Henry Hughes and Proslavey Thought in the Old South
Louisiana State University Press
By Douglas Ambrose
November 1, 1996
During the early decades of the nineteenth century, the political, religious, and intellectual leaders of southern society moved from a defense of slavery as a necessary evil to the defense of slavery as a positive good. The leading proslavery ideologues differed in the emphasis they placed on the various positive attributes of slavery as a social system, but most concurred both in defending their own specific social relations general rules of social order. Henry Hughes of Port Gibson, Mississippi, formulated a distinct view of the future of southern social and political development. He envisioned a southern social order that was centered around and grounded in a powerful, authoritarian state. His embrace of state power as the means for both preservation and extension of unfree labor distinguished him from antebellum southern intellectuals. More important, his statism forcefully demonstrated his rejection of the principles of individual rights, personal liberty, and efficacy and morality of the market as the basis of economic and social life.
The intellectual history of the Old South, of which the proslavery argument formed an important but by no means exclusive part, has recently become the subject of much historical inquiry. Reversing a long-standing tendency to regard the antebellum South as an intellectual desert incapable, primarily because of slavery, of supporting the life of the mind, a growing number of historians have persuasively demonstrated the vitrality of southern intellectual endevors. Yet, as rich as this literature has been, it has focused mainly on individuals from the eastern seaboard states and has neglected those, like Hughes, who lived in the hinterland of the Old Southwest.
Reviews"Marked by impeccable research, clear and felicitous writing, sophisticated analysis, and refreshing detachment, this is a model study of one of the antebellum South's most original thinkers. Through his dissection of the mind of Henry Hughes, the obscure Mississippian who anticipated modern statism even as he constructed a defense of the anachronisitic institution that dominated his world, Douglas Ambrose has reminded us that the slave South was far from the region of intellectual barrenness depicted by many early writers."
William K. Scarborough
University of Southern Mississippi
"Historians have not appreciated the significance and originality of Henry Hughes's contributions to the proslavery argument, much less the shadow he cast across the concerns of our own day. Douglas Ambrose has now given us the book we have long needed. And a splendid book it is, marked by painstaking scholarship, grounded in a thorough understanding of the culture of the Old South, and sparkling with fresh insights."
Eugene D. Genovese
The Slaveholders' Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820-1860