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

He pictured paupers, vagabonds, convicts, debtors, and lusty young men without employment doing all such work. The “fry [young children] of wandering beggars that grow up idly and hurtfully and burdenous to the Realm, might be unladen and better bred up.” Merchants would be sent to trade with the Indians, selling trinkets, venting cloth goods, and gathering more information about the interior of the continent. Artisans were needed: millwrights to process the timber; carpenters, brick makers, and plasterers to build the settlement; cooks, launderers, bakers, tailors, and cobblers to service the infant colony.11

Where would these workers come from? The artisans, he felt, could be spared without weakening the English economy. But the bulk of the labor force was to come from the swelling numbers of poor and homeless. They were, in Hakluyt’s disturbing allusion, “ready to eat up one another,” already cannibalizing the British economy. Idle and unused, they were waiting to be transplanted to the American land to be better (albeit no more humanely) put to use.12

This view of poverty was widely shared. One persistent project, first promoted in 1580 but never realized, involved raising a fleet of hundred-ton fishing vessels comprising ten thousand men, half of whom were to be impoverished vagrants. The galley labor scheme was designed to beat the famously industrious Dutch at the fishing trade.13 Leading mathematician and geographer John Dee was another who imagined a maritime solution to poverty. In 1577, as the British navy expanded, he proposed converting the poor into sailors. Others wished for the indigent to be swept from the streets, one way or another, whether gathered up as forced laborers building highways and fortifications or herded into prisons and workhouses. London’s Bridewell Prison was chartered in 1553, the first institution of its kind to propose reformation of vagrants. By the 1570s, more houses of corrections had opened their doors. Their founders offered to train the children of the poor to be “brought up in labor and work,” so they would not follow in the footsteps of their parents and become “idle rogues.”14

In this sense, what Hakluyt foresaw in a colonized America was one giant workhouse. This cannot be emphasized enough. As the “waste firm of America” was settled, it would become a place where the surplus poor, the waste people of England, could be converted into economic assets. The land and the poor could be harvested together, to add to—rather than continue to subtract from—the nation’s wealth. Among the first waves of workers were the convicts, who would be employed at heavy labor, felling trees and burning them for pitch, tar, and soap ash; others would dig in the mines for gold, silver, iron, and copper. The convicts were not paid wages. As debt slaves, they were obliged to repay the English commonwealth for their crimes by producing commodities for export. In return, they would be kept from a life of crime, avoiding, in Hakluyt’s words, being “miserably hanged,” or packed into prisons to “pitifully pine away” and die.15

As he saw it, the larger reward would be reaped in the next generation. By importing raw goods from the New World and exporting cloth and other commodities in return, the poor at home would find work so that “not one poor creature” would feel impelled “to steal, to starve, and beg as they do.” They would prosper along with the growth of colonial trade. The children of “wandering beggars,” having been “kept from idleness, and made able by their own honest and easy labor,” would grow up responsibly, “without surcharging others.” Children who escaped pauperism, no longer burdens on the state, might reenter the workforce as honest laborers. The poor fry sent overseas would now be “better bred up,” making the lot of the English people better off, and the working poor more industrious. It all sounded perfectly logical and realizable.16

Seeing the indigent as wastrels, as the dregs of society, was certainly nothing new. The English had waged a war against the poor, especially vagrants and vagabonds, for generations. A series of laws in the fourteenth century led to a concerted campaign to root out this wretched “mother of all vice.” By the sixteenth century, harsh laws and punishments were fixed in place. Public stocks were built in towns for runaway servants, along with whipping posts and cages variously placed around London. Hot branding irons and ear boring identified this underclass and set them apart as a criminal contingent. An act of 1547 allowed for vagrants to be branded with a V on their breasts and enslaved. While this unusual piece of legislation appears never to have been put into practice, it was nonetheless a natural outgrowth of the widespread vilification of the poor.17

By 1584, when Hakluyt drafted his “Discourse of Western Planting,” the poor were routinely being condemned as “thriftless” and “idle,” a diseased and dangerously mobile, unattached people, everywhere running “to and fro over all the realm.” Compared to swarms of insects, labeled as an “over-flowing multitude,” they were imagined in language as an effluvial current, polluting and taxing England’s economic health.18

Slums enveloped London. As one observer remarked in 1608, the heavy concentrations of poor created a subterranean colony of dirty and disfigured “monsters” living in “caves.” They were accused of breeding rapidly and infecting the city with a “plague” of poverty, thus figuratively designating unemployment a contagious disease. Distant American colonies were presented as a cure. The poor could be purged. In 1622, the famous poet and clergyman John Donne wrote of Virginia in this fashion, describing the new colony as the nation’s spleen and liver, draining the “ill humours of the body . . . to breed good bloud.” Others used less delicate imagery. American colonies were “emunctories,” excreting human waste from the body politic. The elder Richard Hakluyt unabashedly called the transportable poor the “offals of our people.”19

The poor were human waste. Refuse. The sturdy poor, those without physical injuries, elicited outrage over their idleness. But how could vagabonds, who on average migrated some twenty to eighty miles in a month, be called idle? William Harrison, in his popular Description of England (1577), offered an explanation. Idleness was wasted energy. The vagabonds’ constant movement led nowhere. In moving around, they failed (like the Indians) to put down healthy roots and join the settled labor force of servants, tenants, and artisans. Harrison thought of idleness in the same way we might today refer to the idling motor of a car: the motor runs in place; the idle poor were trapped in economic stasis. Waste people, like wastelands, were stagnant; their energy produced nothing of value; they were like festering weeds ruining an idle garden.20

Wasteland, then, was an eyesore, or what the English called a “sinke hole.” Waste people were analogized to weeds or sickly cattle grazing on a dunghill. But unlike the docile herd, which were carefully bred and contained in fenced enclosures, the poor could become disruptive and disorderly; they occasionally rioted. The cream of society could not be shielded from the public nuisance of the poor, in that they seemed omnipresent at funerals, church services, on highways and byways, in alehouses, and they loitered around Parliament—even at the king’s court. James I was so annoyed with vagrant boys milling around his palace at Newmarket that he wrote the London-based Virginia Company in 1619 asking for its help in removing the offensive population from his sight by shipping them overseas.21