Fitzhugh was born on November 9, 1806, in Prince William County and was the son of George Fitzhugh, a physician, and Lucy Stuart Fitzhugh. The family moved to a plantation in King George County about 1812. As a child he attended a small school that met irregularly, but he read extensively, mastered Latin, and educated himself. Fitzhugh then studied law and qualified as an attorney on October 4, 1827. He married Mary Metcalf Brockenbrough on December 21, 1829, and they settled in her native Port Royal, in Caroline County, where by 1842 he was in a law partnership with John T. Thornton. The Fitzhughs had six daughters and three sons. One daughter and one son died in November 1844, ages ten and two.
Defender of Slavery
Fitzhugh published the most spirited defense of slavery of any antebellum Virginian. In doing so he exacerbated sectional tensions over the issue. Fitzhugh aimed his proslavery writings to provoke reactions from opponents, but he articulated a resilient social mythology of slaveholder paternalism. His writings about slaveholders' culture figured largely in twentieth-century historians' examinations of American slavery.
Rather than investigate the changes that were unsettling his neighbors in eastern Virginia, Fitzhugh idealized the society of slaveholders. In 1850 he published Slavery Justified; by a Southerner, the first of several essays in which he defended slavery by attacking what he called free society. Fitzhugh denied that the slave South was a modern commercial society dependent on foreign trade. Southern slavery, he argued, was a benign domestic institution and less inequitable than the free society of industrial Britain and Europe or the commercial American North. Continuing the argument in an addendum published four years later Fitzhugh wrote, "Experience has universally shown, that the slavery of the working classes to the rich, which grows out of liberty and equality, or free competition, is ten times more onerous and exacting than domestic slavery." He also addressed his white Port Royal neighbors' concerns that a growing free black population threatened white impoverishment. In a series of essays he wrote for the Fredericksburg Recorder and published as a pamphlet What Shall Be Done With the Free Negroes (1851), Fitzhugh advocated enslavement of free African Americans.
Sociology for the South and Cannibals All!
Fitzhugh advocated slavery in the abstract, not merely for people of African descent. He wrote, "To defend and justify mere negro slavery, and condemn other forms of slavery, is to give up expressly the whole cause of the South—for mulattoes, quadroons, and men with as white skins as any of us, may legally be, and in fact are, held in slavery in every State of the South." That statement reflected the social realities of the antebellum Chesapeake, in which the oldest-reproducing slave society in North America was a multiethnic mix of people of European, Native American, and African descent. Fitzhugh disagreed with the theological justifications for slavery espoused by clergyman James Henley Thornwell and rejected the proslavery ethnology of physician Josiah Nott. Fitzhugh was not colorblind, however. He argued that a black man possesses "neither energy nor enterprise" and that "his liberty is a curse to himself, and a greater curse to the society around him."
Partly because Fitzhugh neglected his law practice in order to write, in 1857 he sought a patronage appointment in the administration of President James Buchanan and took a temporary salaried job in the attorney general's office in Washington, D.C. In 1860 Fitzhugh launched a lecture tour advocating southern self-sufficiency and ridiculing northern editors. By then his dedication to writing had taken its toll on his finances. The Fitzhughs then owned considerably less property than ten years before. The 1860 census taker recorded that they owned eight slaves, nearly twenty fewer than in 1850, and his wife was listed as their owner. Fitzhugh's defenses of domestic slavery had perhaps compelled him to sell some of his human property.
Fitzhugh ceased publishing in 1872. His wife died in 1877, and he moved to Frankfort, Kentucky, to live with one of his sons. He moved in 1880 to Huntsville, Texas, to live with one of his daughters. Fitzhugh, nearly blind by that time, died in Huntsville on July 30, 1881, and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery there.
- Slavery Justified; by a Southerner (1850)
- What Shall Be Done With the Free Negroes (1851)
- Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society (1854)
- Cannibals All! or, Slaves Without Masters (1857)
November 9, 1806 - George Fitzhugh is born in Prince William County.
ca. 1812 - George Fitzhugh, his wife, and his namesake son move to a plantation in King George County.
October 4, 1827 - George Fitzhugh qualifies as an attorney.
December 21, 1829 - George Fitzhugh and Mary Metcalf Brockenbrough marry and then settle in Caroline County.
1830 - Records show George Fitzhugh owns five slaves.
1840 - Records show George Fitzhugh owns eight slaves.
1842 - By this year George Fitzhugh is in a law partnership with John T. Thornton.
1850 - Records show George Fitzhugh owns twenty-seven slaves.
1854 - Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society by George Fitzhugh is published.
1855–1867 - George Fitzhugh publishes more than ninety proslavery articles and essays in De Bow's Review and the Southern Literary Messenger.
March 1855 - George Fitzhugh is invited to debate the abolitionist Wendell Phillips in New Haven, Connecticut.
1857 - Cannibals All! or, Slaves Without Masters by George Fitzhugh is published.
1857 - George Fitzhugh takes a temporary job in the attorney general's office in Washington, D.C.
1860 - George Fitzhugh launches a lecture tour advocating southern self-sufficiency and ridiculing northern editors.
1861–1865 - George Fitzhugh works as a clerk in the Confederate Treasury Department in Richmond.
1877 - Mary Brockenbrough Fitzhugh, the wife of George Fitzhugh, dies.
1880 - George Fitzhugh moves from Frankfort, Kentucky to Huntsville, Texas.
July 30, 1881 - George Fitzhugh dies in Huntsville, Texas, and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery there.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Schermerhorn, C., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. George Fitzhugh (1806–1881). (2016, March 21). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Fitzhugh_George_1806-1881.
- MLA Citation:
Schermerhorn, Calvin and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "George Fitzhugh (1806–1881)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 21 Mar. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: March 9, 2016 | Last modified: March 21, 2016
Contributed by Calvin Schermerhorn and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography.