Sociology for the South

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By the 1850s southerners had been wrestling with the moral problem of slavery for a long time. In 1776 a southern slaveholder, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), had declared that all men were created equal; six years later, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, he contemplated the institution of slavery as practiced in his state, a brutal contradiction of that idea, and said "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever" (p. 289). Many of his contemporaries eased their consciences by freeing their own slaves and devising plans for general emancipation. Later, when such plans came to seem unrealistic, their descendents turned to special pleading, trying to explain to themselves why southern slaves should be considered exceptions to the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. By then Jefferson had summarized these truths in a single proposition: "the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God" (p. 1517). Two generations of southerners spent their thinking lives caught between that ideal and the intransigent fact of slavery. So the effect was startling when, in a book published in 1854, another Virginian announced that "men are not 'born entitled to equal rights!' It would be far nearer the truth to say, 'that some were born with saddles on their backs, and others booted and spurred to ride them,'—and the riding does them good" (Fitzhugh, p. 179). Southerners knew they were seeing, as one reviewer of the book wrote, "something new under the sun" (De Bow's Review XIX, 1855).


The Virginian was an obscure forty-eight-year-old lawyer named George Fitzhugh (1806–1881); the book was Sociology for the South. It was a polemical defense of slavery, one of many such published in the south between 1830 and the Civil War. This defense had become the main (though never the only) preoccupation of southern intellectuals during these years, and the project stimulated a remarkable flurry of thought and writing. By 1860 these thinkers had worked out their arguments thoroughly enough that a kind of canon of representative texts could be established in a thick anthology entitled Cotton Is King. The book's editor, E. N. Elliott, made room for essays by political economists, social theorists, Bible scholars, and reputed experts in the new science of ethnology—but he made none for Fitzhugh, whose views were considered needlessly eccentric and extreme. Even a friendly reviewer of Sociology for the South warned that it was full of statements that must be taken with a grain of salt; a decidedly unfriendly reviewer, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), called Fitzhugh "the Don Quixote of slavedom" (Wish, p. 200). Yet Garrison thought him important enough to be worth arguing with. So did his fellow abolitionist Wendell Phillips (1811–1884), who publicly debated the Virginian, and so did Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), who borrowed one of his most famous statements, that the nation could not endure half slave and half free, from an unsigned editorial written by Fitzhugh. Many recent scholars have agreed with these northern foes, treating Fitzhugh as among the most important proslavery thinkers, perhaps the clearest spokesman for what one of them, the historian Eugene Genovese, has called "the slaveholders' philosophy" (p. v).

Fitzhugh called such attention to himself by being more radical and uncompromising, and also more philosophically abstract, than almost any other southern defender of slavery. He was never content to mark off southern slavery as a "peculiar institution," a singular exception to the rule of liberty and equality. Fitzhugh insisted that, far from being "peculiar," southern slavery was the current manifestation of a universal, immemorial, natural, and benevolent idea, the only humane relationship possible between weak people and strong ones. Liberty and equality were the historical anomalies, bizarre and destructive aberrations in social thought, coined only recently (during the Enlightenment) and already on their way to extinction.


Thus Fitzhugh gave his tract the subtitle "The Failure of Free Society." By that term he meant democratic capitalism, founded on the idea of the private, autonomous individual. Fitzhugh believed that this individual was in effect a fictional character created by John Locke (1632–1704), and therefore the founding idea of free society was false. Fitzhugh also believed that the economy set in motion by this theory, a system of unrestrained competition, was inevitably destructive, turning neighbors into enemies and society into a field of warfare, and inevitably ending with the strong crushing the weak. And he thought that he had discerned the shape of "free society's" history and could see that it was coming to an end right before his eyes. "The ink was hardly dry," he observed, "with which Adam Smith wrote his Wealth of Nations, lauding the benign influences of free society, ere the hunger and want and nakedness of that society engendered a revolutionary explosion that shook the world to its centre" (pp. 39–40).

The explosion in Paris in 1789 was not the last one; as recently as 1848 Europe had once more been shaken by political revolution, a shock wave Fitzhugh traced to its source in the continuing collapse of free society. The northern section of the United States was hardly better off; its cities were crowded with the desperate poor, victims of a heartless industrial order, and its academies and lyceums thronged with crazed reformers—socialists, Fourierists (followers of the French social theorist Charles Fourier), agrarians, and others—whose very existence was proof of a society on its last legs. But the American South, he maintained, was a different story: "Whilst all this hubbub and confusion is going on in France and England, occasioned by the intensest suffering of the free laborers, we of the South... have been 'calm as a summer's evening,' quite unconscious of the storm brewing around us" (p. 65).

The reason for this southern exceptionalism, Fitzhugh proposed, was slavery. Unlike free laborers, who were helpless victims of the marketplace, "slaves never die of hunger; seldom suffer want" (p. 48). The free laborer was bound to his employer only by a temporary contract; he could be fired as soon as he ceased to be useful. The slave, however, was the permanent responsibility of his master, who was bound by law and morality to care for him, or else to sell him to someone who could. Therefore the slave, "when night comes, may lie down in peace. He has a master to watch over and take care of him" (p. 167). "It is domestic slavery alone," Fitzhugh concluded, "that can establish a safe, efficient and humane community of property. It did so in ancient times, it did so in feudal times, and does so now, in Eastern Europe, Asia and America" (pp. 47–48). He in fact understood southern slavery as a latter-day incarnation of the feudal system, in which lords and serfs were bound to each other by unbreakable ties of mutual obligation. The displacement of that humane system by "free society" was for him a historical catastrophe from which the Western world was still reeling.


Now "free society" in the North and Europe had its own social critics, who had identified many of the same problems that Fitzhugh noted and had offered their own solutions. Fitzhugh prided himself on his knowledge of these advanced thinkers—Charles Fourier (1772–1837), the French emperor Louis-Napoleon (1808–1873), the English novelist Charles Kingsley (1819–1875), and many others—whom he tended to lump together under the label "socialist." He never cited his contemporary Karl Marx (1818–1883), but the two breathed the same intellectual air during their formative years, and it is important to recognize that Marx's world, the world of European radicalism, was the one that fascinated Fitzhugh.

Although he was a conservative, Fitzhugh wanted a voice in that radical conversation, and although he was a provincial Virginian who had rarely left his home state, he felt entitled to one. For he and his neighbors, he believed, had all but unwittingly solved the problems that vexed those thinkers. "Slavery is a form, and the very best form, of socialism," he explained, and "a well-conducted farm in the South a model of associated labor that Fourier might envy" (pp. 27–28, 45). "Socialism proposes to do away with free competition; to afford protection and support at all times to the laboring class; to bring about, at least, a qualified community of property, and to associate labor. All these purposes, slavery fully and perfectly attains" (p. 48). "Toward slavery," therefore, "the North and all Western Europe are unconsciously marching" (p. 45). Previous apologists for southern institutions had worried that the region was straggling in civilization's march to modernity. Fitzhugh's novel claim was that it had simply and prophetically struck out in a more promising direction, where the rest of the world must eventually follow. The task of Sociology for the South—and Fitzhugh was among the first Americans to employ that neologism, or to try practicing the science it named—was to make southerners aware of their own wisdom, to raise their unconscious habits to the level of doctrine.

Such is Fitzhugh's argument in a nutshell. Perhaps not surprisingly, it has been treated ever since 1854 with both interest and dismay. Southerners, accustomed to thinking of themselves as the heirs of Jefferson and Washington, were puzzled to learn that they were actually the peers of Fourier and Louis Napoleon. Abolitionists, comfortable as the enlightened critics of a backward region, were nonplussed at finding the tables turned. Neither group knew quite what to make of Fitzhugh and subsequent readers have not had much more luck. To many he has seemed an anomaly, an inexplicable throwback to the age of throne and altar, set down in democratic, capitalist America. But Fitzhugh was recognizably a man of his own time and place, an antebellum American writer.

In his critique of the marketplace Fitzhugh harmonized with a chorus of better-known contemporaries: with Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), who noted that "In this republican country, amid the fluctuating waves of our social life, somebody is always at the drowning point" (The House of the Seven Gables, pp. 383–384), and with Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), who in Walden (another book of 1854), argued that Americans lived in "quiet desperation" (p. 329) because they blindly accepted a flawed political economy. He might have envied Thoreau the quip that under capitalism, "if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon" (Walden, p. 396) and he would have applauded Ralph Waldo Emerson's remark that modern capitalists, though lacking a feudal lord's power of life and death over his laborers, would nonetheless "in all love and peace eat them up as before" ("Historic Notes on Life and Letters in New England"). And when Fitzhugh claimed that slavery was sustained not by force but by an emotion called "domestic affection," when he insisted that the southerner was in fact "the Negro's friend, his only friend," he positioned his book within a vast nineteenth-century literature idealizing home, hearth, and family as havens in a heartless, capitalist world (pp. 105–108, p. 95). It would not be far-fetched to say that Sociology for the South sentimentalized slavery just as Uncle Tom's Cabin, two years before, had sentimentalized abolition.

The Civil War of course rendered all Fitzhugh's arguments moot and cost him his audience. Although he may have cared more about presenting his general social vision than about preserving southern slavery (he was a lawyer, not a planter, and owned few slaves himself), it was the defense of that institution that gave him his pulpit; abolition took it away. When he died in 1881 he left no true intellectual heirs in the south or elsewhere. He was too intellectually isolated to have made disciples and too eccentric to have found kindred spirits. If his ideas lived on after his death, it was in the person of a fictional character, Basil Ransom, the protagonist of Henry James's 1886 novel The Bostonians. A southerner living like a fish out of water in postbellum New York, a gleeful reactionary, a lover of the Middle Ages, a hater of the triumphant capitalist world around him, and an eloquent defender of community, hierarchy, and order, Ransom must have been inspired by Fitzhugh's tracts. But James makes him a hopeless and nearly helpless anachronism, irrelevant to the bustling world around him, and treats him with a mixture of pity and amusement. Fitzhugh's actual fate was a little kinder; he was briefly acknowledged in his own time, and continues to be in ours, at least as the most articulate and quotable spokesman for ideas that deserved to lose, and did.

See alsoEthnology; The Impending Crisis of the South;Labor; Proslavery Writing; Slavery


Primary Works

Elliott, E. N. Cotton Is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments. Augusta, Ga.: Pritchard, Abbott & Loomis, 1860.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Historic Notes on Life and Letters in New England," in The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 10, Lectures and Biographical Sketches. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911.

Fitzhugh, George. Sociology for the South; or, the Failure of Free Society. Richmond, Va.: A. Morris, 1854.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Novels. New York: Library of America, 1983.

Jefferson, Thomas. Writings. New York: Library of America, 1984.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. New York: Library of America, 1985.

Secondary Works

Genovese, Eugene D. The World the Slaveholders Made:Two Essays in Interpretation. New York: Pantheon Books, 1969.

Gilmore, Michael T. American Romanticism and the Marketplace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Grammer, John M. Pastoral and Politics in the Old South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

O'Brien, Michael. Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810–1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Wish, Harvey. George Fitzhugh, Propagandist of the Old South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1943.

John M. Grammer

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Sociology for the South

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