Fitzhugh on usury & social conscience

George Fitzhugh (1806-1881) of Virginia was one of the leading advocates in the Antebellum South for the high values of his people and society. He collected a vast library of pamphlets and books on social issues and published two influential books in defense of the South’s hierarchical structure and rejection of US bourgeois equality. In particular, Fitzhugh was known for making a strong moral case against “free society” and instead advancing the paternalistic social conscience of his culture. We see this desire for harmony and the common good in his writings on usury:

That systematic selfishness that inculcates the moral duty to let every man take care of himself and his own selfish interest, that advises each to use his wits, his prudence, and his providence, to get the better of those who have less wit, prudence and providence, to make the best bargains one can, and that a thing is worth what it will bring, is false and rotten to the core. It bears no sound fruit, brings forth no good morality. “Laissez nous faire,” and “Caveat Emptor” (the latter the maxim of the common law) justify usury, encourage the weak to oppress the strong, and would justify swindling and theft, if carried out into practice. …Mankind has ever detested extortionate usurer who takes advantage of distress and misfortune to increase his profits…. There is always at bottom some sound moral reason for the prejudices of mankind. The man who spends a life in dealing hardly and harshly with his fellow men, is a much worse and meaner man than the highway robber. The latter is chivalrous, and where there is chivalry there will be occasional generosity.

…The law should protect men, as well from assaults of superior wit as from those of superior bodily strength. Men’s inequalities of wit, prudence, and providence, differ in nothing so much , as in their capacity to deal in and take care of money. This creates the necessity for laws against usury. Under occasional circumstances, a heavy rate of interest is morally right, but it is generally wrong, and laws are passed for ordinary and not extraordinary circumstances.

…If men were no better than political economy would make them, the world would be Pandemonium.

The Bible fortunately is a more common book than Adam Smith. Its influences are exerted over the hearts and conduct of thousands who never enter a church. “The still small voice of conscience” oft brings back the mother’s image, and the mother’s divine precepts, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” “Do unto others as you would that they should do unto you.”

Source: George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, Richmond, VA, A. Morris, 1854, pages 133-135

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  1. It’s a beautiful elocution of the position held by our traditional culture, and yet : it’s something to which our own people have become conditioned so against, I doubt it could be heard.

    We have accepted, en masse, the notion of, ‘every man for himself’ – and it is therewith we are undermined.


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