Reading, Writing, And History

In Defense of Slavery

One century ago there were plenty of Americans who spoke and wrote in defense of the institution of human slavery. There was a wealth of literature designed to prove not merely that slavery was a necessary evil which could be eradicated only at the cost of a social and economic convulsion, but that it was a positive good, a proper way to get the world’s work done. To a comparatively large proportion of Americans this argument seemed logical and convincing.

Then came the Civil War, and slavery went out of existence. It died for a number of reasons, one of them apparently being that it was the one human institution on earth that could not be defended by force of arms, a bigger one perhaps lying in the fact that it simply could not be an enduring foundation for what, after all, was by its origins and its traditions a free society. When slavery died, the attempts to justify it died. American society followed a new line of development, and the impassioned, laboriously reasoned literature which had grown up in slavery’s defense became meaningless.

But the course the world has followed in the past century has not quite been the one that seemed inevitable in the unquiet and exhausted dawn that followed Appomattox. Then the individual man’s right to be complete master of his own fate looked like a thing guaranteed forever. It was not possible to see that within one hundred years there would be slave societies of a new kind, as coercive and restrictive as anything the cotton belt ever knew, taking on an air of permanence and engendering their own abundant literature of justification.

Of all the Americans who spoke in defense of slavery, one man, perhaps, did have a notion of what might lie ahead. George Fitzhugh, of Caroline, Virginia, has been pronounced “the most logical reactionary in the South,” and he thought his way more deeply into the origins and meanings of slavery than any of its other advocates. He embodied his thoughts in a bristling book entitled Cannibals All! , and this book, with an excellent introduction by C. Vann Woodward, has just been reissued in the Harvard University Press’s John Harvard Library series.

What made Fitzhugh different was that he argued from a different base. Other defenders of the institution were at least, fundamentally, believers in a free society, heirs to the libertarian tradition to which all Americans subscribed. Fitzhugh said flatly that “the unrestricted exploitation of so-called free society is more oppressive to the laborer than domestic slavery.” Wage slavery he considered worse than chattel slavery, the idea of human progress he believed to be a delusion, and laissez-faire capitalism struck him as an unmitigated evil. The experiment in liberty and equality, so hopefully undertaken in America and in France, he believed a flat failure. Society, he asserted, was “marching to the utter abandonment of the most essential institutions—religion, family ties, property and the restraints of justice.”

Cannibals All! or, Slaves without Masters, by George Fitzhugh, edited by C. Vann Woodward. The Harvard University Press. 320 pp. $4.25.

Fitzhugh, in short, approved of practically nothing that had happened in the world in the past two centuries. John Locke and the Enlightenment, the whole development of libertarian thought and principles on which all American public men, both North and South, took their stand—all of this, to Fitzhugh, was wrong, productive of evil rather than good. England’s “Glorious Revolution” he held a tragic mistake; throne, church, and nobility had lost their power, the House of Commons represented only land and money, and under its despotic rule “the masses have become outlaws.” Free society, in Fitzhugh’s eyes, exploited its laborers more cruelly than slave society: “It exacts more of its slaves, and neither protects nor governs them.”

To buttress his case, Fitzhugh turned to the wealth of material then available on miserable working and living conditions that the early industrial revolution was inflicting on the English proletariat. He used, as a matter of fact, a great deal of the same material Karl Marx was using, indicting capitalism in much the same way Marx indicted it, asserting that exploitation of the worker was the inevitable result of free capitalism: “It is to the interest of the capitalist and the skillful to allow free laborers the least possible portion of the fruits of their own labor; for all capital is created by labor, and the smaller the allowance of the free laborer, the greater the gains of his employer. To treat free laborers badly and unfairly, is universally inculcated as a moral duty, and the selfishness of man’s nature prompts him to the most rigorous performance of this cannibalish duty.”

Indeed, Fitzhugh asserted that slavery was a form of communism, the slave having a vested right to all of the necessities of life; so, “as the Abolitionists and Socialists have resolved to adopt a new social system, we recommend it to their consideration.” White wage earners in the North, he argued, would be better off if formally enslaved as southern Negroes were enslaved: “They would work no harder than they do now … would be relieved of most of the cares of life, and let into the enjoyment of all valuable and necessary rights.” As to the price these laborers would have to pay he had a contemptuous answer: “What would they lose in liberty and equality? Just nothing.”