The enduring symbol of the ‘Rich man’s war and the poor man’s fight.’
Lately, I’ve been reading White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg, professor of American History at LSU. White Trash is a cultural or social history and the most entertaining form of history. Isenberg relies on books, letters, diaries, and photos, as well as film stills in modern times to tell her version of American history.
Although I am a quantitative historian, I was exposed to both social and cultural history in my formal study of history. And, with three degrees in sociology and a career spent using sociological techniques for analytical purposes, I was long exposed to “the sociological perspective.” The truth is, I love this stuff.
Thus, Isenberg doesn’t share much I haven’t read before in various formats. However, she did uncover some ‘new to me’ historical facts, and she writes well. I was so intrigued with this book that in between medical appointments, I read it in four days, after reading Carlos Lozada’s review in last Sunday’s Washington Post.
When I finished, I promptly ordered Fallen Founder, by Isenberg, the story of Aaron Burr.
Isenberg’s thesis is the United States does have a class system. At the bottom is the underclass, the focus of her book. We pay so much attention to “race” most of us fail to see that many more non-Hispanic white people have “fallen through the cracks,” than people of color (this is a statistical fact, and one Huey Long, George Wallace and Donald Trump understand).
The truth is, most people born into the underclass live wasted lives. A few break out, like Billy Clinton, who managed to become president of the US, or Elvis Presley. Most don’t. The vast majority became cannon fodder in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
For many years, the American colonies were a dumping ground for England. (Working on my family tree, I uncovered numerous indentured servants.) During the Revolution, George Washington’s colonial infantry was largely composed of the ‘unpropertied’ (like my ancestors who were “paid” with tracts of land in the “wilderness”).
This “popular” history was obscured until revisionist historians began writing, following WWII, when government programs began to provide higher education to the masses. Until then, what we read in history classes was the Whig version of history and the flowery but meaningless words like “equality and justice for all” of “The Founders.”
During the Civil War, the US government drafted poor farm hands, like my ancestors from New England, as well as migrants arriving in NYC on British ships, to become cannon fodder at Cold Harbor and in other battles.
Most of the people who migrated to America in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries truly were the “refuse of foreign shores.” Many like my mom’s Dutch ancestors fled the potato famine in northern Europe (the potato eaters weren’t all Irish).
The really sad thing is sometimes we Americans forget who we are. Building walls to keep out the “riffraff” is un-American, yet, according to Isenberg, since the Reagan years, we the people have largely failed to take care of our own downtrodden.
n.b. Yesterday, was the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme where a million English doughboys died in WWI.