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Phil Magness helps us unravel who George Fitzhugh was and how he is interpreted today.

Phil Magness best describes George Fitzhugh as an “eccentric character” because that frames the intellectual direction of his life. Fitzhugh had an obsession with reading about the medieval world and throughout his life he had contempt for philosophers. He is famous for viewing free society as a failure and he also claimed that “all government is slavery”.

Who is George Fitzhugh? Was he ever a southern planter? What influence did Thomas Carlyle have on Fitzhugh? What were Fitzhugh’s religious views? How did Fitzhugh critique feminism? What did Fitzhugh find valuable about the feudal relationship?

Further Reading:

George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society, Richmond, VA: A. Morris, 1854.

George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All! Or, Slaves Without Masters, Richmond, VA: A. Morris, 1857

Slavery as Socialism, written by George H. Smith

There is No Excuse for Slavery, Liberty Chronicles Podcast

What is Classical Liberal History?, Liberty Chronicles Podcast



00:01 Anthony Comegna: This week and next, we will survey two of America’s very worst human products. Two of the people whose personalities and ideas are so offensive that historians have scarcely known what to do with them. Next week, it’s Hinton Helper, but for today we go to George Fitzhugh, who so loved slavery and the planter regime, he was so entranced by its callbacks to the romantic Middle Ages, and he was so convinced that slavery was both natural and just, that he even advocated that poor white people be enslaved. Some historians have gone so far as to say that George Fitzhugh stands virtually alone in American history as the one major figure who seriously departed from Lockean political philosophy, and even modernity itself. To examine this bizzare and frankly disturbing thinker, I’ve invited historian Phil Magness back on the show. You may remember him from a while back, when we spoke about his recent book, ‘What Is Classical Liberal History?’. But for now, we have to turn to the very opposite of classical liberalism, so we can see just how bad it gets.


01:18 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. I’m Anthony Comegna. Alright, so Phil, can you start us out with just a bit of biography on George Fitzhugh? I’m wondering… I don’t know too much about his personal details of his life, but I’m wondering what sort of life does somebody have to have to come out as terrible as George Fitzhugh was?

01:46 Phil Magness: Right, right, and Fitzhugh is a classic eccentric. And you can kinda see that in the way that he focuses on his writing, so he’s obsessed with slavery. But his background is this oddball that, he’s self‐​taught mostly, has a little bit of formal education, but he’s a deep reader of books, has a massive library reportedly in his house, and he would descend into just the intellectual engagement with all the material that he could swallow up, so he is an autodidact in that sense. He’s trained as a lawyer, and he actually marries into a modest amount of wealth with his wife that… So she brings an estate in, and the estate has basically a couple slaves and a very large mansion in Port Royal, Virginia, which is where he ends up spending most of his life.

02:46 Phil Magness: But all his contemporaries report him as someone who withdraws from social scenes, is often found sitting around in his library in his house absorbing books. He does a variety of odd jobs throughout the years to bring in little sources of income, including working for the federal government. At points he would serve as a judge or offer his services as an attorney to various government actors, and this persists from the Antebellum Period through the Civil War. He goes into the service of the Confederate Government. And then after the Civil War, oddity of oddities, he actually does a little bit of legal work for the Freedmen’s Bureau, although he’s still very much in a hostile perspective to the freed blacks after the war. But you can think of him as just a bit of a dilettante, who moved from odd job to odd job, had enough money to basically survive and descend into his books, and then just over the years he takes up pamphleteering, and pamphleteering moves into journalism, journalism moves into publishing these more substantive works.

03:56 Phil Magness: He comes up with two books over the course of his career. I guess we can get into some of the content of those. For one thing, I will say that it keeps coming up as a theme over and over again of people who meet him, is they always remark on what an odd character he is. So one of the classic stories as he lived in this massive mansion that was inherited through his wife’s family, and he apparently allowed it to just go into shambles, never kept it up, and observers, visitors would come to see him and he’d be sitting there reading his books, and there’d be like bats flying out of the attic and stuff, and he’s apparently unfazed by this. So just a classic type of an eccentric character, and I think that really frames some of the intellectual direction his life takes.

04:41 Anthony Comegna: That ‘Fall of the House of Usher’ type scenario is pretty great.

04:44 Phil Magness: Yeah, basically, yeah. [chuckle]

04:46 Anthony Comegna: What a perfect analogy to the whole slave system itself and Fitzhugh’s medieval outlook on the world.

04:53 Phil Magness: Right, right.

04:56 Anthony Comegna: Now, just a couple of points of clarification. Was he ever, at any point, what would be considered a planter?

05:04 Phil Magness: So, he’s definitely not like a plantation style manager of the South. He… I think, the best records we have is through his wife’s family. He has maybe nine or 10 slaves at any given point. But he uses them mostly for domestic servants and smaller tasks like that. So in terms of actually doing employment, most of it comes from either odds and ends that he can gather from writing, or his service as an attorney from time to time, and usually falling into various political patronage jobs.

05:38 Anthony Comegna: But that also puts him in the largest class of slave owners in the South, right? The small slave owners.

05:44 Phil Magness: Yeah, he’s very much, yeah, yeah, very much so.

05:48 Anthony Comegna: What kind of impact do you think that had on the development of his ideas? The fact that he’s somewhere between a normal person like as we’ll see, somebody that Fitzhugh would actually want to be enslaved, whether they’re white or black. He thought everybody who was poor, basically, should be a slave to somebody who was wealthier.

06:08 Phil Magness: Right.

06:09 Anthony Comegna: So he’s in the middle. I wonder, what effect does that have on his thought?

06:14 Phil Magness: Well, he certainly sees himself as kind of like the paternalistic patriarch of the household. His view of slavery on a personal level, his relationship with slavery is almost always emphasizing the role of servitude, is a guiding mechanism, his [06:34] ____ sound to the moral life. He sees the master as someone who provides order for those that in their natural free state would just be in chaos. And it’s very much a hearkening back to a feudal lord with the serf underneath him, type of a view of the structuring of society, and he draws very heavily on that. He’s almost obsessively reading about the Medieval era whenever he can get books on that subject, and he sees slavery as almost a direct descendant of that, a modernization of that.

07:10 Anthony Comegna: What kind of literature did he like to read? Was he reading Walter Scott and romantic poets, or did he stick to outdated old literature from the period that he loved so much?

07:25 Phil Magness: Right, right. So off the top of my head, I haven’t seen any references directly to Scott, although that’s certainly something that’s in the year of the Old South, the romanticism of medieval times, Ivanhoe, that type of stuff. I can’t say with certainty to the degree that Fitzhugh drew on that. And actually most of the reading that he cites and references is of a non‐​fiction type, with one very clear exception we can get into, and that’s he is obsessed with Thomas Carlyle, who was both a fiction writer and a historian. And he sees these Carlyle’s fiction as very compatible with Carlyle’s philosophical and historical writing.

08:11 Anthony Comegna: Now, this obsession with the medieval world and with the patriarchal elements of serfdom and lordship really, really fascinate me in Fitzhugh’s thought. Because I find it… Some of the most challenging elements to a libertarian because, I think, especially with the influence of somebody like Hans Hoppe and his book ‘Democracy: The God that failed’, we do recognize that democracy, in all sorts of ways, is a step backward from certain things about medieval life. And then there are also the left libertarians who point to the king’s corporate charters as the growth of capitalism or enclosure by the aristocrats, and medieval life was a lot more free and libertarian in a lot of ways. And free libertarian peoples could live alongside the world of lords and serfs who were bound to the land. So there’s… There are all sorts of challenging elements in Fitzhugh’s presentation of the medieval period as this grand time of great patriarchs. So I wonder if you could just fill in, what is his intellectual heritage?

09:26 Phil Magness: Yeah, so it’s mostly self‐​taught, and I’m actually glad you go in this direction. I almost see Fitzhugh as an anti Deirdre McCloskey. And Deirdre’s whole thesis is about an emergent cultural intellectual shift that occurs that breaks humanity effectively out of the serfdom‐​master relationship. It’s the dignity of the merchant class that’s emergent. And whereas McCloskey would celebrate that as something that opens up new opportunities for people that never had them, again, opens up new freedoms, Fitzhugh looks at this and sees in horror that it’s like this instrument of chaos that’s happening, it’s up‐​ending the order of society.

10:11 Phil Magness: So as he’s doing his intellectual journey, putting together his theories, he’s drawing on whatever he can grab on to as a kind of a claim of institutional stability that he can pull from the past, and yet the oddity of it is he merges this with some really radical political economy. So some of the other references that you find throughout his text over the years, he’s very well‐​read in the socialist and Utopian communists of the era, the pre‐​Marx end of the radical left. So people Like Robert Owen, is a very frequent reference in Fitzhugh’s work. So he’s almost merging this idealized study of medieval history with a radical political economy that’s coming out of the far left, and saying that the two unite very symptomatically of the modern industrial age, that unite in ways that particular authors say in the communist socialist world, or particular authors in this reactionary, harkening back to the old idealized medieval state would not recognize of each other, and he sees himself as this bridge figure between the two literatures.

11:31 Anthony Comegna: So let’s dig into what he thought was so admirable about the feudal system. And also, Catholicism, which I find also strange. It’s an outlier from this period for somebody to have so much effusive praise for the Catholic Church and its hierarchies, but Fitzhugh definitely does. What did he find valuable about the feudal relationship?

11:58 Phil Magness: That’s the hierarchical structure. It is a paternalistic way of looking at life. So… And this is where Fitzhugh draws something very strongly from the left, his economic theory is all about worker exploitation, it’s all about looking and seeing in the lower classes of society. Obviously, the slaves are the foremost example in his day, but he sees white laborers as also exploited. And his vision of the relationship of those laborers to capitalism, he sees them as almost captive to this exploitative system in a very proto‐​Marxian way, and he sees the older feudal system as a displaced parent, something that in the previous age would have protected these people, would have also provided order to their lives, and done so with a strong hand.

12:53 Phil Magness: So he’s very accepting of the brutality of the system, but he sees the master‐​slave relationship as very analogist to the lord‐​serf relationship. He also sees this as something that is directly parallel of an historical religious structure. So there’s where Catholicism comes in. Being a hierarchical church, being something that is ordered around very clear relationships, from the Pope all the way down to the Bishop, to the local parish priest. He sees this as a structured ordering that can step in and almost offer that paternalistic guidance to the chaos of life, unchained from any sort of the institutional order. So, to him, Catholicism, it’s not so much a religious attraction that pulls him in that direction, he looks at the structure of the church. He sees a centralized body with diffusing rungs of order beneath them, and he sees that as a proper way to disseminate moral instruction, very similar to the way that a properly situated lord or noble men would disseminate moral instruction to the workers that are underneath him on his farmer’s estate in Medieval England.

14:17 Anthony Comegna: What were his religious views? For his… [laughter] You read his books and you, yeah.

14:23 Phil Magness: That’s a good question. There’s a matter of sincerity that’s always at play in Fitzhugh, and he’ll go through some of the nods from time to time in his journalism and his writing to indicate appeals to Christianity in a very vague sense, but you’re never quite sure how serious he is. He doesn’t seem to be an overly religious man, he’s not visibly praying out in public or any of that type of thing. He makes references to it, he’s well read in elements of religion and theology, but there’s always this question of the sincerity. Does he view this as a true belief? Probably not. Does he view this as a tool that’s very compatible with his way of looking at the world, and one of many possible tools? So something that’s very parallel to the nobleman‐​serf relationship as well. That’s more likely the case, at least how I’d interpret it in viewing him religiously.

15:29 Anthony Comegna: Yeah, I kinda had the same sense. He seems sort of like a Straussian, in that he might not really believe the things that he’s saying, but the myth is more important. It’s important that you believe that he believes what he’s saying. So he might not think a word of this Christianity Bible stuff is true, but that’s not important because it has social power to it, and that’s what he’s concerned about managing, like a good patriarch.

15:57 Phil Magness: Oh, absolutely. And even before Strauss, and I don’t wanna malign them too much and others, I have a complex view of the Straussians myself, interesting political philosophy, but this is a Carlylean theme as well. If you look in Carlyle’s text, he’s constantly the trickster, and he almost takes joy in playing with words and playing with concepts, and not quite fully revealing his deck of cards or his hand of cards to the world. He’s not showing his true belief so much as he’s taking concepts and using them to prod the reader in a certain direction. And you’re never quite sure what is the true personal Carlyle coming through, or what is he’s actually just word‐​smithing and a conceptual use to try and drive a conversation in the direction he wants it to go. And Fitzhugh absolutely picks up on this style, he’s almost an outrage artist.

16:58 Phil Magness: He glorifies himself and the fact that his writings provoke such a vicious backlash in the North. He almost relishes in it. He’s unusual in this sense compared to the other pro‐​slavery writers. They view themselves as the enemy of the Northern people, they view themselves as someone who would never associate with a Yankee. Fitzhugh is almost the opposite of that. He wants to associate with the Yankees so he can throw himself into the ring and batter them around with as outrageous of a proposition he can put forth, and just to see their reaction. So he absolutely loves that publicity that he gets from it. Almost like a 19th century version of an internet troll, in a sense.


17:47 Anthony Comegna: So I wanna come back to this thread later. But it strikes me that he’s also very familiar or very similar to Sir Robert Filmer in his writings, which was John Locke’s great enemy.

18:00 Phil Magness: Right, right. [chuckle]

18:00 Anthony Comegna: It’s been commented that Fitzhugh was the one person in American history who genuinely preferred Sir Robert Filmer to John Locke. And I mean, it seems to me that throughout Filmer you also get somebody who doesn’t really seem like they believe what they’re saying, but they gotta make the case the best way that they can. And so they’ll use evidence that they think people will find convincing.

18:25 Phil Magness: Right, right. One of the themes you see in both of Fitzhugh’s books, and you see in several of his journalism outputs, is he’s constantly bashing, beating up on Locke. He sees Locke as the fountainhead of both a political philosophy that tears down feudalism. So he’s actually concerned more so with Locke’s First Treatise, in this sense, than the Second Treatise. The First Treatise is the one that digs into an attack on the divine right of kings. We see it as antiquated as compared to the social contract that comes into the Second Treatise in government. But Fitzhugh dislikes both of them, and he tears into them constantly. He views Locke as the destabilizing political mechanism of the old feudal order. But he also views Locke as the fountainhead of this market thinking that he despises. So he sees a direct trajectory, an intellectual trajectory from Locke to someone like Adam Smith, who is the other great enemy that emerges in his work.

19:26 Phil Magness: You take someone like Filmer… And actually, Fitzhugh does not refer to Filmer all that much. So it’s something that historians have commented on, they’ve recognized a parallel in their way of thinking, but what it comes out as is, Filmer adopts this paternalistic outlook. Very similar, he’s a defender of the king, the monarchy, and the success of orders of society as providing moral instruction, providing order to the world. So Fitzhugh, in a sense, is almost copying and updating that way of thinking. This is a late 17th century type of a doctrine. He’s saying, “Well, we can take it to the 19th century,” and, “Oh, we have this modernized system of slavery that’s our next state under the historical evolutionary trajectory.” So use slavery as the paternalistic mechanism that sustains this type of ordering and moral instruction for life that’s been displaced by the evils that he sees in the Lockean system.

20:34 Anthony Comegna: And it’s not… I mean, he does really hate philosophers. He makes no bones about that. He really has contempt for philosophers. And it’s interesting to me that he seems to have much more high regard for historians like Carlyle and Marx.

20:49 Phil Magness: Right, right. Yeah, and Carlyle first and foremost among them.

20:53 Anthony Comegna: Yeah. And I mean, Marx who was first and foremost a historian, right?

20:57 Phil Magness: Right, right. [laughter]

20:58 Anthony Comegna: Even though he’s remembered for some godawful reason as an economist. He’s really not the worst historian from his era, so [chuckle] there’s some value to him there.

21:08 Phil Magness: There’s a low bar there, but…


21:11 Anthony Comegna: That’s true. But there’s this divide in Fitzhugh. He hates philosophers, but he loves the down‐​to‐​earth historians who get into the details of human experience, and all of that stuff really makes a difference to his way of thinking. Now back to Locke, though. That time period of enclosure and people being displaced to the countryside, the rise of wage labor, the rise of Lockean philosophy, that’s the beginning of chaos for him. And this messy middle period in history in between grand patriarchies of the feudal period and the slavery period. There’s this awful, mucky, free society period in between. So tell us about Fitzhugh’s idea that free society is a failure.

22:05 Phil Magness: Right, right. And this is where Fitzhugh as the anti‐​McCloskey comes into full view. He sees horror in the opportunity that’s afforded by, especially economic freedom, but freedom in general. He sees nothing but a disruption and overturning of the old system, and with it a moral breakdown that comes out. ‘Cause remember, his core theory is that the feudal lord not only provides order to society, but provides moral instruction down to people who he sees as almost free and wild when left to their own devices, and he’s horrified by that. So he views the lord as someone providing moral instruction. He sees the slave master as someone providing moral instruction. So this is an ethical view that sees emergent… I guess we’d call it capitalism today, but really a market system as ethically destructive. So the antithesis of almost anything that a modern libertarian theorist would refer to when talking about the inherent morality of free exchange, Fitzhugh sees this as the complete destruction of morality. So there’s that tension at play.

23:25 Phil Magness: He is historically‐​minded in the sense that he’s obsessed with reading accounts about what’s going on the ground. He almost prefers this to anything in the fictional world. So he studies accounts of factory conditions, in England in particular. He looks at accounts of political upheaval. So he’s quite fond of Carlyle. Carlyle’s big work is his ‘History of the French Revolution’. So Fitzhugh was reading that, absorbing it at the same time. Seeing this is a way of peeking into man’s soul is to look through historical accounts. One of the oddities of his study of industrialization is, he draws on quite a few of the same sources that Karl Marx does about a decade later. And C. Vann Woodward, the great historian of the South who added a series of… Actually one of Fitzhugh’s books back into print and did a very critical interpretive essay of it. He points out that Fitzhugh’s analytical process of studying factories, studying worker conditions, through historical documents, is almost identical to the process that you find in Karl Marx. And on top of that, they reach more or less the same conclusion with their own individual twist at the end. So the approach is very similar to Marx, the material he’s using is very similar to Marx, and quite a few of the conclusions are the same.

24:57 Anthony Comegna: Yeah, I mean, he uses the very first chapter in ‘Sociology For The South’ to attack free trade. And that’s where he builds the rest of his case from there. And there’s this very, very important line from there, “Political economy is the science of free society, and socialism is the science of slavery.” Talk to us about that a little bit.

25:21 Phil Magness: Right. And so this book comes out, it’s his first major track. He’s been writing journalism for a couple of years before that, and put forth arguments in favor of slavery. But the title is the ‘Sociology For The South’, and the subtitle of the book though, is almost more fascinating. The subtitle is, ‘The Failure Of A Free Society’. So take that in for a moment, what’s he referring to as the failure of a free society? He’s actually referring to market capitalism, or what we call market capitalism. He’s referring to the Manchester emergent school free trade that’s coming out of the United Kingdom. So he doesn’t go into so much by name attacking someone like Richard Compton, but that’s very much in the political way.

26:11 Phil Magness: So 1846 is when Britain repeals the Corn Laws, its entire protective system that had upheld the high tariffs effectively on food items in the United Kingdom. Yeah, so it’s a protectionist mechanism to sustain large land owners in Britain by keeping them in farm production, even though Britain’s a really inhospitable climate to grow wheat and corn and farm products. But the idea’s to sustain that market. Well, Fitzhugh views this emergence in human history, this introduction of free trade, as something that further de‐​stabilizes the land holding class. It’s kind of the last death blow against the old estate holders and the feudal medieval order that had remained in England. Because if you look at what the effect of protectionism was, prior to the repeal of Corn Laws, it actually kept several of these large estates relatively profitable, internal to England, through artificially sustain the agriculture prices caused by the tariffs.

27:25 Phil Magness: And you remove that, what happens? Trade enters in. More efficient, more effective production mechanisms in better climates and far flung regions of the world start competing with those old land owners and those estate holders in England, it makes them no longer profitable. There you have an entire class of the last remnant of the feudal hold over. So he sees free trade as one of the greatest threats of modern society in his age. He sees Manchester liberalism is breaking down the very last remnants we have of feudalism. He also sees it as being in direct competition with the system, the economic system he’s espousing, based on using slavery to supplant and restore the feudal order for a very specific reason. If you go back to economists from Adam Smith forward that are writing in that era of classical economists, almost all of them touch upon the problem of slavery, and they do so through economic reasoning. There’s also moral cases that Adam Smith [28:32] ____, his major famous contribution on slavery, as he notes that using a ceteris paribus assumption, slavery versus free labor, they are put side by side, free labor will out compete and be more efficient than slavery, because there are certain incentive structures in place.

28:50 Phil Magness: If you’re a free laborer, you have an incentive to improve upon your product, improve your skill sets, maybe innovate, offer something new that makes your productive process more efficient. If you’re a slave, what’s your incentive? It’s, “Do you work, or you’re gonna get whipped at the end of the day.” And Smith is arguing that one is a driver of efficiency, the other is, it’s this retrograde politically sustained system. So Fitzhugh sees this Smithian philosophy as directly the antithetical to the slave order he wants to uphold. He actually declares at several points and says, “These market thinkers are at war with slavery, they view slavery as something inefficient to be driven from the market. I view something… I view slavery as something that is the sustainer of order and moral instruction in society.” So he sees the two systems as entirely incompatible. And this really becomes the fountain of Fitzhugh’s exploration into market theory, which he views as totally destructive to everything that he believes.

30:02 Phil Magness: So that’s why he really starts out with attacking free trade as the forefront of the enemy, of the anti‐​slavery enemy that he’s going after in his book. And it is right there on the very first page, it’s the first chapter, is this tirade against free trade. But it’s also a theme he carries through to his other works. He actually argues for an elaborate kind of mercantilist price management tariff system to be imposed, and sees this as the alternative mechanism to industrialize the South. And after industrializing the South, what do you do? You use the slave labor system to sustain and fill the worker positions in that industry.

30:44 Anthony Comegna: I love that you say he’s the anti‐​Deirdre McCloskey, because what he had to say about Benjamin Franklin also really leapt out to me. He said, “Franklin was the best exponent of free society.” And he says, “His sentiments and his philosophy are low, selfish, atheistic, and material.” And Franklin is looked at as one of the best representatives of American bourgeois values and virtues. But it’s this constant competition that so bothers Fitzhugh. He sees the medieval world as a world of universal cooperation, because everybody knows their proper place and everybody is in it together. And the world of the modern period is one of constant competition, of everybody against everybody. It’s Hobbes’ ‘State of Nature’ run wild over the whole planet, with no end in sight either. I guess until everything burns down and people like him build it back up with their slaves, right?


31:45 Phil Magness: Right, right. Yeah. He sees a competitive free society as a race to the bottom. It’s a destruction of order. And you have Franklin who’s someone’s like the champion of self‐​improvement. Franklin is someone who’s basically the champion of the self‐​made man, of this more egalitarian philosophy, and equality of opportunity as a mechanism to improve yourself, to seek out your best industry, to seek out your best task. So Franklin is someone who’s at odds with the Fitzhughian [32:20] ____ society, where you have order provided by someone who tells you, “Well, you’re a serf. This is what you do. Here’s your instruction on how to be a good serf to the best of your ability.” So there’s a very core tension area. It also doesn’t help that Franklin, of the founding generation, is one of the more anti‐​slavery figures. So there’s very obvious tension there between what Fitzhugh wants as an ordering basis of society, versus what Franklin writes into the fabric of the American tradition as having a freedom is at odds with slavery outlook and philosophy.

33:00 Anthony Comegna: Now, throughout ‘Sociology for the South’ and ‘Cannibals All!’, he compares people to all sorts of different kinds of animals. He says that we should have societies more like bees and ants, where their social structures are sculpted by nature and not been created by society itself, and the choices of individuals, and according to their preferences. No, we should have it given to us through the genetics, sort of like bees and ants. He says that… It’s interesting where he does not discriminate in the way that we might think a 19th century pro‐​slavery author would. He’s not racist in the ways that we think he might be racist. He’s not sexist in the ways that we might think he would be sexist. He is both of those things, but not the way we would think.

33:49 Phil Magness: Right, right. He is.

33:51 Anthony Comegna: So like, he says… Well, he says both…

33:51 Phil Magness: He’s [33:54] ____. [chuckle]

33:56 Anthony Comegna: Yeah, it’s very strange. So like for example, he says both the Anglo‐​Saxons before the Norman Conquest, and Native Americans, were in pretty much the same social situation. They were more like, he says, Bengal tigers than men. He also uses other animals like owls, wolves, lions, cattle on the pampas, horses, oxen, sheep. And he says, “Good slaves are like faithful dogs.”

34:22 Phil Magness: Yeah. [chuckle]

34:27 Anthony Comegna: But it’s not a race. It’s not an issue of race for him, right?

34:35 Phil Magness: Right, right. I just wanted to clarify. So Fitzhugh is absolutely racist in the sense that he views black people as inferior in their evolutionary origin. He constantly refers to black people as childlike. But he universalizes this same type of a sentiment. So Fitzhugh’s odd in the sense he argues that slavery can be extended to the entire society. He argues that slavery, though racial in its ordering in the South, and he sees that as proper. So he adheres to a racist vision in the sense that he sees black people as the equivalent of the drone ants or drone bees, the very lowest rung of the colony. And there are absolutely racial prejudices that lead him to believe that. But he also sees other people from society, he also sees other workers, including white workers, as potential subjects that can be enslaved. He actually talks about, in some of his texts, he gets into very odd theories where he says the proper Southern gentleman, the proper Southern landowner or aristocrat, could give similar instruction of such a nature that would even redeem the Yankee children.

35:58 Phil Magness: And he goes through this elaborate scheme. It’s just that despite… So he hates the Yankees, he hates Northerners. He sees them as intellectually corrupted by this philosophy of freedom, intellectually corrupted by other things. But he says, “Even a Yankee child, if put into the proper instruction of slavery at a young age, could be brought up to be a productive and contributing member of a slave society, a contributing member of a factory.” And he sees this as a moral redemption to Yankee‐​ism that he’s always railing against. But he’s very much talking about white laborers, as well, as being subject to slavery. So it’s taking a lot of the prejudicious of his era that where other theorists would apply to black people, and do on racial lines. And he does accept that element of it, but he tries to universalize it as an ordering system for all of society.

36:55 Anthony Comegna: It strikes me as very similar to the way he handles feminism, which was another one of the crazy radical “isms” that he saw springing up everywhere in free societies. And it’s interesting because he says women should be subordinate to men, but he also praises them for their distinctly feminine virtues. He talks about how “The Turk” and “The Chinese” venerate women as idols, and they bind their feet and destroy their bodies as a way of worshipping them, and that’s a good thing. And he talks about how good slaves have feminine virtues. And I mean, it’s enough to make me wonder where he’d fit into a modern BDSM scene.

37:38 Phil Magness: Right? [laughter]

37:40 Anthony Comegna: But I’m more interested in, to what degree are modern academics now doing George Fitzhugh’s work for him in making socialism and slavery popular again together?

37:55 Phil Magness: Right, right. And it’s almost unwitting in this… And so I make this argument along economic lines. So economics is the clearest area where Fitzhughian philosophy has almost subversively survived. And the reason for this is because he’s so close to Marx. He has this very hierarchical, paternalistic outlook of social ordering, which tends to get him cast as this conservative reactionary type. But his political economy is outwardly radical. It’s proto‐​Marxist in nature. We’ve already talked about… He considers slavery as the purest form of socialism, and he says this over and over again. And then when you get into the particulars, if you were to ask Fitzhugh, “How would you design an economy for the South?”, he’d say, “Well, we need price controls and tariffs. We need state intervention into industry, subsidy, industrialization programs, something that… ” You could very much see Fitzhugh in another century being kinda like a Stalin character, or an advisor to Stalin who has a five‐​year plan for industrialization of this sector of the economy.

39:08 Anthony Comegna: Mandatory public education, right?

39:10 Phil Magness: Right, right. And he’s hinting in this direction in some of his commentary on industrialization in the South. He sees the South as virtuous in its acceptance of slavery, but deficient in its failure to mobilize its economy in a managed industrial direction. And so he has this entire system of central planning that he espouses. And he sees this on a very communistic basis. One of the things he’s constantly railing against is wage slavery. He uses terms very much in ways that we could recognize a Marxist today doing it. So he’s talking about the industry of the North subjects people to wage slavery. It does so by alienating them from the product of their labor. So here again we have a Marxist doctrine that enters into the equation. And probably the most pronounced parallel is he develops a theory of exploitation. A theory of capital based on exploitation. He sees capital ownership, capital acquisition, as a theft, an exploitative theft of the product of the laborers. So it’s straight‐​up leading into a Marxist‐​like system that he’s planned out as his explanation for the economy he sees around him.

40:34 Phil Magness: Now, his prescriptive solution is slightly different, I guess you could say, than what a Marxist would go to today. They don’t advocate slavery for a very good reason, unless you were considering something like enslavement of the Soviet State in the hardline Stalinist version. But Fitzhugh, his diagnosis is a very left‐​wing political economy. And what this does in his own age, especially the writing in the late 1840s, early 1850s, when he’s at the height of his influence, he’s diagnosing the industrial problems of the South as a deficiency of central planning. And what you have today… This is where I draw the parallels, I’d argue that Fitzhughian political economy has almost been unwittingly reinvented and adapted, minus of course, the overt celebration of slavery. But Fitzhughian political economy of viewing this era as industrially deficient and subject to wage labor exploitation. This is something we’ve seen in a whole genre of the historical literature that’s referred to as the new history of capitalism that’s popped up in, say, the last 10 years or so. And what you have is these modern theories that take Marxist precepts, a lot of them come straight out the political left, and they’re very sympathetic to all the building blocks of the Fitzhughian system, minus slavery.

42:04 Phil Magness: So they view diagnostically the industrial situation of mid‐​19th century almost identical. It’s a situation of labor exploitation. They see slavery introduced into this as a further continuation of that exploitation. So there’s the break from Fitzhugh. And then foremost among it is they see the Southern economy, and especially the crops like cotton, as the building block and driver of the industrial world. So late antebellum was famous for its introduction of something known as the Cotton thesis, or the King Cotton thesis. Everyone learns about this. And even high school history books of Southerners who see the cotton industry as the core driver of not just their own regional economy, but the world economy, ’cause textiles come from it. It’s a major component of shipping, a major component of finance is devoted to the production and sustenance of cotton. And the idea that the Southerners had at the time was that if you disrupt the cotton trade, if you break down the plantation system, it’ll send the entire world economy into basically a depression or an economic collapse. ‘Cause they thought cotton was that important, that central to everything, that world economic production would depend on it.

43:25 Phil Magness: Fitzhugh’s very sympathetic to this kind of an approach, in the sense that he sees Southern productivity and output is a major raw material building block for this industrialization scheme that he wants. And what we’ve had is modern historians that look at the economy of cotton and the economy of slavery in the late antebellum, have actually fallen very susceptible into believing the nonsense, believing this notion that cotton was indeed what all these Southerners were touting it as, and as the central building block of the entire world economy.

44:06 Phil Magness: So they’ve almost unwittingly revived an element of the King Cotton thesis and used it as an interpretation of economic history, minus the enthusiasm for slavery that you’d find in someone like Fitzhugh or his other contemporaries. This is a really odd development in the modern literature. But so wide even to the point you could go into Fitzhugh’s book, like ‘Cannibals All!’, where he lists all of his industrial prescriptions. He lists all of his ideas of what you do to fix the economy of the South. And you put it side‐​by‐​side with some of the diagnostic claims of late antebellum economic health by someone like Sven Beckert or Ed Baptist, and they’re all talking about the same things, industrialization schemes, tariffs, managed trade, centralized economy. The only difference being that you go to someone like Fitzhugh, you have the enthusiasm for slavery. You go to the modern theorists, and they very obviously hate slavery. But the economic diagnosis is almost identical.

45:12 Anthony Comegna: Well, I’ll agree with you that I think modern‐​day historians definitely hate slavery. But let’s also close by remembering what Fitzhugh himself said about government, “All government is slavery.”

45:27 Phil Magness: Right, right. He absolutely loved government. He absolutely loved slavery. And I’ll add on that note, Fitzhugh does continue writing after the Civil War. And it’s mostly in what we consider the equivalent of an op‐​ed today, so it’s short journalistic pieces. And there’s been this tendency in the history profession, they see Fitzhugh as very tied to the late antebellum Civil War era, slavery’s abolished and he kinda fades off into the distance. No, that’s not true at all. He actually continues writing, and he keeps picking up on theme after theme after theme of railing against the philosophy of a free society, railing against the deficiencies of government action in that free society, and railing against the failure to properly order and control and design an economy around it, even now that slavery’s gone by the wayside through emancipation of the Civil War action. So he still clings to this philosophy, even to the extent that he actually starts celebrating elements of the state. He says, “If they’re going to be capital owners, it might as well be the state that’s the capital owner, ’cause that’s the true slavery in society. This is how we can have slavery after slavery,” or some of the benefits that he saw in slavery, after slavery itself as a formal institution had been abolished.


46:56 Anthony Comegna: Phil Magness is a senior research fellow at the American Institute for Economics Research. And I wanted to close with a bit of historiography. Louis Hartz was that historian who famously argued that all of American political and intellectual history has been based on John Locke. He said that the Lockean consensus was so vast and sweeping that socialism never really had a chance here. He identified George Fitzhugh as the lone outsider in all of American history, who genuinely preferred Sir Robert Filmer to John Locke. But something about this strikes me as deeply wrong. Consider just how much Fitzhugh said that is now echoed by mainstream academia. Or even some of the things he said that libertarians would love. Like remember that line, “All government is slavery.” In fact, it seems that Fitzhugh spoke for the progressive future, and much of 20th century thought, while it was not based in Fitzhugh, he did pre‐​figure it, and that is a deeply disturbing prospect.


48:10 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.