‘The Very Best Form of Socialism’: The Pro-Slavery Roots of the Modern Left
The left has been waging a decades-long smear campaign against conservatives, painting them as bigots who have been on the wrong side of history on every issue, including America’s greatest sin – slavery. Vice President Joe Biden even went as far as to suggest during the 2012 election that a Republican victory would re-enslave African-Americans.
Leftist academics and historians have gone to great lengths to bury and distort the names and legacies of the men who defended the ugliest of American institutions; men whose philosophy on government, rights, and liberty, as it turns out, is uncomfortably close to their own. A modified but nonetheless similar tendency to subjugate continues to run through liberal policies today, replacing slavery with a cradle-to-grave entitlement system that trades liberty for material security, and the plantation master for government itself.
Ann Coulter, Kevin D. Williamson, Sean Trende, and others have pushed back on the idea that the modern Republican Party is primarily built on racism. However, a further examination of what makes the modern parties, and more importantly, the modern philosophies of conservatism and progressivism, is essential. Little attention has been paid to the thinkers who made Democrats the party of slavery in the lead-up to the Civil War, and their influence on modern liberal ideas.
Conservatives and liberals alike may be surprised to find that in reality John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina antebellum statesman and political theorist, and his pro-slavery allies, stand firmly as the intellectual forebears of the political philosophy of Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and the modern left. Calhoun and the antebellum thinkers behind the positive defense of slavery in the nineteenth century represent the first major criticism of American founding principles – principles the American conservative movement seeks to preserve – as well as the intellectual seed for the later Progressive movement and what is considered modern-day liberalism.
The ideas Calhoun and others in his school introduced in the defense of slavery contrast sharply with those of the Founding Fathers and certainly modern free-market economics. Specifically, three of the core ideas Calhoun’s pro-slavery school embraced continue to resonate on the left.
First, the slavery defenders challenged the Founder’s emphasis on the Lockean social contract, arguing that government – and natural rights – grow organically out of community.
Second, the antebellum pro-slavery school repudiated the Founders’ view of slavery as a necessary but fading evil, and instead defended the system as a “positive good,” both for slave holders and for the slaves themselves. The benevolence of the slavery system was juxtaposed against an uncaring capitalism.
Lastly, slavery’s defenders rejected the principle of equality in the Declaration of Independence and argued instead for a society based on a principle of human inequality, resting their controversial beliefs on new “scientific” ideas about both human nature and the organization of government.
Each of these principles is echoed in the policy and philosophy of the modern left.
Rights From Government, Not God
The antebellum slavery defense mounted the first real challenge in America to the idea of the Lockean social contract, which was embraced at the Founding (only the Bible and Blackstone were referenced more than the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke in early American political writings). Calhoun and his fellow slavery advocates openly disagreed with Enlightenment social contract theory and instead saw rights as developing organically within society and government. Consequently, liberty for the Calhounites did not exist in a pre-government state of nature, to be protected from government incursion, but rather grew organically out of a communitarian society, including government. Calhoun wrote:
As, then, there never was such a state as the, so called, state of nature, and never can be, it follows that men, instead of being born in it, are born in the social and political state; and of course, instead of being born free and equal, are born subject, not only to parental authority, but to the laws and institutions of the country where born and under whose protection they draw their first breath.
The Calhounite conception of liberty and rights is necessary to the unhypocritical defense of slavery and “liberty” together, which sounds so discordant to the modern ear. Rights arise out of the organic government and body of custom of the political unit, and can therefore be defined and limited by society.
Even the Progressives themselves understood their intellectual debt to antebellum Southern philosophy at the turn of the twentieth century. Charles Merriam, who was among the leading lights of the early Progressive movement in the twentieth century, wrote about Calhoun’s conception of liberty in his A History of American Political Theories:
Calhoun and his school… maintained that liberty is not the natural right of all men, but only the reward of the races or individuals properly qualified for its possession. On this basis, slavery was defended against the charge that it was inconsistent with human freedom, and in this sense and so applied, the theory was not accepted outside the South. The mistaken application of the idea [through the policy of slavery] had the effect of delaying recognition of the truth in what had been said until the controversy over slavery was at an end.
Further, on the conclusions of the political science of his own day, Merriam wrote that "Liberty, moreover, is not a right equally enjoyed by all... the inseparable condition between political liberty and political capacity is strongly emphasized."
Merriam, like Calhoun, rejected the Lockean ideas of the Founders and substituted a “positive rights” view of government in which rights are secured essentially as privileges, at least for those deserving of them, through positive law. Rights derive not from God and nature, but from the government, and are inseparable from and subject to it.
The antebellum slavery defenders also diverged from the founders in the conception they held of the institution itself. Although the founders compromised on the issue of slavery, especially in order to ratify the Constitution, a militant defense of the practice as a positive social and economic system was rarely made during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Most agreed that the institution was evil, but made practical arguments about the speed and nature of the abolition process. Even the founders who were the most philosophically divided on the issues of the day were steadfast in their belief that slavery should and would end up in the dustbin of history.
Alexander Hamilton was a member of an abolitionist society in New York and considered a number of plausible methods to end the system of slavery. George Washington released his slaves upon his death and tried to set an example for future emancipation. Thomas Jefferson proposed several measures to abolish slavery in Virginia and understood the institution’s corrosive effect on free society. The founding generation, often divided on issues of the day, agreed that slavery was a curse to be dealt with, not an institution to be lauded.
But by the late 1830’s, as slave populations exploded rather than dwindled and soaring profits accompanied the once-dying institution, a new political theory was crafted to defend it. By 1837, John C. Calhoun’s “positive good” speech had focused the intellectual class of Southern slavery defenders on the ostensible benefits of slavery to the slave himself.
Paternalism and “A Chicken for Every Slave”
It is clear through their support of entitlement programs, near-endless welfare benefits, and niggling regulations of every type, that the modern leftist elite sees themselves as a benevolent guiding force, correcting the behavior of the poor or uneducated for their own good. Thomas Friedman of The New York Times even bemoaned the fact that the U.S. government could not be granted Chinese-style dictatorship powers for a single day, implying that such a government could “authorize the right solutions.”
Compare modern liberal benevolent paternalism and support of the welfare state to the ideas of Henry Hughes, a passionate advocate of a slightly modified version of antebellum slavery that he dubbed “Warranteeism.” The ideas behind a “warrantee” system of slavery will sound familiar to students of the New Deal and especially the Great Society. Hughes said in A Treatise on Sociology, the Theoretical and Practical in 1854
Laborers never want work. If they do; provision for its supply is warranted... Laborers are never out of employment… In the distribution of the warrantee economy, the distributor is the state or function of justice. Wages are warranted… Wages are variable, but these variations are never below the standard of comfortable sufficiency of necessaries. Want is eliminated. There are no poor: all have competence… Capital and labor are syntagonistic… The subsistence of all is warranted to all.
Notice the similarity to FDR’s Second Bill of Rights, recently championed by liberal intellectual Cass Sunstein:
The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation; The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living; The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad; The right of every family to a decent home; The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; The right to a good education.
Hughes believed that slavery was a perfect system of social justice and that it would fix the inequalities of economic distribution that were present in free, capitalist societies. Hughes said that the economic and labor system must be highly regulated through the institution of slavery so that, “injustice in the distribution shall be eliminated.”
William H. Freehling, one of the greatest antebellum America historians, called Hughes a precursor to Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Kenneth Galbraith in that they allied Big Labor and Big Government against Big Capital.
Freehling wrote in The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, “Just as Hughes wished Southern government to warrant a chicken for every slave, so he wanted northern government to warrant a meal for every free laborer.”
George Fitzhugh, a Virginia planter and pro-slavery intellectual, went even farther than Hughes in his attack on free society and capitalism. Although Fitzhugh denounced the radicalism of communists and socialists, he agreed that capitalist society was “diseased.” Fitzhugh defended Southern slavery as the economic model of the future and declared that “slavery is a form, and the very best form, of socialism.” In fact, he believed nineteen out of twenty people, both white and black, should be slaves.
“A Southern farm is the beau ideal of communism,” Fitzhugh said. “There is no rivalry, no competition to get employment among slaves, as among free laborers… Wealth is more equally distributed than at the North, where a few millionaires own most of the property of the country.”
Fitzhugh said in Sociology for the South: Or the Failure of a Free Society:
The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them.
Fitzhugh then made the philosophical case for the principle of “you didn’t build that,” explaining how society, which he likened to a “hive,” actually had a right to an individual’s labor and property.
Wealthy men, who are patterns of virtue in the discharge of their domestic duties, value themselves on never intermeddling in public matters. They forget that property is a mere creature of law and society, and are willing to make no return for that property to the public, which by its laws gave it to them, and which guard and protect them in its possession.
According to Fitzhugh, individuals have, “no rights whatever, as opposed to the interests of society; and that society may make any use of him that will redound to the public good.”
The idea that society owns your labor, the underpinning of Fitzhugh’s slave system and Hughes’ Warranteeism, echoes in the comments of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who said in her 2012 senate run:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. . . . You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God bless, keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
Under the vision of the antebellum slavery defenders, a paternalistic system – masters caring for and managing the lives of their slaves – would take the place of true free-market competition. Capitalism would survive only under the highly regulatory and watchful eye of government.
William Sumner Jenkins wrote in Proslavery Thought in the Old South, “The system made the indolent do their share of the work along with the industrious. And it provided a diversion from the unproductive to the productive consumption. Instead of the wealthy spending their profits upon superfluities, they were taxed with the comfortable support of the laboring class.”
In other words, everyone must do their “fair share” as President Obama would say, and instead of freely spending their own money, the rich should “spread the wealth” to the laboring classes and “benignly” manage their lives.
This pattern of thought continues in the mind of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who paternalistically bans items, such as large soft drinks, unhealthy food products, and guns, from those “unworthy” of liberty. It was this fundamental lack of faith in a whole class of people to govern themselves that led the pro-slavery defenders, like Hughes, to make a rigorous defense of big government intervention and the slavery system, which they believed could protect that class from their own bad decisions and the “heartlessness” of market competition.
Hughes wrote, “The economic system in the United States South, is not slavery. IT IS WARRANTEEISM WITH THE ETHNICAL QUALIFICATION. It is just. It is expedient. It is progressive. The consummation of its progress is the perfection of society.”
Inequality and the “Soft-Bigotry of Low Expectations”
Hughes’ argument for big-government statism rested on the assertion, not only that blacks were inferior, but that many individuals, including poor whites, were permanently incapable of self-government and were better off enslaved. Government infringement on freedoms and control from above, as NYC Mayor Bloomberg recently agreed, is sometimes necessary on behalf of those who were naturally inferior.
Although the Progressives repudiated the policy of slavery, they remained convinced of this final truth that undergirded the pro-slavery school of thought – the principle of human inequality and the incapability of certain types of people to self-govern. Like the later Progressives, the antebellum slavery defenders supported their position by pointing to the “new sciences” of the day – sociology, political science, and a bastardized form of biology.
With this view of human inequality, the Calhoun school once again understood themselves to be challenging the Founders, who famously included the phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson further wrote, “The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” Jefferson did not mean to say that all men are equal in talent or intelligence or success, but rather to highlight man’s basic equality in the sense that no man is born to rule and none born into natural subservience.
The pro-slavery school – necessarily, given the institution they sought to defend – repudiated the notion of created equality, and flatly denied that some were not born to serve others. George Fitzhugh directly challenged Jefferson, saying that some were indeed “born with saddles on their backs and others booted and spurred to ride them, and the riding does them good.” John C. Calhoun agreed, writing against the Founders’ conception of human equality, “These great and dangerous opinions have their origin in the prevalent opinion that all men are born free and equal; - than which nothing can be more unfounded and false.”
It is important to understand that the defenders of slavery did not see human inequality as a license to abuse their slaves, but rather argued that it was good for the slave to have a master burdened with his basic care. Because they believed some people were born incapable of anything higher than slavery, slavery gave that sort of person security from the vicissitudes of free-market labor competition. In their view, slavery gave a person incapable of liberty material warrantees and placed a burden on the slaveholder to “warrantee” a basic standard of living for those under his dominion.
This same conception of human inequality cuts through the modern left’s hollow rhetoric on “equality.” The same “soft bigotry of low expectations” leads the left to support affirmative action, which assumes that minority students are incapable of reaching the same standards on the merits, but not school choice, a policy which grants disadvantaged students access to educational opportunities that allow them to circumvent our failing public school system. The similarity between Hughes’ view of incapable slaves and the modern left’s “soft bigotry” can easily be seen in the recent “resetting” of achievement standards for public school students based on race.
The principles Calhoun and his school put to the defense of slavery rested, not on “Nature and Nature’s God,” but on the new sciences of the day, which they considered “proof” of the inequality and incapacity of certain types of people for self-government.
Henry Hughes, for example, was a student of Auguste Comte, who is known for founding the discipline of sociology, and most famous for his introduction of the doctrine of positivism. Hughes was one of the first Americans, along with George Fitzhugh, to use the term “sociology” in his work. Comte believed that future society would be ruled by managerial technocrats, foreshadowing the modern administrative state. Historian Steven Lyman once dubbed the school of Hughes and Fitzhugh the “Southern Comteans” and said that they were a “foreshadowing of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, an American design for Leninist totalitarianism, or another variant of Marxism for the master class.”
The antebellum slavery defenders used different disciplines in their discussion of government and rights than their predecessors; political philosophy and “self-evident” truths were replaced by references to sociology and political science, much as they were in Progressive writings at the turn of the 20th century and continue to be on the left today. Rare is the modern liberal university that has departments of “politics” or “government” rather than of political science and sociology. “Science,” rather than transcendent truths and inviolable rights, is accepted on the left today as the correct tool to measure the performance of government.
Obviously, modern liberals are not slave owners, and some of the most odious aspects of the antebellum slavery defenders’ philosophy have been rejected across the political spectrum today. However, intellectual heritage remains important.
These were the underlying principles of President Obama’s campaign during the 2012 election from which conservatives recoiled in horror, particularly the “Life of Julia” message that depicted an American woman entirely dependent on government and Democratic programs. Through each stage of life the “benign” hand of government swoops in and protects the citizen from the dangers of the free market and liberty itself, taking upon itself the burden of everything from his self-defense to his choice of environmentally-friendly light bulbs.
The cradle-to-grave entitlement society of government interference, regulation and control is a departure from the principles of a free society. The left’s vision of “freedom” is based on different doctrines than those that animated the Founding Fathers, doctrines more beholden to John C. Calhoun’s pro-slavery political science than Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy of liberty.
Inez Feltscher contributed to this article. Ms. Feltscher is a second-year student at the University of Virginia School of Law, and previously worked in the K-12 education reform movement, advocating for school choice. You can contact her on Twitter at @inezfeltscher.