Southern History Series: Thomas Carlyle’s Influence on George Fitzhugh

This excerpt which quotes Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle’s Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850) comes from George Fitzhugh’s book Cannibals All!, or Slaves Without Masters (1857):

“Further study, too, of Western European Society, which has been engaged in continual revolution for twenty years, has satisfied us that Free Society every where begets isms, and that isms soon beget bloody revolutions. Until our trip to the North, we did not justly appreciate the passage which we are about to quote from Mr. Carlyle’s “Latter-Day Pamphlets.” Now it seems to us as if Boston, New Haven, or Western New York, had set for the picture:

From George Fitzhugh’s perspective in the 1850s, Western Europe and the American North were already being convulsed by “-isms” and social and political revolution as Free Society (i.e., the new liberal social order) put down roots in those areas in the early 19th century and began shredding the social fabric while concentrating wealth in the hands of a tiny capitalist oligarchy.

“To rectify the relation that exists between two men, is there no method, then, but that of ending it? The old relation has become unsuitable, obsolete, perhaps unjust; and the remedy is, abolish it; let there henceforth be no relation at all. From the ‘sacrament of marriage’ downwards, human beings used to be manifoldly related one to another, and each to all; and there was no relation among human beings, just or unjust, that had not its grievances and its difficulties, its necessities on both sides to bear and forbear. But henceforth, be it known, we have changed all that by favor of Heaven; the ‘voluntary principle’ has come up, which will itself do the business for us; and now let a new sacrament, that of Divorce, which we call emancipation, and spout of on our platforms, be universally the order of the day! Have men considered whither all this is tending, and what it certainly enough betokens? Cut every human relation that has any where grown uneasy sheer asunder; reduce whatsoever was compulsory to voluntary, whatsoever was permanent among us to the condition of the nomadic; in other words, LOOSEN BY ASSIDUOUS WEDGES, in every joint, the whole fabrice of social existence, stone from stone, till at last, all lie now quite loose enough, it can, as we already see in most countries, be overset by sudden outburst of revolutionary rage; and lying as mere mountains of anarchic rubbish, solicit you to sing Fraternity, &c. over it, and rejoice in the now remarkable era of human progress we have arrived at.”

According to Thomas Carlyle, the abstract liberal principles of universal freedom and individual rights are a social solvent that erodes traditional cultures over time. By rotting the social fabric, liberalism and free-market capitalism weakens it to the point where it can be toppled and overthrown by a “sudden outburst of revolutionary rage.” Finally, after the sovereign individual is deracinated, alienated, separated from his kin and his traditional culture has been destroyed, he is invited to “sing Fraternity, &.c” over the ruins and celebrate the new “remarkable era of human progress we have arrived at.”

Carlyle and Fitzhugh are saying that the logic of liberalism leads inexorably to practices like abortion and social movements like transgenderism:

“Now we plant ourselves on this passage from Carlyle. We say that, as far as it goes, ’tis a faithful picture of the isms of the North. But the restraints of Law and Public Opinion are less at the North than in Europe. The isms on each side the Atlantic are equally busy with “assiduous wedges,” in “loosening in every joint the whole fabric of social existence;” but whilst they dare invoke Anarchy in Europe, they dare not inaugurate New York Free Love, and Oneida Incest, and Mormon Polygamy. The moral, religious, and social heresies of the North, are more monstrous than those of Europe. The pupil has surpassed the master, unaided by the stimulants of poverty, hunger and nakedness, which urge the master forward.”

Thomas Carlyle had a major impact on George Fitzhugh’s thinking. He admired Carlyle and adopted aspects of his style of writing. It was also mainly through Carlyle’s influence that German romanticism began to have an impact on the intellectual elite of the antebellum South.

Note: George Fitzhugh was speculating about why Free Society constantly generates social discontent and “-isms” in the 1850s long before the invention of racism, nativism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other recently invented moral pathologies in the 20th century.

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  1. It was a mistake to let Mormons back into the US. Never heard about Oneida incest. Oneida is another term for Chippewa if I interpret this correctly.

    • @hansfrankavatar, the Chippawas are called Ojibwa.

      The only Oneida I’ve heard of was the potatoes.

      • I was riding my bike through Wisconsin a long time ago and stopped at the (a) reservation. I don’t know if Oneida was just the place but I’m pretty sure the author is referring to Ojibwa/Chippewas.

  2. Carlyle was a great observer of the European and American (north) eccentricities in governance and mores.

    Personally, I don’t have a problem with “isms,” if they’re rooted in reason and the temperament of the folk. Of course, not being a liberal, but a conservative traditionalist with enlightenment scientific beliefs the social fabric of society wouldn’t be ripe for “assiduous wedges” of decadence to find root.

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