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
©2012–2015 National Humanities Center

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.

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


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.

Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.


Common Core State Standards

  • ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.4 (Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text…)

Advanced Placement US History

  • Key Concept 5.2 (IC) (Defenders of slavery…)

Teacher’s Note

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. Fitzhugh maintained that both free labor, as practiced among industrial workers in the North and Great Britain, and slavery, as practiced in the American South, exploited workers. However, because slave masters owned their workers, they took better care of them than capitalists who merely rented theirs.

To help students grasp Fitzhugh’s argument, you might ask two questions: How many would wash a rental car? How many wash their own or pay 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?

A note about the interactive exercises. The first allows students to explore vocabulary in context. The second prepares them to write an essay, an argument from authority, refuting Fitzhugh’s case. It links to a PDF you can print and distribute. The PDF includes excerpts from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl from which students can mine evidence to deploy against Fitzhugh. Selecting passages to serve as evidence and providing rationales for those choices offer an excellent opportunity for small group work. The PDF also features a model essay and an analysis of it that students can use to guide the writing of their own essays.

This lesson is divided into two parts, both accessible below. The teacher’s guide includes a background note, the text analysis with responses to the close reading questions, access to the interactive exercises, and an optional follow-up assignment. The student’s version, an interactive PDF, contains all of the above except the responses to the close reading questions and the follow-up assignment.

Teacher’s Guide (continues below)

  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions with answer key
  • Interactive exercises
  • Follow-up assignment
Student Version (click to open)

  • Interactive PDF
  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions
  • Interactive exercises

Teacher’s Guide


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?

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.”

Text Analysis


Close Reading Questions

Activity: VocabularyActivity: Vocabulary
Learn definitions by exploring how words are used in context.

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?
The word “boast” would probably go a long way in winning over Fitzhugh’s pro-slavery readers. Here, they might think, is one of us — unapologetic, unashamed, confident. The word would probably repel his anti-slavery readers and dampen their willingness to entertain his argument. Substituting any of the suggested alternative verbs tones down the paragraph, makes Fitzhugh seem more reasonable, less truculent. It also makes us realize just how much of an in-your-face word “boast” is as Fitzhugh uses it. And, realizing that, we can legitimately ask why Fitzhugh is writing: to persuade Northern readers or bolster to Southern ones.

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?
Certainly, family cares might burden free workers, but they would not deprive them of their freedom. However burdened, Northern laborers would, unlike the enslaved, be free to marry legally, start families, and live together in a single household. Above all, they would be free from the fear of being separated because of a master’s financial needs, stipulations in his will, or mere whim.

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.


3. What definitions of freedom are implied in Fitzhugh’s second paragraph?
Fitzhugh sees freedom purely in economic terms. For him freedom is not having to work and being unburdened by worries about economic well-being, either your own or that of others.

4. Based upon Fitzhugh’s definitions of freedom, why are laborers not free? Why are employers free? Why are slaves free? Are the slave owners free? Why or why not?
Following upon Fitzhugh’s implied definitions of freedom, laborers are not free because they, first, must work and, second, because they are burdened with worry about their economic well-being and that of their families. Employers are free because they do not work; they profit from the toil of other people. Moreover, they do not have to worry about the physical well-being of workers: their responsibility ends when they dole out wages. While slaves must work, they are free because, according to Fitzhugh, their physical well-being is assured by their masters. In Fitzhugh’s calculations slave owners are not free. While they profit from the labor of others, like employers, they are burdened with the responsibility of providing for the well-being of their slaves.

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. What image of slavery does Fitzhugh create paragraph 3? Cite specific evidence from the text to support your answer.
Fitzhugh creates an image of happiness, contentment, ease, security, and freedom. Some slaves “work not at all,” yet they “have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them.” They “are oppressed neither by care nor labor” and spend considerable time “in perfect abandon” or luxuriating “in corporeal and mental repose,” or sleeping.

6. How does he portray capitalists? Cite specific words from the text to support your answer.
Capitalists are predatory and oppressive. They are ever “wily and watchful,” always “devising means to ensnare and exploit” workers and deprive them of their liberty and rights.

7. Compare Fitzhugh’s portrayal of slaves with that of free laborers.
As noted in the answer to question 9, Fitzhugh portrays slaves as happy, content, secure, and at ease with life. Free laborers, on the other hand, lead precarious lives, threatened by exploitation and starvation, oppressed and denied their rights, burdened by the cares of life during their productive years and faced with penury in their old age.

8. 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”?
Working from sunrise to sunset, as most slaves did, at back-breaking, mind-numbing tasks would leave little time for luxuriating, and mental repose would be difficult to achieve with a whip-wielding overseer ever watchful nearby.

3. 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.


9. According to Fitzhugh, why does the purchase of labor turn an investor into a slave owner?
Because purchasing labor through investing enables one to earn income, not through one’s own exertions, but through the labor of others. Living off the labor of others is, to Fitzhugh, exploitation and is thus slavery.
4. 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.

Note: When Fitzhugh refers to labor giving “value to wealth,” he is referring to deriving income from capital. Only by investing capital — that is, buying labor with it — will capital generate income. When he refers to $50,000 commanding “three thousand dollars worth of labor per annum,” he is referring to the income that might be obtained from investing $50,000.


10. According to Fitzhugh, why is the system of free labor more cruel than slave labor?
Fitzhugh contends that both Southern slave owners and Northern capitalists seek profit: for both it is better “to make good bargains than bad ones.” But the social context in which slavery exists — a combination of public opinion, self-interest, affection, and law — curbs “the selfishness of man’s nature” and protects slaves from maltreatment. No such context exists in the North, and so the impulse to exploit worker for maximum profit is unrestrained and hence the labor system more cruel.

Activity: Refuting FitzhughActivity: Refuting Fitzhugh
Use first-hand evidence to write an argument from authority which refutes Fitzhugh’s three primary claims for the humaneness of slavery.
5. 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.