Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:04 Background on the Civil War
  • 0:48 Biography of George Fitzhugh
  • 1:42 Summary of ''Sociology…
  • 3:44 Analysis of…
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

During the 1850s, numerous authors published works for or against the institution of slavery. This lesson explores George Fitzhugh's book, 'Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society' and his arguments in favor of slavery.

Background on the Civil War

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Americans were caught in a heated debate over the issue of slavery. As you may know, the North was more inclined to argue against slavery. Meanwhile, their Southern counterparts were overwhelmingly in support of the institution. During the 1850s, tensions continued to rise. Numerous journalists and authors published works for or against slavery. While author Hinton Rowan Helper's book The Impending Crisis of the South decried slavery for stunting the Southern economy, others like George Fitzhugh, a law clerk, farmer, and writer, celebrated slavery as economically, socially, and morally necessary.

Biography of George Fitzhugh

George Fitzhugh was born in 1804, the son of a farmer. In earlier decades, Fitzhugh's family was respected and reasonably wealthy, but growing up his parents struggled to farm and make ends meet. Largely self-educated, Fitzhugh made his name as a law clerk in Virginia and Washington, DC. Through marriage, he also acquired a small plantation and earned an income farming.

In the late 1840s, Fitzhugh established himself as a writer, publishing a pamphlet called Slavery Justified. As you can imagine, this brief publication was written in support of slavery. Five years later, George Fitzhugh published his first major work advocating for the use of slavery, Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society. In the year following, Fitzhugh made his way around the country explaining and arguing the main points of his book.

Summary of Sociology for the South

Fitzhugh's book, Sociology for the South offered several arguments in favor of slavery, but first, he challenged the notion of a free society and a free market. According to Fitzhugh, a free society without slavery was inherently flawed. In both a slave and free society, the wealthy were the dominant social class. According to Fitzhugh, this domination was exaggerated in a free society. The free market had little regulation, meaning the wealthy could continue to grow wealthier at the expense of other social classes. In Fitzhugh's mind, this created an inherent class struggle between the rich and poor. Fitzhugh argued that laborers living in a free society ultimately operated as slaves, just under the delusion that equality and liberty actually exist.

In contrast to the seemingly terrible concepts of a free society and a free market, Fitzhugh gushed about the positive aspects of slavery. While laborers in a free society suffered under harsh conditions, slaves in the South had the distinct benefit of having a master. The master was kind of like a father figure that looked after his slaves.

Fitzhugh also considered slavery to be a civilizing force. In his mind, white people were clearly superior to black people, but through slavery, masters could pass on their superior knowledge and morality to inferior slaves. Fitzhugh expanded on this idea of the civilizing qualities of slavery by citing the plight of Africans living in Africa. While they may be in bondage in the United States, their condition was far better than the slavery of paganism and cannibalism in Africa.

Fitzhugh also explained the economic benefits of slavery. In a free market, competition could run rampant. Through slavery, however, competition was restricted. Slaves did not have to compete with one another for jobs or resources because both of those things were handed to them. Slavery also eliminated the pursuit of material gain that laborers in a free society fought so hard for.

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