Strains between the North and South reached critical mass in the mid-19th Century, provoked by the election of the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln. A mere month later, on December 20th, 1860, the South Carolina legislature reacted by voting to secede from the Union. By Spring, 1861, the Confederate States of America solidified, and in April cannons fired upon a Union fort in Charleston Harbor, triggering fraternal war.
How in the world did the slave-holding planter class persuade the mass of their social inferiors, those they most held in contempt, to fight and die for this so-called “glorious cause?”
The answer is rather simple, and lamentable. People from the lower rungs aspired to rise in this tightly prescribed Southern caste system. Planters set the standard of ideal gentility, and few were permitted entry. A small middle class of land holding farmers and city merchants, aimed to climb as well; complete with acquiring their own slaves, and exert influence over others. Beneath this merchant-landholding tier massed the broadest class of poor whites, those who precariously scratched out some kind of desperate existence from what was left.
Widespread contempt for this hardscrabble class was evident by pejoratives that are still around today. Belittling terms like crackers, trash, and later hillbillies, and rednecks linger on in our lexicon.
Back in that era, the incentive for most meant land ownership, with it a higher social standing, and ownership of a few slaves to call their own.
Generally speaking, the Old South distrusted the outside world; foreigners, Yankees, Catholics, Jews, immigrants, suffragettes, or anyone who might upset the strict sectional code. The consequences for the region were profound. While the world moved forward, innovated, and modernized, southern society remained stuck, ruled by fossilized reactionaries, who were quick to defend the status quo.
Outside moral judgement over this antiquated society galvanized most in the South. Outraged and insulted, the wealthy roused the lower classes to defend their system and interests, despite any real prospect of upward mobility, nor any mixing of social rank.
Dear modern GOPers, wherever you may reside, party leadership does not wish to serve you. Candidates want your money and your vote to serve themselves. They are happy to scapegoat whatever minority, or public institution, you wish. (Not to mention piling it on the poor for good measure). But you serve them, this dynamic is designed to move upward, delivering cash and power to the top.
In short, you’ve been played by your chosen betters.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available on Kindle.