Opposing Ideas of Liberty: Slave Power vs. the Declaration of Independence

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is something that I pulled from the text that I am currently working on regarding the role of race, religion, ideology and politics in the Civil War era. It deals with the thought of George Fitzhugh, a Southern Social social theorist whose views on race and humanity were quite common in the ante-bellum South, and directly opposed to the principles of the Declaration of Independence. In fact, if you look closely at Fitzhugh’s words, they are very similar to those today who seek to reestablish a society built on an aristocracy of race. They are worth taking some time to read, and then to compare with people today who oppose civil rights based on race, religion, gender, or any other difference that they believe makes people undeserving of liberty. 

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

The issue of slavery even divided the ante-bellum United States on what the words freedom and liberty meant. The dispute can be seen in the writings of many before the war, with each side emphasizing their particular understanding of these concepts. In the South, freedom was reserved for those who occupied the positions of economic power; slavery was key to that from not only an economic point of view but as a social philosophy. The concept of human equality, which was so much a part of the Declaration of Independence was ridiculed by George Fitzhugh, a planter and slave owner in eastern Virginia commented that that concept “is practically impossible, and directly conflicts with all government, all separate property, and all social existence.” [1] Fitzhugh was very critical of the founder’s philosophy of natural liberty and human equality which he found repugnant and error ridden. He wrote:

“We must combat the doctrines of natural liberty and human equality, and the social contract as taught by Locke and the American sages of 1776. Under the spell of Locke and the Enlightenment, Jefferson and other misguided patriots ruined the splendid political edifice they erected by espousing dangerous abstractions – the crazy notions of liberty and equality that they wrote into the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Bill of Rights. No wonder the abolitionists loved to quote the Declaration of Independence! Its precepts are wholly at war with slavery and equally at war with all government, all subordination, all order. It is full if mendacity and error. Consider its verbose, newborn, false and unmeaning preamble…. There is, finally, no such thing as inalienable rights. Life and liberty are not inalienable…. Jefferson in sum, was the architect of ruin, the inaugurator of anarchy. As his Declaration of Independence Stands, it deserves the appropriate epithets which Major Lee somewhere applies to the thought of Mr. Jefferson, it is “exuberantly false, and absurdly fallacious.”   ” [2]

fitzhugh

George Fitzhugh

The political philosophy such as Fitzhugh’s, which was quite common in the South, and was buttressed by a profound religious belief that it was the South’s God ordained mission to maintain and expand slavery. One Methodist preacher in his justification of slavery wrote, “God as he is infinitely wise, just and holy never could authorize the practice of moral evil. But God has authorized the practice of slavery, not only by bare permission of his providence, but by the express permission of his word.” [3] Buttressed by such scriptural arguments Southerners increasingly felt that they were the only people following God. The Northern abolitionists as well as those who advocated for the concept of human equality and free labor were heretics to be damned. As such the “South’s ideological isolation within an increasingly antislavery world was not a stigma or a source of guilt but a badge of righteousness and a foundation for national identity and pride.” [4]

Speaking of the necessity for slavery, as well as limitations on the equality of human beings no matter what their race or sex; Fitzhugh penned words that explained that human relationships were not to be seen in terms of individual liberty, “but in relations of strict domination and subordination. Successful societies were those whose members acknowledged their places within that hierarchy.” [5]

Fitzhugh was quite caustic when he discussed the real implications of his philosophy:

“We conclude that about nineteen out of twenty individuals have “a natural and inalienable right” to be taken care of and protected, to have guardians, trustees, husbands or masters; in other words they have a natural and inalienable right to be slaves. The one in twenty are clearly born or educated in some way fitted for command and liberty.” [6]

Fitzhugh’s chilling conclusion was summarized in the words “Liberty for the few – slavery in every form, for the mass.” [7]

Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

But many Southerners, including many poor whites, especially the Yeoman farmers who were the backbone of the Southern populace did not see or understand the limitations that were placed on their own liberty by the slavery system and instead saw slavery as the guarantee of their economic freedom. John C. Calhoun said to the Senate in 1848 that “With us, the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all of the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” [8] Calhoun’s racial distinction is important if we are to understand why poor whites would fight and die for a social and economic idea that did not benefit them or their families.

But it was Abraham Lincoln, who cut to the heart of the matter when he noted the difference between his understanding of liberty and that of Calhoun and others in the South who defended slavery and the privileges of the Southern oligarchs:

“We all declare for liberty” but “in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men and the product of other men’s labor.” [9]

Notes 

[1] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War Revised Edition p.140

[2] Fitzhugh, George. New Haven Lecture 1855, in The Approaching Fury: Voices From the Storm, 1820-1861 Stephen B. Oates, Editor, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London 1997 p.135

[3] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War pp.63-64

[4] Ibid. Faust, Drew The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South p.61

[5] Ibid. Levin Half Slave and Half Free p.140

[6] Ibid. Levin Half Slave and Half Free p.140

[7] Ibid. Levin Half Slave and Half Free p.141

[8] McPherson, James M. Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1996 p.50

[9] Ibid. Levin Half Slave and Half Free p.122

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1 Comment

Filed under civil rights, civil war, History

One response to “Opposing Ideas of Liberty: Slave Power vs. the Declaration of Independence

  1. But it was Abraham Lincoln, who cut to the heart of the matter when he noted the difference between his understanding of liberty and that of Calhoun and others in the South who defended slavery and the privileges of the Southern oligarchs:

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