A Difference of Complexion: George Fitzhugh and the Birth of the Republican Party

By Tewell, Jeremy J. | The Historian, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

A Difference of Complexion: George Fitzhugh and the Birth of the Republican Party


Tewell, Jeremy J., The Historian


TO EMANCIPATE A slave, explained Virginia's Thomas R. Dew, was to throw him "into the hands of those who have no scruples of conscience--those who will not perhaps treat him so kindly." (1) In his Review of the Debates in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832, Dew expressed dismay that Thomas Jefferson had provided the "sanction of his great name" to the anti-slavery cause and insisted that Southerners had no reason to regret or apologize for the institution of slavery. (2) He maintained that the Southern way of life was well within the mainstream of Western history, analogous to Greek democracy and other slave-holding societies of antiquity. Southerners could also claim a superior morality, in which the master's economic self-interest protected African bondsmen from the specter of want and extermination that would otherwise haunt such an inferior race. Indeed, the master-slave relationship was similar in paternalistic affection to the relationship between parents and children and husbands and wives. (3) According to Dew, no one even insinuated "that slaves in Virginia were not treated kindly [a]nd all, too, agree that they were most abundantly fed; and we have no doubt but that they form the happiest portion of our society." (4) In short, "a merrier being does not exist on the face of the globe than the Negro slave of the United States." (5)

As Dew and other Virginians debated slavery's future, the South was beginning to alter its stance on human servitude. Just beneath the surface, a pro-slavery ideology had already taken shape. Although the Revolution may have weakened the slaveholder's position, Southerners had demanded the institution's continuation. They openly recognized that it was incompatible with the ideals of 1776 and apologized for it as a "necessary evil," but they also manifested an intense defensiveness when challenged. (6) As time went on, slavery only became more profitable and more entrenched in the Southern landscape. The early 1830s proved to be the tipping point. In 1832 Virginia was still reeling from Nat Turner's rebellion. During the previous August, Turner and fifty followers had killed around sixty white men, women, and children in Southampton County. Rather than blame themselves for their slaves' disaffection, white Southerners denounced the baneful influence of the burgeoning abolitionist movement, which had been symbolically inaugurated by the first appearance of William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator in January 1831. (7) As the decade wore on, Southerners became increasingly defensive and paranoid, developing a siege mentality that refused to tolerate outside criticism. (8)

Ceasing to be a "necessary evil," slavery became "a positive good," sanctioned by history and Biblical teachings. (9) Not only was it a blessing to Southern whites, it was a blessing to the slaves themselves. Slaves enjoyed cradle-to-grave protection. They were not cast aside when they fell sick, got too old to work, or were no longer needed. They also had the comfort of knowing that their family would always be supported. By the 1850s, Senator James Hammond could confidently proclaim that it would be difficult to find a single Southerner "who feels the system to be the slightest burthen on his conscience." (10)

If slavery was the beneficent and paternalistic institution that Southerners claimed, could it not be applied with equal morality to whites as well as blacks? This article agrees that pro-slavery paternalism was indeed a significant factor in the Republican Party's opposition to the expansion of slavery. Historians have largely dismissed the influence of race-neutral paternalistic rationales, particularly George Fitzhugh's, on the Southern public. While Fitzhugh's appeal is open to debate, the South's devotion to white supremacy suggests that the patriarchal justification for slavery applied to blacks alone. However, scholars have not paid sufficient attention to the North's hostile and widespread reaction to Fitzhugh and other like-minded Southern apologists. …

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