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Reading, Writing, And History

July 2024
12min read

In Defense of Slavery

One century ago there were plenty of Americans who spoke and wrote in defense of the institution of human slavery. There was a wealth of literature designed to prove not merely that slavery was a necessary evil which could be eradicated only at the cost of a social and economic convulsion, but that it was a positive good, a proper way to get the world’s work done. To a comparatively large proportion of Americans this argument seemed logical and convincing.

Then came the Civil War, and slavery went out of existence. It died for a number of reasons, one of them apparently being that it was the one human institution on earth that could not be defended by force of arms, a bigger one perhaps lying in the fact that it simply could not be an enduring foundation for what, after all, was by its origins and its traditions a free society. When slavery died, the attempts to justify it died. American society followed a new line of development, and the impassioned, laboriously reasoned literature which had grown up in slavery’s defense became meaningless.

But the course the world has followed in the past century has not quite been the one that seemed inevitable in the unquiet and exhausted dawn that followed Appomattox. Then the individual man’s right to be complete master of his own fate looked like a thing guaranteed forever. It was not possible to see that within one hundred years there would be slave societies of a new kind, as coercive and restrictive as anything the cotton belt ever knew, taking on an air of permanence and engendering their own abundant literature of justification.

Of all the Americans who spoke in defense of slavery, one man, perhaps, did have a notion of what might lie ahead. George Fitzhugh, of Caroline, Virginia, has been pronounced “the most logical reactionary in the South,” and he thought his way more deeply into the origins and meanings of slavery than any of its other advocates. He embodied his thoughts in a bristling book entitled Cannibals All! , and this book, with an excellent introduction by C. Vann Woodward, has just been reissued in the Harvard University Press’s John Harvard Library series.

What made Fitzhugh different was that he argued from a different base. Other defenders of the institution were at least, fundamentally, believers in a free society, heirs to the libertarian tradition to which all Americans subscribed. Fitzhugh said flatly that “the unrestricted exploitation of so-called free society is more oppressive to the laborer than domestic slavery.” Wage slavery he considered worse than chattel slavery, the idea of human progress he believed to be a delusion, and laissez-faire capitalism struck him as an unmitigated evil. The experiment in liberty and equality, so hopefully undertaken in America and in France, he believed a flat failure. Society, he asserted, was “marching to the utter abandonment of the most essential institutions—religion, family ties, property and the restraints of justice.”

Cannibals All! or, Slaves without Masters, by George Fitzhugh, edited by C. Vann Woodward. The Harvard University Press. 320 pp. $4.25.

Fitzhugh, in short, approved of practically nothing that had happened in the world in the past two centuries. John Locke and the Enlightenment, the whole development of libertarian thought and principles on which all American public men, both North and South, took their stand—all of this, to Fitzhugh, was wrong, productive of evil rather than good. England’s “Glorious Revolution” he held a tragic mistake; throne, church, and nobility had lost their power, the House of Commons represented only land and money, and under its despotic rule “the masses have become outlaws.” Free society, in Fitzhugh’s eyes, exploited its laborers more cruelly than slave society: “It exacts more of its slaves, and neither protects nor governs them.”

To buttress his case, Fitzhugh turned to the wealth of material then available on miserable working and living conditions that the early industrial revolution was inflicting on the English proletariat. He used, as a matter of fact, a great deal of the same material Karl Marx was using, indicting capitalism in much the same way Marx indicted it, asserting that exploitation of the worker was the inevitable result of free capitalism: “It is to the interest of the capitalist and the skillful to allow free laborers the least possible portion of the fruits of their own labor; for all capital is created by labor, and the smaller the allowance of the free laborer, the greater the gains of his employer. To treat free laborers badly and unfairly, is universally inculcated as a moral duty, and the selfishness of man’s nature prompts him to the most rigorous performance of this cannibalish duty.”

Indeed, Fitzhugh asserted that slavery was a form of communism, the slave having a vested right to all of the necessities of life; so, “as the Abolitionists and Socialists have resolved to adopt a new social system, we recommend it to their consideration.” White wage earners in the North, he argued, would be better off if formally enslaved as southern Negroes were enslaved: “They would work no harder than they do now … would be relieved of most of the cares of life, and let into the enjoyment of all valuable and necessary rights.” As to the price these laborers would have to pay he had a contemptuous answer: “What would they lose in liberty and equality? Just nothing.”

All of this, to be sure, is an oddity out of the dim past, a bristling and readable polemic in a long-deserted forum; and yet, the world being what it is today, Fitzhugh’s argument has a disturbing, haunting quality that goes with no other pre-Civil War defense of slavery. A good part of the world today is ruled by a creed to which the Fitzhugh thesis would fit with very little readjustment. For millions upon millions of people, the turn to organized slavery has been made to seem like a welcome attainment of security, with the resultant loss in liberty and equality looking like “just nothing.” Fitzhugh himself would doubtless be horrified at the result, but if he was an eccentric prophet, he is not, at this date, entirely a dishonored one. As Mr. Woodward points out in his introduction: “Even in those societies where socialism is abhorred, mass production, mass organization and mass culture render his insights more meaningful than they ever were in the old order of individualism.” Of all the voices that were raised in defense of chattel slavery, Fitzhugh’s is the only one that still has a grim meaning.

A Voice in Rebuttal

This is not to say that the inverted world which Fitzhugh dimly envisioned is necessarily any more permanent than the slave-based society of the 1850’s was, or that the destruction of American chattel slavery was no more than an illusory advance. It does perhaps mean, however, that the values that were involved in the effort to end slavery are still worth re-examination, and that that entire chapter in American history continues to merit study. If freedom is under attack in so many parts of the world today, an intimate look at some of the things that happen when freedom does not exist at all can be valuable.

Testimony on this matter is available from Fitzhugh’s own era: a reprint (again in the John Harvard Library series) of the once-famous Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself , presented now in an edition edited by Benjamin Quarles. Douglass’ narrative makes a good companion piece for Cannibals All! The benefits of slavery, so eloquently upheld by Fitzhugh, seem totally invisible in this account written by a man who had himself been a slave.

Douglass wrote this book when the heat was still on. He escaped from slavery in 1838 and wrote his book in 1845, and there was at that time a fairly good chance that he might be seized and carried back into bondage; and in the days when he hammered the thing out, no one could say with any confidence that the institution of human slavery would not go on and on into the indefinite future. It was literally dangerous, when he wrote, for any man to say that he had given Frederick Douglass help; it was even more dangerous for Douglass himself to tell where he had come from and what had happened to him; and, all in all, here is a word coming out of the blackest pit, written at a time when freedom was a magic word and liberty was perhaps nothing better than a flickering marsh fire that would die unless someone was prepared to die for it.

Douglass did not know much about himself. Rather vaguely, he was aware that he had been born somewhere around 1817; he had seen his mother “to know her as such” no more than four or five times in his life, usually very briefly and at night, and he grew up knowing nothing better than the life of the stalled ox or the mule, a wholly owned creature with no rights that anyone was bound to respect. He did not come from the Deep South. Oddly enough, this man who wrote one of the most damning indictments of slavery was held in servitude in Maryland, where the institution was supposed to be mild and paternal, but where by his account it was as rough and as brutal as any human relationship can be. He never knew who his father was, but it was assumed on the plantation that the father was white—probably his own master and owner.

In a sense, what Douglass has to say about his life in bondage is the old familiar material: there was a great deal of physical cruelty, hard work and bad food and poor living quarters, an eternal tormenting knowledge of illimitable insecurity, and worst of all a complete, taken-for-granted denial of the slave’s right to be treated as a human being. He saw whippings and he experienced whippings, and before he reached his teens he learned that an overseer who administered cruel beatings but who did not seem to take personal delight in administering them was to be accounted a good and humane taskmaster. When he grew older and knew what words meant, he was able to write that the worst thing about being in bondage was “the dehumanizing character of slavery.”

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, edited by Benjamin Quarles. The Harvard University Press. 163 pp. $3.50.

Fitzhugh, who after all was a white man, was able to write that the man who lost liberty and equality had lost “just nothing,” but this man who had been born without the slightest chance to enjoy either would have contradicted him. He would have contradicted, indeed, every last item in the myth of the contented slave. He remarked, for instance, that slaves sang a great deal, and he had his comment on this fact:

I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. … I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery.

Douglass’ book is hard to read. It is written, to be sure, in unvarnished English prose, and there is nothing obscure or contrived about it, but it is still hard to read—simply because, more than one hundred years later, its account of the things men can do to those who are completely in their power is something to make the blood run cold. If there was a kindly, humane side to chattel slavery, this man who lived far outside of the cotton belt, who was for long periods a trusted house servant, who was even hired out (by his owner) to work in a shipyard, far from the eye of the man with the whip—this man, who should have seen that humane side if any slave could see it, never got a glimpse of it. “But for the hope of being free,” Douglass wrote, “I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself.”

In one way or another, while a pampered house servant in Baltimore, Douglass learned to read. He found books that discussed the problem of slavery and that told about what it was like to be free, and they made him all the more discontented—evidence of the practical wisdom of the cynical laws which made it illegal to teach any slave how to read and write. His condition, he felt, was worse after he became literate than it was before. Now he knew what he was missing; he had been taught, however imperfectly, to use his mind and to examine the thoughts of more fortunate men who had been able to use their minds to better advantage; and he put all of his anguish into the statement that this intensified all of his sufferings—“Anything, no matter what, to get rid of thinking!”

Douglass finally made his escape. His book, to repeat, was published in 1845, and it is significant that he does not tell how he escaped, or who helped him, or what the mechanics of the business were—he might get somebody into trouble if he explained things, or at the very least he might make it harder for the next man to get away. Even when he lived in the North, a free man working for wages, enjoying a life of his own, the shadow hung over him. He could not draw a really easy breath until after the sun went down at Appomattox.

Possibly Fitzhugh was the prophet of the future: there are millions of people alive today who live in very much the sort of intelligently contrived bondage which struck this excellent propagandist as the proper way to organize human society. But Fitzhugh’s word has to go side by side with the word of Frederick Douglass, and this word from a man born under the lash is something to remember. Our generation might do much worse than to recall that America has bred men to whom liberty, however imperfect it might be and however hard it might be to come by, was quite literally worth dying for.

What Welles Really Said

Gideon Welles came out of a very different stratum than either Fitzhugh or Douglass. He was a Connecticut Yankee, a one-time Democrat who turned Republican during the great ferment of the 1850*5, and he became Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, in which capacity he kept a diary which has been a source book for Civil War historians ever since; and the immense value of Welles’s diary has always been the fact that he saw what he wrote about and that he wrote with objective exactitude.

Or—did he? The original manuscript of his diary is in the Library of Congress. It was brought to publication in 1911, and an examination of the manuscript indicates that certain changes were made between the time the old Yankee put pen to paper and the time when the business finally appeared in print. How reliable is this diary, anyway? Was it edited so as to bring later knowledge and riper judgments into play, or can it stand as a faithful, trustworthy account of what one man saw of the things that happened after Fitzhugh and Douglass had had their own say?

Civil War historiography has needed nothing much more than a new edition of the Welles diary, with scholarly editing to show precisely what he wrote at the time and what he put in later when he began to reflect that what he had written was going to be an essential part of American history. This new edition is now at hand. Howard K. Beale has edited the threevolume work, going over the original manuscript with painstaking care, writing a preface that shows when and why the revisions were undertaken, and presenting the whole with notes that show the reader exactly what Welles wrote at the time and what he wrote in later years. This new edition of The Diary of Gideon Welles is something every Civil War scholar will want.

It is also something that the general reader can enjoy, for Welles was a good diarist. He had a waspish way about him, he gave way to certain prejudices, and he presented his contemporaries and fellow workers as he saw them, writing, in the process, one of the great books about the Civil War years and the years immediately thereafter. No one has given as graphic or as readable a picture of the Civil War period.

Readable as it is, however, it is necessary to know how many of these day-by-day accounts were actually set down at the time and how many of them were fixed a decade later to make them fit in with what Welles and everyone else then knew. The answer, as Mr. Beale has found it—and no one will need to do this particular job over again—is that Welles was fairly human. He could go back, later on, to make a comment look more perceptive, to give himself credit for a little more foresight than he could have had at the time, to touch up a characterization in the light of knowledge that came long after. His diary, as originally published, was in fact rather substantially revised—partly by Welles himself, and partly by his son Edgar, who went over it with John Morse, who wrote the introduction, and toned down certain parts that might have led to unpleasantness or, possibly, to libel actions. Welles, for instance, was opposed to strong drink, and when he saw statesmen or generals tipping the glass, and showing the effect, he wrote about it; most of which entries dropped out by the time the diary got into print. During the war Welles got a favorable impression of Grant, but he felt differently a bit later, and wrote that the general was “a wicked and bad man,” that he was “deceptive, cunning, ambitious and unreliable,” and that he had “low and vulgar instincts and tastes.” These comments vanished before publication date.

The Diary of Gideon Welles, edited, previous errors corrected, and with an introduction by Howard K. Beale. W. W. Norton and Co. 3 volumes, boxed. $28.50.

Now the thing can be seen as Welles originally wrote it, and it is possible to see what Welles himself added or changed in later years and what his literary executors and editors changed after he himself was gone. As source material for the historian, the text is at last set as straight as anything of this kind can be. Its interest for the general reader is enhanced at the same time.

All of which leaves Welles, as a diarist, precisely where? At the conclusion of his exhaustive preface, Mr. Beale sums it up:

Because Gideon Welles was accurate, fair-minded, and cool-tempered to an extent marvelous in his day, this diary is valuable beyond most diaries. Even after his later emendations are eliminated, Welles remains a remarkable judge of men, and the prognostications that he did make before he began revising leave him a man of surprisingly prophetic insights. As a judge of men and an observer of passing events, Welles is surpassed by few chroniclers.

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