Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 3. Attacks on Jefferson’s Ideas and on Modern Industrial Conditions

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XXI. Political Writing Since 1850

§ 3. Attacks on Jefferson’s Ideas and on Modern Industrial Conditions

Dew’s defence of slavery was based on things practical; others sought to justify it through political and social philosophy. Consequently the theories of social contract, equality, and inalienable rights, immortalized by Jefferson, were subjected to rigorous criticism. One of the pioneers in this task was Chancellor Harper of South Carolina. His Memoir on Slavery, published in 1838, was likewise reprinted in Simms’s collection. In contrast to the dictum of Jefferson that “all men are created free and equal” Harper declared that “man is born to subjection—as he is born to sin and ignorance.” The proclivity of the natural man is to dominate or to be subservient, not to make social compacts. Civil liberty is therefore an artificial product, and the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are merely unmeaning verbiage. There is no place for contract as the basis of government, since it is “the order of nature and of God that the beings of superior faculties and knowledge, and superior power, should control and dispose of those who are inferior.” It is therefore as much in the order of nature that “men should enslave each other, as that animals should prey upon each other.”

Yet Harper’s book is more of a defence of Southern society than an attack on existing political theories. Such an attack was more definitely the aim of Albert T. Bledsoe, Professor of Mathematics in the University of Virginia, in his Liberty and Slavery (1856). He boldly rejected the traditional conceptions of natural liberty and the origin of government. Public order and private liberty, he held, are non-antagonistic. Civil society is “not a thing of compacts, bound together by promises and paper, but is itself a law of nature as irreversible as any other.” The only inalienable rights are those coupled with duty, and they do not include life and liberty. Another teacher, William A. Smith, President of Randolph Macon College, gave to the public the arguments already presented to his classes in his Lectures on the Philosophy and Practice of Slavery (1856). Two aims inspired his work: to show “that the philosophy of Jefferson is false, and that the opposite is true, namely, that the great abstract principle of domestic slavery is, per se right,” and that “we should have a Southern literature,” especially textbooks in which there should be no poison of untruth. The books of these two teachers were widely circulated; Bledsoe’s was especially well–known, finding its way into many private libraries of the age.

Not only were Jefferson’s ideals combatted, but in society as organized there was also found a basis for the defence of slavery. In Europe the industrial revolution had brought in its train poverty, child labour, distress, new social philosophies, and revolt. In contrast was the South with its contented labourers, its planters who had a personal interest in the welfare of those dependent on them, its wealth, its conservatism, and its spirit of chivalry. Here lay the theme of George Fitzhugh’s Sociology for the South (1854). In Europe, he pointed out, free labour had resulted in exploitation of the workers by the capitalists. There actual conditions demonstrated the failure of the laissez faire theory of economics and politics. The remedy was a proper stratification of society through a strong-armed government. Let the state see that men, women, and children have employment and support. To this end let the English Government subordinate the mill owners to the state, and let the state furnish them employees who will be compelled to labour by the government at wages fixed by the state, which will insure a decent living. Thus only can strife and poverty be abolished in England. In our own country, let the government make over the public lands to responsible men, to be entailed to their eldest sons; let the landless and idle population of the Eastern states be attached to these vast tracts of land as tenants for life. By such a process peace and order will be established. “Make the man who owns a thousand dollars of capital the guardian (the term master is objectionable) of one white pauper of average value; give a man who is worth ten thousand dollars ten paupers, and the millionaire a thousand. This would be an act of simple justice and mercy; for the capitalists now live by the proceeds of poor men’s labour, which capital enables them to command; and they command and enjoy it in almost the exact proportions which we have designated.” Undoubtedly this programme of rigid state control was not acceptable to the South; but Fitzhugh’s attack on free society and its political philosophy was approved, and his work in revised form was republished in 1857 under the title Cannibals All! or Slaves Without Masters. It should also be noted that Fitzhugh was an admirer of Thomas Carlyle, with whom he corresponded, and that his style shows unmistakable evidences of the great Scotchman’s influence.

Pro-slavery propaganda was not confined to teachers and publicists. The clergy also made their contribution. Dr. Thornton Stringfellow of Virginia wrote The Bible Argument against Slavery in the Light of Divine Revelation (1850). The Rev. Fred A. Ross of Alabama in his Slavery Ordained of God (1857) maintained that “Slavery is part of a government ordained to certain conditions of fallen mankind.” Charles Hodge of Princeton with learned erudition criticized the religious argument against slavery. “Parson” W. G. Brownlow of Tennessee, in a memorable debate with Abram Prynne, portrayed the advantages of Southern society over that of the North. Political economists also wrote in the defence. Edmund Ruffin of Virginia, successful planter, pioneer in scientific farming, and editor of agricultural journals, in his Political Economy of Slavery (1857) claimed blessings for the existing relation of master and slave. David Christy of Cincinnati in Cotton is King (1855) showed the place of the plantation system in the wealth of the nation and pointed out the need of more territory for slavery and the cultivation of cotton.