A Pro-Slavery Argument, 1857

Advisor: Peter A. Coclanis, Albert Ray Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, National Humanities Center Fellow.

How did proponents of slavery in antebellum America defend it as a positive good?

Understanding

With an argument that was as much a critique of industrialism as it was a defense of slavery, Southern spokesmen contended that chattel slavery, as it was practiced in the American South, was more humane than the system of “wage slavery” that prevailed in the industrial North and Great Britain.

Oh Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny, 1859
“Oh Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny,” 1859 (detail)

Text

George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All! Or Slaves Without Masters, 1857, excerpts.

Text Type

Informational text with moderately complex purpose and very complex text structure, language features, and knowledge demands. Tier 2 vocabulary words are defined in pop-ups (full list at bottom of page). Tier 3 words are explained in brackets.

Text Complexity

Grades 11-CCR complexity band.
For more information on text complexity see these resources from achievethecore.org.

Background

As they fired back at their critics, defenders of slavery in antebellum America often maintained that slavery, as practiced in the South, was more humane than the system of “wage slavery” under which, they claimed, Northern and British industrial workers suffered. One of the most vehement proponents of this argument was George Fitzhugh (1806–1881), a Virginia lawyer, writer, and slaveowner. He believed that civilization depended upon the exploitation of labor. This led him to ask which system — slavery or free labor — exploited workers less. He concluded that slavery did, and made his case in Cannibals All! Or Slaves Without Masters.

In the book Fitzhugh unapologetically acknowledges that the South is a slave society, but he claims that the North is, too. In both, capitalists seek to live off the muscle of others as much as any “Fiji chieftain” seeks to dine “on human flesh.” Hence, all capitalists — Northern and Southern — are cannibals. The central question is what form of society most effectively curbs their appetites.

Fitzhugh draws the distinction between the North and the South on the principle of capital’s obligation to labor. The problem, as he sees it, is that in the “free” Northern economy — he uses the words “free” and “respectable” with sneering irony — capital and labor are separate. Thus capitalists in the North endeavor to make “respectable” livings by squeezing the greatest amount of work out of laborers for the least amount of pay, only to abandon them when they cease to be useful. In the Southern slave economy, on the other hand, “labor is capital.” Slaves, of course, do the work of the plantation, but they also represent a substantial capital investment. Owners pay dearly for them and thus it is in their best interest to “protect . . . not oppress them.” “When slaves are worth near a thousand dollars a head,” Fitzhugh writes, “they will be carefully and well provided for,” even when their working days are over. Unlike the Northern “slaves to capital,” “the negro slaves of the South are,” in his view, “the happiest and, in some sense, the freest people in the world.”

Teaching the Text

Contextualizing Questions

  1. What kind of text are we dealing with?
  2. When was it written?
  3. Who wrote it?
  4. For what audience was it intended?
  5. For what purpose was it written?

While under the Common Core Standards Cannibals All! qualifies as an informational text, it is first and foremost a passionately argued piece of persuasive writing. Published in Richmond, Virginia, in 1857 and aimed at both Northern and Southern readers, it sought to claim for the South the moral high ground in the increasingly fierce national debate over slavery.

To help students grasp Fitzhugh’s argument that we take care of things that belong to us, you might note that, according to him, capitalists only rent their labor, while slavemasters own theirs. You can then make Fitzhugh’s point with two questions. How many students would wash a rental car? How many wash (and wax) their own (or pay good money to have it done)?

To prepare students to judge Fitzhugh’s argument, assign three essays in Freedom’s Story from the National Humanities Center’s TeacherServe®: “The Varieties of Slave Labor”, “How Slavery Affected African American Families”, and “Slave Resistance”. (These essays are designed for teachers, but they are useful to students. You might divide the class into three groups and assign each an essay, then have each group respond to Fitzhugh in the light of their reading.) From these essays a series of questions emerges. How different in their response to the demand to make a profit were Southern plantations from Northern factories? How free were people whose family lives could be disrupted at the whim of a master? If the slave system was so good for slaves, why did they spend considerable time and energy trying to undermine and escape it?

Encourage students to challenge Fitzhugh’s definition of freedom. Have them come at it inductively. Why, according to Fitzhugh, are capitalists and slaves free? Why are slaveowners and laborers not free? Fitzhugh sees humans solely as economic entities. His definition of freedom is based entirely on the exchange of labor for reward. While it does include a sense of one person’s responsibility to another, that responsibility is based on the extent of one’s financial investment in the other person. Essentially, he thinks a person is free to the extent that he or she is not responsible for the economic well-being of others and to the extent that one’s economic needs are addressed by the efforts of others. Is that an adequate basis for a moral order? Does Fitzhugh’s idea of freedom have room for such concepts as equality, personal choice, or mobility?

Text Analysis

Excerpt

Close Reading Questions

1. Fitzhugh uses the word “boast” twice in this paragraph. How might that word affect his pro-slavery readers? his anti-slavery readers? Test its impact by substituting other verbs: “maintain,” “contend,” “claim.” How do those verbs change the tone of the paragraph?

1. [W]e not only boast that the White Slave Trade is more exacting and fraudulent (in fact, though not in intention) than Black Slavery, but we also boast that it is more cruel, in leaving the laborer to take care of himself and family out of the pittance which skill or capital have allowed him to retain. When the day’s labor is ended, he is free, but is overburdened with the cares of family and household, which make his freedom an empty and delusive mockery.

2. In the light of the Freedom’s Story essay on the slave family, how might you respond to Fitzhugh’s assertion that “cares of the family and household” deprive laborers of their freedom?

3. What is the most important word in this paragraph? Why? How might it shape a reader’s response to Fitzhugh’s argument?

4. According to Fitzhugh, why is the workingman not free? Why is his employer free? Why is a slave free? Is the slaveowner free? Why or why not?

2. But his employer is really free, and may enjoy the profits made by others’ labor without a care or a trouble as to their well-being. The Negro slave is free, too, when the labors of the day are over, and free in mind as well as body, for the master provides food, raiment, house, fuel, and everything else necessary to the physical well-being of himself and family. The master’s labors commence just when the slave’s end. No wonder men should prefer white slavery to capital, to Negro slavery, since it is more profitable, and is free from all the cares and labors of black slave-holding.

5. Throughout this excerpt, Fitzhugh directly addresses the reader. What effect does this direct address have on his argument?

6. What does his characterization of his readers as lawyers, merchants, and doctors suggest about his conception of his audience? How does he manipulate their class pretensions? Cite specific words and phrases to support your answer.

7. How would you describe the tone of this paragraph? Based on your response, would you say this paragraph is designed to convince anti-slavery readers or inspire pro-slavery readers? Cite specific words and phrases to support your answer.

8. According to Fitzhugh, what distinguishes the capitalist from the slaveowner?

9. In what ways does the slaveowner allow the slave to retain a larger portion of his earnings than the free laborer retains of his?

10. What does Fitzhugh mean by “the rights of slaves”?

3. Probably you are a lawyer, or a merchant, or a doctor, who has made by your business fifty thousand dollars, and retired to live on your capital. But, mark! not to spend your capital. That would be vulgar, disreputable, criminal. That would be to live by your own labor, for your capital is your amassed labor. That would be to do as common working men do, for they take the pittance which their employers leave them, to live on. They live by labor, for they exchange the results of their own labor for the products of other people’s labor. It is, no doubt, an honest vulgar [common, ordinary] way of living, but not at all a respectable way. The respectable way of living is to make other people work for you, and to pay them nothing for so doing — and to have no concern about them after their work is done. Hence, white slave-holding is much more respectable than Negro slavery — for the master works nearly as hard for the Negro, as he for the master. But you, my virtuous, respectable reader, exact three thousand dollars per annum [year] from white labor (for your income is the product of white labor) and make not one cent of return in any form. You retain your capital, and never labor, and yet live in luxury on the labor of others. Capital commands labor, as the master does the slave. Neither pays for labor, but the master permits the slave to retain a larger allowance from the proceeds of his own labor, and hence “free labor is cheaper than slave labor.” You, with the command over labor which your capital gives you, are a slave owner — a master, without the obligations of a master. They who work for you, who create your income, are slaves, without the rights of slaves. Slaves without a master! Whilst you were engaged in amassing your capital, in seeking to become independent, you were in the White Slave Trade. To become independent is to be able to make other people support you, without being obliged to labor for them. Now, what man in society is not seeking to attain this situation? He who attains it is a slave owner, in the worst sense. He who is in pursuit of it, is engaged in the slave trade. You, reader, belong to the one or other class. The men without property, in free society, are theoretically in a worse condition than slaves. Practically, their condition corresponds with this theory, as history and statistics everywhere demonstrate. The capitalists, in free society, live in ten times the luxury and show that Southern masters do, because the slaves to capital [i.e., the northern factory workingmen] work harder and cost less than Negro slaves.

11. What image of slavery does Fitzhugh create in this paragraph? Cite specific words from the text to support your answer.

12. How does he portray capitalists? Cite specific words from the text to support your answer.

13. In light of the Freedom’s Story essays on slave labor and slave resistance, how might you respond to Fitzhugh’s claim that “negroes luxuriate in corporeal and mental repose”?

14. Compare his portrayal of slaves with that of free laborers.

4. The Negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and, in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them. They enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care nor labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The Negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, not more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon. Besides, they have their Sabbaths and holidays. White men, with so much of license and liberty, would die of ennui, but Negroes luxuriate in corporeal and mental repose. With their faces upturned to the sun, they can sleep at any hour, and quiet sleep is the greatest of human enjoyments. “Blessed be the man who invented sleep.” ’Tis happiness in itself — and results from contentment with the present, and confident assurance of the future. We do not know whether free laborers ever sleep. They are fools to do so, for whilst they sleep, the wily and watchful capitalist is devising means to ensnare and exploit them. The free laborer must work or starve. He is more of a slave than the Negro because he works longer and harder for less allowance than the slave and has no holiday, because the cares of life with him begin when its labors end. He has no liberty, and not a single right.

15. According to Fitzhugh, in what ways are capitalists dependent on labor?

16. According to Fitzhugh, why does the purchase of labor turn a capitalist into a slaveowner?

5. But, reader, well may you follow the slave trade. It is the only trade worth following, and slaves the only property worth owning. All other is worthless, a mere caput mortuum [worthless remains], except insofar as it vests the owner with the power to command the labors of others — to enslave them. Give you a palace, ten thousand acres of land, sumptuous clothes, equipage, and every other luxury; and with your artificial wants, you are poorer than Robinson Crusoe or the lowest working man if you have no slaves to capital, or domestic slaves. Your capital will not bring you an income of a cent, nor supply one of your wants, without labor. Labor is indispensable to give value to property, and if you owned everything else and did not own labor, you would be poor. But fifty thousand dollars means, and is, fifty thousand dollars worth of slaves. You can command, without touching on that capital, three thousand dollars’ worth of labor per annum. You could do no more were you to buy slaves with it, and then you would be cumbered with the cares of governing and providing for them. You are a slaveholder now, to the amount of fifty thousand dollars, with all the advantages, and none of the cares and responsibilities of a master.

17. From your knowledge of slavery in the American South, what protections did the law accord the enslaved? Do they support Fitzhugh’s claim that law protects the slave?

18. According to Fitzhugh, why is the system of free labor more cruel than slave labor?

19. How, according to Fitzhugh, would the slave system of the South curb “the selfishness of man’s nature”?

6. Public opinion unites with self-interest, domestic affection and municipal law to protect the slave. The man who maltreats the weak and dependent, who abuses his authority over wife, children or slaves, is universally detested. That same public opinion which shields and protects the slave encourages the oppression of free laborers — for it is considered more honorable and praiseworthy to obtain large fees than small ones, to make good bargains than bad ones (and all fees and profits come ultimately from common laborers) — to live without work by the exactions of accumulated capital, than to labor at the plough or the spade, for one’s living. It is 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.

Follow-Up Assignment

The following passage comes from The Cotton Kingdom, an 1861 volume in which journalist Frederick Law Olmsted compiled the dispatches he sent back to New York newspapers as he travelled through the South in the 1850s.

Have your students read the passage and write a brief essay in response to this question: Would Olmsted agree or disagree with the argument Fitzhugh makes in Cannibals All!? Have them support their arguments with specific evidence from the text.

As a general rule, the larger the body of negroes on a plantation or estate, the more completely are they treated as mere property, and in accordance with a policy calculated to insure the largest pecuniary returns [profits]…. It may be true, that among the wealthier slave-owners there is oftener a humane disposition, a better judgment, and a greater ability to deal with their dependents indulgently and bountifully, but the effects of this disposition are chiefly felt, even on those plantations where the proprietor resides permanently, among the slaves employed about the house and stables, and perhaps a few old favourites in the quarters. It is more than balanced by the difficulty of acquiring a personal interest in the units of a large body of slaves, and an acquaintance with the individual characteristics of each. The treatment of the mass must be reduced to a system, the ruling idea of which will be, to enable one man to force into the same channel of labour the muscles of a large number of men of various and often conflicting wills.

Frederick Law Olmsted, The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller’s Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States, 1853–1861 (New York: Mason Brothers, 1861), p. 192.


VOCABULARY pop-ups

  • pittance: small, inadequate amount of money
  • capital: In these excerpts, capital is used to mean (1) money as profit, accumulated wealth; (2) money invested to make money in business and finance; (3) the northern workingman’s employer, i.e., the northern capitalist-industrialist.
  • delusive: deceptive, illusionary
  • raiment: clothing
  • infirm: enfeebled, disabled
  • despotism: unjust and cruel authority; tyranny
  • ennui: boredom; listlessness resulting from lack of interest
  • corporeal: bodily
  • cumbered: burdened
  • inculcated: instilled, taught

Image: “Oh Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny,” tobacco package label, lithograph by Robertson, Seibert & Shearman, New York, 1859 (detail). Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-08346. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

 

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