The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 23, 2014

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Fitzhugh, George
Mark C. Henrie - 04/22/11
Lifespan: (1806–1881)

Lawyer, sociologist, and political writer, George Fitzhugh was a leading figure in what has been called the “Reactionary Enlightenment” of the antebellum American South. In two books and numerous articles defending the Southern cause, Fitzhugh’s thought (an odd mixture of Romantic conservatism and radical political economy) resembled the work of fellow Confederates Albert Bledsoe and George Frederick Holmes, but his defense of Southern claims was unique. He did not restrict himself to Constitutional arguments, nor did he consider slavery simply a necessary evil. Rather, he championed the South’s peculiar institution as a positive social good and called for its expansion. He argued this without relying on racist beliefs about Negro inferiority; on the contrary, he explicitly doubted whether one man in twenty, black or white, was really fit to govern himself.

Fitzhugh’s formal schooling was meager, and he was not a systematic thinker: his books are rambling and eccentric. In Sociology of the South, or the Failure of Free Society (1854) and Cannibals All! or Slaves Without Masters (1857), Fitzhugh argued for the moral and practical superiority of “slave society” over “free society.” Citing with approval the account of capitalist injustice produced by the utopian socialists Robert Owen and Charles Fourier and their American follower, Horace Greeley, Fitzhugh held that all capital accumulation was the result of exploited labor. The scale of Northern economic success therefore itself proved free society the greater exploiter of human beings. Fitzhugh further argued that capitalist advance would inevitably drive the wage level below that necessary for human subsistence. At that point, the true humanity of the Southern slave system would be clear to all, since, according to Fitzhugh, slavery essentially extended the sphere of paternal care and protection while “slaves without masters,” those industrial workers trapped in Northern “wage slavery,” were abandoned to inhuman conditions.

For Fitzhugh, the only solution to nineteenth-century social problems was the extension of slavery. In a typically striking passage, he suggested that Northern philanthropists would better help mankind by purchasing slaves rather than freeing them. Against Lockean objections that men could not rationally consent to slavery, Fitzhugh posed “the strength of weakness,” and maintained that a system of civilized manners was adequate to protect slaves from the arbitrary willfulness of masters. The natural affection of the household or domestic sphere extended to slavery, he argued, made it benign while the absence of a natural familial tie in the Northern system of free labor made it intolerable. Fitzhugh did admit that “slavery without domestic affection would be a curse.”

Laced through these arguments are remarkable digressions recalling the theses of the continental European Reaction, such as Fitzhugh’s rejection of free trade as a Manchesterian heresy, his belief in a divine source of political authority, and his admiration of the Middle Ages. His writing emphasized the importance of familialism, and he frequently suggested that opposition to slavery was simply the first step in a more general social revolution against the family and Christianity—a laissez-faire system of “unmitigated selfishness” that neglected man’s social nature and resulted in social atomization.

One interpreter has suggested that Fitzhugh can best be understood as the inheritor of the Tory tradition of Sir Robert Filmer, whose Patriarcha (1680) contains arguments against which John Locke composed his Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690). It is certainly true that Fitzhugh hoped that “the revolution of 1861” would “roll back the Reformation in its political phases.” But Louis Hartz has suggested that such a voice in an America “born liberal,” without a feudal past, could amount only to a “fraud.” To Hartz, the South’s development from 1776 into the 1860s was the story of “imperfect Lockes” becoming “grossly imperfect Maistres.” The fundamentally un-American quality of Fitzhugh’s thought, Hartz argued, was manifest in his relegation to complete intellectual marginality after 1865. In the early 1990s, however, ex-Marxist historian Eugene Genovese responded to the collapse of communism by aggressively championing the insights of Fitzhugh. Genovese saw in Fitzhugh the best foundation in the American tradition on which to construct a needed antiliberal critique of the alienation and anomie within bourgeois society.

Further Reading
  • Genovese, Eugene. The Southern Tradition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.
  • Hartz, Louis. “The Feudal Dream of the South,” Part 4 of The Liberal Tradition in America. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1955, 1983.
  • Wish, Harvey. George Fitzhugh: Propagandist of the Old South. Mangolia, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1990.
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