White Trash: The 400-Year History of Class in America


Spring Hill College

Presented by Nancy Isenberg, Ph.D. The 35th Annual Portier Lecture: “White Trash: The 400-Year History of Class in America” Thursday, October 29, at 7:30​, at Byrne Memorial Hall Spring Hill College – Mobile, Alabama Nancy Isenberg is the T. Harry Williams Professor of History at Louisiana State University. She is the author of Madison and Jefferson, 2010, with Andrew Burstein; Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, 2007; and Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America, 1998. The Portier Lecture is the annual history lecture, named in honor of Bishop Michael Portier, the first bishop of Mobile, who founded Spring Hill College in 1830. This event was sponsored by the Spring Hill College Department of History. This video was produced in association with the Department of Communication Arts. Produced by J.L. Stevens II


White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016)

Nancy Isenberg


America’s Strange Breed

Two persistent problems have rumbled through our “democratic” past. One we can trace back to Franklin and Jefferson and their longing to dismiss class by touting “exceptional” features of the American landscape, which are deemed productive of an exceptional society. The founders insisted that the majestic continent would magically solve the demographic dilemma by reducing overpopulation and flattening out the class structure. In addition to this environmental solution, a larger, extremely useful myth arose: that America gave a voice to all of its people, that every citizen could exercise genuine influence over the government. (We should note that this myth was always qualified, because it was accepted that some citizens were more worthy than others—especially those whose stake in society came from property ownership.)

The British colonial imprint was never really erased either. The “yeoman” was a British class, reflecting the well-established English practice of equating moral worth to cultivation of the soil. For their part, nineteenth-century Americans did everything possible to replicate class station through marriage, kinship, pedigree, and lineage.

While the Confederacy was the high mark—the most overt manifestation—of rural aristocratic pretense (and an open embrace of society’s need to have an elite ruling over the lower classes), the next century ushered in the disturbing imperative of eugenics, availing itself of science to justify breeding a master class. Thus not only did Americans not abandon their desire for class distinctions, they repeatedly reinvented class distinctions. Once the government of the United States began portraying itself as “leader of the free world,” the longing for a more regal head of state was advanced. The Democrats swooned over Kennedy’s Camelot, and Republicans ennobled the Hollywood court of Reagan.

American democracy has never accorded all the people a meaningful voice. The masses have been given symbols instead, and they are often empty symbols. Nation-states traditionally rely on the fiction that a head of state can represent the body of the people and stand in as their proxy; in the American version, the president must appeal broadly to shared values that mask the existence of deep class divisions. Even when this strategy works, though, unity comes at the price of perpetuating ideological deception. George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt were called fathers of the country, and are now treated as the kindly patriarchs of yore; Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt descend to us as brash, tough-talking warriors. Cowboy symbols stand tall in the saddle and defend the national honor against an evil empire, as Reagan did so effectively; more recently, the American people were witness to a president dressed in a pilot jumpsuit who for dramatic effect landed on an aircraft carrier. That, of course, was George W. Bush, as he prematurely proclaimed an end to combat operations in Iraq. Left out of our collective memory, meanwhile, are corporate puppet presidents such as William McKinley, who was in the pocket of Big Steel and a host of manufacturing interests. When presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 responded to a heckler with the line, “Corporations are people, my friend,” he inadvertently became the new McKinley. The “1 percent” were his constituency, and wearing blue jeans did little to loosen his buttoned-up image.

Power (whether social, economic, or merely symbolic) is rarely probed. Or if it is, it never becomes so urgent a national imperative as to require an across-the-board resolution, simultaneously satisfying a moral imperative and pursuing a practical cause. We know, for instance, that Americans have forcefully resisted extending the right to vote; those in power have disenfranchised blacks, women, and the poor in myriad ways. We know, too, that women historically have had fewer civil protections than corporations.

Instead of a thoroughgoing democracy, Americans have settled for democratic stagecraft: high-sounding rhetoric, magnified, and political leaders dressing down at barbecues or heading out to hunt game. They are seen wearing blue jeans, camouflage, cowboy hats, and Bubba caps, all in an effort to come across as ordinary people. But presidents and other national politicians are anything but ordinary people after they are elected. Disguising that fact is the real camouflage that distorts the actual class nature of state power.

The theatrical performances of politicians who profess to speak for an “American people” do nothing to highlight the history of poverty. The tenant farmer with his mule and plow is not a romantic image to retain in historic memory. But that individual is as much our history as any war that was fought and any election that was hotly contested. The tenant and his shack should remain with us as an enduring symbol of social stasis.

The underclass exists even when they don’t rise to the level of making trouble, fomenting rebellions, joining in riots, or fleeing the ranks of the Confederacy and hiding out in swamps, where they create an underground economy. Those who do not disappear into the wilderness are present in towns and cities and along paved and unpaved roads in every state. Seeing the poor, whether it is in the photographs of a Walker Evans or a Dorothea Lange, or in comical form on “reality TV,” we have to wonder how such people exist amid plenty.

As she cast her eyes upon southern trailer trash in the middle of World War II, the Washington Post columnist Agnes Meyer asked,

“Is this America?”

Yes, it is America. It is an essential part of American history. So too is the backlash that occurs when attempts are made to improve the conditions of the poor. Whether it is New Deal polices or LBJ’s welfare programs or Obama-era health care reform, along with any effort to address inequality and poverty comes a harsh and seemingly inevitable reaction. Angry citizens lash out: they perceive government bending over backward to help the poor (implied or stated: undeserving) and they accuse bureaucrats of wasteful spending that steals from hardworking men and women. This was Nixon’s class-inflected appeal, which his campaign staff packaged for the “Silent Majority.” In the larger scheme of things, the modern complaint against state intervention echoes the old English fear of social leveling, which was said to encourage the unproductive. In its later incarnation, government assistance is said to undermine the American dream. Wait. Undermine whose American dream?

Class defines how real people live. They don’t live the myth. They don’t live the dream. Politics is always about more than what is stated, or what looms before the eye. Even when it’s denied, politicians engage in class issues. The Civil War was a struggle to shore up both a racial and a class hierarchy. The Confederacy was afraid that poor whites would be drawn in by Union appeals and would vote to end slavery—because slavery was principally a reflection of the wealthy planters’ self-interest.

Today as well we have a large unbalanced electorate that is regularly convinced to vote against its collective self-interest. These people are told that East Coast college professors brainwash the young and that Hollywood liberals make fun of them and have nothing in common with them and hate America and wish to impose an abhorrent, godless lifestyle. The deceivers offer essentially the same fear-laden message that the majority of southern whites heard when secession was being weighed. Moved by the need for control, for an unchallenged top tier, the power elite in American history has thrived by placating the vulnerable and creating for them a false sense of identification—denying real class differences wherever possible.

The dangers inherent in that deception are many. The relative few who escape their lower-class roots are held up as models, as though everyone at the bottom has the same chance of succeeding through cleverness and hard work, through scrimping and saving. Can Franklin’s “nest egg” produce Franklin the self-made man? Hardly. Franklin himself needed patrons to rise in his colonial world, and the same rules of social networking persist. Personal connections, favoritism, and trading on class-based knowledge still grease the wheels that power social mobility in today’s professional and business worlds.

If this book accomplishes anything it will be to have exposed a number of myths about the American dream, to have disabused readers of the notion that upward mobility is a function of the founders’ ingenious plan, or that Jacksonian democracy was liberating, or that the Confederacy was about states’ rights rather than preserving class and racial distinctions. Sometimes, all it took was a name: before becoming known as a Reconstruction-era southern white who identified with black uplift or Republican reforms, the scalawag was defined as an inferior breed of cattle.

The scalawag of today is the southern liberal who is painted by conservative ideologues as a traitor to the South for daring to say that poor whites and poor blacks possess similar economic interests.

And that is how we return to the language of breeding, so well understood in an agrarian age, so metaphorically resonant in the preindustrial economy in which restrictive social relations hardened.

If the republic was supposedly dedicated to equality, how did the language of breeds appeal as it did?

To speak of breeds was to justify unequal status among white people; it was the best way to divide people into categories and deny that class privilege exists.

If you are categorized as a breed, it means you can’t control who you are and you can’t avert your appointed destiny.


The erstwhile experts in this socially prescriptive field of study interpolated from the science and widespread practices of animal husbandry. The mongrel inherited its (or his or her) parent’s incapacities, they said, just as towheaded children with yellowish skin were produced through living on bad soil and inbreeding. In these ways, negative traits were passed on.

Scrubland produced a rascally herd of cattle—or people. Breeding determined who rose and who fell. The analogy between human and animal stock was ever present. As Jefferson wrote in 1787,

“The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?”

Under a related form of logic, Manifest Destiny became a desirable means to open land routes and squeeze bad breeds out of the country, presumably through Mexico. In 1860, Daniel Hundley imagined that poor white trash would magically march right out of the United States.

The old English idea of colonization required that the poor had to be dumped somewhere. The population had to be drained, strained, or purged. The very same thinking fed social Darwinism and eugenics: if tainted women bred with regular people, they would undermine the quality of future stock. Either nature would weed out inferior stock or a human hand would have to intervene and engage in Galton’s notion of controlled breeding, sterilizing the curs and morons among the lowest ranks.

It was just as easy to ignore inequality by claiming that certain breeds could never be improved. As W. E. B. Du Bois explained in 1909, southern politicians were lost in the vacuity of illogic. They had fallen to arguing that any form of social intervention was pointless, because man could not repel nature’s force; some races and classes were invariably stuck with their inferior mental and physical endowments. The South’s claim to be protecting the public good by endorsing the existing regime that rewarded the already privileged was inherently antidemocratic. Blaming nature for intractable breeds was just a way to rationalize indifference.

While President Reagan loved to invoke the image of the “City upon a Hill,” his critics were quick to point out that membership in that shining city was restricted, as much in the twentieth century as it had been in the seventeenth.

Under Reaganomics, tax rates for the moneyed class were drastically cut. Governor Mario Cuomo of New York related the problem in memorable fashion as keynote speaker at the 1984 Democratic National Convention:

“President Reagan told us from the beginning that he believed in a kind of Social Darwinism, survival of the fittest . . . [that] we should settle for taking care of the strong, and hope that economic ambition and charity will do the rest. Make the rich richer, and what falls from the table will be enough for the middle class and those who are trying desperately to work their way into the middle class.”

Cuomo’s stark language echoed Du Bois, his anti-Darwinian inflection a reminder of the mind-set that justified dividing stronger from weaker breeds. It wasn’t enough to preserve the status quo; inequality could be expanded, the gap widened between classes, without incident and without tearing the social fabric.

In 2009, the 1 percent paid 5.2 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while the poorest 20 percent paid 10.9 percent. States penalized the poor with impunity.1

Class has never been about income or financial worth alone. It has been fashioned in physical—and yes, bodily—terms. Dirty feet and tallow faces remain signs of delinquency and depravity. To live in a shack, a “hovel,” a “shebang,” or in Shedtown or in a trailer park, is to live in a place that never acquires the name of “home.” As transitional spaces, unsettled spaces, they contain occupants who lack the civic markers of stability, productivity, economic value, and human worth.

Job opportunities for all—the myth of full employment—is just that, a myth.

The economy cannot provide employment for everyone, a fact that is little acknowledged. In the sixteenth century, the English had their “reserve army of the poor” who were drummed into the military. Modern America’s reserve army of the poor are drummed into the worst jobs, the worst-paid positions, and provide the labor force that works in coal mines, cleans toilets and barn stalls, picks and plucks in fields as migrant laborers, or slaughters animals.

Waste people remain the “mudsills” who fill out the bottom layer of the labor pool on which society’s wealth rests. Poor whites are still taught to hate—but not to hate those who are keeping them in line.

Lyndon Johnson knew this when he quipped,

“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

We are a country that imagines itself as democratic, and yet the majority has never cared much for equality. Because that’s not how breeding works. Heirs, pedigree, lineage: a pseudo-aristocracy of wealth still finds a way to assert its social power. We see how inherited wealth grants status without any guarantee of merit or talent.

To wit: would we know of Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Jesse Jackson Jr., or such Hollywood names as Charlie Sheen and Paris Hilton, except for the fact that these, and many others like them, had powerful, influential parents?

Even some men of recognized competence in national politics are products of nepotism: Albert Gore Jr., Rand Paul, Andrew Cuomo, and numerous Kennedys. We give children of the famous a big head start, deferring to them as rightful heirs, a modern-day version of the Puritans’ children of the Elect.

In Thomas Jefferson’s formulation, nature assigned classes. Nature demanded a natural aristocracy—what he termed an “accidental aristoi.” The spark of lust would direct the strong to breed with the strong, the “good and wise” to marry for beauty, health, virtue, and talents—traits that would be bred forward. One significant difference between Jefferson’s master class and the eugenicists of the early twentieth century was the former’s singular focus on the male making his selection, and the latter’s urging the middle-class woman to carefully inspect the pedigree of the man she hoped to marry.

Marriage has always been connected to class status: today’s online dating services are premised on the eugenic notion that a person can find the perfect match—a match presumed to be based on shared class and educational interests. In 2014–15, a series of television commercials for eHarmony.com was sending the same message: that no “normal” middle-class applicant has to be stuck with a tawdry (i.e., lower-class) loser.

And as the historian Jill Lepore has pointed out in the New Yorker, the entrepreneurial Dr. Paul Popenoe began his career as a leading authority on eugenics, before moving on to marriage counseling, and eventually launching computer dating in 1956. Some dating services have been quite blatant: the website Good Genes promised to help “Ivy Leaguers” find potential spouses with “matching credentials,” by which was meant a similar class pedigree.2

The rule of nature was supposed to supplant artificial aristocracy with meritocracy. At the same time, though, it allowed people to associate human failures with different strains and inferior breeds, and to assign a certain inevitability to such failure. If, in this long-acceptable way of thinking, nature ruled, nature also needed a gardener. The human scrub grass had to be weeded from time to time.

That is why squatters were used as the first wave of settlers to encroach on Indian lands, then were chased off the land when the upscale farmers arrived; in time, policing boundaries extended to segregation laws, and after that to zoning laws, separating the wheat from the chaff in the creation of modern suburbia. Class walls went up in the way property values were modulated in carefully planned towns and neighborhoods.

It was easy for nineteenth-century Americans to equate animals and humans. Stallions were like elite planters, and naturally given the best pastures; the weak tackies, like white trash, lazed about the marshlands. While it is not discussed very often, our society still measures human worth by the value of the land people occupy and own. The urban ghettos, no less than the trailer parks on devalued land on the city’s edges, are modern representations of William Byrd’s Dismal Swamp: an unsafe, uncivilized wasteland that is allowed to fester and remain unproductive.

Location is everything. Location determines access to a privileged school, a safe neighborhood, infrastructural improvements, the best hospitals, the best grocery stores. Upper- and middle-class parents instruct their children in surviving their particular class environment. They give them the appropriate material resources toward this end. But let us devote more thought to what Henry Wallace wrote in 1936:

what would happen, he posed, if one hundred thousand poor children and one hundred thousand rich children were all given the same food, clothing, education, care, and protection? Class lines would likely disappear. This was the only conceivable way to eliminate class, he said—and what he didn’t say was that this would require removing children from their homes and raising them in a neutral, equitable environment. A dangerous idea indeed!

We have always relied—and still do—on bloodlines to maintain and pass on a class advantage to our children. Statistical measurement has shown convincingly that the best predictor of success is the class status of one’s forebears. Ironically, given the American Revolutionaries’ hatred for Old World aristocracies, Americans transfer wealth today in the fashion of those older societies, while modern European nations provide considerably more social services to their populations.

On average, Americans pass on 50 percent of their wealth to their children; in Nordic countries, social mobility is much higher; parents in Denmark give 15 percent of their total wealth to their children, and in Sweden parents give 27 percent. Class wealth and privileges are a more important inheritance (as a measure of potential) than actual genetic traits.3

Lest we relegate discredited ideas to the age in which they flourished, we can admit that eugenic thinking is not quite dead either. The poor can starve “a little,” says Charlotte Hays, and there are surely others who feel the same way. The innocuous-sounding term “fertility treatment” enables the wealthy to breed their own kind, buying sperm and eggs at “baby centers” around the country.

Abortion and birth control, meanwhile, are for evangelical conservatives a violation of God’s will that all people should be fruitful and multiply, and yet this same fear of unnatural methods of reproduction does not engender opposition to fertility clinics. Antiabortion activists, like eugenicists, think that the state has the right to intervene in the breeding habits of poor single women.

Poor women lost state-funded abortions during the Carter years, and today they are proscribed from using welfare funds to buy disposable diapers. To modern conservatives, women are first and foremost breeders. This was tellingly displayed during the Republican primary debates in 2012, when candidates boasted about the size of their families, each trying to outdo the last, as the camera panned across the podium. The Republicans were mimicking the pride of the winners of the “fitter family” contests held at county fairs in the early twentieth century. A reporter joked that Jon Huntsman’s and Mitt Romney’s children should breed, “creating a super-race of astonishingly beautiful Mormons.”

There remains in America a cultural desire to breed one’s “own kind.” As with the nepotistic practices that continue in a variety of fields, class is reproduced in ways that are not dissimilar to the past.4

Some things never change. More than one generation has deluded itself by buying into the notion of an American dream. A singular faith exists today that is known and embraced as American exceptionalism, but it dates back centuries to the projections made and policies put in place when the island nation of Great Britain began to settle the American continent. It was Richard Hakluyt’s fantastic literature that graduated to a broader colonial drive for continental domination. The same ideology fueled the theories of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. (Meanwhile, London economist William Petty’s idea of political arithmetic gave force to a long fascination with demographic growth.) Teddy Roosevelt had a dream, too, of rewarding parents with large families, encouraging eugenically sound marriages, and recognizing the American as the healthiest member of the Anglo-Saxon family.

This brings us to the slavery/free labor corollary. It was James Oglethorpe in Georgia who first put into practice a sensitive and sensible idea: allowing slavery to thrive would retard economic opportunity and undermine social mobility for average white men and their families. In this way, racial dominance was intertwined with class dominance in the southern states, and the two could never be separated as long as a white ruling elite held sway over politics and rigged the economic system to benefit the few.

We now know, of course, that slavery and repression of Afro-American talent was tragically wrong. So why do we continue to ignore the pathological character of class-centered power relations as part of the American republic’s political inheritance? If the American dream were real, upward mobility would be far more in evidence.

• •

Let’s get it right, then.

Because there was never a free market in land, the past saw as much downward as upward mobility. Historically, Americans have confused social mobility with physical mobility. The class system tracked across the land with the so-called pioneering set. We need to acknowledge that fact. Generally, it was the all-powerful speculators who controlled the distribution of good land to the wealthy and forced the poor squatter off his land. Without a visible hand, markets did not at any time, and do not now, magically pave the way for the most talented to be rewarded; the well-connected were and are preferentially treated.

Liberty is a revolving door, which explains the reality of downward mobility. The door ushers some in while it escorts others out into the cold. It certainly allows for, even encourages, exploitation. Through a process of rationalization, people have long tended to blame failure on the personal flaws of individuals—this has been the convenient refrain of Republicans in Congress in the second decade of the twenty-first century, when former Speaker of the House John Boehner publicly equated joblessness with personal laziness. Another former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, captured headlines at the end of 2011 when he seemed ready to endorse Jefferson’s Revolutionary-era solution to poverty by making schools into workhouses. Gingrich:

“You have a very poor neighborhood. You have students that are required to go to school. They have no money, no habit of work. . . . What if they became assistant janitors, and their job was to mop the floor and clean the bathroom?”

It was only in the midst of the Great Depression that the country fully appreciated the meaning of downward mobility. At that time, when a quarter of the nation was thrown out of work, the old standby of blaming the individual no longer convinced anyone.5

For the most part, daily injustices in average people’s lives go ignored. But that does not mean that poor people are numb to the condition of their own lives. Politicians have been willfully blind to many social problems. Pretending that America has grown rich as a largely classless society is bad history, to say the least.

The “1 percent” is the most recently adopted shorthand for moneyed monopoly, bringing attention to the ills generated by consolidated power, but the phenomenon it describes is not new.

Class separation is and has always been at the center of our political debates, despite every attempt to hide social reality with deceptive rhetoric. The white poor have been with us in various guises, as the names they have been given across centuries attest:

Waste people.












Briar hoppers.



White niggers.


White trash.


Trailer trash.

Swamp people.

They are blamed for living on bad land, as though they had other choices. From the beginning, they have existed in the minds of rural or urban elites and the middle class as extrusions of the weedy, unproductive soil.

They are depicted as slothful, rootless vagrants, physically scarred by their poverty. The worst ate clay and turned yellow, wallowed in mud and muck, and their necks became burned by the hot sun. Their poorly clothed, poorly fed children generated what others believed to be a permanent and defective breed.


That comes from cramped quarters in obscure retreats, distant from civilization, where the moral vocabulary that dwells in town has been lost. We think of the left-behind groups as extinct, and the present as a time of advanced thought and sensibility. But today’s trailer trash are merely yesterday’s vagrants on wheels, an updated version of Okies in jalopies and Florida crackers in their carts.

They are renamed often, but they do not disappear. Our very identity as a nation, no matter what we tell ourselves, is intimately tied up with the dispossessed. We are, then, not only preoccupied with race, as we know we are, but with good and bad breeds as well. It is for good reason that we have this preoccupation: by calling America not just “a” land of opportunity but “the” land of opportunity, we collectively have made a promise to posterity that there will always exist the real potential of self-propulsion upward.

Those who fail to rise in America are a crucial part of who we are as a civilization. A cruel irony is to be found in the aftermath of the Hollywood film Deliverance, a gruesome adventure that exploited the worst stereotypes of white trash and ignored the poverty that existed in the part of the country where the movie was made. One actor stands out who was not a trained actor at all: Billy Redden. He played the iconic inbred character who sat strumming the banjo. He was fifteen when he was plucked from a local Rabun County, Georgia, school by the filmmakers because of his odd look (enhanced with makeup). He didn’t play the banjo, so a musician fingered from behind, and the cameraman did the rest. Interviewed in 2012 to mark the fortieth anniversary of the film, Billy said he wasn’t paid much for his role. Otherwise, the fifty-six-year-old said, “I wouldn’t be working at Wal-Mart right now. And I’m struggling really hard to make ends meet.”6

The discomfort middle-class Americans feel when forced to acknowledge the existence of poverty highlights the disconnect between image and reality. It seems clear that we have made little progress since James Agee exposed the world of poor sharecroppers in 1941. We still today are blind to the “cruel radiance of what is.” The static rural experience is augmented by the persistence of class-inflected tropes and the voyeuristic shock in televised portraits of degenerate beings and wasted lives in the richest country that has ever existed. And what of Billy Redden? In 1972, a country boy was made up to fit a stereotype of the retarded hillbilly, the idiot savant. Today his mundane struggle to survive can satisfy no one’s expectations, because his story is ordinary. He is neither eccentric nor perverse. Nor does he don a scraggly beard, wear a bandana, or hunt gators. He is simply one of the hundreds of thousands of faceless employees who work at a Wal-Mart.

White trash is a central, if disturbing, thread in our national narrative. The very existence of such people—both in their visibility and invisibility—is proof that American society obsesses over the mutable labels we give to the neighbors we wish not to notice. “They are not who we are.” But they are who we are and have been a fundamental part of our history, whether we like it or not.

[Emphasis added]


The Forgotten Slaves: Whites in Servitude in Early America and Industrial Britain

“When I was a boy, ‘recalled Waters McIntosh, who had been a slave in Sumter, South Carolina, ‘we used to sing, ‘Rather be a nigger than a poor White Man,’ Even in slavery we used to sing that.’ Mr. McIntosh’s remarks reveal…that the poor whites of the South ranked below blacks in social standing…slaves felt unbridled contempt for lower‑class whites…Frederick Douglas opened his famous Life and Times with an account of Talbot County, Maryland, which he said housed a ‘White population of the lowest order…

Throughout the South the slaves of many of the larger planters lived in a society of blacks and well‑to‑do Whites and were encouraged to view even respectable laboring Whites with disdain…Ella Kelly, who had been a slave in South Carolina…You know, boss, dese days dere is three kind of people. Lowest down Is a Layer of White Folks, then in de middle is a layer of colored folks, and on top is de cream, a layer of good White folks…

The Forgotten Slaves: Whites in Servitude in Early America and Industrial Britain

by Michael A. Hoffman II ©Copyright 1999. All Rights Reserved

Two years ago, Prime Minister Paul Keating of Australia refused to show “proper respect” to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II during her state visit. In response, Terry Dicks, a Conservative member of the British Parliament said, “It’s a country of ex-convicts, so we should not be surprised by the rudeness of their prime minister.”

A slur such as this would be considered unthinkable if it were uttered against any other class or race of people except the descendants of White slavery. Dicks’ remark is not only offensive, it is ignorant and false. Most of Australia’s “convicts” were shipped into servitude for such “crimes” as stealing seven yards of lace, cutting trees on an aristocrat’s estate or poaching sheep to feed a starving family.

The arrogant disregard for the holocaust visited upon the poor and working class Whites of Britain by the aristocracy continues in our time because the history of that epoch has been almost completely extirpated from our collective memory.

When White servitude is acknowledged as having existed in America, it is almost always termed as temporary “indentured servitude” or part of the convict trade, which, after the Revolution of 1776, centered on Australia instead of America. The “convicts” transported to America under the 1723 Waltham Act, perhaps numbered 100,000.

The indentured servants who served a tidy little period of 4 to 7 years polishing the master’s silver and china and then taking their place in colonial high society, were a minuscule fraction of the great unsung hundreds of thousands of White slaves who were worked to death in this country from the early l7th century onward.

Up to one-half of all the arrivals in the American colonies were Whites slaves and they were America’s first slaves. These Whites were slaves for life, long before Blacks ever were. This slavery was even hereditary. White children born to White slaves were enslaved too.

Whites were auctioned on the block with children sold and separated from their parents and wives sold and separated from their husbands. Free Black property owners strutted the streets of northern and southern American cities while White slaves were worked to death in the sugar mills of Barbados and Jamaica and the plantations of Virginia.

The Establishment has created the misnomer of “indentured servitude” to explain away and minimize the fact of White slavery. But bound Whites in early America called themselves slaves. Nine-tenths of the White slavery in America was conducted without indentures of any kind but according to the so-called “custom of the country,” as it was known, which was lifetime slavery administered by the White slave merchants themselves.

In George Sandys laws for Virginia, Whites were enslaved “forever.” The service of Whites bound to Berkeley’s Hundred was deemed “perpetual.” These accounts have been policed out of the much touted “standard reference works” such as Abbott Emerson Smith’s laughable whitewash, Colonists in Bondage.

I challenge any researcher to study 17th century colonial America, sifting the documents, the jargon and the statutes on both sides of the Atlantic and one will discover that White slavery was a far more extensive operation than Black enslavement. It is when we come to the 18th century that one begins to encounter more “servitude” on the basis of a contract of indenture. But even in that period there was kidnapping of Anglo-Saxons into slavery as well as convict slavery.

In 1855, Frederic Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed New York’s Central Park, was in Alabama on a pleasure trip and saw bales of cotton being thrown from a considerable height into a cargo ship’s hold. The men tossing the bales somewhat recklessly into the hold were Negroes, the men in the hold were Irish.

Olmsted inquired about this to a shipworker. “Oh,” said the worker, “the niggers are worth too much to be risked here; if the Paddies are knocked overboard or get their backs broke, nobody loses anything.”

Before British slavers traveled to Africa’s western coast to buy Black slaves from African chieftains, they sold their own White working class kindred (“the surplus poor” as they were known) from the streets and towns of England, into slavery. Tens of thousands of these White slaves were kidnapped children. In fact the very origin of the word kidnapped is kid-nabbed, the stealing of White children for enslavement.

According to the English Dictionary of the Underworld, under the heading kidnapper is the following definition: “A stealer of human beings, esp. of children; originally for exportation to the plantations of North America.”

The center of the trade in child-slaves was in the port cities of Britain and Scotland:

“Press gangs in the hire of local merchants roamed the streets, seizing ‘by force such boys as seemed proper subjects for the slave trade.’ Children were driven in flocks through the town and confined for shipment in barns…So flagrant was the practice that people in the countryside about Aberdeen avoided bringing children into the city for fear they might be stolen; and so widespread was the collusion of merchants, shippers, suppliers and even magistrates that the man who exposed it was forced to recant and run out of town.” (Van der Zee, Bound Over, p. 210).

White slaves transported to the colonies suffered a staggering loss of life in the 17th and 18th century. During the voyage to America it was customary to keep the White slaves below deck for the entire nine to twelve week journey. A White slave would be confined to a hole not more than sixteen feet long, chained with 50 other men to a board, with padlocked collars around their necks. The weeks of confinement below deck in the ship’s stifling hold often resulted in outbreaks of contagious disease which would sweep through the “cargo” of White “freight” chained in the bowels of the ship.

Ships carrying White slaves to America often lost half their slaves to death. According to historian Sharon V. Salinger, “Scattered data reveal that the mortality for [White] servants at certain times equaled that for [Black] slaves in the ‘middle passage,’ and during other periods actually exceeded the death rate for [Black] slaves.” Salinger reports a death rate of ten to twenty percent over the entire 18th century for Black slaves on board ships enroute to America compared with a death rate of 25% for White slaves enroute to America.

Foster R. Dulles writing in Labor in America: A History, states that whether convicts, children ‘spirited’ from the countryside or political prisoners, White slaves “experienced discomforts and sufferings on their voyage across the Atlantic that paralleled the cruel hardships undergone by negro slaves on the notorious Middle Passage.”

Dulles says the Whites were “indiscriminately herded aboard the ‘white guineamen,’ often as many as 300 passengers on little vessels of not more than 200 tons burden–overcrowded, unsanitary…The mortality rate was sometimes as high as 50% and young children seldom survived the horrors of a voyage which might last anywhere from seven to twelve weeks.”

Independent investigator A.B. Ellis in the Argosy writes concerning the transport of White slaves, “The human cargo, many of whom were still tormented by unhealed wounds, could not all lie down at once without lying on each other. They were never suffered to go on deck. The hatchway was constantly watched by sentinels armed with hangers and blunder busses. In the dungeons below all was darkness, stench, lamentation, disease and death.”

Marcus Jernegan describes the greed of the shipmasters which led to horrendous loss of life for White slaves transported to America:

“The voyage over often repeated the horrors of the famous ‘middle passage’ of slavery fame. An average cargo was three hundred, but the shipmaster, for greater profit, would sometimes crowd as many as six hundred into a small vessel…The mortality under such circumstances was tremendous, sometimes more than half…Mittelberger (an eyewitness) says he saw thirty-two children thrown into the ocean during one voyage.”

“The mercantile firms, as importers of (White) servants, were not too careful about their treatment, as the more important purpose of the transaction was to get ships over to South Carolina which could carry local produce back to Europe. Consequently the Irish–as well as others–suffered greatly…

“It was almost as if the British merchants had redirected their vessels from the African coast to the Irish coast, with the white servants coming over in much the same fashion as the African slaves.” (Warren B. Smith, White Servitude in Colonial South Carolina).

A study of the middle passage of White slaves was included in a Parliamentary Petition of 1659. It reported that White slaves were locked below deck for two weeks while the slaveship was still in port. Once under way, they were “all the way locked up under decks…amongst horses.” They were chained from their legs to their necks.

Those academics who insist that slavery is an exclusively Black racial condition forget or deliberately omit the fact that the word slave originally was a reference to Whites of East European origin – “Slavs.”

Moreover, in the 18th century in Britain and America, the Industrial Revolution spawned the factory system whose first laborers were miserably oppressed White children as young as six years of age. They were locked in the factories for sixteen hours a day and mangled by the primitive machinery. Hands and arms were regularly ripped to pieces. Little girls often had their hair caught in the machinery and were scalped from their foreheads to the back of their necks.

White Children wounded and crippled in the factories were turned out without compensation of any kind and left to die of their injuries. Children late to work or who fell asleep were beaten with iron bars. Lest we imagine these horrors were limited to only the early years of the Industrial Revolution, eight and ten year old White children throughout America were hard at work in miserable factories and mines as late as 1920.

Because of the rank prostitution, stupidity and cowardice of America’s teachers and educational system, White youth are taught that Black slaves, Mexican peons and Chinese coolies built this country while the vast majority of the Whites lorded it over them with a lash in one hand and a mint julep in the other.

The documentary record tells a very different story, however. When White Congressman David Wilmot authored the Wilmot Proviso to keep Black slaves out of the American West he did so, he said, to preserve that vast expanse of territory for “the sons of toil, my own race and color.”

This is precisely what most White people in America were, “sons of toil,” performing backbreaking labor such as few of us today can envision. They had no paternalistic welfare system; no Freedman’s Bureau to coo sweet platitudes to them; no army of bleeding hearts to worry over their hardships. These Whites were the expendable frontline soldiers in the expansion of the American frontier. They won the country, felled the trees, cleared and planted the land.

The wealthy, educated White elite in America are the sick heirs of what Charles Dickens in Bleak House termed “telescopic philanthropy”–the concern for the condition of distant peoples while the plight of kindred in one’s own backyard are ignored.

Today much of what we see on “Turner Television” and Pat Robertson’s misnamed “Family Channel,” are TV films depicting Blacks in chains, Blacks being whipped, Blacks oppressed. Nowhere can we find a cinematic chronicle of the Whites who were beaten and killed in White slavery. Four-fifths of the White slaves sent to Britain’s sugar colonies in the West Indies did not survive their first year.

Soldiers in the American Revolution and sailors impressed into the American navy received upwards of two hundred whiplashes for minor infractions. But no TV show lifts the shirt of this White yeoman to reveal the scars on their backs.

The Establishment would rather weep over the poor persecuted Negroes, but leave the White working class “rednecks” and “crackers” (both of these terms of derision were first applied to White slaves), to live next door to the Blacks.

Little has changed since the early 1800s when the men of property and station of the English Parliament outlawed Black slavery throughout the Empire. While this Parliament was in session to enact this law, ragged five year old White orphan boys, beaten, starved and whipped, were being forced up the chimneys of the English parliament, to clean them. Sometimes the chimney masonry collapsed on these boys. Other times they suffocated to death inside their narrow smoke channels.

Long after Blacks were free throughout the British Empire, the British House of Lords refused to abolish chimney-sweeping by White children under the age of ten. The Lords contended that to do so would interfere with “property rights.” The lives of the White children were not worth a farthing and were considered no subject for humanitarian concern.

The chronicle of White slavery in America comprises the dustiest shelf in the darkest corner of suppressed American history. Should the truth about that epoch ever emerge into the public consciousness of Americans, the whole basis for the swindle of “Affirmative action,” “minority set-asides” and proposed “Reparations to African-Americans” will be swept away. The fact is, the White working people of this country owe no one. They are themselves the descendants, as Congressman Wilmot so aptly said, of “the sons of toil.”

There will only be racial peace when knowledge of radical historical truths are widespread and both sides negotiate from positions of strength and not from fantasies of White working class guilt and the uniqueness of Black suffering.

Let it be said, in many cases Blacks in slavery had it better than poor Whites in the antebellum South. This is why there was such strong resistance to the Confederacy in the poverty-stricken areas of the mountain south, such as Winston County in Alabama and the Beech mountains of North Carolina. Those poor Whites could not imagine why any White laborer would want to die for the slave-owning plutocracy that more often than not, gave better care and attention to their Black servants than they did to the free white labor they scorned as “trash.”

To this day, the White ruling class denigrates the White poor and patronizes Blacks.

If this seems admirable from the pathological viewpoint of Marxism or cosmopolitan liberalism, the Black and Third World “beneficiaries” of White ruling class “esteem” ought to consider what sort of “friends” they actually have.

The Bible declares that the man who does not take care of his own family is “worse than an infidel.” This also applies to one’s racial kindred. The man who neglects his own children to care for yours has true love for neither.

White, self-hating liberals and greed-head conservatives who claim to care for the “civil rights” of Black and Third World people, discard the working class of their own people on the garbage heap of history. When they are finished with their own they shall surely turn on others.

Those who care for their own kind first are not practicing “hate” but kindness, which is the very root of the word.

Michael A. Hoffman II is the author of

“They Were White and They Were Slaves: The Untold History of the Enslavement of Whites in Early America and Industrial Britain”.


By Peter Gray

Published in 18th–19th – Century History, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 1993), The Famine, Volume 1

The widespread use of Punch cartoons in books and teaching materials on nineteenth century history is hardly surprising: these often striking images are a convenient visual aid for understanding a period in which photography was in its infancy. Yet the use of this graphic record in an unreflective manner is fraught with difficulties and may detract from the material’s historical usefulness. Several illustrated texts, and at least one academic account of the Great Famine of 1845-50, have been guilty of this unimaginative use of sources, and consequently can be accused of having missed the point of the illustrations. The historical significance of Punch in the later 1840s lay as much in its aspiration and ability to mould public perceptions of events, as in its satiric commentaries on those events. The paper provided no direct record of the mass sufferings of the Irish peasantry (in contrast to the Illustrated London News’ graphic depictions), but Irish affairs occupied many of its pages in the famine years. Perhaps its greatest importance to the historian is as a simultaneous shaper and expression of British public opinion – a phenomenon vital to our understanding of the Famine as a whole.

Considerable political weight

Founded in 1841, Punch sought to establish a new style of humorous journalism, more tasteful and restrained than the savage caricatures of Gillray and Cruikshank, but also more serious and campaigning than its comic rivals. From the start, it had a moralistic cutting edge, derived from its radical founders, Henry Mayhew and Douglas Jerrold. Even its more conservative contributors believed that humour should be about more than mere laughter. The novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, a regular writer from 1843 to 1854, expressed the view that humour ought:

‘to awaken and direct your love, your pity, your kindness; your scorn of untruth, pretension, imposture; your tenderness for the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the unhappy’. This was indeed the mission of the early Punch which led philanthropic assaults on sweated labour, poor law abuses, and terrible urban conditions. The paper’s radicalism was, however, distinctly middle- class in tone; while critical of Chartism, it threw itself whole-heartedly behind the free trade and financial reform movements. Already by the late 1840s, it was beginning a transition to the more complacent conservative stance it would adopt as a patriotic national institution in the mid-Victorian ‘age of equipoise’.

Punch’s political weight was considerable. Its circulation, at around 30,000, was below that of many other journals and was largely concentrated in London, but it reached many metropolitan opinion-formers who set the tone of British middle-class attitudes as expressed nationally. It was read by politicians, and several cabinet ministers commented on its pronouncements in their private diaries. Most importantly, Punch existed as part of a network of similarly- oriented journals. Its authors were keen to take their line on public affairs largely from The Times, by far the most influential newspaper of the day. Indeed one contributor, Gilbert a Beckett, was simultaneously a leader writer for both The Times and The Illustrated London News. The power of these three papers taken together was considerable – each complemented the other by focusing on a different aspect of middle-class taste. This was all the more true in a period of party flux, weak governments, and a national radical middle-class mobilisation. Punch had a history of broad sympathy for the plight of Ireland, mixed with a mocking hostility towards Daniel O’Connell and the Repeal movement. In the early stages of the famine catastrophe, O’Connell was attacked for his alleged greed in collecting the ‘Repeal rent’ from the starving poor and for misleading his ignorant followers as to their real interests.

[The Real Potato Blight of Ireland, 13 December 1845]

Attention was thus directed away from the realities of the socio-economic crisis, to what were regarded in Britain as the ludicrous and seditious political antics of the Irish. Political and moral factors were to be relentlessly harped upon in the subsequent years as the true causes of Irish distress. While ‘Hibernia’ could be treated sympathetically as a feminised abstract, and her ‘Haughty Sisters, Britannia and Caledonia’ upbraided for their self-satisfied aloofness [The Irish Cinderella, 25 April 1846], Punch regarded the Famine more as an opportunity to ‘conquer’ Ireland ‘by food and education’, than as a case for simple charity. The excessive luxuries of the rich in Britain were a target more conducive to radical (and indeed evangelical) criticism than an inadequate relief policy.

Providence and the potato

The paper mocked the antiCatholic interpretations of famine causation proposed by ultra-Protestants, but it did not rule out the hand of God. Indeed it implicitly gave credence to those providentialist views which saw the potato blight as a means of replacing ‘backward’ potatoes (and the social system their cultivation supported) with more ‘civilised’ foodstuffs. It agreed with The Times that ‘Providence, which made us and the land we till, evidently intended another subsistence’ than the potato, that ‘most precarious of crops and meanest of foods’.

Ministers agreed that the introduction of cheap imported grain would transform the Irish character. Edward Cardwell argued:

If while they diffused among [the Irish] a taste for a higher kind of food, they could also introduce amongst them habits of industry and improvement calculated to furnish them with the means of procuring that higher food, they would be effecting one of the greatest practical improvements which this country was capable of accomplishing. This policy necessitated a strict adherence to free trade in food and bound up Ireland’s fate with the repeal of the corn laws.

From autumn 1846. British governments adopted a bi-partisan policy of minimal interference in the food trade. The collapse in the price of imported Indian meal the following summer appeared to vindicate this free trade dogma but this was of little consolation to the hundreds of thousands who perished in the winter of 1846-7. The social costs of that year blunted but did not change the moralistic British critique of potato subsistence; Punch prematurely welcomed the apparent restoration of the potato to health in autumn 1847 (it failed again in 1848 and 1849) but only as a subsidiary to cheap bread. [Consolation for the Million: The Loaf and the Potato, 11September 1847]

Like Sir Charles Trevelyan, the assistant Secretary to the Treasury, Punch regarded the continuation of famine conditions in Ireland after this time as entirely due to indigenous moral and not biological failures. Ireland had been warned of the folly of potato dependence by a ‘natural’ disaster, but had perversely chosen to ignore the danger; no further responsibility could be undertaken by the ‘imperial’ government.

Irish property, Irish poverty

The relief of famine distress was bound up with ideological considerations. In the cartoon Union is Strength (17 October 1846), John Bull, the epitome of Englishness, presents his Irish ‘brother’ not only with food, but with a spade – to put him ‘in a way to earn your own living’. In the light of modern conceptions of the importance of development aid, the offer appears sensible but it must be understood in the light of the popularised versions of political economy current at the time. Thomas Campbell Foster’s analysis of the ‘Condition of the People of Ireland’, serialised by The Times in 1845-6, had stressed the essential fertility of Ireland and placed the blame for its backwardness on ignorance and a lack of enterprise. The idea that wealth could be created by industrious exertion alone (capital being merely ‘accumulated labour’) acquired considerable popularity. There was also a widespread belief, shared by some ministers, that Ireland possessed sufficient surplus in its ‘wages-fund’ to support its current population, if only this was diverted from landlord extravagance to productive use.

While Punch acknowledged that the scale of the 1846-7 crisis necessitated some assistance, and rejected the crude Malthusianism of Lord Radnor, this feeling continued to lie at the root of its perceptions. With The Times, it advocated the early introduction of a permanent extended Irish poor law, which would make Irish property support Irish poverty. This ‘very bitter pill’, strictly administered as a moral spur to self-reliance on the part of all Irish classes, proved popular in Britain.

By May 1847 Punch, was advocating total reliance on the government’s new poor law and leaving Ireland to ‘shift for herself for a year’. Two developments were cited for hardening Punch’s (and by extension, British public opinion’s) heart against Ireland. Both centred on the theme of Irish ‘ingratitude’. Within two months of ‘Union is Strength’, Punch had decided that the Irish were rejecting the proffered spade and relapsing into atavistic violence. In Height of Impudence (12 December 1846), John Bull is accosted by an Irishman begging alms to buy a ‘blunderbuss’. In contrast to the earlier cartoon, the Irishman is no longer ‘brother’, but bears the simianised features that were to become so familiar to Punch’s readers in later years. To some extent this shift reflected the views of the individual cartoonists; ‘Union is Strength’ was drawn by Richard Doyle, a Catholic and of Irish descent (although as strongly anti-Repeal as his father, John Doyle of Political Sketches fame). ‘Height of Impudence’ was by John Leech, Punch’s regular cartoonist in these years, and a man whose betes noires featured ‘Italian organ-grinders, Frenchmen and Hebrews’ as well as the Irish. The anthropological theories of ‘Celtic’ degeneracy which informed such stereotypes of ‘Paddy’ were by no means universally accepted in 1840s Britain, but were mobilised forcefully for specific purposes in Punch and The Times. This transition period between the dominance of environmentalism and racialism as the leading discourse regarding Ireland was particularly disadvantageous to the country: while brute enough to require coercion, the Irish were seen as sufficiently ‘normal’ to be expected to exhibit self-reliance, and were denied the paternalistic relief later doled out by Dublin Castle in the subsistence crises of the 1880s and 1890s. Punch came to support strict coercion of Ireland, the suppression of agrarian agitation, and the imprisonment of troublesome priests. Yet in line with its radical leanings, it expressed little sympathy for Irish landlords, who were depicted as ready to rob John Bull to line their own pockets and subsidise a lifestyle of cowardly absenteeism. The paper showed no sympathy for the developing campaign for tenant right, but – in the wake of The Times – moved towards advocating more drastic treatment of the Irish of all classes.

Mitchel as a monkey

The second development increasing British antagonism was the growing political instability of Ireland. ‘Union is Strength’ had suggested an optimistic outlook on Anglo-Irish relations, and Punch had gloated at Daniel O’Connell’s apparent renunciation of Repeal and request for greater British aid shortly before his death in 1847. In this context, the increasingly vociferous militancy of the Young Irelanders provoked outrage and a further denunciation of the Irish as a whole. Leech went the full way with the simian stereotype by portraying the movement’s most extreme leader, John Mitchel, as a monkey – at once comic and dangerously incendiary – threatening a magisterial and contemptuous British lion. [The British Lion and the Irish Monkey, 8 April 1848] In the wake of the abortive 1848 rising, Punch returned repeatedly to the theme of inveterate Irish barbarity and ingratitude. Agrarian unrest and political rebellion were rolled together (in a manner which Fintan Lalor and Mitchel would have envied had they been so in reality), and images of famine-related suffering were ignored. British policy appeared incapable of ameliorating the situation through conciliation. In Alfred the Small (16 September 1848), the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, is pictured visiting Ireland, only to find the primitive natives immersed in violence and idolatrously worshipping the totems of Repeal.

Thackeray: Hibernis Hibernior

If Punch ‘s main political thrust lay in its chief cartoon – the subject of which was decided weekly by the principal contributors – the paper was always more than its ‘big cut’. It carried numerous one-liners, squibs and articles on Irish subjects, as well as pieces of more sustained satire in verse and prose.

W.M. Thackeray was the source of the bulk of its Irish pieces in these years. His Irish Sketch Book (1843), an impressionistic but largely critical account of an Irish visit, had proved a great success in England (not least for its strident anti-Catholicism). It was on the strength of this that he emerged as Punch’s Irish expert, often under the pseudonym ‘Hibernis Hibernior’, In ‘Mr Punch for Repeal’ (26 February 1848) Thackeray declared that he had made a personal contribution of £5 to the British Association relief fund in early 1847, but as reasons for giving no more, went on to cite the support of certain Catholic clerics for the tenant movement (which Thackeray interpreted as a murderous conspiracy), and John O’Connell’s criticism of the British state and press for failing to come to terms with the continuation of the famine. This clearly echoed the mood of British public opinion, for a second charitable appeal in October 1847 had proved an unpopular flop and no further substantial sums were raised. Thackeray also took up the cry for ‘Repeal’ in an ironic sense, as a means of protecting England from further Irish mendicancy. These themes were reiterated in the ‘Letters to a nobleman visiting Ireland’ (2 and 9 September 1848), in which Lord John Russell was upbraided for his previous political connections with the O’Connells, and Irish poverty was attributed to Irish wrong-headedness.

Manipulating British public opinion

Punch regularly criticised Russell for having no Irish policy, but also staunchly opposed government expenditure in Ireland. In the wake of the financial crisis of autumn 1847, British industry and commerce underwent a period of depression: middle-class radicals responded by crusading against taxation and landlord privileges. The general election of 1847 gave a group of about 85 radicals, led by Cobden, Bright and Hume, the parliamentary balance of power. Both Russell and Lord Lieutenant Clarendon were aware of the vital need for increased relief, development and emigration assistance spending in Ireland but they failed to make headway, faced with ideological hostility from the advocates of ‘natural causes’ within the government and strenuous resistance from the commons.

Punch expressed glee when Russell was forced to withdraw a proposed increase in the British income tax in his 1848 budget, and then outrage at every concession extracted to meet the extensive distress of the west of Ireland in 1848-9. Every loan to the ungrateful Irish, however small, was denounced as an additional burden on England’s respectable poor. [The English Labourer’s Burden, 24 February 1849] It was indicative of just how deeply divided the Whig-liberal cabinet was that such irresponsible press statements were welcomed and encouraged by some ministers. From late 1846 Charles Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer, sought to undermine relief expenditure by stimulating a British backlash against the ‘monstrous machine’ of public works. He, Trevelyan and Colonial Secretary Lord Grey had close connections with Delane of The Times and exploited these for political ends.

By autumn 1848, a broad swathe of British opinion was convinced that mass starvation was inevitable in Ireland, and should not be prevented. The diarist Charles Greville noted that the prevailing sense in London was ‘disgust … at the state of Ireland and the incurable madness of the people’. The press had done much to create this perception. The Prime Minister was obliged to admit that it was less the ‘crude Trevelyanism’ of his subordinates than feelings lying ‘deep in the breasts of the British people’ that had made substantive intervention impossible.

[‘Biped livestock’]

As if exhausted or secretly embarrassed by its sustained hostility during a period of acute suffering and mass mortality, Punch sought for signs of hope in 1849. Two events were highlighted. The ‘new plantation’ scheme proposed by elder statesman Sir Robert Peel was warmly welcomed. Peel suggested a commission with sweeping powers over the west of

Ireland that would pave the way for ‘new proprietors who shall take possession of the land of Ireland, freed from its present encumbrances, and enter into its cultivation with adequate capital, with new feelings, and inspired by new hopes’. Richard Doyle pictured Peel as ‘The New St Patrick’, driving the reptiles of ‘destitution’, ‘mortgages’ (depicted by a Jewish stereotype) and ‘famine’ out of Ireland. Leech welcomed Peel’s ‘panacea’ of ‘the sale of encumbered estates’ as the cure to Russell’s ‘dreadful Irish toothache’. The idea of a British economic ‘colonisation’, reclaiming the bogs of Connacht for civilisation, appealed strongly to the paper, and a mass removal of the ‘biped livestock’ by clearance and emigration was welcomed.

[A Parallel between Peel and Caesar, 28 April 1849]

Yet, like The Times, its support was primarily for ‘free trade in land’ rather than full-scale government intervention. Peel had advocated relaxation of the poor law and increased state investment, but moralist opinion remained adamantly opposed. The second event was the Queen’s visit to Ireland in August 1849. The unifying mystique of the monarchy was sufficient for Punch to restore the image of a poor but welcoming ‘Hibernia’, and to transform the threatening ‘Paddy’ into the comically harmless ‘Sir Patrick Raleigh’.

[Landing of Queen Victoria in Ireland, August 1849]

Punch put its faith in the royal visit as the most efficacious mode of anglicising the country and its people, imagining an Ireland of the future built on the suppression of its past: Let Erin look forward with faith sublime, Forgetting the days that are over; And allow the stream of a brighter time In oblivion the past to cover. [Ireland – a Dream of the Future, Sept. 1849]

This was wishful thinking, and the flood of private and corporate investment expected in the wake of the Queen’s visit failed to materialise. Plans by the City of London corporation to purchase large tracts of Connacht also fell through.


Punch’s vision of Irish prosperity arising simply from self-exertion – ‘new’ proprietors were primarily to provide entrepreneurial values rather than cash – proved illusory. Yet such was the depth of early Victorian liberal optimism that it refused to abandon the image of creating plenty through the application of industry to peat. [The New Irish Still, August 1849J The idea would be ludicrous, were it not for the fact that this illusion, and the moralistic outrage directed against the Irish when it was not realised, underlay the response not only of Punch, but of the dominant strand of British public opinion, to the Great Famine. The specific political circumstances of the later 1840s entailed that this opinion played a considerable part in limiting the options available to a weak and deeply divided government. The present debate amongst historians over whether and where moral responsibility for the famine can be attributed would be illuminated if such aspects were sufficiently taken into account. Too detailed an analysis can perhaps detract from the wit and humour of nineteenth-century cartoons and comic writing. Yet these were not merely intended as amusing frivolities. They had real political significance and should be treated as historical documents. We should beware of too hastily passing judgement on the people of the past but surely the performance of Punch can be evaluated in the light of its own critique of O’Connell in 1845: A joke is a joke, and nothing can be more pleasing … in its proper place – but not always. You wouldn’t cut capers over a dead body, or be particularly boisterous and facetious in a chapel or a sick-room; and I think, of late … you have been allowing your humour to get the better of you on occasions almost as solemn. For, isn’t Hunger sacred? Isn’t Starvation solemn? When applied to Ireland, the answer appeared to be that it was not.

Peter Gray tutors in Irish history at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Further reading:

Perry Curtis, Apes and Angels: the Irishman in Victorian Caricature

(London 1971).

and A. Briggs (eds.), Cap and Bell: Punch’s Chronicle of English History in the Making 1841-1861 (London 1972).

M.H. Spielmann, The History of Punch (London 1895).

Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-9 (London 1962).


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