Common Whites

Common Whites: Class and Culture in Antebellum North Carolina

Bill Cecil-Fronsman
Copyright Date: 1992
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130hxmg
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    Common Whites
    Book Description:

    Class and culture in Antebellum North Carolina have been largely forgotten. In the past few years, several important studies have examined common whites in individual counties or groups of counties, but they have focused on family life, the economy, or other specific features of the common-white life. Common Whites: Class and Culture in Antebellum North Carolinais the first comprehensive examination of these nonslaveholders and small slaveholders in over forty years.

    Using North Carolina as a case in point, Bill Cecil-Fronsman has sketched a broad portrait of the world made by this group. Drawing on travelers' accounts, newspapers, folksongs and folktales, quantitative analysis of census reports, and, above all, the common whites' own words, he has woven the individual threads of their culture into an in-depth analysis of their world and their responses to it.

    This work focuses on the issues of class and culture. Here, Cecil-Fronsman explores why the common whites accepted the slave system even though it worked to their disadvantage. He demonstrates how the market economy of the outside world played a negligible role in their lives and how their unique traditional attitudes toward family and community evolved. Finally, he recounts how, although most common whites supported the Confederate cause during the Civil War, many of the old loyalties broke down during the war years.

    The common whites, though they outnumbered the slaves and the elites, make up the least studied group in the Old South. This book takes us beyond the stereotypes and misconceptions to a better understanding of a group of people virtually ignored by traditional history.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6239-3
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-8)

    THIS IS A STUDY of common whites in antebellum North Carolina. It is an attempt to reconstruct the world in which they lived and to understand the way they saw it. It seeks to answer the question that Hinton Helper, their self-proclaimed spokesman, himself a North Carolina common white, posed 135 years ago.

    The slippery term “common white” defines an equally slippery concept. The first chapter will examine the concept more thoroughly; for the present it may be read as a label for white nonslaveholders and small slaveholders who saw themselves as nonelite. The term is used in preference to...

  5. 1 THE COMMON WHITES IN THEIR SOCIAL CONTEXT
    (pp. 9-30)

    BY ANY MEANINGFUL criterion, Luther Thomas and his family were poor whites. In 1850 the census taker found them in southern Chatham County. Luther was a thirty-year-old laborer with no real property. He and his twenty-seven-year-old wife, Elizabeth, were both illiterate. They had four children. Mary was nine, Rebecca seven, James five, and Janet two. The parents reported that the two older girls had attended school that year, though not the two younger children. Ten years later they were in neighboring Harnet County, but the move had hardly improved their position in life. Luther listed his age as forty-six, sixteen...

  6. 2 AN EGALITARIAN CULTURE IN AN UNEQUAL WORLD
    (pp. 31-66)

    MARY ANN CAMPBELL had received no satisfaction from the court system. In 1843 this Robeson County native lost a law suit over an undefined issue, asked the judge for a new trial, and became angry when he dragged his feet. She turned for help to John Campbell, probably her father. The two of them then complained to the grand jury of the Superior Court, but they received no redress. Finally, on December 29 of that year, Mr. Campbell took pen in hand and told their story to the governor “because I believed you to be one of the gardians of...

  7. 3 RACE RELATIONS
    (pp. 67-96)

    IN JULY OF 1840 the intensity of the election campaign, like the scorching weather, was heating up. The Democratic party hit upon the idea of portraying the Whig presidential candidate, William Henry Harrison, as a threat to white solidarity. A bill the General had once favored would have allowed courts to hire out criminals. This, according to a Democratic pamphlet, left the door open for free blacks to hire whites!

    How would you feel to see one of your respectable and good neighbor men sold at auction by the sheriff of your county as a slave, under this Harrison law,...

  8. 4 FOLK ECONOMY/FOLK CULTURE
    (pp. 97-132)

    DURING THE 1930s a Federal Writers Project interviewer came upon one Mrs. Foster Ricks. She had been born around 1890 in the western mountains of Henderson County and was married in 1907. She spoke both about her own life and the lives of her husband’s parents, who, she reported, lived a life that seemed exceedingly primitive:

    But on their first farm his folks simply had to dig a livin’ from their land by the most ol’ timey ways, sort o’ followed the Indian’s ways. They used wooden plows an’ what few other farmin’ tools they had was just as old...

  9. 5 FAMILIES AND COMMUNITIES
    (pp. 133-168)

    “AN ATROCIOUS OUTRAGE!” That was what theHillsboro Recorderlabeled the murder in southern Orange County on a Friday in the summer of 1823. The perpetrator was one Westley Rhodes,

    who for some time has indulged himself in the habits of intemperance and abuse to his wife, on that evening gave loose to his passions and beat, and beat her in a most cruel manner. She escaped from him, and fled to her father’s house which was but a short distance from her own. Her mother, irritated by the abuse her daughter had received, went to Rhode’s [sic] residence, and...

  10. 6 DISORDER, THE NEW ORDER, AND THE GOOD ORDER
    (pp. 169-202)

    THE TENSION WAS becoming unbearable. It was the Randolph County camp meeting of August 1823, and as Brantley York recalled, “the load of sin was heavy.” He struggled mightily with his desire to go to the altar and make his confession. Many had urged that he go, but he had refused. He left the congregation and sought “some secret place for prayer and meditation.” There “The Tempter” visited his mind and tried to convince him that his quest was futile: “the time was when you might have obtained religion, but it is now too late—you are reprobate.” He returned...

  11. EPILOGUE: THE CIVIL WAR EXPERIENCE
    (pp. 203-218)

    BY THE WINTER of 1863 a bad situation had gotten a good deal worse. A group of men and women from Bladen County, calling themselves “Regulators,” penned an anonymous letter to the new governor of the state, Zebulon Baird Vance. In it they declared that it was time that “we the common people has to hav bread or blood.” Their grievances were extensive. Several of the group had attempted to buy corn but could not because “the slave oner has the plantations & the hands to rais the brad stufs & the comon people is drove of in the ware to fight...

  12. ESSAYS ON SOURCES
    (pp. 219-228)
  13. METHODOLOGICAL NOTES
    (pp. 229-231)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 232-262)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 263-274)