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Southern History Series: George Fitzhugh on Laissez-Faire Capitalism

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The following excerpt on Confederate developmental capitalism comes from John Majewski’s book, Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation:

“Secessionists believed that state-supported agricultural research, government investment in railroads, and interventionist trade policies would strengthen slavery in the long run. Virginia political economist George Fitzhugh approvingly noted the propensity for southern-state action during the antebellum period. Southerners may have preached free-trade, laissez-faire, and “Let Alone” policies, he wrote in the Charleston Mercury in 1856, but in actual practice they supported state activism. “We build roads and canals, endow colleges, aid education, encourage commerce and manufactures, prohibit peddling, and, in a thousand ways, endeavor by interfering with, encouraging and controlling private pursuits, by State Legislation, to enhance State wealth, intelligence, and well being.” Southerners decisively rejected “laissez-faire” when it came to controlling their slaves, Fitzhugh argued, so it was hardly surprising that southerners would reject laissez-faire in other elements of their lives. Fitzhugh was hardly representative, but his observations captured an important element of the southern mindset.”

Fitzhugh wasn’t alone in this respect.

James D.B. De Bow was a Southern economic nationalist and the antebellum champion of industrial and commercial development. George Fitzhugh wrote the bulk of his articles as a columnist for De Bow’s Review. Both were fans of technological progress and anticipated aspects of the New South.

Majewski continues:

“The secessionist focus on homogeneity of interests and the protection of slavery speaks to how Confederates could support a modern economy without supporting what scholars often label as “modernization.” Modernization theory sees economic growth creating distinct periods or phases of development in which “traditional” beliefs are cast aside in favor of modern notions of rationality, scientific thinking, and political liberalism. In contrast to modernization theory, secessionists saw a modern economy in concrete terms – more factories, more cities, more wealth, more political and military power – in a way that allowed them to reject the dichotomy between modernity and “traditional.” Even as they worked toward a more modern economy, secessionists often touted the conservative elements in their society, including slavery, evangelical religion, and (when convenient) various forms of agrarian republicanism.”

Who does that sound like?

George Fitzhugh rejected political liberalism, economic liberalism and cultural liberalism as abstract nonsense. It sounds a lot like the People’s Republic of China.

Note: Fitzhugh would have praised China’s economic miracle as proof of the superiority of Slave Society over Free Society. By “slavery,” Fitzhugh didn’t mean chattel slavery, but “any social system which formally recognized inequality, the necessity of authoritarian order and human interdependence, and embodied “a safe, efficient and human community of property.” For Fitzhugh, slavery was about being safe and protected, about being unequal but nice to each other.”

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