Commentary Magazine


Cannibals All, by George Fitzhugh

The Right to Be a Slave
Cannibals All!: Or, Slaves Without Masters.
by George Fitzhugh. Edited by C. Vann Woodward.
Harvard University Press. xxxix, 261 pp. $4.50.

 

The Harvard University Press is publishing a new historical series, the “John Harvard Library,” whose purpose is to rescue “significant books and documents from the American past,” hitherto long out of print and all but impossible to find, and to make them once more generally available. To include Cannibals All!, George Fitzhugh’s classic defense of ante-bellum Negro slavery, was something of an inspiration, particularly with the handsome format and the wonderfully subtle introductory essay by C. Vann Woodward.

Despite its wildly reactionary tone, this was probably the most imaginative book to emerge from all the polemics that formed the intellectual background of our Civil War. In it, the reader who is willing to make the effort may see American values and institutions through the eyes of a man who not only favored slavery but also hated precisely those elements of our culture—democracy, freedom of expression, capitalism, political and social equality—we define automatically as admirable and virtuous.

The South was convinced by the 1850′s, after twenty-five years of abolitionist agitation, that it was being deliberately victimized by a fanatical campaign to subvert its peace and security. Southern writers, therefore—like Southern politicians—naturally came to feel a patriotic responsibility for defending the values and mores of their homeland. George Fitzhugh accepted this duty with alacrity, played his role with a skill that bordered on genius, and became a leading figure in the debate over slavery. And yet history has left us a curiously unfocused picture of what Fitzhugh really represented, and at least two markedly different versions of what his ideas actually were. There were two Fitzhughs—the defender of slavery and the enemy of exploitative capitalism—and the student of ante-bellum culture is at least obliged to assess the two separately before re-combining them.

As a “propagandist” in the modern, demagogic sense of the word, George Fitzhugh was in many ways a failure. He was too logical, too uncompromising, and too honest. He refused, in his defense of slavery, to use the one argument—racial inferiority—that carried real weight in the North despite all the abolitionists’ equalitarian polemics. He scorned any justification of slavery which would require that the Negro be defined as anything less than a full human being. The whole point for Fitzhugh was that although admittedly few Negroes were capable of living as free men, neither was the vast majority of any race. “We conclude,” he announced, “that about nineteen out of every twenty individuals have ‘a natural and inalienable right’ to be taken care of and protected, to have guardians, trustees, husbands, or masters; in other words, they have a natural and inalienable right to be slaves.” Since slavery was the most sensible arrangement for the average human being, it was the moral duty of the South to say so, and to “vindicate that institution in the abstract.” Vindicating slavery in the abstract, however, was hardly the way to win support for Southern views in an increasingly libertarian North. “To secure true progress, we must unfetter genius and chain down mediocrity. Liberty for the few—Slavery in every form for the mass.” When George Fitzhugh said that, incredulous Northerners must have thought they were hearing a declaration of war on free society.

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But why, if Fitzhugh hoped to influence Northern public opinion (and the evidence is clear that he did), was he so unconcerned about the feelings and attitudes of the average Northerner? It was not a matter of obtuseness; on the contrary, Fitzhugh was probably the most sensitive of the Southern writers, carefully avoiding personal insult even when dealing with a master of invective like Garrison, and never questioning the good faith of the South’s bitterest enemies. Unlike other Southern writers he could credit an abolitionist with good sense, especially when it could be turned to his own advantage, which was often. I believe that the key to this paradox, and to the special quality of Fitzhugh’s writing, is that he was not addressing the average Northerner at all; he was addressing the very men whom his fellow Southerners feared and hated most while disdaining to hold true discourse with them: the intellectual leaders of the antislavery movement. Fitzhugh was probably the only writer on either side of the Mason-Dixon line who made a serious effort to engage the best minds of the opposition in real debate rather than rhetorical argument. He used every device to call Northern attention to his books. His polemical style was deliberately designed to cut through the moral complacency which (he thought) blinded even the most perceptive Northern critics to the realities of Southern slavery and—equally important—to the facts of American capitalism. This is why Fitzhugh’s favorite tactic for defending slavery was to assume the offensive, and lash out against this or that cruelty or hypocrisy in Northern life.

At the core of Fitzhugh’s attack on free society was the assertion that its basic economic arrangement, capitalism, was merely a form of white slavery which enabled the capitalist to extract value from the laborer, the ultimate source of all value. He did not deny that the Southern planter took similar advantage of his slaves, but the planter in return provided care and security for the slave and his family throughout their lives. This, Fitzhugh insisted, was why the planter’s profits were less than those of the Northern factory owner. Over the long run “the master allows the slave to retain a larger share of the results of his own labor than do the employees of free labor.”

In the end we are “cannibals all”; everywhere the strong take what advantage they can of the weak. But Southern society, unlike that of the North, had long recognized the inevitability of exploitation (civilized life could not be maintained otherwise), and had taken steps to mitigate its worst abuses. When the weak were made the property of the strong, the latter were in effect guaranteeing to the former the basic needs of life. The slave, by his very dependency, had claims on his master, and a power over him, that were denied the free laborer. The economic unit which was thus created took its values and standards from the family rather than from the marketplace. Northern society, meanwhile, insisted that all men were equal (when in fact they were nothing of the sort), and thus the strong were actively encouraged to exploit the weak in a setting where every man was “free” to drive the best, or worst, possible bargain he could get.

This marketplace morality was universally accepted in the North as a natural corollary to individual freedom and equality. In such an exploitative setting the generous emotions of family life must be confined to the precincts of the family circle. In the South, on the other hand, according to Fitzhugh, the patriarchal structure of the plantation blurred the sharp line between family and labor force; family standards were not limited to the family group but were projected outward and allowed to permeate every aspect of community life. This was the secret of the South’s great stability; the South was free from the social and political agitation that plagued the rest of the country.

Using the same material that Karl Marx would use ten years later in Das Kapital, Fitzhugh predicted that the exploitation of labor in Northern society, driven by self-interest, would become steadily worse. He saw a drift into a grim economic jungle, a drift not easily arrested since its basic cause was an unrestricted individualism which the Western world—the Northern United States above all—mistakenly called “progress.”

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William Lloyd Garrison exploded when he read this, but he nonetheless had to admit the adroitness of Fitzhugh’s attacks on free society. The modern reader is himself baffled by the strange mixture of insight and blindness that seems to characterize so much of Fitzhugh’s work. Fitzhugh’s picture of Northern society was grossly unfair, but the Virginian perceived with great accuracy things that many another thinker would not get around to seeing until about 1890, not the least of which was the strong pharisaical strain in bourgeois liberalism. At the same time his commitment to a patriarchal order, as C. Vann Woodward points out, was neither insincere nor unreasonable. “The anthropological, sociological, and political realities of Virginian society,” Woodward comments, “were those of the patriarchal family.” The ideas of George Fitzhugh were certainly as deeply rooted in the life of Northern Virginia as was the liberalism of such enlightened patriarchs as Patrick Henry, Washington, and Jefferson.

There are just two large catches in this whole question of George Fitzhugh, “sociologist of the South.” One is that both he and the Virginian past out of which he wrote represented something rather special and apart. As for the ante-bellum South as a whole, however, it was not a patriarchal society any more at all (if indeed it ever had been), nor was Southern slavery a patriarchal institution. It was a capitalistic one. The planter was above all a businessman producing a staple crop for a world market and his plantation represented a heavy capital investment in land and labor which he might very well lose if he could not operate it at a profit. His concern with such matters as labor costs, efficiency, and overhead was not unlike that of the Northern factory owner, while a plantation managed by an overseer for a non-resident owner had far more in common with a factory than with a patriarchal family. The legal system that supported Negro slavery, moreover, contained no “family” rights for the slave whatever, though in its concern for the property rights of the master it reflected at every point the needs of a profoundly capitalistic culture.

The other catch involves the perennial problem of whether you judge a man’s ideas on their merits or consider the setting out of which he produced them and in which they had their effect. The alternatives are never that simple, of course, but some such dilemma must always plague any exercise in intellectual history. In the last analysis the only side of George Fitzhugh to which anyone, North or South, would listen was Fitzhugh the pro-slavery apologist, Fitzhugh the passionate defender of a South whose distinctive institution was Negro slavery.

The thinkers of North and South never made contact with each other as intellectuals. What would have happened if they had, and if each had really listened? Fitzhugh would have been forced to recognize, and admit, that slavery as the South practiced it was intensely capitalistic. His Northern counterpart would have had to see the extent to which the language of individualism, equality, and self-reliance was the language of exploitation. And what then? What of the constituencies that supported these men as spokesmen for their sections? They would have paid no further attention. The spokesmen would have been spokesmen no longer, and history might very likely have reflected not a trace of them.

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