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Masterless Men
Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South


Award Winner

Part of Cambridge Studies on the American South

  • Date Published: May 2017
  • availability: Available
  • format: Hardback
  • isbn: 9781107184244

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About the Authors
  • Analyzing land policy, labor, and legal history, Keri Leigh Merritt reveals what happens to excess workers when a capitalist system is predicated on slave labor. With the rising global demand for cotton - and thus, slaves - in the 1840s and 1850s, the need for white laborers in the American South was drastically reduced, creating a large underclass who were unemployed or underemployed. These poor whites could not compete - for jobs or living wages - with profitable slave labor. Though impoverished whites were never subjected to the daily violence and degrading humiliations of racial slavery, they did suffer tangible socio-economic consequences as a result of living in a slave society. Merritt examines how these 'masterless' men and women threatened the existing Southern hierarchy and ultimately helped push Southern slaveholders toward secession and civil war.

    • Proposes a new view of social relations in the Old South
    • Includes underprivileged whites within socio-economic analysis
    • Returns class analysis to the field
    Read more


    • Winner, 2018 Bennett H. Wall Award, Southern Historical Association

    Reviews & endorsements

    'In Masterless Men, Keri Leigh Merritt offers a sweeping analysis of how we should understand the place of poor whites in the larger narrative of the Old South. Her detailed examination of the Deep South's impoverished white class will deepen our understanding about the human and economic costs of America's system of black slavery.' Charles Bolton, University of North Carolina, Greensboro

    'Merritt moves class front and center as she documents the brutal, unfair realities of life for poor whites struggling to survive in a society structured against them. Her work holds tremendous implications for our understanding of social relations, the economy, politics, and the law in the Old South.' Jeff Forret, author of Race Relations at the Margins: Slaves and Poor Whites in the Antebellum Southern Countryside

    'Keri Leigh Merritt reveals the parallel roots of white poverty and slavery in the antebellum South. With precision and conviction, she demonstrates that landlessness, low wages, and illiteracy, accompanied by legal and extra-legal harassment by the state, were not mere by-products of slavery, but the result of policies that enriched slaveholders while muting dissent by poor whites.' Victoria Bynum, Texas State University, San Marcos

    'Eloquently argued, Merritt's work will be of interest to economic, social, and legal historians as its attention to poor whites' place in southern society provides a more complete understanding of the history of the 19th-century South. Essential.' T. K. Byron, Choice

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    Product details

    • Date Published: May 2017
    • format: Hardback
    • isbn: 9781107184244
    • length: 370 pages
    • dimensions: 235 x 160 x 26 mm
    • weight: 0.66kg
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    Introduction: the second degree of slavery
    1. The Southern origins of the Homestead Act
    2. The demoralization of labor
    3. Masterless (and militant) white workers
    4. Everyday life: material realities
    5. Literacy, education, and disfranchisement
    6. Vagrancy, alcohol, and crime
    7. Poverty and punishment
    8. Race, Republicans, and vigilante violence
    9. Class crisis and the Civil War
    Conclusion: a duel emancipation
    Appendix: numbers, percentages, and the census.

  • Author

    Keri Leigh Merritt
    Keri Leigh Merritt is an independent scholar in Atlanta, Georgia. Merritt's work on poverty and inequality has garnered multiple awards, and she is a co-editor of a volume on American South labor history.


    • Winner, 2018 Bennett H. Wall Award, Southern Historical Association
    • Co-winner, 2018 President's Book Award, Social Science History Association

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