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White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
Author:Nancy Isenberg

So now we know what happens to our colonial history. It is whitewashed. Though New World settlers were supposed to represent the promise of social mobility, and the Pilgrims generated our hallowed faith in liberty, nineteenth-century Americans paradoxically created a larger-than-life cast of “democratic” royalty. These inheritors founded the first genealogical societies in the 1840s, and by the turn of the twentieth century patriotic organizations with an emphasis on hereditary descent, such as the General Society of Mayflower Descendants and the Order of the Founders and Patriots of America, boasted chapters across the nation. The highly exclusive Order of the First Families of Virginia was established in 1912, its members claiming that their lineage could be traced back to English lords and Lady Rebecca Rolfe—whom we all know as the ennobled and Anglicized Pocahontas.16

Statues are the companions of elite societies in celebrating paternal lineage and a new aristocracy. They tell us that some families (and some classes) have a greater claim as heirs of the founding promise. Municipal and state leaders have supported the national hagiography in bold form by constructing grand monuments to our colonial city fathers. The version of John Winthrop that the Revolutionary John Adams had favored, dressed in Shakespearean or Tudor-Stuart attire and with an ornate ruff collar and hose, first graced the Back Bay of Boston in 1880. But the largest such memorial is the twenty-seven-ton statue of William Penn perched atop City Hall in Philadelphia. After it was completed in 1901, no structure in the entire city was permitted to be taller than Penn’s Quaker hat until 1987, ensuring that the founder’s sovereign gaze towered over the City of Brotherly Love, commemorating the colonizing act of territorial possession. In British law, ownership was measured by standing one’s ground—that is, holding and occupying the land. Land itself was a source of civic identity. This principle explains as well the totem value of “Plymouth Rock,” the large stone discovered long after the last Pilgrim breathed New England air, christened in the eighteenth century as the first piece of land on which the Mayflower settlers stood.17

Commemoration of this kind begs the following questions: Who were the winners and losers in the great game of colonial conquest? Beyond parceling the land, how were estates bounded, fortunes made, and labor secured? What social structures, what manner of social relationships did the first European Americans really set in motion? Finding answers to these questions will enable us to fully appreciate how long-ago-established identities of haves and have-nots left a permanent imprint on the collective American mind.

Americans’ sketchy understanding of the nation’s colonial beginnings reflects the larger cultural impulse to forget—or at least gloss over—centuries of dodgy decisions, dubious measures, and outright failures. The “Lost Colony” of Roanoke was just one of many unsuccessful colonial schemes. Ambitious-sounding plans for New World settlements were never more than ad hoc notions or overblown promotional tracts. The recruits for these projects did not necessarily share the beliefs of those principled leaders molded in bronze—the John Winthrops and William Penns—who are lionized for having projected the enlarged destinies of their respective colonies.

Most settlers in the seventeenth century did not envision their forced exile as the start of a “Citty upon a Hill.” They did not express undying confidence in Penn’s “Holy Experiment.” Dreamers dreamt, but few settlers came to America to fulfill any divine plan. During the 1600s, far from being ranked as valued British subjects, the great majority of early colonists were classified as surplus population and expendable “rubbish,” a rude rather than robust population. The English subscribed to the idea that the poor dregs would be weeded out of English society in four ways. Either nature would reduce the burden of the poor through food shortages, starvation, and disease, or, drawn into crime, they might end up on the gallows. Finally, some would be impressed by force or lured by bounties to fight and die in foreign wars, or else be shipped off to the colonies. Such worthless drones as these could be removed to colonial outposts that were in short supply of able-bodied laborers and, lest we forget, young “fruitful” females. Once there, it was hoped, the drones would be energized as worker bees. The bee was the favorite insect of the English, a creature seen as chaste but, more important, highly productive.18

The colonists were a mixed lot. On the bottom of the heap were men and women of the poor and criminal classes. Among these unheroic transplants were roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores, and an assortment of convicts shipped to the colonies for grand larceny or other property crimes, as a reprieve of sorts, to escape the gallows. Not much better were those who filled the ranks of indentured servants, who ranged in class position from lowly street urchins to former artisans burdened with overwhelming debts. They had taken a chance in the colonies, having been impressed into service and then choosing exile over possible incarceration within the walls of an overcrowded, disease-ridden English prison. Labor shortages led some ship captains and agents to round up children from the streets of London and other towns to sell to planters across the ocean—this was known as “spiriting.” Young children were shipped off for petty crimes. One such case is that of Elizabeth “Little Bess” Armstrong, sent to Virginia for stealing two spoons. Large numbers of poor adults and fatherless boys gave up their freedom, selling themselves into indentured servitude, whereby their passage was paid in return for contracting to anywhere from four to nine years of labor. Their contracts might be sold, and often were, upon their arrival. Unable to marry or choose another master, they could be punished or whipped at will. Owing to the harsh working conditions they had to endure, one critic compared their lot to “Egyptian bondage.”19

Discharged soldiers, also of the lower classes, were shipped off to the colonies. For a variety of reasons, single men and women, and families of the lower gentry, and those of artisan or yeoman classes joined the mass migratory swarm. Some left their homes to evade debts that might well have landed them in prison; others (a fair number coming from Germany and France) viewed the colonies as an asylum from persecution for their religious faith; just as often, resettlement was their escape from economic restrictions imposed upon their trades. Still others ventured to America to leave tarnished reputations and economic failures behind. As all students of history know, slaves eventually became one of the largest groups of unfree laborers, transported from Africa and the Caribbean, and from there to the mainland British American colonies. Their numbers grew to over six hundred thousand by the end of the eighteenth century. Africans were found in every colony, especially after the British government gave full encouragement to the slave trade when it granted an African monopoly to the Company of Royal Adventurers in 1663. The slave trade grew even faster after the monopoly ended, as the American colonists bargained for lower prices and purchased slaves directly from foreign vendors.20

To put class back into the story where it belongs, we have to imagine a very different kind of landscape. Not a land of equal opportunity, but a much less appealing terrain where death and harsh labor conditions awaited most migrants. A firmly entrenched British ideology justified rigid class stations with no promise of social mobility. Certainly, Puritan religious faith did not displace class hierarchy either; the early generations of New Englanders did nothing to diminish, let alone condemn, the routine reliance on servants or slaves. Land was the principal source of wealth, and those without any had little chance to escape servitude. It was the stigma of landlessness that would leave its mark on white trash from this day forward.

So, welcome to America as it was. The year 1776 is a false starting point for any consideration of American conditions. Independence did not magically erase the British class system, nor did it root out long-entrenched beliefs about poverty and the willful exploitation of human labor. An unfavored population, widely thought of as waste or “rubbish,” remained disposable indeed well into modern times.

Part I



    Taking Out the Trash

Waste People in the New World

Colonies ought to be Emunctories or Sinkes of States; to drayne away the filth.

—John White, The Planters Plea (1630)