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Southern History Series: Introduction To George Fitzhugh’s Political Thought

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“We begin a great conservative reaction. We seek to rollback the Reformation in its political phases.” – George Fitzhugh, 1863

The following excerpt about George Fitzhugh comes from pages 251 to 257 of Michael O’Brien’s book Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860:

“First, the unoriginal parts of his thought. Fitzhugh attacked the abuses of modern industrialism and the cruelty of the free-market system. He refused the idea of individualism and the social contract, while rejecting natural rights theory and the Jeffersonian doctrine that the world needed as little government as possible. He mistrusted the philosophical premises of the Enlightenment and had a Burkean preference for tradition. He saw domestic slavery as another variety of subordination, in a world where power and subjection was intrinsic to social relations. He stressed the historical normalcy of slavery and believed that the South, because of slavery, was peculiarly free from the modern world’s tendency to social crisis. He looked upon Africans as children, especially fitted for the condition of servitude. He was a Christian who regarded the Bible as a proslavery document, a dogged localist who mistrusted centralization, and a xenophobe who worried about foreigners. He favored economic diversification and was interested in technological innovation. He favored patriarchialism and had a great respect for the ancients, especially Aristotle. In short, much of his reasoning could be found abundantly in previous Southern thought. However, Fitzhugh was an original, and his originality lay in the peculiar force with which he combined these thoughts into a metanarrative. At the heart of his analysis was a refusal of imperialism.

Fitzhugh’s argument was that free trade was the ideology of a rapaciously acquisitive, competitive modernity, which trapped people into an atomized individuality, where they were powerless and exploited. He dated the emergence of this system to the disintegration of feudalism and the emergence of an early modern world which found in Hobbes a shrewd, dismayed prophet, and in Adam Smith an apologist for selfishness, peddled as a system of ethics. Hence the philosophy of liberty expounded during the American Revolution was a delusion. For Fitzhugh, governments did not derives their powers from the consent of the governed; rather they “originated in force, and have been continued by force.” By this, Fitzhugh cut the Gordian knot of Southern thought, which had depreciated the consequences of industrial modernity but simultaneously had lauded Adam Smith and American liberty. Fitzhugh told Southerners that they could not have it both ways, that wisely to choose slavery was to refuse a debilitating liberty.

Fitzhugh had derived this critique from many sources other than the Southern intellectual tradition and partly from those whom he liked, commodiously, to call socialists. These did not include Karl Marx, of whom he seems not to have heard, but did cover many upon whom Marx was drawing. Some of these (Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Henri Saint-Simon, Louis Blanc, and Charlies Fourier) might have answered to the name of soicalist, but Fitzhugh lumped them together with many others (Robert Owen, Thomas Carlyle, and Fanny Wright) who were only critics of modern society. In this, Fitzhugh was not especially idiosyncratic. In the mid-nineteenth century, “socialism” was a word that denoted little more than a repudiation of modern society and a preference for collectivism.

However, though Fitzhugh learned from the socialists, he saw them as products of free society and incapable of solving its problems. They were but continuing “the little experiment of universal liberty that has been tried for a little while in a little corner of Europe.” Only slavery could afford a solution to the crisis of freedom. By “slavery,” Fitzhugh meant any social system which formally recognized inequality, the necessity of authoritarian order and human interdependence, and embodied “a safe, efficient and humane community of property.” For Fitzhugh, slavery was about being safe and protected, about people being unequal but nice to each other.

Fitzhugh’s own history as as a domestic and sentimental man mattered here. For him, family was a “holy and charmed circle” and the solution for social ills was to make the family’s values general. “Man loves that nearest to him best,” he wrote. “First his wife, children and parents, then his slaves, next his neighbors and fellow countrymen.” The master was a harassed but kindly man, in control yet obliging, gratefully enmeshed in a system of reciprocal obligations. He was the strongest person in a world where most were naturally weak and all, even the master, required protection. Being interdependent, humans needed what Fitzhugh liked to call “association.” This was a theory of gender as much as anything else, because Fitzhugh was committed to Victorian notions of domesticity and separate spheres. This alone placed him far from William Harper, for whom the family furnished no respite from the world’s cares.

It is a strikingly naive vision, which gravely undercut what had long been the proslavery argument’s strongest suit, its cold cynicism about the intrinsic brutality of the human condition. With Fitzhugh, Southern thought passed abruptly into the world of Godey’s Lady’s Book, and it makes sense that he admired Charles Kingsley, whose novel Alton Locke, about English industrial squalor, came from the same hand which was to write The Water Babies. Fitzhugh’s sentiment was expansive, even Wordsworthian, beacuse it extended to “dogs, horses, birds and flowers.” Like Calhoun, Fitzhugh wanted power and to be loved, even to belong to a Christian “band of brothers.” He invented women, children and slaves who might dote upon his masterly kindness. Fitzhugh’s was the trust of a timid man, who averted his eyes from what was unpleasant, if that ugliness intruded upon his world. Ugliness elsewhere might be fine, since it pointed a contrast and fed the comforting illusion of a “South, quiet, contented, satisfied” and a slavery “healthy, beautiful and natural.” In these ways, Fitzhugh noticed the tendency of his age to favor compassion, because he shared the impulse.

This impulse helps us to comprehend Fitzhugh’s political vision, otherwise puzzling. Fitzhugh was no reactionary but a moderate progressive who praised reformation, deplored revolution, and kept up with the most advanced social thought. He favored democracy, had little time for agrarian utopias, wanted universal public education (as well as a modernized banking system), and encouraged modest urbanization. Large cities were a curse, but small towns “great blessings.” He describes glowingly his own town of Port Royal, a “village of flowers” with pleasant cottages “surrounded with trees, flowers, ivy, and other evergreens.” Further, he favored internal improvements, especially roads which connected immediate localities and trams which might allow towns to spread and acquire the suburban, and he endorsed the establishment of a “great Southern university,” for the same reasons that John Quincy Adams had once wanted an American national university.

What held Fitzhugh’s political philosophy together was an understanding of boundaries. Class mattered here. Contrary to his reputation, Fitzhugh was a bourgeois thinker, inattentive to the plantations that surrounded the small towns he admired. The slavery he described was the intimate slavery of an urban household, presided over by a town lawyer, which was the world Fitzhugh knew. He is clear that he disliked not only the vulgar munificence of the parvenu millionaires which industrialism had thrown up but the old aristocracy, too, in Europe and Virginia. “Tide-water old fogyism retains its dogged, do-nothing spirit,” he once snorted. “It hates and opposes railroads, canals, daily mails, and other modern innovations, quite as cordially as its ancestry hated and opposed the looms.” This was remote from the quasi-aristocratic reasonings of Abel P. Upshur and Beverley Tucker. This progressive impulse seems to have strengthened in Fitzhugh, the deeper into the 1850s he got. Writing for De Bow’s Review, the great Southern periodical of modern improvement, doubtless helped. But he was reading the drift of the times, too, because this was a decade when many Southern states resumed the sponsorship of internal improvements.

True to this Fitzhugh dismissed those who dwelled on the Cavalier origins of Virginia, though he did admit that they had helped by their military discipline to carry the young colony through its brutal inception. Instead, he was happy to observe that many Virginians had begun life as transported convicts and that, despite this, their descendants had fitted well into society. Rather, Fitzhugh favored a society of modest competences, widely dispersed, in which the state fostered public works. “We should discourage private luxury and encourage public luxury” was his motto.”

This instinct for the aurea mediocritas extended to culture and the state. “Almost the only secret of high civilization and national greatness consists in narrow and confined territorial limits,” he said. A thing too small, such as a plantation alone, was overly constricted, but a thing too great (Rome, London, an empire) became a despotism. Society should keep in touch with the proportions of the family, for “Counties, States, and nations, are but collections of families,” which was why Fitzhugh favored genealogical researches. The scale of the individual American state seemed about right. It ought to be perfected as an independent nationality and thereby “counteract the centralizing tendency of modern improvements in locomotion and intercommunication, which naturally rob the extremities to enrich the centres of Power and of Trade.” So Fitzhugh was a proponent of states’ rights, though not for the usual reasons; he was, for example, opposed to the doctrines of Nullification, contemptuous of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, and doubted the cogency of “the Calhoun School.” Rather, each Southern state should “condense within its boundaries all the elements of separate independent nationality” and “every institution and pursuit that pertains to high civilization.” It followed that power exercised by too great a society was a tyranny, but power within discreet boundaries was an aid to civilization.

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