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?
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.
George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All! Or Slaves Without Masters, 1857, excerpts.
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.
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
- What kind of text are we dealing with?
- When was it written?
- Who wrote it?
- For what audience was it intended?
- 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?
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?
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?
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”?
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.
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?
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”?
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.
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.
- 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.