Friday, July 19, 2013

Book review - Ante-Bellum.

Ante-Bellum is a 256 page 1960 reprint of three short books published by southern authors just prior to the civil war. Editor Harvey Wish opens the book with a short introduction and then lets the books speak for themselves.

First off is George Fitzhugh's Sociology for the South. Fitzhugh is a Virginian and is writing to defend slavery. He attempts to tie all the ills of crime and poverty to a free society. What prevents these ills he claims, is slavery. As proof of this he waxes eloquent about the absence of such ills in the American South as compared to the Northern states.

Fitzhugh also gets the second word with his follow-up book, Cannibals All! This time around he attempts to demonstrate that slavery is the natural state of mankind and is the purest, most effective form of socialism ever devised. Of course he approves of slavery and by default of socialism. Fitzhugh's distrust of the free market system becomes evident as the book proceeds. Again Fitzhugh is remarkably lacking in any statistical support for his positions.

Fitzhugh was regarded at the time he wrote as an intellectual light-weight. Time has not improved his work. Lacking any facts or figures to support his theories, Fitzhugh embarks on an anecdotal journey heavily sprinkled with his own philosophical musings. I found his use of socialism to justify slavery to be particularly interesting from both the slavery and socialism viewpoints. Trying to view Fitzhugh's works from the vantage point of a middle class non-slave owning Southerner prior to the war I found his arguments unconvincing.

The third book reprinted in Ante-Bellum was one I had heard of but never read, Hinton Helper's The Impending Crisis of the South. Helper hailed from North Carolina and, while opposed to slavery, was no friend of the black race. His ultimate solution was to free the slaves and resettle them all in Liberia.

Unlike George Fitzhugh, Helper uses facts and figures to present his case: that the South is lagging far behind the North with the cause being slavery. Tables of figures and recitations of census tallies are sprinkled throughout Helper's work. He ably shows how far behind the South is in all areas and attempts to correlate the deficit with slavery. For the most part he succeeds. Unfortunately for Helper and the South, his target audience was non-slaveholders. The illiteracy rate among that group in southern states was high and the state governments colluded to keep his book from widespread circulation.

As a Civil War buff I find the origins of the war to be of great interest. That made Ante-Bellum a particularly interesting read. If you're interested in the war, the politics leading to the war, or the discussion over the abolition of slavery in the United States this book should be on your must read list.