In the years leading up to the American Civil War, the Republican abolition movement was gaining strength. Democrats not only tolerated slavery but were proud of it. The most prominent defender was the social theorist and Democrat George Fitzhugh. He rejected capitalism, which he saw as fundamentally incompatible with the institution of slavery and deemed the Declaration of Independence to be “exuberantly false, and arborescently fallacious.”
Anti-Capitalism and Socialism
In his 1854 book Sociology for the South, or, The Failure of Free Society, Fitzhugh argued that capitalism was an exploitative system that enriched the strong and impoverished the weak: “A war of the rich with the poor, and the poor with one another.” Particularly, Fitzhugh argued, the black man – who he regarded as “but a grown-up child” – would lose in the fierce competition of free markets.
His solution to the problem of inequality and capitalist oppression was slavery, which he regarded as “the very best form of socialism.” He said that “socialism proposes to do away with free competition; to afford protection and support at all times to the laboring class… All these purposes, slavery fully and perfectly attains.”
Fitzhugh was a staunch supporter of socialism, but unlike modern Democrats, his assessment of its nature was transparent and honest: “Socialism is already slavery in all save the master… Our only quarrel with socialism is that it will not honestly admit that it owes its recent revival to the failure of universal liberty and is seeking to bring about slavery again in some form.”
In this sense, Fitzhugh was surprisingly modern. He recognized that socialism requires a ruling elite – masters – who regulate and dictate the work and behavior of the underclass – slaves.
He was modern in another sense, also. Unlike many of his contemporary Democrats, Fitzhugh was in favor of slavery for all races, not just blacks. He was an equal un-opportunist. Within each race, he argued, there were weak and strong, and therefore some were more naturally suited to be slaves.
The Democratic Party is no longer in favor of slavery. Indeed, some contemporary historians would have you believe that the modern version of the party is the diametrical opposite and that somehow it has switched sides with the Republican Party.
Today, by contrast, Democrats are in favor of a ruling elite in Washington regulating and dictating the work and behavior of the poor and disadvantaged, for their own good. They rile against capitalism and free competition as a system of exploitation. A socialist welfare state is needed to protect the weak, guarded by benevolent politicians and bureaucrats.
After studying an account of Fitzhugh’s defense of slavery, the astute reader may recognize that the evolution of the Democratic Party is characterized by continuity.
The 1619 Project
Fitzhugh’s articulate anti-capitalism is also relevant in today’s debate over whether the United States was built on slavery and systemic racism, as The New York Times 1619 project claims. It turns out that both the advocates of slavery and the radical left share an equal disdain for capitalism, liberty, and the United States.
Fitzhugh made it clear that he regarded capitalism as the number one enemy of the slave plantation system, and he recognized in the Declaration of Independence the seeds of that system’s demise. One could argue that southern states wanted to secede from the United States precisely because their socialist slave society was incompatible with the American project of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
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