Strains between North and South had reached critical mass by November, 1860. Escalating tensions burst with the election of America’s first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. The South Carolina legislature reacted by voting their state out of the Union on December 20th, a mere month later. By Spring 1861, the Confederate States of America consolidated, and on April 9th cannons fired upon a Union fort in Charleston Harbor. So began a bloody fraternal war.
A longstanding question is how in the world did Planters, a small slice of the southern population, convince a mass of their social inferiors to risk life and limb, defending their aristocracy? The answer is rather simple, and lamentable. Folks from the lower rungs lived by the social rules fixed by the wealthy elite. The Planter Class established the rituals of polite society, and every white man below the Mason-Dixon hoped to someday to join their ranks (acquiring land and slaves).
The lower classes defended a minority they ached to join.
A small middle class of land holding farmers, and city professionals, also labored to reach the same social summit. In other words, acquiring the trappings of wealth, punched one’s ticket to ride.
Beneath this merchant-landholding tier massed poor whites. These desperate souls were left to precariously scratch out some kind existence as itinerant tenants. Contempt for this hardscrabble class is still evident through pejoratives that are still in use. Belittling terms like crackers, trash, hillbillies, and rednecks linger on in our lexicon.
The Old South, in general, also distrusted the outside world. Foreigners, Yankees, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants, meaning anyone who might challenge rigorous, aristocratic formalities. The consequences for this delicate arrangement were profound. As the North industrialized, innovated, and modernized, Southern society languished, governed by reactionaries, more interested in public manners and bloodlines.
Outraged and insulted by Yankee ways, the wealthy roused the lower classes to defend Southern traditions, while in reality, barring any real opportunity of upward mobility.
This dynamic remains modern American politics. The GOP, in our time, is requiring the same fidelity. Party leadership honestly does not wish to serve you. All candidates want is your money and your vote to protect their interests, (especially the guy at the top). These characters are happy to rile voters through exhibitionism, and scapegoating whatever grievance you wish, especially piling it on minorities, the poor and the dispossessed.
But remember this, the traffic is one way only, and you are serve them, not the other way around. Keep delivering cash and power to the top, and nothing changes.
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.