[From "American History Series: Review: Sociology for the South, or, The Failure of Free Society"]
The 1840s and 1850s were a time much like our own.
In the wake of the Second Great Awakening, an endless tidal wave of moral condemnation of the South poured forth from the Eastern press and Eastern politicians. Inspired by George Bancroft’s vision which was articulated in the volumes of his A History of the United States, 19th century liberalism was gaining traction and putting down roots among Eastern industrial and commercial elites. American society came to be perceived as wicked and in need of immediate and sweeping reform on many fronts. Secular reform and utopian religious movements sprung up all over the deeply unsettled region.
Southern slavery was over two centuries old at this point, but the evangelical religious revival that swept across the East created a new sense of urgency that it needed to be immediately abolished by righteous Yankees in order to stamp out sin, usher in the millennium and create a New Jerusalem on earth. This moment was the dawn of the American Left in a parade of social causes and religious cults: the Millerite movement, the Shakers, the Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists, Charles Grandison Finney and the doctrine of perfectionism, temperance which culminated in Prohibition, women’s suffrage which culminated in the 19th amendment, opposition to Indian Removal, Transcendentalism, pacifism and opposition to the Mexican War. The various evil seen in need of reform at times was also tobacco, Freemasonry, Catholicism and even marriage which was an obstacle to free love. It was in this social context that abolitionism and racial equality also came to be seen as worthwhile causes.
As the South came under withering attack from these utopian dreamers, Southern conservatives became increasingly defensive and began to explicitly defend slavery as a positive good. Sen. John C. Calhoun led this defense of the South in the Senate for nearly twenty years in the Antebellum era from the Nullification Crisis to his death in 1850. Calhoun’s treatise A Disquisition on Government marked a conservative shift in Southern thought toward order, authority, security and the limits of liberty.
Thomas Jefferson was an ardent republican who represented the first generation of Southerners who abhorred slavery and believed that free blacks could enjoy equal rights in Africa. Liberia was established by his successors as an outlet for this philanthropic purpose. John C. Calhoun represented the second generation of Southerners who came to defend slavery as a positive good and broke with equal rights while remaining largely within the framework of Old Republican thought. Calhoun laid the groundwork for nullification and secession. Finally, George Fitzhugh was the sharpest thinker of the third generation of Southerners who were even more conservative than Calhoun’s generation.
This was the context in which George Fitzhugh wrote Sociology for the South, or, The Failure of Free Society which was published in 1854. The book builds on his earlier pamphlets Slavery Justified and What Shall Be Done With The Free Negroes? which are attached as an appendix.
Sociology for the South is significant because it was a truly radical conservative reimagining of the American Founding as well as a groundbreaking prescription for how to reset the American future. As Louis Hartz described it, the Southern Reactionary Enlightenment was “the great imaginative moment in American political thought, the moment when America almost got out of itself, and looked with some objectivity on the liberal form it has known since birth.” To put it mildly, it is a deeply illiberal book.
George Fitzhugh wasn’t just content to defend slavery like most of his contemporaries. He thought deeply about why slavery was being attacked and the motivations of its assailants. He deeply thought about his own society and its past, present and future. He thought about why the Southern model was good and how best to defend it from its critics. He thought about what was wrong about the Northern model and why it was a failure. In doing so, he laid the foundation for a new Southern conservatism.
In Sociology for the South, Fitzhugh marshaled the Bible, Aristotle, Sir Robert Filmer, Thomas Carlyle and Tory conservatism, the French sociologists and even the critiques of the socialists to launch a blistering counter attack on John Locke, Adam Smith and the political economists and the very roots of liberalism or what he labeled the system of “Free Society.” Fitzhugh was unfamiliar with his contemporary Karl Marx but echoed many of his most scathing criticisms of free-market capitalism.
George Fitzhugh explicitly saw the Revolution of ’61 as a Tory counterrevolution to the Patriot Revolution of ’76:
Everything would have worked out fine too were it not for the “pompous inanties of the Declaration of Independence.” The republican structure of the government was sound. The English tradition of constitutional liberty was sound. White identity and the English language, Protestant Christianity and the common law and virtually everything that America started out with that was promising and defined its new national identity was derived from its English parent. America’s vibrant culture of liberty was part of a tradition which was the “accretion” of countless generations of Englishmen – 170 years of the colonial era and further back than that into the time of King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons in the Middle Ages – and had not sprung into the world from abstract doctrines of Enlightenment philosophers. It was the axioms contained within the Declaration of Independence which 19th century liberalism latched onto to legitimize itself that had wrecked the country and brought about the dissolution of the Union.
Alexander Stephens used Fitzhugh’s Tory theory and language in his Cornerstone Speech. The Confederates preserved the structure of the American Republic while pruning its liberal axioms. Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens both wrote volumes on constitutional liberty.
In “The Conservative Principle; or, Social Evils and Their Remedies,” Fitzhugh made clear that the slavery principle is synonymous with the conservative principle of order, subordination and government. He was unique in being able to step out of his time and anticipate that the diabolical nature of the liberal system would eventually demolish the social order entirely as it descended into anarchy.
Liberalism must be rejected.
Frankenstein’s monster has turned on his master and is now rampaging through our streets. The post-World War II attempt by the liberal establishment to base America on nothing more than anti-racism and the axioms of liberty and equality has led us to this dystopia.