Comparing Historical Essays on Slavery: Analyzing the Works of John C. Calhoun, George Fitzhugh, Frederick Douglass, and William Craft
In the tumultuous years preceding the Civil War, a fierce debate raged between individuals hailing from the North and South regarding the morality and implications of slavery. Amidst this contentious backdrop, African Americans yearned for recognition as fellow human beings, seeking the rights and freedoms bestowed upon their white counterparts. Meanwhile, proponents of slavery staunchly defended it as an established way of life, arguing that the enslaved population was content under the prevailing conditions. John C. Calhoun and George Fitzhugh articulated erudite justifications for slavery, while Frederick Douglass and William Craft emerged as powerful dissenting voices, challenging these pro-slavery assertions.
In his seminal essay “A Defense of Slavery,” penned in 1837, John C. Calhoun articulates his belief that slavery is not only integral to society but also pivotal for its survival. He posits that the abolition of slavery would lead to societal disintegration. Calhoun contends that the institution of slavery ultimately results in the betterment of both slaves and whites. His argument hinges on the assertion that in advanced and affluent societies, one segment of the populace invariably relies on the labor of another. Consequently, Calhoun advocates for the preservation of the status quo, asserting that stability is contingent upon maintaining the existing hierarchical relationship between whites and blacks.
Similarly, George Fitzhugh, in his work “Cannibals All! Or Slaves Without Masters,” composed in 1857, aligns himself with Calhoun’s pro-slavery stance. Fitzhugh goes a step further, suggesting that white indentured servants experienced even more onerous conditions than their black counterparts. Through a comparative analysis of the lives of white indentured servants and black slaves, Fitzhugh aims to highlight what he perceives as the inherent benefits of the latter’s situation. He contrasts the lives of indentured white laborers, who are released from their duties but still burdened with familial and household responsibilities, with the enslaved black population, whose basic needs are met by their owners. Fitzhugh contends that the black slaves, too, experience a form of freedom, as they are provided with essential necessities such as sustenance, clothing, shelter, and fuel after their work is completed. This perspective enables Fitzhugh to justify the preservation of slavery as a means of sustaining a functional social order.
Yet, the pro-slavery arguments presented by Calhoun and Fitzhugh are met with substantial opposition from two influential African American voices: Frederick Douglass and William Craft. These figures articulate potent counterarguments that underscore the inherent injustice and inhumanity of slavery.
In his incisive writings, Douglass vehemently opposes the notion that slaves are content under their circumstances. Drawing upon his own harrowing experiences as a former slave, Douglass compellingly portrays the systematic degradation, physical abuse, and emotional torment endured by enslaved individuals. He underscores the discrepancy between the ideals of liberty propagated by the American nation and the stark reality of bondage faced by countless African Americans. Through his narrative, Douglass exposes the moral bankruptcy of the pro-slavery arguments and demands recognition of the intrinsic rights and humanity of the enslaved population.
Likewise, William Craft, through his captivating account “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom,” unveils the audacious escape he and his wife made from slavery. Their remarkable journey serves as a poignant rebuke to the assertion that slaves are content and well-cared-for. The Craft narrative vividly illustrates the lengths to which enslaved individuals were willing to go in their pursuit of freedom and autonomy, dispelling the myth of contentment perpetuated by pro-slavery advocates. Their story stands as a testament to the irrepressible human spirit and the inherent desire for self-determination.
From that, the historical essays by John C. Calhoun, George Fitzhugh, Frederick Douglass, and William Craft offer a comprehensive view of the complex discourse surrounding slavery before the Civil War. While Calhoun and Fitzhugh present intellectually structured arguments in favor of the institution, Douglass and Craft vehemently challenge these assertions through personal narratives that illuminate the true extent of suffering and the universal yearning for freedom. This multifaceted exploration underscores the intrinsic humanity of all individuals and the enduring struggle for justice and equality.
Calhoun, John C. “A Defense of Slavery.” In The Works of John C. Calhoun, vol. 6, pp. 1-133. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1853.
Fitzhugh, George. Cannibals All! Or Slaves Without Masters. Richmond, VA: A. Morris, 1857.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Edited by William L. Andrews, Penguin Books, 2020.
Craft, William. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom: The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. Edited by Heather Andrea Williams, University of North Carolina Press, 2016.