Thomas Sowell and the Misrepresentation of Old South Culture

In 2005, Thomas Sowell, the renowned American economist and conservative social theorist, published a collection of essays entitled Black Rednecks and White Liberals. In the title essay (which can be read in full here), Sowell contends that negative behavioural traits and patterns found among ‘ghetto’ blacks in contemporary America – such as violence and murder carried out over ‘disrespect’, base pleasure seeking, and many children being born to unmarried mothers – arose not within the black community itself but, rather, through blacks in the Old South coming under the influence of lower class white ‘rednecks’, who came from the border regions of northern England and brought a unique and uncivilised culture with them. In making these claims, Sowell misunderstands and misrepresents the culture both of the Old South and of England.

Sowell argues:

More is involved here than a mere parallel between blacks and Southern whites. What is involved is a common subculture that goes back for centuries, which has encompassed everything from ways of talking to attitudes toward education, violence, and sex — and which originated not in the South, but in those parts of the British Isles from which white Southerners came. That culture long ago died out where it originated in Britain, while surviving in the American South. Then it largely died out among both white and black Southerners, while still surviving today in the poorest and worst of the urban black ghettos.

Sowell can’t quite seem to make up his mind as to whether there is a direct line between ‘rednecks’ of the past and ghetto blacks of today. At one point he states that ‘contemporary black ghetto culture in the United States is not, however, a simple linear extrapolation from the culture of Southern whites’, only to go on to state later in the essay: ‘Whether black redneck values and lifestyle are a lineal descendant of white redneck values and lifestyle, as suggested here…’ Essentially, the overall argument in ‘Black Rednecks and White Liberals’ is indeed that poor white Britons, who came to the South from the border regions of northern England (as well as from Scotland and Ulster), brought with them a degenerate culture that is the root of modern ‘ghetto’ culture:

What the rednecks or crackers brought with them across the ocean was a whole constellation of attitudes, values, and behavior patterns that might have made sense in the world in which they had lived for centuries, but which would prove to be counterproductive in the world to which they were going — and counterproductive to the blacks who would live in their midst for centuries before emerging into freedom and migrating to the great urban centers of the United States, taking with them similar values. The cultural values and social patterns prevalent among Southern whites included an aversion to work, proneness to violence, neglect of education, sexual promiscuity, improvidence, drunkenness, lack of entrepreneurship, reckless searches for excitement, lively music and dance, and a style of religious oratory marked by strident rhetoric, unbridled emotions, and flamboyant imagery.

Leaving aside Sowell’s uncritical reliance on sources that were hostile to the South, there are a number of problems with Sowell’s argument, including a lack of understanding of English culture and the use of irrelevant material to supposedly strengthen his case.

I take no issue with the observation that there was drunkenness, violence, reckless behaviour, and premarital sex in the old South, but Sowell’s claim that this was derived from a marginal culture found in the lawless border regions of England fails to understand the nature of England and its culture in general. Indeed, the notion that this was a uniquely ‘redneck’ phenomenon is undermined by Sowell himself, when he also cites the behaviour of the Southern aristocrats to show that the old South was a terrible, violent place. Let’s look at each of these phenomena in turn.

Drunkenness

There is no doubt that ‘redneck’ culture (or that of ‘poor white trash’, as they were commonly referred to) was often reported to include a love of drinking alcohol, often to excess. In Daniel R. Hundley’s Social relations in our Southern States (1860), for example, we read of hill-dwelling poor Southern whites as follows:

Another evil which prevails greatly among the Sandhillers… is the iniquitous practice of drinking alcoholic beverages to excess. And then, too, such vile stuff as the poor fellows are wont to imbibe! Too lazy to distill honest peach or apple brandy, like the industrious yeomanry, they prefer to tramp to the nearest groggery with a gallon-jug on their shoulders, which they get filled with “bust-head,” “rot-gut,” or some other equally poisonous abomination; and then tramp home again, reeling as they trudge along, and laughing idiotically, or shouting like mad in a glorious state of beastly intoxication…

Yet the same book also refers to heavy drinking among rich Southerners:

When the rich Southern Bully comes into the possession of his estates, his first care is to fill his cellars (in case he has any, otherwise his store-room) with barrels of Old Eye, as well as brandy, gin, rum, and other kinds of strong waters, but rarely with any thing in the shape of wine. Wine may do for babes, but not for such a puissant gentleman as he fancies himself to be. Having laid in his stock of liquors, he proceeds immediately to gather about him a set of boon companions like himself — idle loafers, drunken over-seers, and may be one or two other fellows of like kidney; and now he devotes his nights to gaming, drinking, and coarse libertinism, and his days to fox-hunting, horse-racing, and the like.

In his essay, Sowell cites Frederick Olmsted’s Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom as an authoritative source. That same book also refers to drunkenness among wealthy Southerners, in this case planters Olmsted encountered on a steam boat in Alabama:

They were, generally, cotton-planters, going to Mobile on business, or emigrants bound to Texas or Arkansas. They were usually well dressed, but were a rough, coarse style of people, drinking a great deal, and most of the time under a little alcoholic excitement. Not sociable, except when the topics of cotton, land, and negroes, were started; interested, however, in talk about theatres and the turf; very profane… very ill-informed, except on plantation business; their language ungrammatical, idiomatic, and extravagant… I was perplexed by finding, apparently united in the same individual, the self-possession, confidence, and the use of expressions of deference, of the well-equipped gentleman, and the coarseness and low tastes of the uncivilized boor.

Elsewhere, we read of the wealthy of Alabama:

Traditions of aristocracy are deep-rooted in Selma, for most of the early settlers were well-to-do. The wealthy planter class was strong, and grew stronger as they built magnificent mansions, cleared 1,000-acre plantations, and planted cotton… Cotton was king. The planters enjoyed a halcyon existence, spiced with a taste for politics and liquor…

Significant alcohol consumption was common among wealthy Southerners from the earliest days:

Beverage consumption was deeply woven into Virginian social gatherings and hospitality, especially for elite planters. Almost every occasion was commemorated with alcohol, which was regularly consumed at funerals, weddings, court days, and elections. This common, regular consumption demonstrates how alcohol and other beverages were entrenched in one’s public appearance.

The Old South was awash with alcohol:

There can be little doubt that antebellum southerners drank too much. Temperance societies arose here and there, but they accomplished little… Most people, in fact, looked upon moderate drinking of hard liquors as beneficial, and “moderate” before the Civil War would probably be considered “heavy” today. Not long after the Louisiana Purchase a young Creole woman in Opelousas, Louisiana, criticized American men because they were always willing to take another bottle, even though they were already drunk. She seems to have been fairly accurate observer.

There is a good reason for this widespread alcohol consumption in the Old South, which was practiced by every class, from planter aristocrats down to ‘poor white trash’ (Sowell’s ‘rednecks’). The reason is that the South was populated by settlers from England and the descendants of English settlers. The notorious English drinking culture goes back many centuries – as explored here – and it is this, not simply the presence of northern English borderers, that explains the drinking culture of the old South.

Violence

Sowell makes much of Southerners being quick to resort to violence in the face of a perceived insult, and he links this to contemporary black behaviour:

Centuries before “black pride” became a fashionable phrase, there was cracker pride — and it was very much the same kind of pride. It was not pride in any particular achievement or set of behavioral standards or moral principles adhered to. It was instead a touchiness about anything that might be even remotely construed as a personal slight, much less an insult, combined with a willingness to erupt into violence over it.

Further on in the essay, Sowell again writes of ‘the many fights and deaths resulting from some insult or slight among people “touchy about their honor and dignity”‘, and claims that: ‘Again, all of this went back to a way of life in the turbulent regions of Britain from which white Southerners came’. Sowell’s ‘turbulent regions’ theory of violence in the Old South refers to his notion that it is from ‘rednecks’ that a culture of violence came, and that this culture then entered into the culture of Southern blacks. The problem with this theory is that much of the evidence cited by Sowell in support of the idea that the South was a particularly violent place actually refers to the upper classes.

On violence based around perceived insults, Sowell writes:

The history of the antebellum South is full of episodes showing the same pattern, whether expressed in the highly formalized duels of the aristocracy or in the no-holds-barred style of fighting called “rough and tumble” among the common folk, a style that included biting off ears and gouging out eyes… During the era when dueling became a pattern among upper-class Americans — between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War — it was particularly prevalent in the South… Most duels arose not over substantive issues but over words considered insulting.  At lower social levels, Southern feuds such as that between the Hatfields and the McCoys — which began in a dispute over a pig and ultimately claimed more than 20 lives — became legendary…

Sowell also cites an example of Southern violence taken from Olmsted’s book – the case of an armed duel which ended with the loser being killed with a knife. The problem for Sowell, here, is that he explicitly undermines his own thesis on the ‘redneck’ origins of Southern violence by pointing out the equally prevalent violence among wealthy planter aristocrats. Both rich and poor in the Old South were prone to violence, including violence over perceived insults. This clearly, then, contrary to Sowell’s overall thesis, was a Southern phenomenon, rather than a ‘redneck’ one, and cannot therefore be simply explained as dating ‘back to a way of life in the turbulent [border] regions of Britain’. And, again, it was also an English phenomenon.

The English in general have long been known as a violent people. In the medieval period, the southern counties of England were ‘more dangerous than Mexico today – and four times as dangerous as the United States’. The onset of modernity did little to change the violent nature of English culture, as quotes from nineteenth century books attest. James Anthony Froude noted that: ‘Invariably, by friend and enemy alike, the English are described as the fiercest people in all Europe (the English wild beasts, Benvenunto Cellini calls them)’. Similarly, the French critic and historian Hippolyte Taine wrote:

Here the temperament is different, more violent and more combative; pleasure is a brutish and bestial thing: I could cite twenty examples of this. An Englishman said to me, “When a Frenchman is drunk he chatters; when a German is drunk he sleeps; when an Englishman is drunk he fights.”

To this day, foreign visitors to England make similar observations. John Fleming quotes an Italian historian as follows:

The British fight in a totally different way.

If someone is offended, he turns suddenly and the most he says is “Fuck you!” then he immediately hits the other guy in the face with his fist. No-one has time to separate the two because, by the time they get there, a full fight has started. I saw it happen in a pub the second day I was in England and I have seen it many times since. Very few Italians have broken noses, but lots of English and Scots do because, with their sudden fights, there is no time to protect your face from the first punch.

The other facet which confuses foreigners is that so many British look like losers. They dress casually and shabbily, they don’t repair the legs of their spectacles for years and they look like they are past caring but, at some point, this apparently laid-back loser will turn round and break your nose. It is not a country where you insult someone lightly.

In 2014, the Portuguese academic João Magueijo wrote of his experiences in England and concluded:

I have never met such a group of animals. English culture is pathologically violent.

As with the drinking culture of the Old South, its culture of violence can also be far more adequately explained not through a flimsy argument based on the supposedly uniquely violent nature of the ‘redneck’ borderers, but rather by the fact that – again – the old South was largely founded by English settlers and their descendants (from the South and South West of England, the Midlands, and the border regions of northern England) and therefore exhibits strong similarities with the culture of England.

Reckless behaviour 

According to Sowell, ‘even where there was no conflict or hostility involved, Southerners often showed a reckless disregard for human life, including their own’. He continues:

For example, the racing of steamboats that happened to encounter each other on the rivers of the South often ended with exploding boilers, especially when the excited competition led to the tying down of safety valves, in order to build up more pressure to generate more speed.

It is unclear what this has to do with the ‘redneck’ culture of the border regions of northern England, which Sowell sees as the root of Southern (and black) recklessness. Indeed, the steamboat racing phenomenon has nothing to do with the culture of poor Southern whites and every to do with the gambling culture of the South, especially that of the wealthy:

The dominating vice of the antebellum period was gambling. Wagering was an exciting way of spending leisure time. In the early days, gambling among the social elite was essentially private. Isolated wagers would be made on a cockfight, the turn of a card, a steamboat race, or a horserace. Many of these activities were also orchestrated for public wagering, but no formal wagering authority existed. Steamboat racing was particularly popular, but the strain placed on the boats was blamed for boiler explosions and other river disasters.

Steamboat racing, then, had nothing to do with ‘redneck’ culture, and was one aspect of a far wider gambling culture – a culture arguably derived from the gambling culture of England, and brought to the South by English settlers. Steamboat racing may have involved a degree of recklessness, but so do motorsports today, for example. The case for a uniquely reckless Southern culture is very weak.

Premarital sex

Sowell writes:

Southern whites were as different from Northern whites when it came to sexual patterns as they were in other ways. Widespread casual sex was commented on by outside observers in both the American South and in those parts of Britain from which Southerners had come . Here again, the greatest contrast is with New England. While pregnant brides were very rare in seventeenth-century New England, they were more common in the Southern backcountry than anywhere else in the United States. A missionary estimated that more than nine-tenths of the backcountry women at whose weddings he officiated were already pregnant. In this, as in other respects, the “sexual customs of the southern backcountry were similar to those of northwestern England.”

Here, the contrast between the sexual activity of rural Southerners and that of the sexually puritanical New Englanders is used to illustrate the supposedly aberrant nature of ‘redneck’ sexuality and its purported geographic uniqueness within England itself. It is worth noting that this is a false comparison: The fundamental difference between New England culture and Southern culture is that the former was an ‘American’ culture, while the latter was essentially the continuation of the culture of mainstream England on foreign soil. The New England culture was deeply concerned with sexual morality and its transgression in ways the South simply wasn’t.

Most importantly, was the sexual behaviour of poor Southern whites – especially the tradition of women being pregnant prior to marriage – solely a ‘border’ (‘redneck’) phenomenon? The simple answer is no. The following observations, for example, were written in the nineteenth century regarding the sexual customs of the people of rural Devon, in the South West of England (very far indeed from the northern border regions):

If a little may be said in favour of the poor girls, not a word can be said in favour of the agricultural men, who are immoral almost without exception, and will remain so until a better-educated generation with more self-respect arises. The number of poor girls, from fifteen to five-and-twenty, in agricultural parishes who have illegitimate offspring is extremely large, and is illustrated by the fact that, out of the marriages that take place—and agricultural poor are a marrying class—scarcely any occur until the condition of the girl is too manifest to be any longer concealed. Instances could be mentioned where the clergyman’s wife, with a view to check the immorality around her, has offered a reward of a piece of furniture to the first married woman who does not bear a child till nine months after marriage; the custom being within three months.

The sexual behaviour of poor rural whites in the South was patterned on the sexual behaviour of poor rural workers throughout England, then, and was not, therefore, uniquely a phenomenon of a ‘redneck culture’ derived from the border regions of northern England.

The drinking, violence, recklessness, and sexual behaviour found in the Old South were not, as Sowell would have us believe, rooted predominantly in the ‘redneck’ culture of people who came to the South from the border regions of northern Britain. They were, instead, well-established parts of the mainstream English culture of the period. When Englishmen and women came to the South from England (from a number of different counties and regions, and from a variety of social classes), they brought with them attitudes and patterns of behaviour that very often cut across class lines. White Southerners of all classes drank to excess, gambled, and got into violent altercations. Whatever moralists may make of it, this was not redneck culture – it was English culture.

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