InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellers Contact Us
Access Author Profile Pages by:
 Resource Centers
Textbook Site for:
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

George Fitzhugh

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 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.

Southerners rejected 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.

Contemporary interest 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
University of Florida

In the Heath Anthology
from Southern Thought (1857)

Other Works
Slavery Justified (1851)
Sociology for the South (1854)

Cultural Objects
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?

There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.


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.

George Fitzhugh
Background information about and excerpts from Sociology of the South.

Secondary Sources

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