Nature establishes the only safe and reliable checks and balances in government

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

A well-conducted farm in the South is a model of associated labor that Fourier might envy, Fitzhugh notes:

One old woman nurses all the children whilst the mothers are at work; another waits on the sick, in a house set aside for them. Another washes and cooks, and a fourth makes and mends the clothing. It is a great economy of labor, and is a good idea of the Socialists. Slavery protects the infants, the aged and the sick; nay, takes far better care of them than of the healthy, the middle-aged and the strong. They are part of the family, and self-interest and domestic affection combine to shelter, shield and foster them. A man loves not only his horses 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.

The Socialists propose to reach this result too, but they never can if they refuse to march in the only road Providence has pointed out. Who will check, govern and control their superintending authority? Who prevent his abuse of power? Who can make him kind, tender and affectionate, to the poor, aged, helpless, sick and unfortunate? Qui custodiat custodes? Nature establishes the only safe and reliable checks and balances in government. Alton Locke describes an English farm, where the cattle, the horses and the sheep are fat, plentifully fed and warmly housed; the game in the preserves and the fish in the pond carefully provided for; and two freezing, shivering, starving, half-clad boys, who have to work on the Sabbath, are the slaves to these animals, and are vainly endeavoring to prepare their food. Now it must have occurred to the author that if the boys had belonged to the owner of the farm, they too would have been well-treated, happy and contented. This farm is but a miniature of all England; every animal is well-treated and provided for, except the laboring man. He is the slave of the brutes, the slave of society, produces everything and enjoys nothing. Make him the slave of one man, instead of the slave of society, and he would be far better off.

None but lawyers and historians are aware how much of truth, justice and good sense, there is in the notions of the Communists, as to the community of property. Laying no stress on the too abstract proposition that Providence gave the world not to one man, or set of men, but to all mankind, it is a fact that all governments, in civilized countries, recognize the obligation to support the poor, and thus, in some degree, make all property a common possession. The poor laws and poor houses of England are founded on communistic principles. Each parish is compelled to support its own poor. In Ireland, this obligation weighs so heavily as in many instances to make farms valueless; the poor rates exceeding the rents. But it is domestic slavery alone 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. Slaves never die of hunger; seldom suffer want. Hence Chinese sell themselves when they can do no better. A Southern farm is a sort of joint stock concern, or social phalanstery  in which the master furnishes the capital and skill, and the slaves the labor, and divide the profits, not according to each one’s in-put, but according to each one’s wants and necessities.


  1. David Foster says:

    Fanny Kemble, a famous British actress who married an American and lived with him on his Georgia plantation, was of a different opinion:

    “Though the negroes are fed, clothed, and housed, and though the Irish peasant is starved, naked, and roofless, the bare name of freeman — the lordship over his own person, the power to choose and will — are blessings beyond food, raiment, or shelter; possessing which, the want of every comfort of life is yet more tolerable than their fullest enjoyment without them. Ask the thousands of ragged destitutes who yearly land upon these shores to seek the means of existence — ask the friendless, penniless foreign emigrant, if he will give up his present misery, his future uncertainty, his doubtful and difficult struggle for life, at once, for the secure, and as it is called, fortunate dependence of the slave: the indignation with which he would spurn the offer will prove that he possesses one good beyond all others, and that his birthright as a man is more precious to him yet than the mess of pottage for which he is told to exchange it because he is starving.”

  2. Isegoria says:

    I doubt that either would wish to see the poorest of their own society as oppressed. One side says, we feed, clothe, and house our poor. The other side says, our poor still have their freedom and dignity!

    If you personally value your freedom and dignity more than food, clothing, and housing — that is, you (correctly) believe you could earn your own livelihood — then, Fitzhugh would argue, you are not the kind of man who should be enslaved. But the “weakest” among us — the “improvident” and “dull” — do need care and guidance.

    This is where Fitzhugh’s point of view is foreign enough to be unpredictable to our modern audience: Make him the slave of one man, instead of the slave of society, and he would be far better off.

  3. David Foster says:

    “But the ‘weakest’ among us — the ‘improvident’ and ‘dull’ — do need care and guidance.”

    True. But people in positions of power are likely to use a fairly broad filter in determining who is “improvident” and “dull.”

    To take an example which is far less extreme than slavery: Frederick Winslow Taylor, considered the father of Scientific Management, believed not only in measuring and analyzing work, but also in the absolute separation of “thinking” from “doing.” His prototype worker with “Schmidt,” an immigrant whose job was shoveling sand in a foundry. It was obviously to Taylor that people like Schmidt were so dull that they could not usefully contribute to design of how the task was to be performed — they needed to be told how long the handle of the shovel should be, how much sand a single scoop would take, the precise motions to use in shoveling, etc.

    It turns out, though, that the real laborer “Schmidt” used in these experiments built his own house, so he couldn’t have been as dumb and in need of direction as Taylor claimed.

  4. Isegoria says:

    I agree that those at the top, blessed with providence and wit, are quick to label everyone at the bottom as improvident and dull. In fact, that’s one argument against modern meritocracy — those at the top believe they truly deserve everything they’ve earned.

    That still leaves the question of whether it’s better to belong to an individual or to a faceless bureaucracy representing society. We seem to have settled on a faceless bureaucracy that either imprisons the improvident and dull, and thus tells them exactly what to do, or gives them money with minimal guidance, because it would be wrong to tell them what to do.

    Only the military seems to take on the role of guiding its charges.

  5. L. C. Rees says:

    By those lights, American chattel slavery is especially pernicious: it allowed no legitimate escape route for the enterprising unlike many other systems of slavery with built in cultural or legal mechanisms for manumission. When Sherman’s and other United States generals kicked in the fragile husk of slavery, the slaves voted with their feet. The totalitarian regime gradually put into place in the South after the cracker’s defeat in the War of the Rebellion systemically culled the more enterprising former slaves by lynching them, a loss that haunts the Southern black community and its diaspora to this day. When LBJ, for all his flaws, finished off Jim Crow, he freed the white Southerner as much if not more so than the black Southerner.

  6. Isegoria says:

    By Fitzhugh’s logic, only those who need a master should be enslaved, but he doesn’t seem to give much thought to earning one’s way out of slavery — except to condemn former slaves for making current slaves unhappy with their lot and for competing with free whites.

    I don’t fully understand how southern slavery worked, but I do know that some slaves earned their own money, and some fraction of those bought their own freedom — and some fraction of those went on to buy their own slaves.

  7. Alex J. says:

    I read of a Louisiana slave owner who was a Presbyterian. He gave his slaves Saturday off, upon condition that they observe the Sabbath on Sunday and not work. They would work for pay on Saturday, and could save up to buy their own freedom, on installment, one weekday at a time.

    He was widely hated, I gather because of the industriousness of his slaves. He was said to have freed the most slaves in the state, and by a wide margin.

    I suppose at least some of them just spent their Saturdays loafing about. Would Fitzhugh have to say that the rest should not have been slaves in the first place?

  8. Alex J. says:

    Some searching turned up this about John McDonogh.

  9. Alex J. says:

    Check out the date!

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