Southern History Series: The Southern Middle Class On The Eve of the American Revolution

Why does North Carolina get so little time on this blog?

I think it is about time we talked about North Carolina. It is long overdue in light of our heavy focus on the development of the plantation complex in Virginia and South Carolina. The vast majority of Southerners were not Tidewater or Low Country aristocrats. There were far more middle class farmers. My folks came to Southeast Alabama from near Fayetteville in Cumberland County, NC in 1840.

The following excerpts comes from John Richard Alden’s book The South in the Revolution, 1763-1789:

“A familiar and well-loved epigram has it that North Carolina was once “a valley of humility between two mountains of conceit.” There can be no doubt that the North Carolinians generally, “lubbers,” as William Byrd II called them, along with frontier folk and lowly whites everywhere, not to mention Negroes, were looked down upon by tobacco lords and rice-indigo magnates at the time of the Revolution. It is equally certain that the superiority of those same lords and magnates and their families, on the basis of wealth, education, manners, character, ability, and heredity, in varying proportions and emphases, was commonly conceded and frequently envied. Located near the shores of the Chesapeake, there was a true upper class, a group which was not quite the equivalent of a European aristocracy; in Charleston and the Low Country about it there was another upper class, newer, more tainted with trade, but possessing a larger proportion of manners and charm, enjoying momentarily a sounder financial position, asserting equal claims with its Chesapeake counterpart to dignity and hegemony. Elsewhere in the South there was less pride, less culture, and less leadership. …”

The tobacco-based culture of Tidewater spread into northeastern North Carolina around Albemarle Sound. The rice-based culture of the Low Country spread into southeastern North Carolina south of Wilmington and the Cape Fear River. Sandwiched in between, the Tar Heels got their name from the colonial naval stores industry which was based on exploiting the longleaf pine for tar, pitch and turpentine. The Cape Fear River Valley and Cumberland County, NC were the epicenter of it.

“The Southern middle class was largely rural in the Revolutionary time, although many inhabitants of the Southern towns must be classified within it. It did not flourish in the coastal regions devoted to tobacco, rice, and indigo. In those areas the grandees with their gangs of slaves occupied the best lands; in them the white men moved upward or downward, or he went elsewhere. North Carolina, however, except for its southeastern corner and the region around Albemarle Sound, where there were some large tobacco plantations, was essentially middle class; and the Southern interior population generally must be similarly classified. It is perhaps needless to say that most Southern whites belong to that stratum of society.”

According to Alden, there were around 10,000 patricians in the South at the time of the Revolution out of around 750,000 Southern Whites. The population was surging. From 175,000 North Carolinians in 1775, the robust population grew to almost 300,000 in 1789.

“North Carolina was less English than the older colonies on the Chesapeake, but equally British. The first settlers between the Pee Dee and the Dan were English, and those who followed them were frequently emigrants from English towns and fields. Again there were many Germans, who had entered the colony both by way of its low-lying shores and from the north; and again the presence of numerous Scotch-Irish moving toward a warmer sun was a remarkable phenomenon. In North Carolina, however, there was a much larger Scottish element than in Virginia, for hundreds of Highlanders sought new homes in that colony after the collapse of the ill-fated rising of 1745.”

Maybe this is why North Carolina has so many pretty redheads?

My direct paternal ancestor arrived in Wilmington and settled up the Cape Fear River in Cumberland County. He had several sons one of whom married and branched off and moved his family to Henry County, AL down in the Wiregrass on the edge of the Alabama Black Belt.

“It is equally obvious that there were variations within this massive center of Southern society. Indeed, there were striking divergences between the lowest and highest layers of that group, between, for example, the landowning farmer with a few possessions and little education and the prosperous planter with much larger property and learning. Yet the latter hardly belonged to the genuine aristocracy, the former cannot be divorced from the middle stratum. Within that stratum there were dissimilarities not only in wealth and education but in occupation, and even in the national background. While the Chesapeake aristocracy was almost exclusively of English descent and that of the Low Country of English and French stocks, in the middle class were the Scotch-Irish Presbyterian clergymen; the notoriously industrious German farmers of the Shenandoah and of Salem; the Scottish Highlanders engaged in trade with the Indians; the Jewish traders; the teachers, of all breeds of the British Isles and northwestern Europe; and, easily forgotten because obvious, the numerous persons of English blood in all callings and occupations.

In religion, too, there was readily recognized variety in the middle class. The Scotch-Irish were commonly Presbyterian; the Baptists, New Lights and old ones, were numerous; German Lutherans and Pietists dominated certain areas of the Southern interior; there were Congregationalists; some of French ancestry remained Calvinist, although the French-Americans tended to become Anglican; and, there were, of course, the Anglicans. In that class there was greater piety and more “enthusiasm” than in the patrician order. In the Southern backcountry religious antics and frolics gave a fillip to a way of life frequently monotonous. The Reverend Mr. Charles Woodmason, an Anglican to be sure, tells us that men traveled many miles to see country preachers baptize women only in thin shifts.”

English, Scots-Irish, German … we all became Southerners.

In the Low Country, the Huguenots were Anglicized and absorbed into the English planter class. They actually became Anglicans. In the Backcountry, a huge wave of Scots-Irish and German immigrants came down from Pennsylvania and collided with English spreading west into the Piedmont. White Appalachians are a mix of German, English and Scots-Irish blood.

In the early 19th century, Anglicanism and Presbyterianism disintegrated as the Trans-Appalachian frontier was settled and the bulk of White Southerners became evangelical Protestants after the Great Revival. The South to this day is dominated by Baptists and Methodists, but the ancestors of these people overwhelmingly came here belonging to different denominations.

“There was also wide diversity of behavior in the middle class. People in its upper levels could not be easily distinguished from the aristocracy on the basis of manners, tastes, amusements, or conduct. Indeed, the descendants of these people have classified them with the socially select and will continue to do so, not without some display of fact as well as fancy; if they commit a sympathetic fallacy, it is true that no arbitrary line can be drawn between the patricians and the more prosperous middle folk. There was no grand gulf between Richard Henry Lee, whose membership in the aristocratic order can hardly be questioned, and young Thomas Marshall, who spent some years of his life in a log cabin. That cabin was also occupied by a daughter of the house of Randolph, Marshall’s wife. However, as the observer moves down the middle class, he sees not only a diminution of property but increasing inferiority in education, decorum, and taste. Manners become plainer and then simple; wine is succeeded by whisky and beer; the sword and pistol as means for settling personal disputes between males become fisticuffs, then fisticuffs accompanied by eyegouging, biting, and even assaults upon sexual organs; liberal learning is replaced by elementary education and that by illiteracy; clothing elegant in England changes to sober dress and ultimately to homespun; the minuet alters to country dances and then to jigs.”

The Old South had a permeable social structure.

There is no better example of this than President Andrew Jackson and his Vice President John C. Calhoun who dominated the antebellum era. Both were of Scots-Irish Backcountry ancestry. Slavery was also a middle class institution. The majority of slaveholders were simple farmers.

About Hunter Wallace 12380 Articles
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent


  1. “There were far more middle class farmers.”

    A Class of people, along with Cattlemen, that modern, Northern oriented historians, claim didn’t exist.

    It’s almost as if history as taught in today’s schools, is meant to inculcate bitterness, resentment and contempt in Northerners towards the South, and guilt and inferiority in Southerners.

    As and aside, there’s the ridiculous claim that the oldest working cattle ranch in North America is to be found in New York, or Massachusetts. I can’t recall which place, however.

    This must be news to the Spanish and Mexicans. Or even to North Carolinians and Virginians. It was to me, at the time I heard it.

    • James Owen:

      It’s almost as if history as taught in today’s schools, is meant to inculcate bitterness, resentment and contempt in Northerners towards the South, and guilt and inferiority in Southerners.

      That’s precisely what it’s intended to do. But it isn’t just “history as taught in today’s schools” that is guilty of this charge; it is “history” as taught in yesterday’s schools as well. This is nothing new. Consider the following passages extracted from a little book titled The Confederate Cause and Conduct in the War Between the States:

      Accordingly, we offer for your adoption the following resolutions: Resolved,

      1.That this committee, after due examination and consideration of the merits of the several histories recently put upon the list by the State Board of Education for use in the public schools of Virginia, earnestly protests against the retention on the list of the history by Professor John Fiske, of Cambridge, Mass., and of Cooper, Estill and Lemon’s “Our Country,” and urge that the said histories be eliminated from said list.

      2.That we likewise earnestly urge that the histories objected to above be not taught in the private schools of the State, and that we appeal to the parents of the school children of Virginia to aid in securing their exclusion.

      3.That in our judgment, we cannot now use Northern histories in Southern schools; and in action upon this resolution we invite the co-operation of the other Grand Camps of the South.

      4.That it is recommended to our “Confederate Camps ” to inquire into the cost and expediency of publishing and circulating throughout the State such a sketch of the errors that have been and now are being promulgated in Virginia as will rouse the young people falsely taught during past years to attempt their own reeducation.

      5. And, as a suggestion to the library committee of our various camps, that we recommend the reading of the following books and papers: “The Origin of the Late War,” by Mr. George Lunt, an attorney of Boston, published in 1866 (Appleton & Co.); a book to be read by our people, even at cost of steps to be taken to secure its republication. Lieutenant-Colonel Henderson’s “Campaigns of Stonewall Jackson,” the new edition of which it is hoped will be easily within our reach. Hon. J. L. M. Curry’s “Southern States and Constitution,” and also some of the very valuable works of Mr. John C. Lopes, of Boston.

      6.That the Grand Camp of the Confederate Veterans of Virginia earnestly appeal to all the other camps in the South to demand the elimination of all false histories from public and private schools; that they appoint committees, whose duty it shall be to see that this is done; to urge the Sons of Veterans and Daughters of the Confederacy to co-operate with them in this holy work, and to remember that unless this effort is made that the curse that belongs to those who dishonor father and mother will belong to them. All of which is respectfully submitted,

      Hunter McGuire, Chairman, Oct. 12, 1899

      This list of recommendations speaks for itself as to the motives of the authors of the “histories” in question, but do read the entirety of the report by all means.

  2. Just looking at the decade borders of settlement of NC is fascinating when one considers what was effectively a blitzkrieg on the part of the gold fevered Iberians in the rest of the New World.

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