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George Fitzhugh

George Fitzhugh

George Fitzhugh (1806-1881), American polemicist and pioneer sociologist, was a prominent defender of slavery. By his methods of debate he broke new ground for social analyses.

George Fitzhugh was born on Nov. 4, 1806, in Prince William County, Va., of a well-regarded but only moderately well-off family. His title to aristocratic ancestry, of importance to him, was not firmly established. His father, a surgeon, soon moved the family to Alexandria, a gracious and aristocratic region that nourished young Fitzhugh's belief in the Southern way of life. Fitzhugh studied law, married, and moved to Port Royal, Caroline County, where he built a law practice.

Although the fact was not appreciated at the time, Fitzhugh was a pioneer analyst of society in such pamphlets as Slavery Justified and What Shall Be Done with the Free Negroes? (both 1850). He expanded his views in Sociology for the South; or, The Failure of Free Society (1854), in which the word "sociology" was employed for the first time in America. In his most notorious work, Cannibals All! or, Slaves without Masters (1857), he argued that capitalism, cruel and irresponsible, was justly condemned by idealists and socialists, who, however, failed to appreciate society's need for a proper master-slave relationship, such as the South provided.

Fitzhugh solicited correspondence with abolitionists, whose views he wanted to expose as contradictory. In 1855 he visited a New York relative, Gerrit Smith, one of the nation's wealthiest men and an outstanding abolitionist. Fitzhugh also talked with other abolitionists and lectured in Boston and New Haven, Conn., on the inadequacies of the free society.

Between 1855 and 1867 Fitzhugh wrote more than a hundred articles for De Bow's Review, an outstanding Southern journal. His subject matter included literary criticism, history, genealogy, and general topics, though all were directly or indirectly supportive of his major conviction of the validity of the slavery system. He also wrote editorials for Richmond newspapers, and contributed essays to Northern publications, including Lippincott's Magazine and the proslavery New York Day Book. Abraham Lincoln, developing his viewpoint in Illinois, used Fitzhugh's arguments as representative of Southern public opinion.

Fitzhugh served as a clerk in the U.S. Attorney General's Office (1857-1858). During the Civil War he held a minor post in the Confederacy's Treasury Department. Afterward he worked for the Federal Freedmen's Bureau, which he served conscientiously, though from a firmly paternalistic point of view. He continued to write, adapting his ideas to changed conditions, but with less effect. He died on July 29, 1881, in Huntsville, Tex.

Further Reading

The only full-length study of Fitzhugh is Harvey Wish, George Fitzhugh: Propagandist of the Old South (1943), which also contains a useful bibliography of proslavery writings and related works. A briefer study by Wish is George Fitzhugh: Conservative of the Old South (1938). For background information see Russel B. Nye, Fettered Freedom: Civil Liberties and the Slavery Controversy, 1830-1860 (1949; rev. ed. 1964). □

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