American History Series: Review: Sociology for the South, or, The Failure of Free Society

George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, or, The Failure of Free Society

The 1840s and 1850s were a time much like our own.

In the wake of the Second Great Awakening, an endless tidal wave of moral condemnation of the South poured forth from the Eastern press and Eastern politicians. Inspired by George Bancroft’s vision which was articulated in the volumes of his A History of the United States, 19th century liberalism was gaining traction and putting down roots among Eastern industrial and commercial elites. American society came to be perceived as wicked and in need of immediate and sweeping reform on many fronts. Secular reform and utopian religious movements sprung up all over the deeply unsettled region.

Southern slavery was over two centuries old at this point, but the evangelical religious revival that swept across the East created a new sense of urgency that it needed to be immediately abolished by righteous Yankees in order to stamp out sin, usher in the millennium and create a New Jerusalem on earth. This moment was the dawn of the American Left in a parade of social causes and religious cults: the Millerite movement, the Shakers, the Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists, Charles Grandison Finney and the doctrine of perfectionism, temperance which culminated in Prohibition, women’s suffrage which culminated in the 19th amendment, opposition to Indian Removal, Transcendentalism, pacifism and opposition to the Mexican War. The various evil seen in need of reform at times was also tobacco, Freemasonry, Catholicism and even marriage which was an obstacle to free love. It was in this social context that abolitionism and racial equality also came to be seen as worthwhile causes.

As the South came under withering attack from these utopian dreamers, Southern conservatives became increasingly defensive and began to explicitly defend slavery as a positive good. Sen. John C. Calhoun led this defense of the South in the Senate for nearly twenty years in the Antebellum era from the Nullification Crisis to his death in 1850. Calhoun’s treatise A Disquisition on Government marked a conservative shift in Southern thought toward order, authority, security and the limits of liberty.

Thomas Jefferson was an ardent republican who represented the first generation of Southerners who abhorred slavery and believed that free blacks could enjoy equal rights in Africa. Liberia was established by his successors as an outlet for this philanthropic purpose. John C. Calhoun represented the second generation of Southerners who came to defend slavery as a positive good and broke with equal rights while remaining largely within the framework of Old Republican thought. Calhoun laid the groundwork for nullification and secession. Finally, George Fitzhugh was the sharpest thinker of the third generation of Southerners who were even more conservative than Calhoun’s generation.

This was the context in which George Fitzhugh wrote Sociology for the South, or, The Failure of Free Society which was published in 1854. The book builds on his earlier pamphlets Slavery Justified and What Shall Be Done With The Free Negroes? which are attached as an appendix.

Sociology for the South is significant because it was a truly radical conservative reimagining of the American Founding as well as a groundbreaking prescription for how to reset the American future. As Louis Hartz described it, the Southern Reactionary Enlightenment was “the great imaginative moment in American political thought, the moment when America almost got out of itself, and looked with some objectivity on the liberal form it has known since birth.” To put it mildly, it is a deeply illiberal book.

George Fitzhugh wasn’t just content to defend slavery like most of his contemporaries. He thought deeply about why slavery was being attacked and the motivations of its assailants. He deeply thought about his own society and its past, present and future. He thought about why the Southern model was good and how best to defend it from its critics. He thought about what was wrong about the Northern model and why it was a failure. In doing so, he laid the foundation for a new Southern conservatism.

In Sociology for the South, Fitzhugh marshaled the Bible, Aristotle, Sir Robert Filmer, Thomas Carlyle and Tory conservatism, the French sociologists and even the critiques of the socialists to launch a blistering counter attack on John Locke, Adam Smith and the political economists and the very roots of liberalism or what he labeled the system of “Free Society.” Fitzhugh was unfamiliar with his contemporary Karl Marx but echoed many of his most scathing criticisms of free-market capitalism.

Fitzhugh’s critique of liberalism can be summed up as follows:

  • The Enlightenment was inspired by Newton and falsely assumed that human societies are like machines which can be broken down into their component parts and understood as operating on the basis of universal natural principles which can be discovered by reason and known by man. In other words, human societies can be engineered like making clocks.
  • Human societies are more like organisms which are born, grow, die and reproduce across history. They are not created by man like machines, but are the work of God and Nature.
  • Humans are relational and intentional beings. We are a social and gregarious, not a solitary species. In a “State of Nature,” men are tribal beings. Society is as natural to men as a school is to fish or a hive is to bees or a herd is to deer or a flock is to birds. We are born into associations.
  • Human beings are not autonomous individuals who come together and give up primordial liberties to create societies by creating compacts. Society existed before all such compacts because the band is our natural state. Humans are born and acculturated into their societies by their parents.
  • Equality doesn’t exist between men who are naturally born across a broad spectrum of intelligence, personality types and ability. Some men are born to command and others to follow. Some are born to work and others to perform other functions in the social order. These functions are not equal, but complementary because human societies are hierarchical and complex.
  • Government is natural to man because of his social nature and due to these ineradicable inequalities. Authority and order are natural to our species.
  • Human beings are not born with minds which are blank slates. God and Nature has given us innate ideas and instincts which are like instruction manuals about how to live.
  • Selfishness is only one dimension of man. Freedom is also only one dimension.
  • Religious truths are a solid foundation of the social order, not speculative philosophy. Men are naturally religious beings who find meaning in stories.
  • As the work of God and Nature, societies are divine, not manmade, and cannot be created or based on absurd formulas.

Here are some of the conclusions derived from this worldview:

  • Men are not born with natural rights. Government and society are natural to man. Men have obligations to society. Society is a web of duties, obligations and subordinations.
  • Liberalism is focused on vindicating the rights and liberties of the individual against the claims of society. In doing so, it inevitably weakens the social order and atomizes society and this anonymous state alienates man, which makes him extremely miserable.
  • Conservatism is focused on vindicating the social order and authority and the ways of God against the individual. It is concerned with government and preserving the organic bonds, attachments and traditions that bind society together and make a shared life meaningful. Over a century later, another Southerner would describe Southern conservatism as “noble, failed attempts to raise on Southern ground a culture rooted in the natural order of our seasons, to build a civilization free of cruel utopianism and metropolitan alienation, sustained by loyalties to place.”
  • The natural state of man is unequal, but social and fair in a well-ordered and well-led society. Free Society concentrates wealth and immiserates the poor while destroying the social fabric. It is unequal while also being unfair and antisocial. This leads to disaffection and unhappiness in both the learned classes and the working classes who are constantly trying to devise means of escape.
  • Free Society is based on a manmade abstract formula. Liberty and equality are solvents. It is in “a state of thaw” like a melting ice cube. It loses social capital and cohesion over an extended period of time. A perpetual state of social revolution is a feature of all liberal societies.
  • Free-market capitalism is based on the maxim “every man for himself” and inculcates an ethic of universal selfishness that destroys morality. In Free Society, it becomes a license for the strong to dominate the weak and the wealthy to dominate, outwit and plunder the poor.
  • Free trade robs peripheral agriculture societies of the wealth while enriching their metropoles. Fitzhugh hated exclusive agriculture and free trade. He considered small towns, commerce and industry and education and infrastructure a great blessing. Metropoles were a curse.
  • The South was settled and content while the North was boiling over with social revolutions and utopian movements. This is because Slave Society was both less extractive and less demented than Free Society where the dissolution of the bonds of society was far more advanced than in the South. The Southern social order was patriarchal and social.
  • Fitzhugh anticipated the triumph of women’s rights and anarchy in the North because the liberal axioms of Free Society are incompatible not only with slavery, but all order and government.

George Fitzhugh’s thought can be described as equal parts “conservative” and “reactionary,” “nationalist” and “populist,” “progressive” and “iconoclastic.” He affirms slavery and racial differences, but deplores racial hatred and theories of polygenesis. He rejects Jefferson in holding that some are “born with saddles on their backs” and “others booted and spurred to ride them,” but condemns free-market capitalism on social justice grounds for riding them too hard. He was a systemic thinker and ruthless logician who hated abstract systems. He celebrates Southern conservatism, but applauds industrial and commercial development. He was descended from William Fitzhugh, who C. Vann Woodward describes as “a fair classical scholar, a learned, able, and industrious lawyer, a high tory, high Churchman.”

George Fitzhugh explicitly saw the Revolution of ’61 as a Tory counterrevolution to the Patriot Revolution of ’76:

“The Revolution of 1776 was, when subjected to the searching analysis of learned and comprehensive philosophy, the commonest thing in nature. The birth of a child, or the weaning of a calf, excite no wonder, and stirs up no fanatical ardor because of their frequent occurrence; yet the birth of a nation, or the separation of a colony from its parent stem are events quite as much in the order of nature as the birth of a child, the weaning of a calf, or the dropping of the ripened apple from its parent stem. The Revolution of ’76 had nothing dramatic, nothing novel, nothing grand about it. Every child and every chicken, that, getting old enough and strong enough to take care of itself, is quite as singular and admirable as a spectacle, as that of the thirteen adult states of the States of America solemnly resolving to cut loose from their state of pupilage and dependence of their parent, England, and ever thereafter to assert and enjoy the rights of independent manhood. It was an exceedingly vulgar, commonplace affair; it had nothing poetic or dramatic about it. A birth, a christening, a circumcision, or the induing of the “toga virilis” – in fact, anything that marked an epoch in life, was quite as admirable as this weaning of the American calf from its trans-Atlantic dam.

Colonies are sure to set up for themselves when strong enough to do so, and had been thus setting up for themselves since the world began, and excited no wonder by the procedure. So well aware were the Greeks of this fact, that they anticipated and obviated this weaning process, which whether it occur with Colonies, calves or chickens, occasions heart-burning, family quarrels, scratching and pecking and fighting – that they sent out their Colonies as full-fledged and independent nations. Declarations of Independence were unknown then. Nothing so pompous, so malapropos and so silly is to be found in history, until our Revolution of ’76. A hundred guns are fired when a Prince is born in France, yet all the artillery in the world, fired simultaneously, could not make the birth or the weaning of a baby or a nation a grand or imposing event. Either occurrence is decidedly vulgar and commonplace, and Columbian Orators, or fourth of July orations, and lengthy Columbiads, in endeavoring to celebrate and dramatise them, only serve to render them more ridiculous. …

“It would have been well for us, if the seemingly pompous inanties of the Declaration of Independence, of the Virginia Bill of Rights and the Act of Religious Toleration had remained dead letters. But they had a strength, a vitality and a meaning in them, utterly uncomprehended by their charlatanic, half-learned, pedantic authors, which rendered them most potent engines of destruction. Our institutions, State and Federal, imported from England, where they had grown up naturally and imperceptibly, and adapted to our peculiar circumstances by like natural growth and accretion, might, and would, have lasted for very many ages, had not silly, thoughtless, half-informed, speculative charlatans, like Jefferson, succeeded in basing them on such inflammable and explosive materials as those to be found in the instruments which we have mentioned. The doctrines which they contain are borrowed, almost literally, from Locke’s Essays on Government – Locke distinguished himself in pure metaphysics – deceived and led astray the philosophic world, for two centuries, by a system of materialism and consequent infidelity, which he himself did not comprehend, or at least, the necessary deductions from which he did not foresee. A professing Christian himself, he is the father of all modern infidelity – infidelity in religion, in morals, in everything. Rousseau borrowed from him, and sowed his infidel and anarchical principles broadcast throughout Christendom. Locke’s metaphysics ignored all innate ideas, all instincts, all intuition and involuntary faiths, beliefs and opinions. Man, according to his doctrine, is a mere reasoning machine, and derives all his knowledge and all his judgments and opinions from impressions made upon his mind, through the medium of his senses, by external objects. It is not our business now to refute this theory nor to follow it out theoretically or historically, into its materialistic, infidel and anarchical consequences. We have only to do with him as a political pedagogue: as a presumptuous charlatan, who, as ignorant of the science and practice of government as any shoemaker or horse jockey, attempted to introduce his false and infidel metaphysics into the field of politics.

Aristotle had taught, and his teachings had been respected and heeded for two thousand years, that society or government, was natural to man; that he was born under government, born a member of society, and did not originate government and society; that men, like bees, and ants, and herds and flocks, were impelled into society by their natures, their wants, their instincts and intuitions; that, in fact, society and government, in their origin and grand outlines, were the works of God, and not of man. He taught, further, that in all societies some were formed by nature to command and others to obey; that inequality, not equality, was the necessary condition of men, bees, ants and all other social and gregarious animals: for society can only exist as a series of subordinations.Hence, he (Aristotle) begins his treatise on government with a dissertation on the family, and on slaves as a natural and appropriate part of the family. Human inequality and the natural, God-made organ of society and of government are the distinguishing features of his political doctrines. …

This doctrine of the natural growth and origin of society is the distinctive Tory doctrine of England, the very opposite to the theories of Locke and the Fathers of our late Republic. In adopting it, we begin a great conservative reaction. We attempt to rollback the Reformation in its political phases; for we saw everywhere in Europe and America reformation running to excess, a universal spirit of destructiveness, a profane attempt to pull down what God and Nature had built up, and to erect ephemeral Utopias in its place. Liberty was degenerating into licentiousness, and “anarchy, plus the street constable” stared us in the face. We lead off in a new reactionary Reformation, and Christendom must follow our lead, or soon be involved in social chaos and confusion.”

The American Revolution was ultimately a necessary and organic development, but it was as natural, unremarkable and as devoid of universal significance for mankind as the birth of a child. It was nothing more than the American colonies declaring independence from their parent, England, with the offspring having grown up, rebelled, moved out and established his own household.

Everything would have worked out fine too were it not for the “pompous inanties of the Declaration of Independence.” The republican structure of the government was sound. The English tradition of constitutional liberty was sound. White identity and the English language, Protestant Christianity and the common law and virtually everything that America started out with that was promising and defined its new national identity was derived from its English parent. America’s vibrant culture of liberty was part of a tradition which was the “accretion” of countless generations of Englishmen – 170 years of the colonial era and further back than that into the time of King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons in the Middle Ages – and had not sprung into the world from abstract doctrines of Enlightenment philosophers. It was the axioms contained within the Declaration of Independence which 19th century liberalism latched onto to legitimize itself that had wrecked the country and brought about the dissolution of the Union.

Alexander Stephens used Fitzhugh’s Tory theory and language in his Cornerstone Speech. The Confederates preserved the structure of the American Republic while pruning its liberal axioms. Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens both wrote volumes on constitutional liberty.

“The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago.

Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails.”

In Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860, Michael O’Brien explains that “slavery” for George Fitzhugh did not mean chattel slavery. Rather, “slavery” was his term for the counter-current of order, authority and government that runs opposite to liberty in all societies.

“However, though Fitzhugh learned from the socialists, he saw them as products of free society and incapable of solving its problems. They were but continuing “the little experiment of universal liberty that has been tried for a while in a little corner of Europe. Only slavery could afford a solution to the crisis of freedom. By “slavery,” Fitzhugh meant any social system which formally recognized inequality, the necessity of authoritarian order and human interdependence, and embodied “a safe, efficient and humane community of property.” For Fitzhugh, slavery was about being safe and protected, about people being unequal but nice to each other.

Fitzhugh’s own history as a domestic and sentimental man mattered here. For him, the family was a “holy and charmed circle” and the solution for soical ills was to make the family’s values general. “Man loves that nearest to him best,” he wrote. “First his wife, children and parents, then his slaves, next his neighbors and fellow countrymen.” The master was a harassed but kindly man, in control yet obliging, gratefully enmeshed in a system of reciprocal obligations. He was the strongest person in a world where most were naturally weak and all, even the master, required protection. Being interdependent, humans needed what Fitzhugh liked to call “association.” This was a theory of gender as much as anything else, because Fitzhugh was committed to Victorian notions of domesticity and separate spheres. This alone placed him far from William Harper, for whom the family furnished no respite from the world’s cares. …

Fitzhugh’s comedy was born of resignation, though he had a sense of humor. “There is nothing in this world that we like so much as a good, hearty laugh,” he once wrote, by way of explaining why he liked Byron. …

Nonetheless, Fitzhugh was skeptical about the efficacy of ideas. He proposed to “build up no system, attempt to account for nothing, but simply to point out what is natural and unnatural, and humbly try to justify the ways of God to man.” …

“The enemy was Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, “the anatomist, who should attempt to create man,” because “[s]ocial bodies, like human bodies, are the works of God, which man may dissect, and sometimes heal, but which he cannot create.”

In “The Conservative Principle; or, Social Evils and Their Remedies,” Fitzhugh made clear that the slavery principle is synonymous with the conservative principle of order, subordination and government. He was unique in being able to step out of his time and anticipate that the diabolical nature of the liberal system would eventually demolish the social order entirely as it descended into anarchy.

“Society requires “reversed action.” All its chords are unstrung; they must be screwed up to greater tensity. Visionary schismatics and speculative philosophers seized upon the reformation, and have been busy ever since in converting what was intended for salutary and moderate reform, into revolution, and conducting revolution into anarchy.” …

“You, conservatives, North and South, must usher in, and inaugurate this new world. Adopt the slavery principle, vindicate the institution in the abstract, tighten the reins of government, restrain and punish licentiousness in every form, scout and repudiate the doctrines of let alone, and “Pas trop gouverner,” and govern much and rigorously. This is the new world that we want.”

Liberalism must be rejected.

Frankenstein’s monster has turned on his master and is now rampaging through our streets. The post-World War II attempt by the liberal establishment to base America on nothing more than anti-racism and the axioms of liberty and equality has led us to this dystopia.

Society requires “reversed action.” In the name of freedom and equality, liberalism has weakened and unraveled the social fabric. The job of conservatives, North and South, is to reverse this and restore order and authority and screw up the sinews of the social fabric to greater tensity. Free Society has run its course. There must be a broader distribution of wealth and a stronger and healthier culture. A just and content society is inevitably unequal, but it is also social and fair and a well-ordered and well-led one too.

About Hunter Wallace 12371 Articles
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent


  1. The stump speech of Jefferson Davis stressed that our ancestors fought and won the American Revolution, contrasting this to the Northern States who had already diluted their population with immigrants.

    —Jefferson Davis American by Cooper.

  2. Mr. Hunter, please allow me to offer some constructive criticism, that I’d really love to hear your feedback for.

    Interesting… However there are some objections to be made, on two things, namely: slavery and Christianity.

    A) Check out this link: . Although it’s written by a leftie, it describes how the South was planning to re-open the Atlantic Slave Trade and make Slavery available to the common man. If they had gotten their way, the entire country would look like Mississippi by now, and worse. Preventing Southern expansion to the Western states prevented a demographic Armageddon.

    Furthermore, the South was built on poor foundations such as free trade and states’ rights, in contrast to Lincoln’s protectionist policies, industrialisation, and cultural uniformity (see Henry Clay and Hamiltonianism, for that matter).

    B) I’ve gone back and fourth with the Christianity issue, but the truth is that while Christianisation had a lot of benefits to the Anglo-Saxons and the Slavs, it still remains an alien and divisive ideology. For example:

    * Croats and Serbs, in spite of sharing more than 96% genetic similarity, they are torn apart because the one party is Catholic and the other is Orthodox. Christians may have united Europe, albeit on a micro-scale, because of its numerous divisions and splinterings. Thus you have these great animosities between the same people, all while the Serbs are being replaced in the southern region of Kosovo by the usual, Islamist suspects.

    PROTESTANTISM ITSELF HAS COUNTLESS OF FACTIONS and it hasn’t done us any good.

    * And most fundamentally, Christianity is an alien creed. I’ve been reading the OD for a long time now, and I’ve got to say that you more or less brought me on your side of things (on the Christian Question). However the truth is that Christianity is a color-blind, anti-science institution, based on the foundations of church worship. Missionaries in the Third World, so called philanthropy, mass adoptions, and pedo priests are just the tip of the iceberg.

    Christianity was referred to by our classical predecessors as “superstitio”, meaning superstition; a deviation from Judaism. See the great work, “Against the Galileans” by Julian the Apostate.

    And lest we forget that our saviour; Yeshua Bar-Yoshef was a circumcised, Jewish rabbi. Just check this out: So really, how can we rally around this alien, that has nothing to do with us as a people?

    What do you think?

  3. Is a course in “Southern Sociology” at this time designed to distract the Neo-Confederate readers from thinking about the exploding Southern pandemic? While fiddling with George Fitzhugh’s old book, readers are missing out on learning that the ten worst Covid disease-affected locations IN THE WORLD, on a per capita basis, are now (in order of magnitude): Arizona, FLORIDA, SOUTH CAROLINA, Bahrain, LOUISIANA, ALABAMA, Nevada, MISSISSIPPI, TEXAS and GEORGIA! It is much more “fun” to fantasize about restoring the South’s “slavery-based culture” and fighting a race war against Blacks than to figure out collectively how to fight a REAL deadly enemy.

    You can ignore SARS CoV2, but it will NOT ignore you.

    • After spending January, February, March, April and May on the subject, I am now exhausted with it. It became clear after Memorial Day with the George Floyd riots that ship had sailed.

      Nothing is going to be done about it. Insofar as anything was done about it, it was undone by the reopenings and riots. There simply isn’t enough trust to do anything about it and what little trust existed was abused.

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