In Praise of Slavery

The intellectuals who had to defend black slavery could hardly have relished their assignment, but George Fitzhugh was the exception. In books like Sociology for the South and Cannibals All! he extols a social system that no one really liked and he does so with force and clarity. Fitzhugh displays no passion when he briefly asserts black inferiority, saying nothing more than most 19th century Northerners would have believed to be obvious. He saves his venom for his real enemies: Adam Smith and the idea of free enterprise.

For Fitzhugh, as for other critics of freedom, all voluntary exchanges involve exploitation, "Trade is a war of the wits, in which the stronger witted are as sure to succeed as the stronger armed in a war with swords. Though writing a decade before Das Kapital, he is a compendium of communist dialectics against free enterprise. He paints the usual dreary picture of the Victorian laborer, exploited in unhealthy factories by day and exploited in grimy rented rooms by night. But like Marx, Fitzhugh glorifies the accumulation of capital in responsible hands, "All great enterprises owe their success to association of capital and labor." Indeed, he claims that the plantation achieved what the Bolsheviks only promised, ”With negro slaves, their wages invariably increase with their wants. The master increases the provision for the family as the family increases in number and helplessness. It is a beautiful example of communism, where each one receives not according to his labor, but according to his wants.”

Fitzhugh offers an ideal life for the slave; slavery would ”render labor more efficient, relieve the laborer of many of the cares of household affairs, and protect and support him in sickness and in old age, besides preventing the too great reduction of wages by redundancy of labor and free competition.” Furthermore, the slave would be relieved from the burden of  "finding a home, and procuring employment and attending to all the domestic wants and concerns."  If all these inducements remind you of the promises of modern politicians, there’s no wonder. Fitzhugh says it himself, ”socialism is the new fashionable name of slavery.”

He naturally opposes free trade, partly because Southerners felt victimized by Northern markets and partly because he hated any free activity. His perfect society is a small area cut off from access to markets where "every trade, every art, every science, must be taught and practiced within a small compass and by a small population in order to gratify their wants and their tastes." Civilization, wealth, and art would be the result. But if a river like the Mississippi opened foreign markets so that the population could specialize in one or two products, misery, poverty, and degradation would soon follow. These ideals of self-sufficiency and population limitation remind us of modern conservationists’ utopias, in particular, the Green Party’s small ecologically correct states. Of course, it’s easy to construct social perfection when you are using slaves.

Fitzhugh also favored the more socialistic aspects of feminisw. Some of today’s women who call for state funded by day care centers, compulsory family leave, and other state mandated programs to ensure female parity in the work force have a champion in the old Southerner, "Woman fares worst when thrown into this warfare of competition...she is reduced to the necessity of getting less than half price for her work." Of course the slave is not subject to this problem or to the evils of domestic violence, "The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husband by their masters." Fitzhugh tells us a truth that the advocates of the welfare state don’t want to hear, a hideous truth:  "Slavery is a form, and the very best form, of socialism." However much the socialist hates this idea, Fitzhugh has a very strong argument for his claim, "A man loves not only his horse and his cattle, which are useful to him, but he loves his dog, which is of no use. He loves them because they are his. What a wise and beneficent provision of Heaven, that makes the selfishness of man’s nature a protecting aegis to shield and defend wife and children, slaves, and even dumb animals."

Contemporary Americans demand no more of their masters. Let the bureaucrats who take our money be honest and just. Let those who spend that money be wise. Let our welfare workers care about their charges. Let the whole government act in love and all will be well. Fitzhugh understands the conflict far better than our fellow citizens, "We deem this peculiar question of negro slavery of little importance. The issue is made throughout the world on the general subject of slavery in the abstract. The argument has commenced. One set of ideas will govern and control after a while the civilized world." If we look at our world honestly, we must admit that human slavery has won the struggle, at least for now. [Fitzhugh’s essays and those of Hinton Rowan Helper, the Southern abolitionist, can be found in Putnam’s Antebellum, edited by Harvey Wish, Library of Congress number 60-7663.]