| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
George Fitzhugh lived out, before the Civil War, a decline of the sort
that would be more typical of his class and race in the South after the war’s
end: the family’s plantation in Virginia had to be sold in the 1820s, and his
education came almost entirely by his own means. Yet Fitzhugh became a lawyer
and, by the 1850s, began to publish what became a “steady stream” of defenses
of the institution of slavery. Fitzhugh’s thinking is notable in that it took
the characteristic arguments for slavery to their logical extremes. If slavery
was a positive good, if its effects were benevolent for the entire society,
then—argued Fitzhugh—race should make no difference. Slavery was as good for
whites as it was for blacks. “To justify her own social system,” he wrote, “the
South...will have to justify the slavery principle...as natural, normal, and
necessitous....In the absence of negro slavery there must be white slavery,
else the white laboring class are remitted to slavery to capital, which is much
more cruel and exacting than domestic slavery,” he wrote (Faust, 277).
By 1856 Fitzhugh’s
work was well enough known to send him on a tour of the North to spread the
word. Northerners were horrified at his “professed support for white as well as
black slavery” (Faust, 273). Yet as the selection in this anthology shows, this
argument does not deviate from so much as it extends the arguments for slavery
that typified southern thought. For slavery as a system was logically separable
from race as a system.
the “social contractual theories of Locke and the ‘absurd’ and ‘dangerous’
principles of the Declaration of Independence” (Faust, 273), believing instead
that the healthy community depended on a particular sort of interdependence
among its members. That interdependence in turn depended on very clear
boundaries between social and economic entities: slave and master, for example,
male and female, and—in many other apologists’ thinking—black and white.
Southern thought ascribed to each group a set of roles and responsibilities
that it saw as natural and normal for that group’s identity. The
identities—seen to be equally natural and normal—established biological
differences between sexes and races as well.
in Fitzhugh and other less radical proslavery apologists comes in part from an
awareness that these notions did not die with the Confederacy. The Agrarians,
whose I’ll Take My Stand is excerpted in the introduction to the modern
period, picked up on their notions of interdependency and hierarchy, and in
particular used these ideas—as had the proslavery apologists—to mount a
critique of industrial capitalism. Thus the interest in proslavery writing
today derives in part from what these arguments shared with other critiques,
primarily Marxism, of the atomization of modern society. However “interested” their
position, proslavery apologists saw, or said they saw, slavery to be a humane,
and economically feasible antidote to the dissociations of wage employment. In
slavery, with its paternalistic “family black and white,” even (they would say
especially) a slave’s needs were met by the system holistically, from birth to
death, at work and away from it, in a community setting for which the factory
could be no match. Of course the fact of human ownership of other humans played
a light part in these arguments; however, such ownership was justified by the
Bible, according to the apologists, who pointed out their precedents in detail.
Fitzhugh, the most
radical of the apologists, managed to eke out a living in various minor
government positions—before the war in Washington at the attorney general’s
office, during it in the Confederacy in Richmond, and after it in the
Freedmen’s Bureau. In 1866 he left the Freedmen’s Bureau to return to his
war-devastated home in Port Royal, Virginia. His arguments against Reconstruction
and emancipation began to take a virulently racist cast missing from his
earlier separation of the issues. He sank into poverty and increasing silence,
and died in 1881.
Anne G. Jones|
In the Heath Anthology
from Southern Thought
Sociology for the South
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Cannibals All! or, Slaves Without Masters
Part of UNC's Documenting the South; provides the complete text of Fitzhugh's book including illustrations.
Derek on the Ideology of Slavery
A good summary of Fitzhugh's defenses of slavery.
Background information about and excerpts from Sociology of the South.
Eugene Genovese, The World the Slaveholders Made, 1969
Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America, 1955
Larry E. Tise, Proslavery, 1987
Harvey Wish, George Fitzhugh, 1943
C. Vann Woodward, "George Fitzhugh," in Cannibals All!, 1960