Reading, Writing, And History

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All of this, to be sure, is an oddity out of the dim past, a bristling and readable polemic in a long-deserted forum; and yet, the world being what it is today, Fitzhugh’s argument has a disturbing, haunting quality that goes with no other pre-Civil War defense of slavery. A good part of the world today is ruled by a creed to which the Fitzhugh thesis would fit with very little readjustment. For millions upon millions of people, the turn to organized slavery has been made to seem like a welcome attainment of security, with the resultant loss in liberty and equality looking like “just nothing.” Fitzhugh himself would doubtless be horrified at the result, but if he was an eccentric prophet, he is not, at this date, entirely a dishonored one. As Mr. Woodward points out in his introduction: “Even in those societies where socialism is abhorred, mass production, mass organization and mass culture render his insights more meaningful than they ever were in the old order of individualism.” Of all the voices that were raised in defense of chattel slavery, Fitzhugh’s is the only one that still has a grim meaning.

A Voice in Rebuttal

This is not to say that the inverted world which Fitzhugh dimly envisioned is necessarily any more permanent than the slave-based society of the 1850’s was, or that the destruction of American chattel slavery was no more than an illusory advance. It does perhaps mean, however, that the values that were involved in the effort to end slavery are still worth re-examination, and that that entire chapter in American history continues to merit study. If freedom is under attack in so many parts of the world today, an intimate look at some of the things that happen when freedom does not exist at all can be valuable.

Testimony on this matter is available from Fitzhugh’s own era: a reprint (again in the John Harvard Library series) of the once-famous Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself , presented now in an edition edited by Benjamin Quarles. Douglass’ narrative makes a good companion piece for Cannibals All! The benefits of slavery, so eloquently upheld by Fitzhugh, seem totally invisible in this account written by a man who had himself been a slave.

Douglass wrote this book when the heat was still on. He escaped from slavery in 1838 and wrote his book in 1845, and there was at that time a fairly good chance that he might be seized and carried back into bondage; and in the days when he hammered the thing out, no one could say with any confidence that the institution of human slavery would not go on and on into the indefinite future. It was literally dangerous, when he wrote, for any man to say that he had given Frederick Douglass help; it was even more dangerous for Douglass himself to tell where he had come from and what had happened to him; and, all in all, here is a word coming out of the blackest pit, written at a time when freedom was a magic word and liberty was perhaps nothing better than a flickering marsh fire that would die unless someone was prepared to die for it.

Douglass did not know much about himself. Rather vaguely, he was aware that he had been born somewhere around 1817; he had seen his mother “to know her as such” no more than four or five times in his life, usually very briefly and at night, and he grew up knowing nothing better than the life of the stalled ox or the mule, a wholly owned creature with no rights that anyone was bound to respect. He did not come from the Deep South. Oddly enough, this man who wrote one of the most damning indictments of slavery was held in servitude in Maryland, where the institution was supposed to be mild and paternal, but where by his account it was as rough and as brutal as any human relationship can be. He never knew who his father was, but it was assumed on the plantation that the father was white—probably his own master and owner.

In a sense, what Douglass has to say about his life in bondage is the old familiar material: there was a great deal of physical cruelty, hard work and bad food and poor living quarters, an eternal tormenting knowledge of illimitable insecurity, and worst of all a complete, taken-for-granted denial of the slave’s right to be treated as a human being. He saw whippings and he experienced whippings, and before he reached his teens he learned that an overseer who administered cruel beatings but who did not seem to take personal delight in administering them was to be accounted a good and humane taskmaster. When he grew older and knew what words meant, he was able to write that the worst thing about being in bondage was “the dehumanizing character of slavery.”

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, edited by Benjamin Quarles. The Harvard University Press. 163 pp. $3.50.

Fitzhugh, who after all was a white man, was able to write that the man who lost liberty and equality had lost “just nothing,” but this man who had been born without the slightest chance to enjoy either would have contradicted him. He would have contradicted, indeed, every last item in the myth of the contented slave. He remarked, for instance, that slaves sang a great deal, and he had his comment on this fact: