White Trash | Nancy Isenberg

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


Dive into the untold history of class in America spanning over 400 years with Nancy Isenberg’s ‘White Trash’. Discover how the early beginnings of America served as a dumping ground for England’s poor and the formation of a class-based society. Explore how the Puritan doctrine in New England established a stiff social hierarchy, the ways in which the founding fathers tried to deal with social inequalities and the challenges faced by pioneers in the 19th century. Also, delve into the shifting social structures in the North and South, eugenics’ role in masking classism and racism, and the emergence of ‘white trash’ culture as a major American phenomenon.

America’s Class-Based Society

America’s history of class inequality and social hierarchy began during its early years as a British colony. The English used North America as a dumping ground for the poor and outcasts of society, setting the stage for a class system that became entrenched in the development of the country. The tobacco-driven economy of Virginia and the religiously stratified culture of New England both perpetuated and intensified social inequalities. Gender inequality was also rife, with women seen as key to the expansion of the economy and the population. Inter-class marriage was discouraged to maintain the purity of the upper class. These early years of American history set the foundation for the class-based society that would reach its peak during the nation’s formative years of independence.

The Classism of America’s Founding Fathers

The United States’ founding fathers were not immune to the classism of their time. Despite their progressive ideas, their visions for a better American society were flawed. Benjamin Franklin believed in an equal society, but his view of social stratification favored the elites. Thomas Jefferson also professed to be egalitarian, but his background as a member of the Virginian elite hindered his understanding of the struggles of the lower classes. His attempts at reform were also insufficient. Jefferson thought that success was due to genetics rather than social conditions and predicted that a class of talented people would eventually rise to the top. The founding fathers were children of their times, and their classist ideas reflected the realities of early American societies.

The Emergence of the American Spirit

In the early 19th century, poor Americans who migrated westward didn’t prosper. Squatting on land illegally, they lived self-sufficiently without essential infrastructure. These squatter backwoodsmen were considered vulgar and dangerous by the middle and upper classes. But eventually, they became admired figures in American society as natural philosophers and free spirits who shunned wealth and fame. Their honesty and hard work embodied the American love of adventure and formed the foundations of the American spirit. Andrew Jackson and Congressman “Davy” Crockett were both highly controversial and wildly popular in their “squatter identities.”

The North-South Divide

The book examines the social structures of the North and South leading up to the American Civil War. The South’s foundation was built on slavery, while the North valued a free society. The Confederacy defended the practice of slavery and argued that the poor whites in the South were evidence of their natural superiority. However, poor white Southerners faced appalling working conditions and struggled to find work due to the presence of slave labor. In contrast, Northern leaders encouraged their soldiers to embrace their lower class position, inspiring their egalitarian mission and keeping morale high.

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