In Defense of the Enduring: A Reply to Charles Zug

I appreciate Charles Zug’s reply to my post on endurance and the canon. Charles writes, correctly, that ideas can persevere either because they have value or because they serve the interests of powerful groups oppressing less powerful ones. He observes, by way of example, that John C. Calhoun’s and George Fitzhugh’s defenses of slavery were expressions of naked self-interest.

That is unquestionably right. But two points are worth noting. One is that the odious “positive good” argument for enslavement did not endure. Calhoun first made it in an 1837 Senate speech. Even fellow southerners like Virginia’s William Cabell Rives found it to be too much. Fitzhugh’s pamphlet Slavery Justified appeared in 1854. The Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in 1865. The brazenness of these arguments helped to bring Northern abolitionism into the mainstream. Before the antebellum period, the hypocritical tendency was to regret enslavement even while practicing it. Some skipped the regret and simply acted on self-interest. But there were not ideas for chattel slavery that achieved enduring or canonical status. That is different from the practice of self-interest.

Second, neither Calhoun nor Fitzhugh–nor other prominent advocates of the positive-good argument, like Alexander Stephens–appealed to custom to justify enslavement. Rather, they applied an arrogant rationalism to make sweeping and perverse claims. Calhoun said that, in all societies at all times, the few subsist on the labor of the many. Stephens declared that Black people were intrinsically inferior. These were appeals to abstract reason outside of time and circumstance–precisely the subject of Burke’s warnings.

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