George Fitzhugh (1804-1881)
Contributing Editor: Anne Jones
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The most pressing issue will most likely be simple incredulity on the part of students. Not only does Fitzhugh defend a system (slavery) whose evil is a modern given, but he believes abolition "will soon be considered a mad infatuation," England will return to slave-holding, and southern thought will lead the western world.
An interesting starting point then could be the question of tone. Is this guy serious? How can we be sure that sentences like "This, of itself, would put the South at the lead of modern civilization" or "How fortunate for the South that she has this inferior race" are not dripping with sarcasm? Is irony contextual? In what context do these seem ironic statements?
Of course, they are perfectly "straight" in the context of Fitzhugh's essay and audience, which raises the more profound question for the class to deliberate: How can we understand (if, indeed, we should try to understand) and not criticize people who supported slavery and who adhered to the notion of black racial inferiority? Fitzhugh's essay from Southern Thought may help students discover that their opposition to slavery and racism has never really been understood.
Start with Bertram Wyatt-Brown's words from Southern Honor: "It is hard for us to believe that Southerners ever meant what they said of themselves. How could they so glibly reconcile slaveholding with pretensions to virtue? . . . [Yet] apart from a few lonely dissenters, Southern whites believed ( as most people do [emphasis added]) that they conduc- ted their lives by the highest ethical standards" (3). What standards does Fitzhugh invoke? Which do you accept? Which do you reject, and why?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The vexed relation to socialism evident in Fitzhugh's text might come as a surprise. A connection between socialism and southern thought is evident again in the modern period (see Volume 2), when the Southern Agrarians find themselves sympathetic, like Fitzhugh, to this "other" critique of industrial capitalism and bourgeois individualism. How does Fitzhugh separate his views from those of socialists?
Fitzhugh clearly has an ideological project in mind here; he even locates the most practical venues for indoctrinating the South (and next, the world!) in "Southern Thought." What do students think about such a project? How different is it from contemporary advertising and marketing strategies? More advanced students might compare it to Gramsci's notions of counter-hegemonic discourse to be developed by organic intellectuals.
Fitzhugh's racism which he separates so carefully from his defense of slavery as an institution, is of course egregious. It should, however, be understood (which is not to say condoned) in the context of widespread contemporary beliefs in scientific racism. See, for instance, "Race" by Kwame Appiah in Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, eds. Critical Terms for Literary Study (1990). Can we separate his argument for enslavement of blacks from his argument for black difference? What are some modern arguments for black difference and separation? How do they differ from Fitzhugh's? Are they legitimate? Why or why not?
Such questions may be unsettling to students who come to pro-slavery writing with moral certainties in place. Reading pro-slavery arguments together with abolitionist arguments, however, can help them clarify their own positions not only on slavery but also on how to think about the problems of poverty and racism that, unlike slavery, remain unresolved today. I have found students to be very responsive to the early chapters in Lillian Smith's Killers of the Dream (1962), where she eloquently dramatizes the complexity and personal pain of ideological conflict for children and young people, in this case white southern girls who are torn between family and personal values. Faulkner's "Barn Burning" can be read in similar ways.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Fitzhugh's allusions (for example, to abolitionists by name and to European history) may be obscure. Try assigning one name/reference to each student for a collective information pool.
Try asking students who they think the intended audience is. They will probably guess other literate white Southerners, and they will be right (like much pro-slavery argument, it appeared in a southern publication). But how did they know this? This will take them back to the experience of reading the text to see how the words worked on them. How might Fitzhugh have addressed another audience--the British middle class, free/enslaved southern blacks, for instance? Are there audiences he would not address? If not, why not? Try asking students to rewrite this for a contemporary audience, or to debate the issue of slavery orally (pro and con). If they resist, ask them to discuss their resistance. If they do not resist, ask them to discuss their lack of resistance.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
First, compare Fitzhugh's very male-focused defense with Hentz's defense of slavery. Is hers markedly "womanly"? From comparing these texts, what can we learn about the nineteenth-century cultural gender differences that each author assumes and exploits? Is Fitzhugh turning for support to nineteenth-century women's culture when he argues (1914) for the superiority of "domestic" slavery over slavery to capital? Next, compare these writers' arguments with abolitionists' arguments. A particularly interesting comparison would be with é, who in "Appeal to the Christian Women of the South" wrote to a similar audience and thus constructed her rhetoric based on presumably similar understandings of what might work with Southerners. How do abolitionists deal with southern claims about "slavery to capital"?