Ironically, historian Corey Robin rebuts claims that he believes in false consciousness by citing strong evidence of its existence. Robin argues:
[T]he lower orders often join, and have good reason to join, the conservative cause: in fending off a democratic movement from below, conservatism gives them a taste of lordly power they otherwise would not enjoy.
For a description of the “taste” afforded poor whites in the ante-bellum South, Robin quotes South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun (he who called slavery “a positive good”) as follows: “With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class.”
These words are culled from Calhoun’s Speech on the Oregon Bill. Robin’s point is that even poor non-slave owning whites derived value from the ultra-conservative institution of slavery. Accordingly, their support of it was rational not the product of false consciousness.
Calhoun, who owned two plantations, well over 1,000 acres, and 150 slaves at the apogee of his wealth, was hardly unbiased when it comes to the costs and benefits slavery imposed on slaves and poor whites. Even so, a look at the quote in a broader context shows that the Senator understood quite well that poor whites enjoyed psychological rather than tangible benefits from the peculiar institution.
There is no part of the world were agricultural, mechanical, and other descriptions of labor are more respected than in the South, with the exception of two descriptions of employment—that of menial and body servants. No Southern man—not the poorest or the lowest—will, under any circumstance, submit to perform either of them. He has too much pride for that, and I rejoice that he has. They are unsuited to the spirit of a freeman. But the man who would spurn them feels not the least degradation to work in the same field with his slave; or to be employed to work with them in the same field or in any mechanical operation; and, when so employed, they claim the right,—and are admitted, in the country portion of the South—of sitting at the table of their employers. Can as much, on the score of equality, be said of the North? With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals, if honest and industrious; and hence have a position and pride of character of which neither poverty nor misfortune can deprive them.
Calhoun differentiates poor whites from black slaves in the slave-owning South in three ways: 1) Poor whites will not under any circumstances submit to “menial” labor or the work of “body servants”. 2) They get paid when working in the fields next to slaves. 3) They are granted the right, at least in country districts, to sit at the table with their employers.
Taken at face value, these “benefits” hardly seem so “lordly” that they would, without more, reconcile the impoverished to the slavery of others. Moreover, Calhoun contradicts his contention that poor whites are too proud to perform menial tasks when he includes “working with [slaves] in the same field” as work poor whites will do without degradation.
One also has to wonder about the costs slavery imposes on poor whites to which Calhoun alludes obliquely in noting that “poverty” and “misfortune” beset them. Slavery likely caused or at a minimum significantly aggravated both. Unpaid black laborers obviously made it much harder for paid laborers to find work and kept wages artificially low. Additionally, the outsize profits that the aristocrats realized from exploiting very inexpensive labor inflated the price of fertile land making it tougher for the 99% to become landowners.
If indeed the advantages slavery conferred on poor whites were as paltry as Calhoun describes and the costs as significant as they seem, only the psychological value, i.e., false consciousness, of “belonging to the upper class” kept poor whites solidly in favor of perpetual bondage for most blacks.
In his Personal Memoirs, President Ulysses S. Grant describes the plight of poor Southern whites on the eve of the Civil War:
The great bulk of the legal voters of the South were men who owned no slaves; their homes were generally in the hills and poor country; their facilities for educating their children, even up to the point of reading and writing, were very limited; their interest in the contest was very meagre–what there was, if they had been capable of seeing it, was with the North; they too needed emancipation. Under the old regime they were looked down upon by those who controlled all the affairs in the interest of slave-owners, as poor white trash who were allowed the ballot so long as they cast it according to direction.
Given their sorry state, why did poor Southern whites support the aristocratic class up to and including secession? Like Calhoun, Grant provides an extensive answer.
There is little doubt in my mind now that the prevailing sentiment of the South would have been opposed to secession in 1860 and 1861, if there had been a fair and calm expression of opinion, unbiased by threats, and if the ballot of one legal voter had counted for as much as that of any other. But there was no calm discussion of the question. Demagogues who were too old to enter the army if there should be a war, others who entertained so high an opinion of their own ability that they did not believe they could be spared from the direction of the affairs of state in such an event, declaimed vehemently and unceasingly against the North; against its aggressions upon the South; its interference with Southern rights, etc., etc. They denounced the Northerners as cowards, poltroons, negro-worshippers; claimed that one Southern man was equal to five Northern men in battle; that if the South would stand up for its rights the North would back down.
In specific, Grant contends, “there was a firm feeling that a class existed in every State with a sort of divine right to control public affairs”. John Calhoun and Ulysses Grant were two well-positioned and articulate observers of the pre-war South. The former was an unapologetic Southern defender of slavery the other a Northerner who described it as a cause that was “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
Still, both agreed that slavery conferred few if any tangible benefits on poor Southern whites. Yet the poor white majority deferred invariably to the opposing interests of the economic elite either because the former identified themselves as “upper class” or due to propaganda. Assuming Calhoun and Grant are right, it is hard to come up with a better example of false consciousness than poor southern white support for slavery.