White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016)
TO BEGIN THE WORLD ANEW
John Locke’s Lubberland
The Settlements of Carolina and Georgia
Surely there is no place in the World where the Inhabitants live with less Labour than in N[orth] Carolina. It approaches nearer to the Description of Lubberland than any other, by the great felicity of the Climate, the easiness of raising Provisions, and the Slothfulness of the People.
—William Byrd II, “History of the Dividing Line” (1728)
When Americans think of the renowned English Enlightenment thinker John Locke, what comes to mind is how Thomas Jefferson tacitly borrowed his words and ideas for the Declaration of Independence. Locke’s well-known phrase “Life, Liberty and Estate” was transformed by the Virginian into “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Locke was the must-read of every educated man, woman, and child in the British American colonies. Called the “great and glorious asserter of natural Rights and Liberties of Mankind,” he was responsible for more than the Two Treatises of Government (1689), which became the playbook of American Revolutionaries. Most important for our present consideration, he authored the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (1669), which granted that “every Freeman in Carolina shall have ABSOLUTE POWER AND AUTHORITY over his Negro Slaves.” As one of his loudest critics exclaimed in 1776, “Such was the language of the humane Mr. Locke!” Nor was this surprising. For Locke was a founding member and third-largest stockholder of the Royal African Company, which secured a monopoly over the British slave trade. His relationship to Carolinian slavery was more than incidental.1
In 1663, King Charles II of England issued a colonial charter to eight men, whom he named the “absolute Lords and proprietors” of Carolina. They were given extensive powers to fortify, settle, and govern the colony. Two years later, the first surveyor sized up the northeastern part of the colony, Albemarle County, named after one of the proprietors, George Monck, Duke of Albemarle. But it would take another powerful proprietor, Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, to fashion a more recognizable political design of his “darling” Carolina.2
Shaftesbury held a powerful position in London as head of the Council of Trade and Foreign Plantations, and he encouraged Locke to join him in the colonial venture. Through Shaftesbury, then, Locke secured the post of secretary of the Council of Trade, and he became the private secretary of the Lords Proprietors, which obliged him to open a correspondence with agents in Carolina and to forward instructions to them. Though he never set foot on American soil, Locke was given the concocted title of “Landgrave,” and forty-eight thousand acres of Carolina land was conferred on him for his services. With his intimate knowledge of the colony and his wide reading on the New World generally, Locke undoubtedly had a decisive hand in drafting the inherently illiberal Fundamental Constitutions.3
The Fundamental Constitutions did more than endorse slavery. It was a manifesto promoting a semifeudalistic and wholly aristocratic society. Much ink was spilled in devising a colonial kingdom that conferred favor upon titled elites and manor lords. It was on the basis of a fixed class hierarchy that the precious commodity of land was allocated. Each new county was divided into sections: one-fifth of the land was automatically reserved for proprietors, another fifth for the colonial nobility, and three-fifths for untitled manor lords and freeholders.4
The eight proprietors comprised a supreme ruling body of the Palatine Court, which had an absolute veto over all laws. Governing powers were left in the hands of the Grand Council, run by the local nobility and the proprietors, and it was this body that had sole authority for proposing legislation. A top-heavy colonial parliament consisted of proprietors or their deputies, all of the hereditary nobility of the colony, and one freeholder from each precinct. The constitution made clear that power rested at the top and that every effort had been made to “avoid erecting a numerous democracy.”5
Class structure preoccupied Locke the constitutionalist. He endowed the nobility of the New World with such unusual titles as landgraves and caciques. The first of these was derived from the German word for prince; the latter was Spanish for an American Indian chieftain. Both described a hereditary peerage separate from the English system, and an imperial shadow elite whose power rested in colonial estates or through commercial trade. A court of heraldry was added to this strange brew: in overseeing marriages and maintaining pedigree, it provided further evidence of the intention to fix (and police) class identity. Pretentious institutions such as these hardly suited the swampy backwater of Carolina, but in the desire to impose order on an unsettled land, every detail mattered—down to assigning overblown names to ambitious men in the most rustic outpost of the British Empire.6
Yet even the faux nobility was not as strange as another feature of the Locke-endorsed Constitutions. That dubious honor belongs to the nobility and manor lord’s unique servant class, ranked above slaves but below freemen. These were the “Leet-men,” who were encouraged to marry and have children but were tied to the land and to their lord. They could be leased and hired out to others, but they could not leave their lord’s service. Theirs, too, was a hereditary station: “All the children of Leet-men shall be Leet-men, so to all generations,” the Constitutions stated. The heirs of estates inherited not just land, buildings, and belongings, but the hapless Leet-men as well.7
More than some anachronistic remnant of the feudal age, Leet-men represented Locke’s awkward solution to rural poverty. Locke did not call them villains, though they possessed many of the attributes of serfs. He instead chose the word “Leet-men,” which in England at this time meant something very different: unemployed men entitled to poor relief. Locke, like many successful Britons, felt contempt for the vagrant poor in England. He disparaged them for their “idle and loose way of breeding up,” and their lack of morality and industry. There were poor families already in Carolina, as Locke knew, who stood in the way of the colony’s growth and collective wealth. In other words, Locke’s Leet-men would not be charity cases, pitied or despised, but a permanent and potentially productive peasant class—yet definitely an underclass.8
But did Leet-men ever exist? Shaftesbury’s Carolina plantation, which was run by his agent, had slaves, indentured servants, and Leet-men of a sort. In 1674, the absent owner instructed his agent to hire laborers as “Leet-men,” emphasizing that by their concurrence to this arrangement he could retain rights to the workers’ “progeny.” In this way, Shaftesbury saw children as key to his hereditary class system—as did his colonial predecessors in Virginia and Massachusetts.9
The Fundamental Constitutions was really a declaration of war against poor settlers. In the 1650s, even before King Charles had issued the Carolina charter, Virginia’s imperious governor, William Berkeley, had been selling land grants. The first surveyor reported that most of the Virginia émigrés in Carolina territory were not legitimate patent holders at all. They were poor squatters. The surveyor warned that the infant Carolina colony would founder if more “Rich men” were not recruited, that is, men who could build homes and run productive plantations. Landless trespassers (who were not servants) promised only widespread “leveling,” by which the surveyor meant a society shorn of desirable class divisions.10
Locke agreed. Poor Virginians threatened to drag down the entire colony. Shaftesbury, too, believed that everything should be done to discourage “Lazy or debauched” men and their families from settling in Carolina. The proprietors definitely did not want a colony overrun with former indentured servants. They did not want Virginia’s refuse. In their grand scheme, Leet-men were intended to take the place of those who lived off the land without contributing to the coffers of the ruling elite. Serfs, in short, were better than those “lazy lubbers,” meaning stupid, clumsy oafs, the word that came to describe the vagrant poor of Carolina.11
Locke’s invention of the Leet-men explains a lot. It enables us to piece together the curious history of North Carolina, to demonstrate why this colony lies at the heart of our white trash story. The difficult terrain that spanned the border with Virginia, plus the high numbers of poor squatters and inherently unstable government, eventually led Carolina to be divided into two colonies in 1712. South Carolinians adopted all the features of a traditional class hierarchy, fully embracing the institution of slavery, just as Locke did in the Fundamental Constitutions. The planter and merchant classes of South Carolina formed a highly incestuous community: wealth, slaves, and land were monopolized by a small ruling coterie. This self-satisfied oligarchy were the true inheritors of the old landgraves, carrying on the dynastic impulses of those who would create a pseudo-nobility of powerful families.12
By 1700, we should note, slaves comprised half the population of the southern portion of the Carolina colony, an imbalance that widened to 72 percent by 1740. Beginning in 1714, a series of laws required that for every six slaves an owner purchased, he had to acquire one white servant. Lamenting that the “white population do not proportionally multiply,” South Carolina lawmakers had one more reason to wish that a corps of Leet-men and women had actually been formed. Encouraged to marry and multiply, tied to the land, they might have provided a racial and class barrier between the slaves and the landed elites.13
North Carolina, which came to be known as “Poor Carolina,” went in a very different direction from its sibling to the south. It failed to shore up its elite planter class. Starting with Albemarle County, it became an imperial renegade territory, a swampy refuge for the poor and landless. Wedged between proud Virginians and upstart South Carolinians, North Carolina was that troublesome “sinke of America” so many early commentators lamented. It was a frontier wasteland resistant (or so it seemed) to the forces of commerce and civilization. Populated by what many dismissed as “useless lubbers” (conjuring the image of sleepy and oafish men lolling about doing nothing), North Carolina forged a lasting legacy as what we might call the first white trash colony. Despite being English, despite having claimed the rights of freeborn Britons, lazy lubbers of Poor Carolina stood out as a dangerous refuge of waste people, and the spawning ground of a degenerate breed of Americans.14
The rivalry between the dueling Carolinas was only part of the story. The original charter of Carolina would eventually be divided three ways, when Georgia was parceled out of the original territory in 1732. This last southern colony was the most unusual of Britain’s offspring. An ex-military man, James Oglethorpe, was its guiding force, and he saw this venture as a unique opportunity to reconstruct class relations. It was a charitable endeavor, one meant to reform debtors and rescue poor men, by offering society a decidedly more humane alternative to Locke’s servile Leet-men. Georgia provided an advantageous venue for the “right disposing of the Poor” in the colonies, which would “breed up and preserve our own Countrymen,” one advocate insisted. In refusing to permit slavery, the Georgia colony promised that “free labor” would replace a reliance on indentured servants as well as African bondsmen.15
But Georgia meant something more. Even as South Carolinians jealously eyed the new territory as a place where they might sell slaves and control the land, the colony of free laborers offered a ready boundary (and slave-free zone) that would protect the vulnerable planter class from Native tribes and Spanish settlers in Florida, who might otherwise offer a haven to their runaway slaves. Georgia, as we shall see, was a remarkable experiment.
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North Carolina’s physical terrain was crucial in shaping the character of its people. Along the boundary between Virginia and Carolina was a large and forbidding wetland known as the Dismal Swamp. The word “swamp” was derived from Low German and Dutch, though it was first used by English setters in Virginia and New England. “Dismal,” on the other hand, conjured the superstitious lore of medieval times. The word was associated with cursed days, Egyptian plagues, sinister plots, and inauspicious omens. For William Shakespeare, it evoked a netherworld, as in the “dark dismal-dreaming night.”16
Virginians viewed the twenty-two-hundred-square-mile wetland as a danger-filled transitional zone. The seemingly endless quagmire literally overlapped the two colonies. There were no obvious routes through its mosquito-ridden cypress forests. In many places, travelers sank knee-deep in the soggy, peaty soil, and had to wade through coal-colored, slimy water dotted with gnarled roots.17
Little sunshine penetrated the Dismal Swamp’s trees and thickets, and the air gave off noxious fumes, which were colorfully described as “Noisome exhalations,” arising from a “vast body of mire and nastiness.” This statement comes from the travelogue of a wealthy Virginian, William Byrd II, who trekked through the bowels of the Virginia-Carolina borderland in 1728. A witty, English-educated planter, Byrd crafted a dark tale of an inhospitable landscape and weighed in on Carolina’s oafish inhabitants. Thus he was the first of many writers to draw a jaded portrait of the swampy origins of white trash rural life.18
This bleak region became a symbol of the young North Carolina colony. The Great Dismal Swamp divided civilized Virginia planters from the rascally barbarians of Carolina. Swamps rarely have fixed borders, and so the northern dividing line was continually a point of contention during the first sixty-five years of Carolina’s existence. Virginia repeatedly challenged the boundary as set forth in Carolina’s 1663 charter. Jurisdictional disputes created a political climate of legal uncertainty and social instability.19
Byrd’s solution to the Dismal Swamp was to drain it and remake it as productive farmland. Later projectors, including George Washington, got behind Byrd’s idea. Teaming with other investors, Washington established a company in 1763 whose purpose was to use slaves to drain the swamp, grow hemp, and cut wood shingles. By 1790, they were working to build a canal (a “ditch,” as it was more accurately called at the time) to tunnel through the morass of cypress trees, prickly briars, and muddy waterways.20
The Carolina coastline was nearly as uninviting, cutting off the northern part of the colony from ready access to large sailing vessels. Only New Englanders, in their low-bottomed boats, could navigate the shallow, shoal-filled inlets of the Outer Banks. Without a major harbor, and facing burdensome taxes if they shipped their goods through Virginia, many Carolinians turned to smuggling. Hidden inlets made North Carolina attractive to pirates. Along trade routes from the West Indies to the North American continent, piracy flourished in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Several of Albermarle’s governors were accused of sheltering these high-seas thieves and personally profiting from the illicit trade. The notorious Blackbeard (a.k.a. Edward Teach, or Edward Thatch) made a home here, as did the Barbados gentleman turned pirate, Major Stede Bonnet. Supposedly, both were warmly welcomed into the humble homes of North Carolinians. At least that was what the surly Blackbeard claimed, until he lost his head in a grisly clash with Virginians in 1718.21
The Albemarle section of North Carolina was comparable to the poorest districts in Virginia. Most of the settlements were widely scattered—something else the proprietors did not like. The settlers refused to pay their quitrents (land tax), which was one of the ways the proprietors hoped to make money.22 By 1729, when the proprietors sold their original grant to the British government, North Carolina listed 3,281 land grants, and 309 grantees who owned almost half the land. This meant that in a population of nearly 36,000 people, the majority received small or modest grants, or owned no land at all. Most poor households lacked slaves, indentured servants, or even sons working the land. In 1709, squatters in the poorest district in Albemarle petitioned “your honers” for tax relief, pointing out that their land was nothing more than sand. A few months later, an Anglican minister reported in disgust that the colonists “were so careless and uncleanly” that there was “little difference between the corn in the horse’s manger and the bread on their tables.” The entire North Carolina colony was “overrun with sloth and poverty.”23
Worthless land and equally worthless settlers had led Virginia officials to question the Virginia-Carolina boundary line as early as 1672, when Governor Berkeley initiated negotiations with the Carolina proprietors in an effort to absorb Albemarle into Virginia. That plan fell through, but it was tried again two decades later. Over the years, colonial officials rarely succeeded in collecting customs duties. The proprietors faced resistance in collecting quitrents. Disorder ruled. A British possession in name only, Albemarle County was routinely able to escape imperial rule.24
During its first fifty years, the errant northern part of Carolina, which had its own government, was rocked by two internal rebellions and one war with Tuscarora Indians. The misnamed Culpeper’s Rebellion (1677-79) is particularly instructive. In a contest with Thomas Miller, an ambitious trader and tobacco planter who wanted to crack down on smugglers, collect customs duties, and gain favor with proprietors, Thomas Culpeper, a surveyor, sided with the poorer settlers. Theirs was a personal conflict with broad repercussions. Miller took advantage of a leadership vacuum to seize control of government. Like a petty tyrant, he surrounded himself with an armed guard, while Culpeper rallied popular support and organized an informal militia. Miller was forced to flee the colony. Back in London, he charged Culpeper with leading an uprising, and as a result in 1680 Culpeper was tried for treason.25
In an unexpected development, the proprietor Lord Shaftesbury came to Culpeper’s defense. He delivered an eloquent oration before the Court of King’s Bench, arguing that a stable government had never legally existed in North Carolina. Anticipating Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, Shaftesbury concluded that the colony remained effectively in a state of nature. Without a genuine government, there could be no rebellion. Commentary like this merely underscored northern Carolina’s outlier status.26
Culpeper’s Rebellion was something less than a servile insurrection. The poor settlers’ rallying cry of “noe Landgraves, noe Casiques” filled the air, yet we cannot call theirs strictly a war of the poor against the rich. Miller’s agenda was to stop smuggling and force his fellow Englishmen to participate in the British colonial trade system. His targets were those, including modest farmers, who depended on smuggling to survive. Class power, in this instance, was about those who benefited from a greater reliance on the imperial orbit of influence. But Miller had also asserted an unconstitutional claim to the governorship and, by applying heavy-handed tactics, failed to command respect within the political community. Indeed, he was known for his foul mouth and drunken oaths against the king, which resulted in charges of sedition and blasphemy. He was at best a poseur, at worst a crude bully. In the end, North Carolina’s aristocratic leadership proved as dubious as the made-up titles of landgraves and caciques.27
A history of misrule continued to haunt North Carolina. Governor Seth Sothell, who served from 1681 to 1689, engrossed as many as forty-four thousand acres for private gain. He was eventually banished from the colony. Nor was this unique. From 1662 to 1736, North Carolina went through forty-one governors, while its sister colony saw twenty-five. After 1691, in an effort to enhance stability, the government in South Carolina appointed the deputy governor for North Carolina. When a rebellion against Governor Edward Hyde ignited in 1708, Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood went to war against his southern neighbor. Their conflict triggered renewed hostilities from the Tuscarora Indians, who resented unceasing English encroachment on their lands.28
In 1711, South Carolina intervened, sending Captain John Barnwell north to put down the Tuscaroras. Barnwell expected to be awarded a large land grant for his service. With his expectations unmet, he turned the tables and incited the Indians to attack several North Carolina settlements. Even before his betrayal, though, he felt little identification with the colonists, writing that North Carolinians were the most “cowardly Blockheads [another word for lubber] that ever God created & must be used like negro[e]s if you expect any good of them.”29
Governor Spotswood of Virginia lashed out against Albemarle County as a “common Sanctuary for all our runaway servants,” and censured its “total Absence of Religion.” He echoed a previous Virginia governor when he denounced the place as the “sinke of America, the Refuge of Renegadoes.” He meant by this a commercial sinkhole, and with the loaded term “renegadoes,” a bastion of lawless, irreligious men who literally renounced their national allegiance as well as their Christian faith. Though there were but few ministers to guide them, the real apostasy of the people was said to be their refusal to be good taxpaying Britons.30
Virginians constantly aimed to keep their neighbor in line. A surveying team was dispatched in 1710, but failed to settle anything. The same was attempted in 1728, when William Byrd II accepted his commission to lead a joint expedition. He endured trying months navigating the Dismal Swamp and met with residents, mocked them mercilessly, and lustily eyed their women as much as he coveted the fertile land beyond the Dismal Swamp. He instructed his men to beat drums and shoot off guns to determine the size of the swamp, and crudely compared the sound to that “prattling Slut, Echo.” Such petulance reflected his general feeling that the dark, mysterious Carolina terrain would never give up her secrets. Yet Byrd was undeterred. A man of letters as well as an amateur naturalist, he wrote two versions of his adventure: one was the less censored “secret history,” the other a longer, more polished tract called “The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina.”31
For Byrd, Virginia was an almost Eden-like colony, and a far cry from her uncivilized neighbor. In a bemused letter of 1726, written just two years before he began his tour of North Carolina, he described himself as a man resting underneath his “fig tree,” surrounded by “my Flocks and my Herds, my Bond-men and Bond-women.” Part feudal squire, part modern Abraham, Byrd portrayed his colony as a bucolic retreat far from the “Vagrant Mendicants” roaming the “island of beggars”—by which he meant England. He pretended that poverty did not exist in Virginia; his slaves were both dutiful and productive. A well-ordered society, based on slavery, had not only allowed him to indulge a pastoral dream but had also kept poor whites at bay.32
Things were different in Carolina. Just across the ill-defined border was an alien world where class authority was severely compromised. Byrd’s little band of land commissioners were “knights-errant” embarked on a grand medieval crusade. When people emerged from their huts, staring as a flock at the strangers from Virginia, “it was as if we had been Morocco ambassadors.” Having brought a chaplain along on their journey, they were able to christen children and marry men and women from place to place along their route. Byrd and his party of superior Christians sprinkled holy water on the heathen Carolinians.33
Or so he fantasized. In fact, the Carolinians proved resistant to religion and reform. As Byrd noted, the men had an abiding “aversion” to labor of any kind. They slept (and snored) through most of the morning. On waking, they sat smoking their pipes. Rarely did they even peek outside their doors, and during the cooler months, those who did quickly returned “shivering to their chimney corners.” In milder weather they got as far as thinking about plunging a hoe into the ground. But thinking turned to excuses, and nothing was accomplished. The unmotivated Carolina folk preferred, he said, to “loiter away their lives, like Solomon’s sluggards.” The little work that actually got done was performed by the female poor.34
Carolina obliged William Byrd to adjust his broader vision of America’s destiny. For his example of the “wretchedest scenes of poverty” he had ever seen in “this happy part of the world,” he isolated a rusticated man named Cornelius Keith, who had a wife and six children yet lived in a home without a roof. The Keiths’ dwelling was closer to a cattle pen, he said, than to any human habitation. At night the family slept in the fodder stack. Byrd found it especially odd that the husband and father was more interested in protecting feed for his animals than the safety of his family. Keith had chosen this life, and that was what most shocked the wealthy explorer from Virginia. Here was a man with a skilled trade, possessing good land and good limbs, who nevertheless preferred to live worse than the “bogtrotting Irish.” Byrd’s choice of words was, as usual, unambiguous. English contempt for the Irish was nothing new, but “bogtrotting” was an exquisite synonym for swamp vagrant.35
When Byrd identified the Carolinians as residents of “Lubberland,” he drew upon a familiar English folktale that featured one “Lawrence Lazy,” born in the county of Sloth near the town of Neverwork. Lawrence was a “heavy lump” who sat in his chimney corner and dreamt. His dog was so lazy that he “lied his head agin the wall to bark.” In Lubberland, sloth was contagious, and Lawrence had the power to put all masters under his spell so that they fell into a deep slumber. As applied to the rural poor who closed themselves off to the world around them, the metaphor of sleep suggested popular resistance to colonial rule. Byrd found the people he encountered in Carolina to be resistant to all forms of government: “Everyone does what seems best in his own eyes.”36
The Mapp of Lubberland or the Ile of Lazye (ca. 1670) portrayed an imaginary territory in which sloth is contagious and normal men lack the will to work.
British Print, #1953.0411.69AN48846001, The British Museum, London, England
As he further contemplated the source of idleness, Byrd was convinced that it was in the lubbers’ blood. Living near the swamp, they suffered from “distempers of laziness,” which made them “slothful in everything but getting children.” They displayed a “cadaverous complexion” and a “lazy, creeping habit.” The combination of climate and an unhealthy diet doomed them. Eating swine, they contracted the “yaws,” and their symptoms matched those of syphilis: they lost their noses and palates, and had hideously deformed faces. With their “flat noses,” they not only looked like but also began to act like wild boars: “Many of them seem to grunt rather than speak.” In a “porcivorous” country, people spent their days foraging and fornicating; when upset, they could be heard yelling out, “Flesh alive and tear it.” It was their “favorite exclamation,” Byrd said. This bizarre colloquialism suggested cannibalism, or perhaps hyenas surrounding a fresh kill and devouring it. How could these carnivorous swamp monsters be thought of as English?37
Byrd left behind few practical ideas for reforming the godforsaken wilderness he had explored. Only drastic measures would work: replacing lubbers with Swiss German settlers and draining the swamp of its vile murky waters. He mused that colonization would have had a better outcome if male settlers had been encouraged to intermarry with Indian women. Over two generations, the Indian stock would have improved, as a species of flower or tree might; dark skin blanched white, heathen ways dimmed. Here, Byrd was borrowing from the author John Lawson, who wrote in A New Voyage to Carolina that men of lower rank gained an economic advantage by marrying Native women who brought land to the union. While he was at it, Byrd also condemned unrefined whites for marrying promiscuous Englishwomen right off the boat. He even suggested, satirically, of course, that social problems would disappear if the poor were more like bears and spent six months each year in hibernation: “’Tis a pity our beggars and pickpockets could not do the same,” he wrote.38
Byrd’s views, if colorfully expressed, were by no means his alone. An Anglican minister named John Urmston reported that his poor white charges loved their hogs more than they did their minister. They let the hogs into their churches to avoid the heat, leaving “dung and nastiness” on the floor. In 1737, Governor Gabriel Johnson of North Carolina referred to his people as “the meanest, most rustic and squalid part of the species.” As late as the 1770s, a traveler passing through North Carolina found the residents to be the most “ignorant wretches” he had ever met. They could not even tell him the name of the place where they lived, nor offer directions to the next family’s home. Insular country people greeted travelers with incredulous stares and looked upon them as “strange, outlandish folks.” These rural poor were a people untethered from reality.39
Shocking as it is for us to contemplate, large numbers of early American colonists spent their entire lives in such dingy, nasty conditions. The sordid picture conveyed here is an unavoidable part of the American past. Yet there’s more. They walked around with open sores visible on their bodies; they had ghastly complexions as a result of poor diets; many were missing limbs, noses, palates, and teeth. As a traveler named Smyth recorded, the ignorant wretches he encountered wore “cotton rags” and were “enveloped in dirt and nastiness.”40
The poor of colonial America were not just waste people, not simply a folk to be compared to their Old World counterparts. By reproducing their own kind, they were, to contemporaneous observers, in the process of creating an anomalous new breed of human. A host of travelers in Carolina in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries believed that class structure was tied to geography and rooted in the soil. Explorers, amateur scientists, and early ethnologists like William Byrd all assumed—and unabashedly professed—that inferior or mismanaged lands bred inferior, ungovernable people.
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John Locke’s influence over Carolina was mostly of an intellectual character. Not so the next southern colony to arise under the direction of an ambitious projector. Rather than a constitutional creation, Georgia was founded as a charitable venture, designed to uplift poor families and to reform debtors. One of the most important minds behind it belonged to James Edward Oglethorpe. Oglethorpe was a military adventurer who, with permission of Parliament and the colony’s trustees, traveled to the American colony and helped to plant settlers. Unique among the American settlements, Georgia was not motivated by a desire for profit. Receiving its charter in 1732, the southernmost colony was the last to be established prior to the American Revolution. Its purpose was twofold: to carve out a middle ground between the extremes of wealth that took hold in the Carolinas, and to serve as a barrier against the Spanish in Florida. As such, it became the site of an unusual experiment.
Conservative land policies limited individual settlers to a maximum of five hundred acres, thus discouraging the growth of a large-scale plantation economy and slave-based oligarchy such as existed in neighboring South Carolina. North Carolina squatters would not be found here either. Poor settlers coming from England, Scotland, and other parts of Europe were granted fifty acres of land, free of charge, plus a home and a garden. Distinct from its neighbors to the north, Georgia experimented with a social order that neither exploited the lower classes nor favored the rich. Its founders deliberately sought to convert the territory into a haven for hardworking families. They aimed to do something completely unprecedented: to build a “free labor” colony.
According to Francis Moore, who visited the settlement in its second year of operation, two “peculiar” customs stood out: both alcohol and dark-skinned people were prohibited. “No slavery is allowed, nor negroes,” Moore wrote. As a sanctuary for “free white people,” Georgia “would not permit slaves, for slaves starve the poor laborer.” Free labor encouraged poor white men in sober cultivation and steeled them in the event they had to defend the land from outside aggression. It also promised to cure settlers of that most deadly of English diseases, idleness.41
Though it operated with support from Parliament and was overseen by a board of twenty trustees, Georgia remained in theory a charitable enterprise. The trustees sought to inculcate the spirit of benevolence, as expressed in the colony’s motto, Non sibi sed aliis (Not for themselves, but for others). Beyond the work of the trustees, Oglethorpe shaped the day-to-day operations of the colony, having brought over the first group of 114 English settlers, Moses-like, in 1732-33.42
A trustee, Oglethorpe never held the office of governor, nor did he even purchase land to enrich himself. Though a highly educated member of Parliament, he traveled without a servant and lived simply. Having fought as an officer under Prince Eugene of Savoy in the Austro-Turkish War of 1716-18, he understood military discipline. This was how he came to trust in the power of emulation; he believed that people could be conditioned to do the right thing by observing good leaders. He shared food with those who were ill or deprived. Visiting a Scottish community north of Savannah, he refused a soft bed and slept outside on the hard ground with the men. More than any other colonial founder, Oglethorpe made himself one of the people, promoting collective effort.43
As a free-labor buffer zone between English and Spanish territories, Georgia’s circumstances were unique. In 1742, Oglethorpe led a military expedition against Spanish St. Augustine, a campaign his English neighbors to the north had balked at funding. He marveled at how the South Carolinians deluded themselves in believing they were safe, burdened as they were with a large slave population—“stupid security,” he called it. Savannah’s physical layout exhibited all the elements of a military camp, and recruits were put through military drills even before they landed in America. Male orphans were taught to hold a musket as soon as they were physically able.44
One young believer in the colony, sixteen-year-old Philip Thicknesse, wrote to his mother in 1735 that “a man may live here upon his own improvements, if he be industrious.” In his grand plan, Oglethorpe wanted a colony of orderly citizen-soldiers; he subscribed to the classical agrarian ideal that virtue was acquired by cultivating the soil and achieving self-sufficiency. Productive, stable, healthy farming families were meant to anchor the colony. As he wrote in 1732, women provided habits of cleanliness and “wholesome food,” and remained on hand to nurse the sick. Unlike others before him, Oglethorpe felt the disadvantaged could be reclaimed if they were given a fair chance.
Far more radical was his calculation that a working wife and eldest son could replace the labor of indentured servants and slaves. He claimed that a wife and one son equaled the labor value of an adult male. He was clearly not fond of the practice of indenture, considering it the same as making “slaves for years.” While Georgia’s trustees did not prohibit the use of white servants, Oglethorpe made sure their tenures were limited. Oddly, it turned out that the colonists best suited to the Georgia experiment were not English but Swiss, German, French Huguenot, and Scottish Highlander, all of whom seemed prepared for lives of hardship, arriving as whole communities of farming families.45
Slavery, however, could not be kept apart from future projections in Georgia. After allowing South Carolina to send over slaves to fell trees and clear the land for the town of Savannah, Oglethorpe came to regret the decision. He made a brief trip to Charles Town, and returned to discover that in the interim the white settlers had grown “impatient of Labour and Discipline.” Some had sold good food for rum punch. With drunkeness came disease. And so, Oglethorpe wrote, the “Negroes who sawed for us” and encouraged white “Idleness” were sent back.46
Many contemporaries connected slavery to English idleness. William Byrd weighed in on the ban against slavery in Georgia in a letter to a Georgia trustee. He saw how slavery had sparked discontent among poor whites in Virginia, who routinely refused to “dirty their hands with Labour of any kind,” preferring to steal or starve rather than work in the fields. Slavery ruined the “industry of our White People,” he confessed, for they saw a “Rank of Poor Creatures below them,” and detested the thought of work out of a perverse pride, lest they might “look like slaves.” A North Carolina proprietor, John Colleton, observed in Barbados that poor whites were called “white slaves” by black slaves; it struck him that the same contempt for white field hands prevailed in the southern colonies in North America.47
A fair number of Georgians were less high-minded, and envious of their South Carolina neighbors. As soon as the slavery ban (it was not part of the original charter) was adopted in Georgia, petitions were sent to the trustees seeking permission to purchase slaves. Oglethorpe waged a war of words with proslavery settlers, whom he called “Malcontents.” At the height of the controversy, in 1739, he argued that African slavery should never be introduced into his colony, because it went against the core principle of the trustees: “to relieve the distressed.” Instead of offering a sanctuary for honest laborers, Georgia would become an oppressive regime, promoting “the misery of thousands in Africa” by permitting a “free people” to be “sold into perpetual Slavery.”48
He had written similarly about English sailors back in 1728. Strange though it might seem to us, Oglethorpe’s argument against slavery was drawn from his understanding of the abuse sailors faced as a distinct class. In the eighteenth century, seamen were imagined as a people naturally “bred” for a life at sea, whose very constitution was amenable to a hard life in the British navy. In his tract protesting the abuse of sailors, the more enlightened Oglethorpe rejected claims that men were born to such an exploited station. For him, seamen literally functioned as “slaves,” deprived of the liberties granted to freeborn Britons. As poor men, they were dragged off the streets by press gangs, thrown into prison ships, and sold into the navy. Poorly fed, grossly underpaid, and treated as “captives,” they were a brutalized class of laborers, and in every way coerced.49
According to Georgians who petitioned for slaves, Negroes were “bred up” for hard labor in the same way as sailors. Africans would survive in damp, noxious swamps as well as in the sweltering heat. They were cheap to feed and clothe. A meager subsistence diet of water, corn, and potatoes was thought adequate to keep them alive and active. One outfit and a single pair of shoes would last an entire year. White indentured servants were fundamentally different. They demanded English dress for every season. They expected meat, bread, and beer on the table, and if denied this rich diet felt languid and feeble and would refuse to work. If forced to labor as hard as African slaves through the grueling summer months, or so the petitioners claimed, white servants would run away from Georgia as if escaping a “charnel house” (a repository for rotting corpses). Proslavery Georgians were not above accusing Oglethorpe of running a prison colony.50
Oglethorpe was unmoved by their demands. Just as he had earlier called press gangs “little tyrants” with “great sticks” when they forcibly turned poor men into sailors, he now charged that the Georgians who fled to South Carolina preferred “whipping Negroes” to regular work. Oglethorpe pointed to those settlers who were not afraid of labor, who knew how to “subsist comfortably” without clamoring for slaves. They were the Scottish Highlanders and German settlers who had petitioned the trustees to keep slavery out of the colony. Oglethorpe felt that these folks were hardier and their predisposition to work was superior to that of Englishmen. But the truth lay in an ability to work collectively, a desire to understand and appreciate the demands of subsistence farming—a commitment to long-term survival in a sparsely settled colony. Many English settlers were unwilling to work hard, because they lacked any background in farming. Apothecaries, cheese mongers, tinkers, wig makers, and weavers abounded. There were too few who could cultivate the soil. Patrick Tailfer, who drafted one of the petitions in support of slaveholding, refused to cultivate a single acre of the land he had been granted.51
We should make clear that Oglethorpe was not a modern egalitarian. He did not imagine his colony as a multiracial community, nor did he surmount common prejudices with respect to Africans. He permitted there to be a small number of Indian slaves in the colony. His plan centered on class: he restricted slavery principally because he believed it would shift the balance of class power in Georgia and “starve the poor white laborer.” In the larger scheme of things, his reform philosophy recognized that weak and desperate men could be led to choose a path that dictated against their own interests. A man might sell his land for a glass of rum; debt and idleness were always a temptation.52
Despite his good intentions, the colony failed to eliminate all class divisions. In addition to the fifty acres allotted to charity cases, settlers who paid their own way might be granted as many as five hundred acres. They were expected to employ between four and ten servants. But five hundred acres was the maximum limit for freeholders. The trustees wanted settlers to occupy the land, not to speculate in land. Absentee landholders were not welcome. Georgia also instituted a policy of keeping the land “tail-male,” which meant that land descended to the eldest male child. This feudal rule bound men to their families. The tail-male provision protected heirs whose poor fathers might otherwise feel pressure to sell their land.53
Many settlers disliked the practice. Hardworking families worried about the fate of their unmarried daughters, who might be left with nothing. One such complaint came from Reverend Dumont, a leader of French Protestants interested in migrating to Georgia. What would happen to widows “too old to marry or beget children,” he asked. And how could daughters survive, especially those “unfit for Marriage, either by Sickness or Evil Construction of their Body”?54
Dumont’s questions went to the core of Oglethorpe’s and the trustees’ philosophy. Young widows and daughters were seen as breeders of the next generation of free white laborers. Georgia’s policy was to nurture the natural process of “propagation,” as Oglethorpe declared in one of his promotional tracts. His grand plan was to ensure that English and other Protestants would quickly outnumber the French and Spanish in North America. The war against the rival Catholic colonial powers was, at length, a battle of numbers. Georgia had to have enough free white men to field its armies, and it had to benefit from a reproductive advantage, winning the demographic war as well.55
Alas, Oglethorpe was fighting a losing battle. Many of the men demanding slaves were promised credit to buy slaves from South Carolinian traders. Slaves were a lure, dangled before poorer men in order to persuade them to put up their land as collateral. That is why Oglethorpe believed that a slave economy would have the effect of depriving vulnerable settlers of their land. Keeping out slavery went hand in hand with preserving a more equitable distribution of land. If the colony allowed settlers to have “fee simple” land titles (so they could sell their land at will), large-scale planters would surely come to dominate. He predicted in 1739 that, left to their own devices, the “Negro Merchants” would gain control of “all the lands in the Colony,” leaving nothing for “all the laboring poor white Men.”56
German Lutherans, who established a community in 1734, also saw the dangers of Georgia becoming like South Carolina. Without encouragement from Oglethorpe, Reverend Bolzius of their contingent observed that “a Common white Laborer in Charles Town” earned no greater wage than “a Negroe.” Africans were encouraged to “breed like animals,” and slaveowners would do everything possible to increase their stock. Merchants and other gentlemen hoarded the best land near the coast or along the commercial rivers, and poorer men were forced to possess remote, less desirable land. South Carolina was a poor white family’s worst nightmare.57
Oglethorpe left the colony in 1743, never to return. Three years earlier, a soldier had attempted to murder him, the musket ball tearing through his wig. He survived, but his dream for Georgia died. Over the next decade, land tenure policies were lifted, rum was allowed to flow freely, and slaves were sold surreptitiously. In 1750, settlers were formally granted the right to own slaves.58
A planter elite quickly formed, principally among transplants from the West Indies and South Carolina. By 1788, Carolinian Jonathan Bryan was the most powerful man in Georgia, with thirty-two thousand acres and 250 slaves. He set up shop there in 1750, the very year slavery was made legal, and his numerous slaves entitled him to large tracts of lands. But to build his empire he had to pull the strings of Georgia’s Executive Council, whose chief duty was distributing land. A long tenure on the council ensured that he acquired the most fertile land, conveniently situated along major trade routes. By 1760, only 5 percent of white Georgians owned even a single slave, while a handful of families possessed them in the hundreds. Jonathan Bryan was the perfect embodiment of the “Slave Merchants” who Oglethorpe had warned would dominate the colony.59
Oglethorpe’s ideas did not entirely disappear. Both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson agreed that slaveowning corrupted whites. The idea of promoting a free white labor buffer zone went into Jefferson’s draft of what became the Northwest Ordinance (1787), a blueprint for the admission of new states to the Union. Franklin and Jefferson were equally passionate about mobilizing the forces of reproduction. They saw population growth as a sign of national strength. Slavery, too, was to be measured as a numbers game. As Reverend Bolzius had observed, if slaves were encouraged to “breed like animals,” then poor whites could not reproduce at the same rate and hold on to their land or their freedom.
It was already apparent that slavery and class identity were intertwined. Oglethorpe had connected free labor to the idea of a vital, secure, (re)productive society. Free white laborers, while adding to the military strength of a colony, could not compete economically with a class of land-engrossing slaveholders. What had been considered “peculiar” about Georgia—the banning of slavery—would ironically come to mean the precise opposite when in the nineteenth century slavery became the “peculiar institution” of the American South.
All the while, the deeply ingrained English disgust for idleness persisted. The rural poor, though seen as a liability, became an unbanishable part of the American experience. Not only did free laborers exist in contrast to imported African slaves, but they also stood apart from useless white lubbers. Land was the principal source of wealth, and remained the true measure of liberty and civic worth. Hereditary titles may have gradually disappeared, but large land grants and land titles remained central to the American system of privilege. When it came to common impressions of the despised lower class, the New World was not new at all.