, they may in fact be more likely to fight.” ...

Still, the most important recent paper by economists concerning the nineteenth century South is probably Samuel Williamson and Louis Cain’s “Measuring Slavery in 2011 Dollars” – a brilliant piece of work that many historians of American slavery tend to overlook. By truly explaining Southern wealth distribution and the price of slaves, these economists help dispel the misconception that every non-slaveholder, no matter how impoverished, believed that one day they could enter the ranks of the master class. ...





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