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Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History: Electronic Edition.

Johnson, Guion Griffis, 1900- 1989


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           WHEN General Jeremiah Slade of Martin County visited Raleigh in 1819, he found the State capital bristling with class feeling, distasteful to a man of "republican simplicity." He strolled up and down "the principal streets without appearing to notice any of the puffed little great men of the city, being resolved to observe as little ceremony towards them as they are usually in the habit of shewing to all strangers." The General called upon the deputy clerk of the federal court and "was ushered into his office with all the hauteur of a French exciseman, and treated with every mark of supercillious pride and haughty arrogance and finally dismissed with contempt." 1

           More than forty years later, a citizen of Raleigh, "no link in the golden chain of aristocracy nor a member of the popular so-called uppertendom," declared that the city had always been "unjustly assailed and abused for the manner in which many of its citizens have adhered to these distinctions." He wrote in the Greensboro Times of November 17, 1860: "It is true that the different castes and distinctions of society exist here as indeed they do in all cities and as they do more especially, perhaps, in all capitals. . . . The law of caste is a law of nature . . . in all ages of the world, we find that, the rich man, whether he has become so through his own industry and management or inherited his wealth from others, has had at least more artificial respect and deference paid him than . . . those who, though they may have been equally meritorious, were nevertheless poor. . . . Raleigh, after all, is no more aristocratic than most other towns and cities,

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in which doubtless a similar aristocracy and its similar modus operandi prevail."

           Class distinction, which had existed as a feature of colonial society, underwent many modifications during the ante-bellum period. New fortunes were made and lost. Fine distinctions in the social niceties became more pronounced, but a strong current toward democracy took definite political shape and won victory after victory for the common people.


           Society in North Carolina continued to be predominantly rural. Agriculture, the chief occupation of the inhabitants in colonial days, continued to engage the greatest numbers throughout the ante-bellum period. Out of 235,532 persons listed by the United States Census Office in 1840 as engaged in occupations, 217,095 were employed in agriculture. 2

In 1810 cotton had not become a staple commodity in the State. Hog raising and the planting of corn were occupations common to all sections and so continued throughout the period. By the thirties, the State had taken on the general economic routine which was to characterize it during the remainder of the period. 3 Cotton had become a relatively prosperous crop and was grown in many sections. It was a major crop, however, in only two areas: the one in the eastern part of the State including Edgecombe, Bertie, Pitt, Martin, and Lenoir counties and the other in the southwest including Mecklenburg, Iredell, Union, Anson, and Richmond counties. Tobacco, which had been a leading staple of the coastal plain, was now confined to the tier of piedmont counties along the Virginia border. In the long-leaf pine region of Eastern Carolina lay the turpentine belt; 4 and near the coast, especially in New Hanover and Brunswick counties, rice was a staple crop. In the northeast, a region of large plantations, wheat and corn were the staples; in the piedmont, south of the tobacco belt, where farms were small, food crops were largely grown; in the mountainous counties, also a region of small farms, grain and livestock were the principal products.

           Although there were instances of large accumulations of land and slaves, the holdings in most counties were small. In 1790

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almost a fourth, or 23 per cent, of the tax payers in Orange County, at that time including also a large part of Alamance and Durham counties, owned no land, and the average farm contained 352 acres. Two men in the county, however, owned plantations of more than 5,000 acres. 5 In 1810 John Washington of Kinston wrote of Lenoir County, "Though there are some wealthy men in this county, they are not numerous, they being generally of that happy medium. . . ." 6 About the same time a resident of Moore, a county of small farmers, wrote, ". . . we have Surely more below than above Mediocrity"; while Dr. Jeremiah Battle of Edgecombe, giving a table to point out the small-farm economy of the county, wrote, "There are no overgrown 'estates' here & there are comparatively very few oppressed with poverty." 7

           In 1837 the Fayetteville Observer, while lamenting the "sad reverses in the pecuniary state of the country . . . both North and South of us," exulted that "the great mass of our population is composed of people who cultivate their own soil, owe no debt, and live within their means. It is true we have no overgrown fortunes, but it is also true, that we have few beggars." 8

The last decade of the period showed a marked increase in the number who worked their own soil. The average size of farms decreased from 369 acres to 316 acres and the number of farms in 1860 increased 18,240 over the number in 1850. The size of farms in 1860 is shown in the following table:



Acres Number of farms Per Cent of total
3 and under 10 2,050 3.0
10 and under 20 4,879 7.3
20 and under 50 20,882 31.1
50 and under 100 18,496 27.6
100 and under 500 19,220 28.7
500 and under 1,000 1,184 1.8
1,000 and over 311 .5
Total 67,022 100.0

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Sixty-nine per cent of the farms contained less than a hundred acres, while only 2.3 per cent contained more than five hundred acres. It is a significant fact that only 311 plantations in the entire State contained more than a thousand acres, while 2,050 farms contained less than ten acres and 25,761 contained less than fifty acres.

           In 1810 the price of land varied from five cents an acre in unfavorable locations to thirty dollars for rich land along the river banks, while the average price was between three and four dollars an acre. 10

In 1818 the Legislature fixed the price of the State lands at ten cents an acre and held it there despite various attempts to reduce the price to five cents. In 1858 a legislator wanted to divide all the State lands into 100-acre farms and distribute them as gifts among the tenant farmers. 11

           The average price of land at the assessment value varied from $2.69 in 1815 to $4.41 in 1859, dropping as low as $2.27 in 1833. 12

The average value as given in the census of 1850 was $3.23 per acre and in 1860 it had arisen to $6.03. The cash value of the average size farm in 1860 was, therefore, a little less than two thousand dollars. 13

           Slaveholding followed the same general trend as landholding. The following table shows the size of slaveholdings in 1790, 1850, and 1860:


SLAVEHOLDINGS IN 1790, 1850, AND 1860 14

Number of Slaves Number of Owners
Number of Owners
Number of Owners
1 slave 4,040 1,204 6,440
2 and under 5 4,959 9,668 9,631
5 and under 10 3,375 8,129 8,449
10 and under 20 1,788 5,898 6,073
20 and under 50 701 2,828 3,321
50 and under 100 90 485 611
100 and under 200 11 76 118
200 and under 300 2 12 11
300 and under 500 0 3 4
Total 14,966 28,303 34,658

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           The foregoing table shows a gradual increase in slaveholding in each group, but the relative position of the groups is shown better by the percentage of distribution of slaveholding as given in the following table:



Number of Slaves Number of Owners
Number of Owners
Number of Owners
1 slave 27.0 4.3 18.6
2 and under 5 33.1 34.2 27.8
5 and under 10 22.5 28.7 24.4
10 and under 20 11.9 20.8 17.5
20 and under 50 4.7 10.0 9.6
50 and under 100 0.6 1.7 1.8
100 and under 200 0.1 0.3 0.3
200 and under 300
300 and under 500 .0

           While 27 per cent of the slaveholders in 1790 owned only one slave, this group had declined in 1860 to 18.6 per cent. In 1790 only 5.4 per cent owned more than twenty slaves, but this group had more than doubled by 1860. A little more than 2 per cent owned more than fifty slaves in 1860 and 70.8 per cent owned less than ten.

           The per cent of slaveholding families of the total number of families in the State is as follows: 15



Year Per Cent Slaveholding
1790 31.0
1850 26.8
1860 27.7

           The trend, despite the increase in the number of small slaveholders, was toward a gradual decrease in the percentage of slaveholding

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families. After 1850 there was a slight increase over the number of the preceding decade, but it is significant that at no time did as many as a third of the families in the State own slaves.

           The occupations of persons gainfully employed in North Carolina in 1860 as listed by the census report of that year afford another basis for determining the economic status of the inhabitants. For purposes of this study, the occupations have been divided into eight groups so that a somewhat accurate picture of the economic structure in 1860 may be obtained at a glance. The number employed in each group and the percentage which each group forms of the total are given in the following table:



Occupations Number Per Cent
Farmers 87,025 45.20
Laborers 63,481 32.94
Tradesmen 27,263 14.15
Professional Workers 7,436 3.85
Merchants 3,479 1.80
White-collar Workers 1,913 .99
Manufacturers 1,308 .70
Planters 121 .06
All Others 608 .31
Total 192,634 100.00

           It is significant that only 121 persons out of a total of 192,634 gave their occupation as that of planter, while 87,025, or 45 per cent, gave their occupation as that of farmer. The next largest group of workers in the State, almost a third of the total, were common laborers, farm hands, workers by the day, servants, laundresses. The professional group was small, about 4 per cent; the merchant group, the manufacturers, and the white-collar workers,

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such as clerks and bookkeepers, were even less. If it was true, as often stated by ante-bellum writers and speakers, that the farmers and tradesmen were on the same economic level, it will be found that this group composed 60 per cent of the total and that the professional, planter, merchant, and manufacturing groups, which were generally conceded as being on a higher economic level, composed only 6 per cent of the total.

           If occupations, land, and slaves be taken as indices of wealth, it is evident that the average per capita wealth in the State was not large. There were few overgrown estates, and the majority of the inhabitants lived upon the produce of their own labors. William B. Shepard, speaking in the Legislature of 1838, summarized the general economic condition of the State throughout the antebellum period: "A community exclusively agricultural must always be poor. . . . An individual without land and negroes, finds but few avenues to wealth; and those of difficult and laborious access. The planter, himself, although he may spend his days in abundance, finds the difficulty of providing employment for a numerous offspring his greatest care." 16

           Under such economic conditions, rigid distinction of social classes could not exist. Fully half of the inhabitants approached the same economic level and considered themselves as belonging to the same social class. But the division of society into classes was inevitable. 17

At the top of the social scale stood the gentry. This class was composed of the planters, those engaged in the learned professions, and the holders of important state and federal offices. Next below came the class composed of the merchants, small officeholders, and small planters. The third class was composed of the yeomanry, that group of whites which was largest of all in North Carolina, the small farmer. Associated with the yeomanry and generally conceded as being on the same social level was the class of inhabitants engaged in some form of mechanical work, such as the carpenter and the blacksmith. The apprentice, or indentured servant, was sometimes grouped in the same class with the yeomanry or even with the middle class, but he was more often thought of as belonging to the poor whites. The poor-white class was composed, for the most part, of day laborers, farm tenants,

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hired hands, and house servants. The free Negroes ranked next below the poor whites, and at the bottom stood the slaves. 18


           The number of the gentry in North Carolina during the antebellum period was at no time very considerable. In 1860 about an eighth, or 12 per cent, of the total number of slaveholders could be considered in the planter class. 19

This number was a little less than 2 per cent of the total number of free families in the State. But this method of determining the social status of an agricultural population is untrustworthy, for the large slaveholder was not automatically a member of the gentry. While wealth undoubtedly contributed toward passage into the gentry class, as much emphasis was placed upon the prestige of the family as upon the number of slaves and acres owned. It was necessary for a slaveholder to have been supported by several generations of respectability for him to move with ease among that small group known as the genteel society. The term gentry in North Carolina did not have the signification given to it in England or even that generally attributed to it today by admirers of ante-bellum society. Instead of being the descendants of the younger sons of the English nobility who were discriminated against by the law of primogeniture, the gentry of North Carolina came, in most instances, from those middle class families who by thrift and energy were able to get ahead in life. In 1853 Edward J. Hale, editor of the Fayetteville Observer, indignant at an article which he read in the Edinburgh Magazine on the inherited property of the South, wrote with warmth: "Every body here knows, that very few of the present slaveowners, (in Cumberland County for instance, or any other neighborhood,) inherited their slaves or other property, and how many began life with nothing, and have made their own fortunes. The man with wealth who inherited it, is the exception. The poor man who made his own fortune, is the almost universal rule." 20 With accumulation of wealth came time for leisure and education. A refinement in manners was an ultimate consequence.

           Once a family entered an upper class, it usually retained the status for several generations despite reverses in fortune. The default of John Haywood, public treasurer of the State for forty

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years, (1787-1827) deprived the family of most of its wealth and created great excitement for a few years; yet no social taint was attached to the family because of it. In 1846, when another scandal occurred in a prominent family in Raleigh, no one thought of expelling them from the leading social circles of the State, although everyone joined in "deploring the tragedy." When the details of the affair were being gossiped about, the Raleigh Register found occasion to lament the pride of birth which had become a characteristic of the North Carolina gentleman. "Of all follies and foibles to which frail humanity is subject, that which leads a man to pride himself less upon his own merit than that of his ancestors, is the most contemptible," wrote the editor, adding significantly that "in the best of families there must be some who are a disgrace, as well as others who are an honor." 21

           A man's occupation might influence the social status to which he attained almost as much as the family into which he was born. The gentry was recruited not only from the planter class but also from the group of prominent officeholders and from the leaders in the learned professions. In the early part of the century lawyers and doctors were the principal members of the professional class, but later in the period, as academies and colleges became more permanent and religion more fashionable, 22

the higher church and school officials also took their places among the gentry. Sir Charles Lyell, an English geologist, who visited North Carolina in 1842 and again in 1846, thought that governesses in the South were treated with much more equality than in England. 23 Yet the mere fact of being a school master or a preacher did not open the doors of polite society to one. The gentry frequently looked upon the leaders of camp meetings with suspicion. Only the educated clergy found entrance to the highest social classes in the State. 24

           In 1860 there were only 1,266 physicians and 500 lawyers in the State. 25

The gentry often complained that persons of inferior rank entered the learned professions in an attempt to elevate their social positions. Soon after beginning law practice in Virginia in

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1820, John Y. Mason, youthful graduate of the University of North Carolina, later Secretary of Navy under Tyler and Polk, wrote in disgust to John H. Bryan of North Carolina:

           The lower classes frequently charged the gentry with snobbery and false pretensions. With regard to this accusation, later writers on ante-bellum society are of conflicting opinion. Dr. J. B. Alexander states in his History of Mecklenburg County that the "better classes of society" were never "thrown together with people of a lower caste"; 27

but Dr. Kemp P. Battle declares that the society of Raleigh, "though composed of the elite of the State, equal to any in the South, was never haughty and exclusive." 28 Yet he tells of an instance in which the political opponents of Colonel William Polk attempted to offend him by assigning his wife a dance partner very much inferior to her in social rank.

           The Carolina Watchman of Salisbury occasionally ridiculed the show of aristocracy in that town. Once, after declaring that the young people took pride in the wealth of their parents and spurned the society of mechanics for fear their own reputations would be soiled, the editor exclaimed, "God deliver us from the bastard aristocracy of our little villages, and the cod fish aristocracy of our larger towns." 29

           In 1860 "an humble and unpretending citizen, who wishes to speak the truth in regard to this matter," defended Raleigh's elite, saying:

           Visitors in North Carolina were usually impressed with the simplicity of society in comparison with that of Virginia and South Carolina. Sir Charles Lyell who was pleased on the whole with the nice distinctions of society in Charleston, nevertheless, found too great a predominance of the mercantile class. In North Carolina he would have found this objection even more noticeable. William Peace, who owned a general store in Raleigh, was the favorite of several governors and was received in the most fashionable sets. 31

About the time of Sir Charles' visit in North Carolina, a northern visitor said of Raleigh, ". . . the elite of its people are as accomplished in matters of fashion and etiquette, as the ton of Broadway." 32 Even before the American Revolution, Wilmington "was noted for its unbounded hospitality and the elegance of its society. Men of rare talents, fortune, and attainment, united to render it the home of politeness, and ease, and equipment." 33

           The nature of the aristocracy varied in different areas of the State but in each county and in each neighborhood there was a "set" more "fashionable" than the rest. For instance, in 1853 a young lady of Buncombe County wrote patronizingly to her aunt in Franklin of a neighborhood Christmas party to which she had taken her visiting relatives: ". . . to tell you the plain truth there was only a few young ladies there that I thought proper to introduce them to, and I managed that admirably, as it was rather a mixed multitude, mountain boomers and backwoods folks in abundance. It reminded one of the 'poor man's dinner' and it was

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given for the purpose [of] encouraging that class; . . ." 34 The real test of social status came in the contact of the fashionable set of one section with that of another. Thus a young lawyer in 1816 who was familiar with the polite society of both New Bern and Warrenton wrote to his friend who was contemplating a visit to Warrenton that "the society, tho' not as learned or brilliant as that which New Bern affords is compleatly unexceptionable." 35


           The class next below that of the gentry was composed of small planters, merchants, and manufacturers, a few successful artisans, small officeholders, and country schoolteachers, lawyers, doctors, and parsons. These were the men who sought the county offices and delighted in the title of 'squire which the position of justice of peace carried with it. 36

By far the largest number in this class was engaged in agriculture. The small planter usually possessed some two or three hundred acres of land and as many as ten or fifteen slaves. He sometimes worked beside his slaves in the field, and seldom risked the management of the farm to an overseer. The homes of the middle class were not infrequently as substantially built as those of the aristocracy. Along the public highway, in the streets, and in the shops their superiors greeted them cordially. They predominated at political gatherings and were often elected to membership in the Legislature. In 1834 the Raleigh Register stated that out of a total membership of 199 legislators, 145 were farmers and seven were merchants. 37

           The merchant, or storekeeper as he was generally called, was more interested in turning an honest penny than he was in science or politics. His shelves were stocked with a miscellaneous assortment of goods including both domestic and northern products which he procured at Charleston or Petersburg. The more

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prosperous merchants went to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York for purchases. These trips gave them a feeling of superiority over their neighbors, ill concealed when recounting tales of their adventures abroad. The storekeeper sometimes had his home and shop in the same building with enough land in the rear for a garden and outhouses, 38 but his ambition was to have a white painted house in the village and to own a carriage driven by a black boy. 39

           The children of the middle class were often as well educated as those of the gentry, associating with them in the same private schools and academies. If they possessed self-assurance and were sensitive to nice distinctions in manners, they continued their friendly relations with the upper class through life; but some were never able to feel at ease in the presence of the gentry. The Reverend Braxton Craven, one of humble origin who attained distinction as a teacher and minister, complained, "We never know when to remove our hats or wear our gloves; for one family attempts the manner of the old French noblesse, another that of the English Baron; one affects the affability of the Frenchman, another the stately hauteur of the Castilian; one hour we meet the rough kindness of the Scotchman, and next the nice etiquette of a Pasha." 40

           As a humble and unpretentious "citizen of Raleigh" pointed out in 1860, the middle class was sometimes as guilty of affectation of manners as the gentry was of snobbery. In 1839 the Star, under pretense of describing the absurdities of the newly made officeholder, took occasion to ridicule this affectation of aristocracy:

           How unfortunate it is for mankind, that scarcely any human being can reach even a small degree of conspicuity without being metamorphosed into a natural curiosity. . . . No person who knew him at the parental fireside, . . . would recognize him as the same being after he has been elected a member of Congress, a Judge of the Superior Court,

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or more especially after he has risen so high on the ladder of promotion as to earn a seat in the State Legislature, . . .

           In order to be considered a great man, one must look as grave as an ass, which is the gravest of all animals. He must carry about him the squint and the lear of wisdom too. He must affect to appear exceedingly difficult to please on the subject of what he shall eat and what he shall wear. He must affect to be the cherished confidant of every person whose regard is worth having in the land. He must set at nought all the established dictates of modesty, when he is at a party of any description; while at the same time, he must set himself up as the very apostle of etiquette; and if he wishes to be exceedingly great, he must fail at times to speak to his most intimate acquaintances, . . . and we are at a complete loss to know which would constitute the more desirable companion . . . the race of great men which we have just mentioned, or that most beautiful and delectable little animal which so highly adorns our forests, and is so prodigal of its fragrant odours, we allude to the Skunk. 41

           Editors and political leaders constantly referred to the farmer and the merchant, however, as "the substantial citizenry." They usually could be depended upon in any appeal to State pride or patriotism, and their favor was well worth cultivating. As descendants of the honest English franklins, the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, the German Protestants, and the English Baptists, they adhered to standards of pure morals and strict religious principles. Their frugal and industrious habits gave them a bold demeanor which was their boast.


           The largest single class of whites in the State was the yeomanry. Their farms were small, and they cultivated their own land with the assistance of their families and an occasional hired hand or slave. Some estimate of the number of this class may be obtained from the fact that 72 per cent of the total number of white families in the State in 1860 owned no slaves. During the panic of 1837 the Fayetteville Observer rejoiced that the "great mass of our population . . . cannot be reduced to bankruptcy by a money pressure--They are beyond its influence." 42

Fluctuations in the price of produce or of slaves had by no means as great an effect upon the living conditions of the yeomanry as upon that of the two

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higher social classes, for the yeoman derived the major part of his needs from his farm. The small farm was much more a self-sufficing unit than was the plantation. 43

           In August, 1855, the editor of the Arator, an agricultural magazine published in Raleigh, described his visit to the home of a small farmer in Wake County:

           Overseers and the mechanics of the villages and towns were usually grouped in the same social class as the yeomanry. Employees of the mills which began to be established in increasing numbers about 1845 were looked upon as a type of mechanic and, therefore, as belonging to the yeomanry. Several thousands were also employed in the forests, mines, and fisheries. 45

In 1850 more than nine thousand men were employed in industries having establishments producing more than $500 each, while more than fifteen thousand were listed as being employed in manufacturing and the skilled trades. 46 In 1860 there were 27,263 skilled tradesmen in the State. 46a

           It was frequently said in the North, especially after 1830, that "mechanics and laboring men" could not "attain a respectable

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position in society" in the South. In North Carolina such a statement was, under varying circumstances, both admitted and denied. In 1854, when delivering an address before the State Agricultural Society, Kenneth Rayner, a planter and leading Whig politician, said: "It is not to be expected, or desired that intellect shall fraternize with ignorance or virtue with vice. Public opinion needs no reformation in this respect. But the reformation which is needed, and which we are led to hope, is silently working its way, is this--that the pursuits of honest labor shall no longer be a bar to the highest social position; and a stimulus thus given to the laboring man for the cultivation of his intellect, . . . These annual festivals of agricultural and mechanical industry, are working a powerful, though imperceptible moral influence in this respect. For the time being, they break down all the artificial barriers with which man has hedged in his lordly self." 47

           But Edward J. Hale, editor of the Fayetteville Observer, who had himself learned his trade as an apprentice in the office of the Raleigh Register and later attained both fortune and leadership in the State, would never admit that a yeoman was barred from the gentry. In 1856, illustrating his point, he cited the case of James J. McCarter, a mechanic, who had migrated from New Jersey to Charleston. McCarter said, in telling his own story: "In that city, I pulled off my coat, rolled up my sleeves, and in as public a manner as the nature of my vocation admitted of, went to work. And I can assure you, my friends, that in two years I had attained to as high a social position as I could have reached in New Jersey in twenty years." To this Hale added, "Besides having an enviable rank in social life" he has just been elected to the Legislature. 48


           At the bottom of the social scale of the dominant race stood the poor whites. They were those unfortunates who from sickness, desire for drink, or inertia either were unable to acquire land or had lost their holdings through severe reverses in fortune. For instance, the father of Brantley York, a prominent Methodist preacher and schoolmaster, became so deeply involved in debt

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because of drunkenness that his property and household furniture were sold at a public vendue, and he, with the children who were old enough to work, was compelled to find employment as a hired hand. 49 The first settlers in North Carolina had been hunters but unless they combined with this pursuit some cultivation of the soil they were soon outstripped in economic progress by their more industrious neighbors. As late as 1810 the hunter type of inhabitant formed the bulk of the poor whites in Moore County. 50

           The poor whites may be divided into three general groups: farm tenants, day laborers, and ne'er-do-wells. 51

As a rule they were viewed with contempt at home and disgust abroad. To the Negroes they were "poor white trash" or "poor buckra" and to the upper social classes they were "red necks" and "the dregs of civilization." Perhaps the largest group of this class of whites were the farm tenants. They cultivated the old fields of the large plantations, land which the owners considered too unprofitable for slave labor. 51a They often lived in abandoned outhouses, some with only a clay floor and no means of ventilation or light except the door. Their personal property was almost negligible and they were constantly in debt either to their landlord or the keeper of the cross-roads store. In their behalf, Representative Cunningham of Person spoke in the General Assembly of 1844-1845:

           It was to this class that Ebenezer Pettigrew, a planter of Washington County, referred when he wrote in 1842 that 3,000 of the 6,000 inhabitants of Tyrrell County and the lower part of Washington County would be without bread on the first day of January, 1843. "They are without money, without credit, and the most of them without property." 53

           Not all of the farm-tenant class entered into a lease with their landlord. A great many squatted on the land and were quietly left there. They worked little patches of their own and did extra work on the plantation at the prevailing wage scale. Every county had its tenants, but travelers in the State noted them especially in the sand ridges along the fall line of the rivers. Around every town there was also an outskirt of these day laborers, some working faithfully year by year, others a day or two at a time to pick up just enough money for immediate use.

           In August, 1855, the Arator of Raleigh thought this group was large:

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           The percentage of day laborers in the total white population is difficult to determine, but it was probably larger than has usually been estimated. In 1850 more than twenty-eight thousand males in North Carolina gave their occupation as that of unskilled laborer, 55

and in 1860 more than thirty-six thousand gave their occupation as that of unskilled day laborer or farm hand. 55a This number probably did not include the numerous children of poor parents who each year from 1800 to 1860 were apprenticed in almost every county of the State to serve their masters until they were of age. 56 Some apprentices were children of the yeomanry or even of the middle class whose parents took this means of putting them to a trade, but the majority were orphans left without property or children whose parents had "no visible means of support."

           Those without property found it difficult at all times to make a living, for wages were low and the means of livelihood few. The following table gives the average wage paid the laborer in 1860 in North Carolina and in three other typical sections of the United States:




Type of Labor N. C. Ala. Miss. Ind. U. S.
Farm hand with board Monthly $10.37 $12.41 $16.66 $13.71 $14.73
Day laborer with board Daily .54 .70 .85 .73 .81
Day laborer without board Daily .77 .96 1.26 .98 1.11
Carpenter without board Daily 1.56 2.15 2.47 1.65 1.97
Female domestic Weekly 1.08 2.08 2.25 1.28 1.85

           North Carolina had the lowest average wage scale of any state in the Union. Delaware had a slightly lower scale for carpenters and Pennsylvania and Ohio for female domestics, but in other respects North Carolina ranked lowest.

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           An intelligent New England traveler described the poor whites in 1833 as being "not as well off in their physical condition as the slaves, and hardly as respectable." 58

As hired hands or apprentices they sometimes fared worse than the Negroes with whom they worked side by side. The case of Silas Bond of Martin County, before the General Assembly of 1828, was probably not an exaggeration. 59 He was born to poor parents shortly before his father's death. The mother, sickly and uneducated, was scarcely able to support the family. Three children were bound out as apprentices, but Silas, who was weak and ill grown, could not find a master willing to clothe and feed him for his services. Mother and child wandered from place to place looking for work and, despite their greatest exertions, were always on the verge of starvation. When Silas was nineteen, his mother was at last able to hire him out. One day he "took from his employer one joint of Meat to gratify an appetite which had been several days unsatisfied in consequence of the scanty morcel afforded him for his subsistence." His master, vengeful, preferred a bill of indictment against him for petit larceny, and "the judge with apparent reluctance passed sentence that he receive ten lashes lightly laid on." This conviction deprived him of the rights of citizenship.

           Brantley York, who worked as a hired hand under more normal conditions, complained of the poor food provided by most masters. His clothing in cold weather consisted of a shirt and loose trousers, "shoes, but no socks or coat." He resented having to work with Negroes in the field. It acted as a spur to self-education, and before many years he had left his work as a hired hand and was teaching a subscription school.

           On others the effect of associating with Negroes in work led to a kind of social equality. Polly Lane, a white servant in the home of Abraham Pessenger of Davidson County, accepted as her lover a slave with whom she had to work in the kitchen and aided him in stealing a purse of $260 so that the two might escape to another State where the slave might be free. 60

But the general attitude of the whites who came into economic competition with the Negroes was one of hatred. In the western counties, where slaveholding was negligible, the free Negroes were a source of much

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friction, 61 and there was in all towns some antagonism between Negroes and white laborers because of economic competition. 62

           Farm tenants and day laborers were accorded some degree of respect in the community as long as they kept at their work, but there was a class of poor whites in the State, the ne'er-do-wells, known variously as vagabonds, clay eaters, sandhillers, held in utter contempt. Frederick Law Olmsted found "the great mass of white people inhabiting the turpentine forest" in North Carolina to be of this class. They were entirely uneducated and had no habitual occupation. Such a family would either occupy an empty cabin with the tacit consent of the owner or squat on the land and build a little log hut, "so made that it is only a shelter from the rain, the sides not being chincked." "A gentleman of Fayetteville," wrote Olmsted, "told me that he had, several times, appraised, under oath, the whole household property of families of this class at less than $20." They usually cultivated a little corn, a few rows of sweet potatoes, peas, and collards; they had a few hogs that supported themselves in the forest; and always a rifle and a pack of half-starved dogs. "The men, ostensibly occupy most of their time in hunting. . . . If they have need of money to purchase cloathing, etc., they obtain it by selling their game or meal. If they have none of this to spare, or an insufficiency, they will work for a neighboring farmer for a few days, . . . The farmers say, that they do not like to employ them, because they cannot be relied upon to finish what they undertake, or to work according to directions; . . ." 63

           Travelers invariably commented upon the queer speech, the strange habits, and the peculiar color of this class of people. Their speech was a corruption of the seventeenth-century English which they had learned from their ancestors; their strange habits that of clay-sucking, resin-chewing, and snuff-dipping. 64

A traveler in the South during the early years of the Civil War said of them:

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           Clay-eating was not a habit peculiar to the ante-bellum South. It has existed in many parts of the world, notably in China and India, where there is undernourishment and an insufficient quantity of salt in the diet. The clay may have had something to do with the peculiar color of many of these people, but the general undernourishment, malaria, and hookworm were undoubtedly more at fault. Malaria invariably produces a general listlessness and a yellow or brownish complexion; and hookworm produces listlessness, emaciation, and an ashy brown color. The soil pollution around the cabins of these people also accounted for the scabies and impetigo, commonly known among them as "fall" and "spring" sores.

           Travelers in the South invariably pointed to these poor whites as "living examples" of the evil of slavery and of the resulting degeneracy which inbreeding produced on the Anglo-Saxon race. The South itself pointed to them as a proof of the necessity of slavery, proof that the white man could not successfully cultivate the fever-infested region of the southern coast and the Deep South. South and North alike frequently overlooked the fact that northern prisons and charitable institutions were also crowded with "off-scourings of human society." A semi-tropical climate, malaria, and hookworm gave the poor whites of the South their peculiar characteristics.


           Despite the persistence in America of the class structure which the settlers brought with them from the Old World, the United States was essentially democratic. In 1832 Mrs. Trollope described the United States as "a vast continent, by far the greater part of which is still in the state in which nature left it, and a busy, hustling, industrious population, hacking and hewing their way

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through it." 66 Under such conditions, there must necessarily be a bubble-aristocracy, which was constantly being inflated and deflated. Fortunes were made and lost; new families were rising into prominence; old families were occasionally dropping back into the ranks; but "the advancing power of the people" marched on. It culminated in the Jacksonian movement in politics. The lower classes began to demand more and more voice in the government.

           In 1840 when the British Captain Marryat declared in his Second Series of a Diary in America that a stable aristocracy was "absolutely necessary for America both politically and morally, if the Americans wish their institutions to hold together," 67

the monthly Democratic Review could laugh loudly at his stupidity. "For a country like ours, producing in profusion the most important commercial staples which find a ready demand in the great markets of the commercial world--favored with political institutions as free as is consistent with the preservation of property and good order--inhabited by people of plain manners and simple habits" to tolerate a hereditary aristocracy is absurd. 68 The vast resources of the continent were not alone responsible for the march of the people. The industrial revolution, just begun in America, was silently working toward the same end, while at the same time the movement for humanitarian reform was stressing the importance of the common man.

           With respect to class feeling Kenneth Rayner declared on the oratorical platform in Raleigh in 1854, "A new era is beginning to dawn upon the world. The last quarter of a century has done more to revolutionize public sentiment on this subject, than the eighteen centuries preceding, . . . The diffusion of intelligence, the operation of commerce, and the utilitarian tendency of the age, are beginning to teach mankind that labor is the source of all wealth and prosperity, the means of individual comfort and luxury, the basis of national strength and greatness." 69

           As early as 1845 William W. Holden, a Democratic leader of the State and editor of the North Carolina Standard, cried ominously in his paper of October 1:

           A certain "leveling influence" had always been noticeable in North Carolina politics, but with Andrew Jackson's first campaign for the presidency "the common people" became an unmistakably popular term in political parlance. The North Carolina Standard later explained the term to mean the "honest yeomanry and mechanics" as opposed to "the ruffled shirt gentry" and "sneaking Aristocrats." "Republican farmers look at this!" shouted the Standard of September 29, 1836. "See the estimation in which you are held by the nullifiers and federalists. It has ever been their doctrine that the 'common people' . . . are incapable and unfit to manage Governmental matters-- . . . Thus we find, that one of their Editors expressed his conviction, . . . that 'THE HUGE PAWS OF THE FARMERS are not fit to handle the statute books'--that 'a Blacksmith might as well undertake to mend a watch as a FARMER TO LEGISLATE'!!"

           In 1840 when the Whigs turned the tables on the Democrats and sought the vote of the masses under the slogan of "log cabin and hard cider," the Standard of May 27 retorted that "a goodly portion of the Democrats of our State do live in very comfortable log cabins, a circumstance which by no means diminishes their independence of feeling or derogates from their purity of character." While appealing to the masses to support the Whig candidates, the conservative Raleigh Register at the same time deprecated the movement to array rich against poor. 70

But from this time on "the honest yeomanry" became increasingly important in North Carolina politics. To get their votes candidates often stood before rural gatherings, boasting that they were destitute of education and unused to the refinements of the gentry. These political devices did much to stir class consciousness and ultimately operated to make the yeomanry more articulate.

           The Constitution of 1776 practically gave the two upper social

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classes a monopoly of the state and county offices. The antebellum period saw a gradual relaxation of this policy and the democratization of officeholding. The qualification for a seat in the Senate of the General Assembly was the possession of 300 acres of land, while in order to vote in the election for senators it was necessary to possess fifty acres. A landed qualification of a hundred acres was required of candidates in the House of Commons and suffrage in this instance was restricted to taxpayers. The governor, elected by the General Assembly, must have a "freehold in land and tenants, above the value of one thousand pounds." 71 Other State officers, while not being required to possess a property qualification, were elected by the General Assembly; and the county officials were chosen by the county court. The court was composed of justices of the peace who were commissioned by the governor on the recommendation of the legislators of their respective counties.

           Early in the nineteenth century a movement got under way against the property qualifications placed on the franchise and on office-holding and against the indirect election of important state and county officials. But it was not until the Constitutional Convention of 1835 that the office of governor was made elective and not until 1857 that senatorial suffrage was vested in "every free white man" who "shall have paid public taxes." 72

As early as 1814 a bill was introduced into the House of Commons calling for the popular election of sheriffs, but it was not until 1829 that this mode of election was authorized by law. 73 Throughout the antebellum period there was a constant effort on the part of the yeomanry to take from the upper classes the control of public offices. They constantly demanded the popular election of justices of the peace, constables, and of other petty office-holders, but these reforms did not come until after the ante-bellum period.

           Under the appointive system, it was not only possible for the

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two upper classes to control officeholding, but for one person to hold several influential local offices at one time. When the distinguished Nathaniel Macon resigned his office as United States senator in 1828, he also resigned "the appointment of Trustee of the University of the State and that of Justice of the Peace for the County of Warren." 74 Although few objected to the number of offices that Nathaniel Macon might hold, a loud protest went up over such cases as that of Zacharias Pigott of Carteret County. In 1831 he was chairman of the county court, treasurer of public buildings, master of wrecks, and chairman of patrols. 75 One who held so many influential offices, despite the fact that no emoluments were attached, had a powerful hold on county affairs. In 1804 a petition was sent from Anson County signed by officers of the militia asking that the appointment of second major be denied Adam Lockhart who had "for some time been pushing himself for ever[y] appointment within the power of the county to grant him." 76


           Despite protests to the contrary, 77

the existence of slavery in North Carolina, as elsewhere in the South, tended to place a social stigma upon those who worked with their hands. "The great curse of slavery with us," wrote Ebenezer Pettigrew in 1847, himself a prosperous slaveholder, "is not the fanatical notion of its sinfulness, but the rendering manual labour & pursuits degrading in the eyes of pretended gentlemen, who had rather cheat than work." 78 It was about one of Pettigrew's neighbors that the Farmer's Journal wrote in May, 1853: "We recollect about two years since to have visited the farm of a wealthy planter in Washington county, in this State, and found his three sons at work in the field, and his two daughters at work in the house. We were surprised at this sight, . . . they went to school during the first five days of the week, and worked until 12 o'clock on Saturday." 79

           "When will the days of sickly sentimentality be over in North Carolina?" asked Holden in the North Carolina Standard of 1845. "When will those of our young men who are now fashionable idlers, cease to be so, and turn their hands either to farming or

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to some useful branch of the mechanics? . . . The truth is, many of our young men have been ruined perhaps for life, by the mistaken kindness of parents, and by the false and pernicious notion that labor is dishonorable. 'The toil-hardened hand and the sunburnt face,' are esteemed by many a 'reproach'-- . . . " 80 At the close of the period, Holden was still preaching his doctrine that honest labor is at once the support and pride of the State. "For my part," he said in 1857, "I despair of that young man who is above labor, and who considers farming beneath him. If too proud to farm--to manage his own hands and pitch his own crops, he will turn out to be too indolent to succeed in any thing." 81

           It is no wonder that the editor of the Farmer's Journal could not believe his ears when someone told him in May, 1853, that "one of the presiding Judges of the Superior courts of law in this State, may be frequently seen driving his own wagon and horses out of town to his farm, with his plows and other utensils aboard," or that the editor should ask, "what can these silk glove gentry think of this? Indeed, if they were to see the sight they would faint." 82

           Although the class system in North Carolina was not extremely rigid, social distinctions and class interests were definite enough to give rise to friction. As the period was drawing to a close, yeomen and mechanics became increasingly resentful of the attitude of the upper classes. They were ready to admit the superiority of the upper classes in matters of education, manners, and dress, but they would never admit that these superficial things made them any "better." "There is little cordiality of feeling between the people of the provincial Towns and those of the surrounding Country," lamented the Southern Weekly Post of Raleigh in the issue of December 13, 1851. "The people of the Towns must necessarily dress better than those of the Country; and this together with the fact that the citizens of the Towns labor by their wits rather than their hands, creates on the part of the rural denizens a prejudice, a suspicion of pride and vanity: and they think their neighbors live without care or fatigue." Hinton Rowan Helper was not the only North Carolinian who foresaw class war in the ante-bellum South. Even so respectable

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a man as Calvin H. Wiley warned the State in his report on public education in 1860 that there was as much danger from the prejudice existing between rich and poor as between master and slave. "The peace of every social and political system depends on a just recognition of the mutual dependence of every rank on each other, and of the mutual obligations which this interest imposes. . . . And all attempts . . . to widen the breach between classes of citizens are just as dangerous as efforts to excite slaves to insurrection, . . . " 83 Thus it was demagoguery in candidates for public favor to decry the towns, the professions, and the planters. But it was not entirely the politicians who had set in motion the tide toward democratization. The social and economic conditions of the time had played a large part.

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