Slavery is the very best form of socialism

Friday, April 12th, 2013

The past is a foreign country, L. P. Hartley noted: they do things differently there.

This is especially true of, say, the antebellum South, which found itself on the wrong side of history.  Virginia lawyer George Fitzhugh’s Sociology for the South, or The Failure of Free Society (1854) certainly comes from a foreign land.  In it, he argues that slavery is the very best form of socialism:

The phenomena presented by the vassals and villiens of Europe after their liberation, were the opposite of those exhibited by the wealthy and powerful classes. Pauperism and beggary, we are informed by English historians, were unknown till the villiens began to escape from their masters, and attempted to practice a predatory and nomadic liberty. A liberty, we should infer from the descriptions we can get of it, very much like that of domestic animals that have gone wild — the difference in favor of the animals being that nature had made provision for them, but had made none for the villiens. The new freemen were bands of thieves and beggars, infesting the country and disturbing its peace. Their physical condition was worse than when under the rule of the Barons, their masters, and their moral condition worse also, for liberty had made them from necessity thieves and murderers. It was necessary to retain them in slavery, not only to support and sustain them and to prevent general mendicity, but equally necessary in order to govern them and prevent crime.

The advocates of universal liberty concede that the laboring class enjoy more material comfort, are better fed, clothed and housed, as slaves, than as freemen. The statistics of crime demonstrate that the moral superiority of the slave over the free laborer is still greater than his superiority in animal well-being. There never can be among slaves a class so degraded as is found about the wharves and suburbs of cities. The master requires and enforces ordinary morality and industry. We very much fear, if it were possible to indite a faithful comparison of the conduct and comfort of our free negroes with that of the runaway Anglo-Saxon serfs, that it would be found that the negroes have fared better and committed much less crime than the whites. But those days, the 14th and 15th centuries, were the halcyon days of vagabond liberty. The few that had escaped from bondage found a wide field and plenty of subjects for the practice of theft and mendicity. There was no law and no police adequate to restrain them, for until then their masters had kept them in order better than laws ever can.

But those glorious old times have long since passed. A bloody code, a standing army and efficient police keep them quiet enough now. Their numbers have multiplied a hundred fold, but their poverty has increased faster than their numbers. Instead of stealing and begging, and living idly in the open air, they work fourteen hours a day, cooped up in close rooms, with foul air, foul water, and insufficient and filthy food, and often sleep at night crowded in cellars or in garrets, without regard to sex.


  1. Zimriel says:

    Keep in mind, though, that Fitzhugh wasn’t even speaking for most southerners.

    In his arguments for the peculiar institution along the lines a northerner could understand, he reminds me of Hobbes arguing for royalism amongst atheist liberals.

  2. Isegoria says:

    I must admit, I don’t really know how Fitzhugh was received at the time. In the introduction to his second major work, he suggests that his first has been quite well received in the South and gone unrefuted in the North:

    In our little work, “Sociology for the South,” we said, “We may again appear in the character of writer before the public; but we shall not intrude, and would prefer that others should finish the work which we have begun.” That little work has met, every where, we believe, at the South, with a favorable reception. No one has denied its theory of Free Society, nor disputed the facts on which that theory rests. Very many able co-laborers have arisen, and many books and essays are daily appearing, taking higher ground in defence of Slavery; justifying it as a normal and natural institution, instead of excusing or apologizing for it, as an exceptional one. It is now treated as a positive good, not a necessary evil. The success, not the ability of our essay, may have had some influence in eliciting this new mode of defence. We have, for many years, been gradually and cautiously testing public opinion at the South, and have ascertained that it is ready to approve and much prefers, the highest ground of defence. We have no peculiar fitness for the work we are engaged in, except the confidence that we address a public predisposed to approve our doctrines, however bold or novel. Heretofore the great difficulty in defending Slavery has arisen from the fear that the public would take offence at assaults on its long- cherished political axioms; which, nevertheless, stood in the way of that defence. It is now evident that those axioms have outlived their day — for no one, either North or South, has complained of our rather ferocious assault on them — much less attempted to reply to or refute our arguments and objections.

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