Ideas | Jack Curtis

How class shaped America

A squatter colony at the edge of Lancaster, Pa., in 1936.
A squatter colony at the edge of Lancaster, Pa., in 1936. Hine Lewis/US National Archives

Today’s pundits and politicians talk a good game about restrengthening the middle class. But wait, didn’t we avoid the burdens of class when we threw off the mother country?

Early in her book “White Trash: The 400-Year History of Class in America,” Nancy Isenberg laments that popular American history has seldom referenced the existence of social classes for as long as our country is old. Isenberg sets out to demystify Americans’ closely held faith in a class-free society, to do away with the mythology where the landless and impoverished are marginalized in the national narrative. Her goal is to break free of the “gnawing contradictions still present in modern American society.”

Those contradictions are clearly playing out in this year’s presidential cycle as the United States sees a new wave of populism rising with the candidacy of Donald Trump. Isenberg argues that understanding how class influenced American history and culture has lessons for today’s politicians. “We like equality in the abstract, but it doesn’t apply in our daily lives,” she says. “To achieve equality, you can’t hide behind rhetoric.”

Ideas talked with Isenberg by phone from her home in Charlottesville, Va. Below is an edited excerpt.


IDEAS: Your book places class identity at the center of our society. Why has the notion of a class-free past been able to persist so long?

ISENBERG: Americans often prefer myths over reality. The myth that has been reinvented with each generation is the idea that America is an exceptional society, that we promise the American dream, which comes through class mobility. These ideas go back all the way to the founding of America. The problem is that we erase the influence of British colonization and the fact we adopted the British ideas about class and poverty and use them to this day to blame the poor for being idle and lazy.

Rather than provide the promise of class mobility, America’s early architects, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, promised horizontal mobility. They look to the vast continent as a place where the poor could migrate. Often America has promised not so much class security as migration.


Franklin thought that if the poor could migrate into the continent, they’d change the class structure. But that’s not what happened. The truth is the land was never open; it was never free. The poor were expendable. When the real middle class and the commercialized farmers arrive, the poorest farmers were forced to move.

IDEAS: When and how does the term “white trash” arise?

ISENBERG: It goes back to before Colonial period, to the British term “waste people.” It first appears in print in 1821 and gains widespread popularity in the 1850s. These people are surplus population; they’re already exiled from normal society. By 1850, “white trash” becomes an even greater insult because now they’re viewed as a diseased breed. And it’s hopeless to try to save them.

IDEAS: The British “waste people” were the dregs of society that the British exported to the American Colonies.

ISENBERG: Rather than viewing the New World as the City upon a Hill, the British saw it as a foul, weedy wilderness, a wasteland that was not a productive part of the economy. They imagined that the best thing that could be done was to dump the idle poor and convicts — “the waste people” — into this “sinke hole.” This would help Great Britain thin out its poor and lessen economic competition. That’s really the dark side.

IDEAS: But you also shed new light on two key promoters “of the land of the free,” Franklin and Jefferson.


ISENBERG: Franklin subscribed to a very utilitarian view of human behavior. He believed the overriding impulse of humans was to seek pleasure or avoid pain. Human behavior was comparable to animal behavior. For example, he studied pigeons and observed that an overcrowded cage meant that the weak would have to be pushed out in order for the group to survive.

Jefferson was obsessed with breeding. He developed an elaborate system of how the class order would be created through marriage and breeding. We don’t need an inherited aristocracy; we will create a natural aristocracy.

Jefferson accepted that there would always be the poor because in Virginia at the time of the revolution, 40 percent of the white men did not own land. When promoting state-supported education, he stated a few promising young men from poor families could be racked from the “rubbish.” He puts on blinders to ways society is structured by class because he wants to look into the future and imagine that there’s the possibility for America to be different.

Today, we have the rhetoric by Bernie Sanders attacking the 1 percent. The 1 percent are a problem. But that’s not the only place that class power exists. Class is an identity people acquire through socialization. We also measure people in terms of their education, dress, and speech. Land as well as breeding, pedigree, and lineage are the key measures of status.


IDEAS: As the ragged squatter replaces Jefferson’s sturdy yeoman, new Americanisms emerge, notably “crackers” and “squatters.” Who are they? How did their presence affect American politics?

ISENBERG: When talking about the frontier, people often use the word “pioneer,” but it’s important to grasp the powerful meanings of “squatter” and “cracker.” Squatter refers to people squatting down on land they didn’t own. They were perceived as dangerous. They had no “standing” in the British sense of civic identity.

Through the 20th century and into the 21st, people still use that word “cracker” as a slur to attack poor whites. It comes from the word “crack brain,” meaning in British slang “idle headed.” We must understand why these words were used.

When many Americans migrate to the frontier, a form of populism identified with Andrew Jackson and Davy Crockett, who himself had been a squatter, takes root. Politicians embrace the language of supporting the poor squatter or cracker in order to woo them.

IDEAS: Why is Andrew Jackson the political heir of squatters and crackers?

ISENBERG: Jackson was the first president elected with very little political experience and the first president from the back country. He was poorly educated. His vulgar language and behavior associated him with the common people.

His physical attributes — not his mind, not his experience — were what mattered. Class identity wasn’t just about wealth, education, and manners, it was how you appear. Jackson’s image was manipulated to appeal to a broader electorate. And they willingly voted for Ol’ Hickory because he symbolized the back country.


IDEAS: What are the drawbacks of a democracy that’s “all performance”?

ISENBERG: We have a democracy of manners (an idea I got from an Australian writer). We accept huge disparities in wealth while expecting our leaders to cultivate the appearance of not being different. We see this over and over. Even in the early 20th century, Southern politicians such as Jeff Davis of Arkansas in front of a crowd would tear his collar and tie off, stripping off the dress of class privilege. The best current example of this is politicians campaigning in Iowa, wearing plaid shirts and eating corn dogs.

It’s a politics of stagecraft. Just because I look like you, I somehow understand you. There’s no guarantee that you’re going to support any policy that will alleviate class inequality or extend political rights. Americans accept that as a viable form of democracy. That’s a serious, recurring problem in our politics.

IDEAS: What happens at the intersection of class and race?

ISENBERG: Very early, the slave system is seen in competition with the free labor system. By the 1850s, Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party asserts not only is slavery wrong because it’s oppressive, it’s also wrong because it corrupts poor whites and denies them the chance to achieve economic independence.

Not surprisingly, Southern politicians, particularly at the end of the 19th century, early 20th, pitted the interests of freed blacks against poor whites. Demagogues like Mississippi’s James Vardaman incited poor white racism and supported lynching.

Today, people don’t want to talk about class. They would rather talk about race. But we have to realize that race and class have always been combined. They’re not separate entities.

IDEAS: Indeed, the eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th century treated some poor whites as inhumanely as African-Americans at the time.

ISENBERG: Eugenics builds on the reliance on pedigree and breeding. Prominent people like President Theodore Roosevelt were eugenicists. This was not some crackpot minority. It was widely embraced. By 1931, 27 states have sterilization laws on their books.

The eugenicists most often targeted poor white women for sterilization because they believed that group was worthless and couldn’t be salvaged. Charles Davenport, the leading eugenicist, proposed quarantining them like diseased cattle. But these women were needed in the labor pool. If they were sterilized, like a dog, they’d no longer be dangerous. The eugenicists viewed poor whites as the defective breed that would undermine the racial superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race.

IDEAS: On the other hand, poor whites benefited from the rehabilitative projects of the New Deal.

ISENBERG: The New Deal brings with it the first sympathetic, conscious attempt to understand and help the poor. Suddenly you had 20 percent of the populace out of work, which forces people to stop saying that people are lazy. Troubled times also stimulated people to think about class in more sophisticated ways.

For example, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which dramatically restructured the Southern economy, built dams, controlled floods and pollution, and created communities that offered varied employment, training, and education. It was a successful experiment in class desegregation.

IDEAS: Why do we need to put class back into the story?

ISENBERG: We need a larger discussion about class power that just doesn’t say it’s about the 1 percent. Or it doesn’t simply attack Trump as the president of white trash. It has to go deeper into what can we do politically, in terms of policy, to provide a real safety net and actually help social mobility and create that fair playing field that we believe in so deeply.

Jack Curtis, a Brookline-based writer and editor, can be reached at jack.curtis1789@gmail.com.