Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Ph.D. in History

First Advisor

April Holm

Second Advisor

Anne Twitty

Third Advisor

Paul Polgar


University of Mississippi

Relational Format



The so-called “poor whites” of the antebellum South have often been overlooked by historians due to their perceived insignificance to the political and cultural development of the South. However, within the context of the sectional debate over slavery, poor whites represented a disturbing presence for elite southerners who sought to defend slavery on the basis of white supremacy, a political platform built on the promise of universal white superiority. In order to defend the slave labor system from northern promises of white supremacy under free labor and to justify widespread southern white poverty, the architects of the antebellum southern cultural ideal marginalized poor whites and depicted them as inferior creatures who did not deserve the privileges of southern white supremacy. This dissertation argues that this discourse about poor whites played a significant role in the development of southern social and political culture, and stood at the nexus of central issues that contributed to crises that led to the Civil War. Proslavery elites feared poor whites due to their frequent interactions with enslaved black laborers that exacerbated southern fears of violent insurrection. The presence of poor whites caused tension with efforts to modernize slavery and adapt it to modern industries. And, most importantly, they appeared to be potential political allies to antislavery northerners. The problem that poor whites posed to efforts to adapt slavery to the modern world resulted in the further radicalization of proslavery ideology and the emergence of anti-democratic ideas within the politics of slavery. These provided increased impetus for the southern slave owning elite to seek secession from the United States in order to protect the institution of slavery.



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