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Plain Folk of the Old South

Plain Folk of the Old South is a 1949 book by Vanderbilt University historian Frank Lawrence Owsley, one of the Southern Agrarians. In it he used statistical data to analyze the makeup of Southern society, contending that yeoman farmers made up a larger middle class than was generally thought.[1]


  • Historical perspectives 1
    • Views of Olmsted, Dodd, and Phillips 1.1
    • Frank Lawrence Owsley 1.2
    • Recent scholarship 1.3
  • See also 2
  • References 3
  • Further reading 4

Historical perspectives

Historians have long debated the social, economic, and political roles of Southern Crackers."[2]

In the colonial and antebellum years, subsistence farmers tended to settle in the back country and uplands. They generally did not raise commodity crops and owned few or no slaves. In the years before the American Revolution, Ulster Scots and English from the northern counties (of England) predominated in the settlement of the hinterlands. Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democrats favored the term "yeoman" for a land-owning farmer. It emphasized an independent political spirit and economic self-reliance.[3]

Views of Olmsted, Dodd, and Phillips

Northerners such as Frederick Law Olmsted, who traveled in and wrote about the 1850s South, through the early 20th-century historians such as William E. Dodd and Ulrich B. Phillips, assessed common southerners as minor players in antebellum social, economic, and political life of the South.

Twentieth-century romantic portrayals of the antebellum South, such as Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone with the Wind (1936) and the 1939 film adaptation, mostly ignored the yeomen. The nostalgic view of the South emphasized the elite planter class of wealth and refinement, controlling large plantations and numerous slaves.

Novelist Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road portrayed the degraded condition of whites dwelling beyond the great plantations.[4]

Frank Lawrence Owsley

The major challenge to the view of planter dominance came from historian Frank Lawrence Owsley in Plain Folk of the Old South (1949). His work ignited a long historiographical debate.[5] Owsley started with the work of Daniel R. Hundley, who in 1860 had defined the southern middle class as "farmers, planters, traders, storekeepers, artisans, mechanics, a few manufacturers, a goodly number of country school teachers, and a host of half-fledged country lawyers, doctors, parsons, and the like".[6] To find these people, Owsley turned to the name-by-name files on the manuscript federal census. Using their own newly invented codes, the Owsleys created databases from the manuscript federal census returns, tax and trial records, and local government documents and wills. They gathered data on all southerners. Historian Vernon Burton described Owsley's Plain Folk of the Old South, as "one of the most influential works on southern history ever written".[7]

Plain Folk argued that southern society was not dominated by planter aristocrats, but that yeoman farmers played a significant role in it. The religion, language, and culture of these common people created a democratic "plain folk" society. Critics say Owsley overemphasized the size of the southern landholding middle class, while excluding the large class of poor whites who owned neither land nor slaves. Owsley believed that shared economic interests united southern farmers; critics suggest the vast difference in economic classes between the elite and subsistence farmers meant they did not have the same values or outlook.[2]

Recent scholarship

In his study of Edgefield County, South Carolina, Orville Vernon Burton classified white society into the poor, the yeoman middle class, and the elite. A clear line demarcated the elite, but according to Burton, the line between poor and yeoman was less distinct. Stephanie McCurry argues that yeomen were clearly distinguished from poor whites by their ownership of land (real property). Yeomen were "self-working farmers", distinct from the elite because they physically labored on their land alongside any slaves they owned. Planters with numerous slaves had work that was essentially managerial, and often they supervised an overseer rather than the slaves themselves.[8]

Wetherington (2005) argues the plain folk (of Georgia) supported secession to defend their families, homes, and notions of white liberty. During the war, the established patriarchy continued to control the home front and kept it functioning, even though growing numbers of plain folk joined the new wartime poor. Wetherington suggests that their localism and racism dovetailed with a republican ideology founded on Jeffersonian notions of an "economically independent yeomanry sharing common interests".[9] Plain folk during the war raised subsistence crops and vegetables and relied on a free and open range to hunt hogs. Examples of these conditions can be seen in the award-winning novel Cold Mountain.

Before the war, they became more active in the cotton and slave markets, but plain folk remained unwilling to jeopardize their self-sufficiency and the stability of their neighborhoods for the economic interests of planters. The soldiers had their own reasons for fighting. First and foremost, they sought to protect hearth and home from Yankee threats.

  • Arson, Steven, "Yeoman Farmers in a Planters' Republic: Socioeconomic Conditions and Relations in Early National Prince George’s County, Maryland,” Journal of the Early Republic, 29 (Spring 2009), 63–99.
  • Ash, S. V. (1991). "Poor Whites in the Occupied South, 1861–1865". The Journal of Southern History 57 (1): 39–62.  
  • Atack, Jeremy. "The Agricultural Ladder Revisited: A New Look at an Old Question with Some Data for 1860," Agricultural History Vol. 63, No. 1 (Winter, 1989), pp. 1–25 in JSTOR
  • Atack, Jeremy. "Tenants and Yeomen in the Nineteenth Century," Agricultural History, Vol. 62, No. 3, (Summer, 1988), pp. 6–32 in JSTOR
  • Bolton, Charles C. "Planters, Plain Folk, and Poor Whites in the Old South." in Lacy K. Ford, ed., A Companion to the Civil War and Reconstruction, (2005) 75–93.
  • Bolton, Charles C. Poor Whites of the Antebellum South: Tenants and Laborers in Central North Carolina and Northeast Mississippi (Duke University Press, 1994).
  • Bruce Jr., Dickson D. And They All Sang Hallelujah: Plain Folk Camp Meeting Religion, 1800–1845 (1974)
  • Burton, Orville Vernon. In My Father's House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina (1985)
  • Campbell, Randolph B. Campbell and Richard G. Lowe. Planters & Plain Folk: Agriculture in Antebellum Texas. (1987)
  • Campbell, Randolph B. "Planters and Plain Folks: The Social Structure of the Antebellum South," in John B. Boles and Evelyn Thomas Nolen, eds., Interpreting Southern History(1987), 48–77;
  • Campbell, Randolph B. Campbell and Richard G. Lowe. Wealth and Power in Antebellum Texas (1977)
  • Carey, Anthony Gene. "Frank L. Owsley's Plain Folk of the Old South after Fifty Years," in Glenn Feldman, ed., Reading Southern History: Essays on Interpreters and Interpretations (2001)
  • Cash, Wilbur J. The Mind of the South (1941), famous classic
  • Flynt, J. Wayne Dixie's Forgotten People: The South's Poor Whites (1979). deals with 20th century.
  • Cecil-Fronsman, Bill. Common Whites: Class and Culture in Antebellum North Carolina (1992)
  • Delfino, Susanna, Michele Gillespie, and Louis M. Kyriakoudes, eds. Southern Society and Its Transformation (U of Missouri Press; 2011) 248pp. Scholarly essays on ante-bellum working poor, non-slaveholding whites, and small planters and other "middling" property holders
  • Genovese, Eugene D. "Yeomen Farmers in a Slaveholders' Democracy," Agricultural History Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr. 1975), pp. 331–342 in JSTOR
  • Hahn, Steven. The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850–1890 (1983)
  • Harris, J. William. Plain Folk and Gentry in a Slave Society: White Liberty and Black Slavery in Augusta's Hinterlands (1985)
  • Hyde Jr., Samuel C. ed., Plain Folk of the South Revisited (1997).
  • Hyde, Jr.; Samuel, C. (2005). "Plain Folk Reconsidered: Historiographical Ambiguity in Search of Definition". Journal of Southern History 71 (4): 803–830.  
  • Hyde Jr., Samuel C. "Plain Folk Yeomanry in the Antebellum South," in John Boles, Jr., ed., Companion to the American South, (2004) pp 139–55
  • Hundley, Daniel R. Social Relations in Our Southern States (1860; reprint 1979)
  • Linden, Fabian. "Economic Democracy in the Slave South: An Appraisal of Some Recent Views," Journal of Negro History, 31 (April 1946), 140–89 in JSTOR; emphasizes statistical inequality
  • Kwas, Mary L. "Simon T. Sanders and the Meredith Clan: The Case for Kinship Studies,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly (Oct. 2006): 250–273.
  • Lowe, Richard G. and Randolph B. Campbell, Planters and Plain Folk: Agriculture in Antebellum Texas (1987)
  • Osthaus, Carl R. (2004). "The Work Ethic of the Plain Folk: Labor and Religion in the Old South". Journal of Southern History 70 (4): 745–82.  
  • McCurry, Stephanie. Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country (1995),
  • McWhiney, Grady. In Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South (1988)
  • Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975).
  • Newby, I. A. Plain Folk in the New South: Social Change and Cultural Persistence, 1880–1915 (1989). concentrates on the poorest whites
  • Osterhaus, Carl R. (2004). "The Work Ethic of the Plain Folk: Labor and Religion in the Old South". Journal of Southern History 70 (4): 745–782.  
  • Otto, John Solomon (1985). "The Migration of the Southern Plain Folk: An Interdisciplinary Synthesis". Journal of Southern History 51 (2): 183–200.  
  • Otto, John Solomon (1987). "Plain Folk, Lost Frontiersmen, and Hillbillies: The Southern Mountain Folk in History and Popular Culture". Southern Studies 26: 5–17. 
  • Otto, John Solomon (1983). "Southern Plain 'Folk' Agriculture: A Reconsideration". Plantation Society in the Americas 2 (1): 29–36. 
  • Owsley, Frank Lawrence. Plain Folk of the Old South (1949), the classic study
  • Owsley, Frank Lawrence; Owsley, Harriet C. (1940). "The Economic Basis of Society in the Late Ante-Bellum South". Journal of Southern History 6 (1): 24–25.  
  • Rogers, Tommy W. (1970). "D. R. Hundley: A Multi-Class Thesis of Social Stratification in the Antebellum South". Mississippi Quarterly 23 (2): 135–154. 
  • Schaefer, Donald (1978). "Yeomen Farmers and Economic Democracy: A Study of Wealth and Economic Mobility in the Western Tobacco Region, 1850–1860". Explorations in Economic History 15 (4): 421–437.  
  • Sherrod, Ricky L. (2009). "Plain Folk, Planters, and the Complexities of Southern Society: Kinship Ties in Nineteenth-Century Northwest Louisiana and Northeast Texas". Southwestern Historical Quarterly 113 (1): 1–31. 
  • Wetherington, Mark V. Plain Folk's Fight: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Piney Woods Georgia (2005)
  • Wiley, Bell I. The Plain People of the Confederacy (1963)
  • Wilkison, Kyle G. Yeomen, Sharecroppers and Socialists: Plain Folk Protest in Texas, 1870–1914. (2008).
  • Winters, Donald L. (1987). "'Plain Folk' of the Old South Reexamined: Economic Democracy in Tennessee". Journal of Southern History 53 (4): 565–586.  
  • Woodward, C. Vann. Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1938). on Georgia leader 1890–1920 online edition
  • Wright, Gavin (1970). "'Economic Democracy' and the Concentration of Agricultural Wealth in the Cotton South, 1850–1860". Agricultural History 44 (1): 63–93.  , a statistical critique of Owsley

Further reading

  1. ^ Carey (2001)
  2. ^ a b Hyde (2005)
  3. ^ Campbell (1987)
  4. ^ Darden Asbury, Pyron (1981). "The Inner War of Southern History". Southern Studies: an Interdisciplinary Journal of the South 20 (1): 5–19. 
  5. ^ Hyde (1997)
  6. ^ Hundley (1860); Tommy W. Rogers, "D. R. Hundley: A Multi-Class Thesis of Social Stratification in the Antebellum South," Mississippi Quarterly 1970 23(2): 135–154
  7. ^ Vernon O. Burton, "Frank Lawrence Owsley," in American National Biography, Volume 16 ed by John Arthur Garraty (1985)
  8. ^ Burton (1985)
  9. ^ Wetherington (2005) p, 12
  10. ^ Wetherington (2005)
  11. ^ Wetherington (2005) p. 171
  12. ^ Hahn (1983)


See also

During Reconstruction Era after the war, plain folk split. Most supported the conservative (or Democratic Party) position, but some were "Scalawags" who supported the Republicans for a while.[12]

As the war dragged on, hardship became a way of life. Wetherington reports that enough men remained home to preserve the paternalistic social order, but there were too few to prevent mounting deprivation. Wartime shortages increased the economic divide between planters and yeoman farmers; nevertheless, some planters took seriously their paternalistic obligations by selling their corn to plain folk at the official Confederate rate "out of a spirit of patriotism."[11] Wetherington's argument weakens other scholars' suggestions that class conflict led to Confederate defeat. More damaging to Confederate nationalism was the growing localism that grew, as areas had to fend for themselves as William Tecumseh Sherman's forces came nearer.


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