The Secret History of the Dismal Science. Part II. Brotherhood, Trade, and the Negro Question
By David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart
Am I not a Man and a Brother?
For many abolitionists, the brotherhood of man was grounded in
Revelation—the revelation that we are all children of the one God. In our last column, we pointed out that religion was not the only ground for claims of universal brotherhood. We noted that Thomas Carlyle coined the term “dismal science” as way of lambasting economists’ claims that markets were an alternative to slavery, in his “Occasional Essay on the Negro Question.” In that essay, he denounced economists because they, like evangelical Christians, asserted the common humanity of black and white as grounds for opposing slavery. To Carlyle, groups such as blacks and the
Irish were subhumans, on par with “two-legged calves” and horses.
In this essay, we examine Carlyle’s essay in greater detail, showing exactly how far he was willing to go in denying universal brotherhood. We then turn to his economist foes, starting with John Stuart Mill, showing how they used economics rather than religion to combat Carlyle. From there, we explore the foundation of such arguments in Adam Smith, who claimed that the real mark of humanity was the ability to use language. For Smith, language was important because it allows people to trade, and thus to specialize. So in the end, it was the ability to trade that distinguished man from the animals.
Carlyle Proposes Re-Enslavement
Many modern readers will be puzzled as to why anyone in Britain was debating slavery in the 1850s and 60s. After all, Parliament had outlawed the slave trade in 1807, and emancipated West Indian slaves in 1833. Carlyle and his allies reopened the debate over slavery because they believed that the history of the West Indies after emancipation showed the folly of emancipation. In a nutshell, Carlyle argued that work was godly, so that those who chose not to work were ungodly. For such ungodly people, slavery was not only justified but sanctified.
Quashee is a derogatory term meaning a Negro of the West Indies.
As evidence that blacks had an ungodly attitude towards work, Carlyle pointed to the massive unemployment among emancipated slaves in the West Indies. For him, this unemployment was not the result of economic conditions, such as the decline of island agriculture with the repeal of those protective tariffs that were part of the bargain for emancipation.1 Rather, it was the result of the nature of blacks, a nature that rendered them insensitive to the market incentives. As a result, he thought that the only cure for this (ungodly) unemployment was slavery, under which the “beneficent whip” would be able to improve the “two-legged cattle…” In his words:
If Quashee will not honestly aid in bringing out those sugars, cinnamons, and nobler products of the West Indian Islands, for the benefit of all mankind, then I say neither will the Powers permit Quashee to continue growing pumpkins there for his own lazy benefit; but will sheer him out, by and by, like a lazy gourd overshadowing rich ground; him and all that partake with him,—perhaps in a very terrible manner. For, under the favour of Exeter Hall, the “terrible manner” is not yet quite extinct with the Destinies in this Universe; nor will it quite cease, I apprehend, for soft sawder or philanthropic stump-oratory now or henceforth. No; the gods wish besides pumpkins, that spices and valuable products be grown in their West Indies; thus much they have declared in so making the West Indies:—infinitely more they wish, that manful industrious men occupy their West Indies, not indolent two-legged cattle, however “happy” over their abundant pumpkins! Both these things, we may be assured, the immortal gods have decided upon, passed their eternal act of parliament for: and both of them, though all terrestrial Parliaments and entities oppose it to the death, shall be done. Quashee, if he will not help in bringing out the spices, will get himself made a slave again (which state will be a little less ugly than his present one), and with beneficent whip, since other methods avail not, will be compelled to work.2
Mill responded quickly to Carlyle’s argument—his “letter to the editor” attacking Carlyle appeared just a month after Carlyle’s essay. In it, Mill offers an amazingly dense, multi-dimensional argument. While scholars are still debating its details,3 the general thrust is clear. As he had before, he condemned what he called “the vulgar error of imputing every difference which he finds among human beings to an original difference of nature.”4 He went on to point out that Carlyle,
…incessantly prays Heaven that all persons, black and white, may be put in possession of this “divine right of being compelled, if permitted will not serve, to do what work they are appointed for.” But as this cannot be conveniently managed just yet, he will begin with the blacks, and will make them work for certain whites, those whites not working at all; that so “the eternal purpose and supreme will” may be fulfilled, and “injustice,” which is “for ever accursed,” may cease. (27)
After pointing out the inconsistencies in Carlyle’s application of the “gospel of work,” Mill went on to attack the gospel itself. Is it really true, he asked, that work per se has value?
Work, I imagine, is not a good in itself. There is nothing laudable in work for work’s sake. To work voluntarily for a worthy object is laudable; but what constitutes a worthy object? On this matter, the oracle of which your contributor is the prophet has never yet been prevailed on to declare himself. He revolves in an eternal circle round the idea of work, as if turning up the earth, or driving a shuttle or a quill, were ends in themselves, and the ends of human existence. Yet, even in case of the most sublime service to humanity, it is not because it is work that it is worthy; the worth lies in the service itself …. (27-8)
Finally, Mill turned to Carlyle’s claim that Caribbean blacks were wasting the land by growing food for themselves rather than spices for Europeans. What, Mill asked, was the right or best crop to grow in the West Indies?
In the present case, it seems, a noble object means “spices.” “The gods wish, besides pumpkins, that spices and valuable products be grown in their West Indies”—the “noble elements of cinnamon, sugar, coffee, pepper black and grey,” “things far nobler than pumpkins.” Why so? Is what supports life, inferior in dignity to what merely gratifies the sense of taste? Is it the verdict of the “immortal gods” that pepper is noble, freedom (even freedom from the lash) contemptible? (28)
In other words, Mill’s response is that of the economist, who supposes that black people share with white people the ability to make competent choices, to be able to decide that an hour of leisure was better for them than the income foregone. And once they have chosen, no one, not even Thomas Carlyle, has grounds for questioning their choice.
Trade and Language, Man and Beast
To read Adam Smith’s argument in context, see An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter 2.
Mill’s argument builds on Adam Smith’s doctrine, enunciated in The Wealth of Nations, that to be human is to trade. There, Smith argues that humans are set apart from other animals by their ability to cooperate, an ability that requires them to trade and to talk. Dogs, who vary more physically than humans, could also gain from cooperation. Yet because dogs lack language, they cannot negotiate, and thus can not reap the gains from trade.5 As the economist (and soon-to-be Archbishop) Richard Whately put it in 1831:
Man might be defined, “An animal that makes Exchanges:” no other, even of those animals which in other points make the nearest approach to rationality, having, in all appearance, the least notion of bartering, or in any way exchanging one thing for another.6
So at the center of classical economics, we have the test for the human: the ability to trade!
The Smith-Whately doctrine—since all language users trade, trade is evidence of our common humanity—was a standing challenge to those who would argue for fundamental differences among humans.
This challenge was taken up by such writers as Edward G. Wakefield. In his edition of Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Wakefield disputed Smith’s doctrine of common humanity along racial lines. Wakefield argued that the sharp distinction between some humans and animals which Smith and Whately supposed is actually fuzzy. Instead, there are races which will not trade and therefore are closer to animals than they are to the fully human:
The savages of New Holland never help each other, even in the most simple operations; and their condition is hardly superior, in some respects it is inferior, to that of the wild animals which they now and then catch.7
And why do dogs not trade? Contrary to Smith, Wakefield argues that dogs have no reason to trade:
The wants of every inferior animal are extremely limited. No inferior animal wants more than food and shelter; the quantity and kind of food, and the kind of shelter, being always the same with respect to each race of animals. … The wants of man, on the contrary, are unlimited. (1:59)
So, to what to we attribute a failure to trade? For Smith, it is talk not, trade not. For Wakefield, it is want not, trade not.
Carlyle adopted Wakefield’s claim that some races do not trade when he responded to the economists in 1850, in the first of the Latter-Day Pamphlets.8 There, Carlyle argued that the wants of inferior races, like those of Wakefield’s animals, are so limited, there is no reason to trade:
West-Indian Blacks are emancipated, and it appears refuse to work: Irish Whites have long been entirely emancipated; and nobody asks them to work, … Among speculative persons, a question has sometimes risen: In the progress of Emancipation, are we to look for a time when all the Horses also are to be emancipated, and brought to the supply-and-demand principle? Horses too have “motives;” are acted on by hunger, fear, hope, love of oats, terror of platted leather; nay they have vanity, ambition, emulation, thankfulness, vindictiveness; some rude outline of all our human spiritualities,—a rude resemblance to us in mind and intelligence, even as they have in bodily frame. …. I am sure if I could make him “happy,” I should be willing to grant a small vote (in addition to the late twenty million) for that object!
Him too you occasionally tyrannise over; and with bad results to yourselves among others; using the leather in a tyrannous unnecessary manner; withholding, or scantily furnishing, the oats and ventilated stabling that are due. Rugged horse-subduers, one fears they are a little tyrannous at times. “Am I not a horse, and half-brother?”… (30-31)
While the economic and scientific fronts of the race and slavery debates focussed on man versus beast in a literal sense, the religious and humanitarian fronts highlighted closely parallel themes of universal brotherhood versus classes and rankings. When Lord Denman, Chief Justice of England (on whom see more below), attacked Charles Dickens’ views on slavery in 1852, he wrote that the pro-slavery forces had lately:
become ashamed of their dark-complexioned brother, and would fain disclaim the relationship. They cannot do so without renouncing that of Him who spoke of the whole family of man as one brotherhood, without distinction of class or colour, and proclaimed eternal happiness or misery to the great ones of the earth, according to the deeds that they shall have done to the least of His brethren.
—Lord Denman 1853. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Bleak House, Slavery and Slave Trade. p. 12. The verse Denman refers to is Matthew 25:40: “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done [it] unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done [it] unto me.”
What is the consequence of treating horses as if they were human?
So long as grass lasts, I dare say they are very happy, or think themselves so. And Farmer Hodge sallying forth, on a dry spring morning with a sieve of oats in his hand, and agony of eager expectation in his heart, is he happy? Help me to plough this day, Black Dobbin: oats in full measure if thou wilt. “Hlunh, No—thank!” snorts Black Dobbin; he prefers glorious liberty and the grass. Bay Darby, wilt not though perhaps? “Hlunh!”—Grey Joan, then, my beautiful broad-bottomed mare,—O Heaven, she too answers Hlunh! Not a quadruped of them will plough a stroke for me. (31-32)
Attempting to contract with subhumans has predictable consequences, consequences that correspond exactly with attempts to contract with two-legged subhumans.
Corn-crops are ended in this world!—For the sake, if not of Hodge, then of Hodge’s horses, one prays this benevolent practice might now cease, and a new and better one try to begin. Small kindness to Hodge’s horses to emancipate them! The fate of all emancipated horses is, sooner or later, inevitable. To have in this habitable Earth no grass to eat,—in Black Jamaica gradually none, as in White Connemara already none;—to roam aimless, wasting the seedfields of the world;—and be hunted home to Chaos, by the due watchdogs and due hell-dogs….(32)
Carlyle’s official doctrine, the “gospel of work” to which Mill referred, is that slavery can make one free.9 According to him,
The true liberty of man, you would say, consisted in his finding out, or being forced to find out the right path, and walk thereon. To learn, or to be taught, what work he actually was able for; and then, by permission, persuasion, and even compulsion, to set about doing of the same! … If thou do know better than I what is good and right, I conjure thee in the name of God, force me to do it, were it by never such brass collars, whips and handcuffs, leave me not to walk over precipices!”
And if slavery fails? Extermination:
My indigent unguided friends, I should think some work might be discoverable for you. Enlist, stand drill; become, from a nomadic Banditti of Idleness, Soldiers of Industry! I will lead you to the Irish Bogs, to the vacant desolations of Connaught now falling into Cannibalism ….
To each of you I will then say: Here is work for you; strike into it with manlike, soldierlike obedience and heartiness, according to the methods here prescribed,— wages follow for you without difficulty; all manner of just remuneration, and at length emancipation itself follows. Refuse to strike into it; shirk the heavy labour, disobey the rules,—I will admonish and endeavour to incite you; if in vain, I will flog you; if still in vain, I will at last shoot you,—and make God’s Earth, and the forlorn-hope in God’s Battle, free of you. ….”10
To read what Mises said about Carlyle in context, see the Epilogue to Socialism, especially pars. E.160 and E.190.
After all of this, it is clear why the great economist Ludwig von Mises gave Carlyle a prominent place in “the genealogical tree of the Nazi doctrines.”11
James Anthony Froude (1818-1894), editor of Fraser’s (1860-1874).
Mill predicted that Carlyle’s defense of racial slavery would be reprinted throughout the American South. He was right.12 Carlyle preached a paternalism, teutonic slavery. In his system, as Carlyle’s biographer and close friend James Froude put it, slaves would not be “kept as cattle, and sold as cattle at their owners’ pleasure,” but rather, “treated as human beings, for whose souls and bodies the whites were responsible; that they should have been placed in a position suited to their capacity, like that of the English serfs under the Plantagenets…”13 This message found a ready audience in the South, where many already saw themselves as beleaguered defenders of an aristocracy founded on race.
Back in England, Carlyle found some surprising allies in his attack on those who invoked brotherhood to attack slavery. These included Charles Dickens. In a chapter of Bleak House titled “Telescopic Philanthropy” Dickens ridicules a Mrs. Jellaby who neglects her family for the good of Africans in “Borrio-boola-Gha.”14 On the cover of the serial version of Bleak House, we see Mrs. Jellaby holding two black children. And beside her is a sign reading “Exeter Hall.” (See the last column for the import of references to Exeter Hall.)
Thomas Denman (1779-1854), who became Lord Chief Justice in 1832, was a friend of Charles Dickens. Before this interaction, Dickens and Denman enjoyed a long and close friendship. The DNB links Denman’s subsequent stroke, and his death, to the strain of writing this review.
All of this was too much for Lord Denman, Chief Justice of England, who lamented that Dickens:
…exerts his powers to obstruct the great cause of human improvement—that cause which in general he cordially advocates. He does his best to replunge the world into the most barbarous abuse that ever afflicted it. We do not say that he actually defends slavery or the slave-trade; but he takes pains to discourage, by ridicule, the effort now making to put them down. We believe, indeed that in general terms he expresses just hatred for both; but so do all those who profit or wish to profit by them, and who, by that general profession, prevent the detail of particulars too atrocious to be endured. The disgusting picture of a woman who pretends zeal for the happiness of Africa, and is constantly employed in securing a life of misery to her own children, is a laboured work of art in his present exhibition. (9)
For Dickens, it appears that the real target is not a fictional character, but the real idea she supports: anti-slavery.
Readers of our first column know that writers were not alone in picking up on Carlyle’s arguments. There, we pointed out an illustration for a Cope’s Tobacco public relations product showing John Ruskin triumphing over an African friend of the “dismal science.” John Wallace, who drew that image, produced many more with this theme for the same company. On the right, we show three figures from a poster with 64 caricatures. These three (and two others in the poster) are human insects.15 To ensure that readers did not miss the significance of these, Cope’s Tobacco kindly included a key to the piece:
That insects who believe their country is well served when she is made contemptible should drop by the way and be transformed, as Parnell, Biggar, and O’ Connor Power—the Colorado Beetles who devour the metaphorical potato; or bottled for exhibition … The congratulation arises on the happy circumstance that no orisons of theirs can reach the shrine of Nicotinus.16
For pictures of and information about the Colorado Beetle, see Purdue University’s Colorado Potato Beetle website.
While these names may mean nothing today, they were well known at the time. All are Irish leaders in the Home Rule movement; Isaac Butt, the founder of the Home Rule movement, was also (from 1836-41) the Whately Professor in Political Economy in Dublin. Orisons are prayers; these men are being condemned to a death without hope. And, lest we think no one took Carlyle’s extermination option seriously, the potential damage that could be wrought by the Colorado Potato Beetle was much on the minds of the educated, following the Irish potato blight of 1846.
Moe Coming Attractions
When we return, we will turn to the next skirmish in the war between Carlyle and his allies and the various supporters of the notion that all men are brothers: the Governor Eyre controversy of 1865. That controversy grew out of the Governor of Jamaica’s use of martial law to justify executing an outspoken Jamaican critic. Debate over whether the rule of law extended to all residents of the empire, whether white, black or other, divided intellectual England along just the lines that readers of our essays would predict. On one side were John Bright, John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, T. H. Huxley, and Herbert Spencer, on the other Carlyle, Dickens, Kingsley and Ruskin. Our readers will also recognize the arguments used by both sides.
From there, we will return to how those who took Carlyle’s line against the brotherhood of all men included the Irish with blacks on the roll of the subhumans. We will also show how after the Governor Eyre controversy, the attack on brotherhood became more brutal, with the images of the inferior races becoming ever less human and more monstrous. We shall see how this escalation was influenced by the “scientific” findings of James Hunt and the Anthropological Society, as well as the Eugenical thinking of W. R. Greg.
“The compensation for this loss was partly the money awarded by parliament to the slave-holders; much more, the pledge of the government that slave-grown sugar should be subject to a higher duty than that produced by free labour.” Lord Denman, 1853. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Bleak House, Slavery and Slave Trade. Second edition. London, p. 35.
[Thomas Carlyle] December 1849. “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question.” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country 40, p. 675
Mill puts forward what modern scholars know as the Afrocentric hypothesis: “It is curious withal, that the earliest known civilization was, we have the strongest reason to believe, a negro civilization. The original Egyptians are inferred, from the evidence of their sculptures, to have been a negro race: it was from negroes, therefore, that the Greeks learnt their first lessons in civilization; and to the records and traditions of these negroes did the Greek philosophers to the very end of their career resort (I do not say with much fruit) as a treasury of mysterious wisdom.” Mill p. 30.
[John Stuart Mill] January 1850. “The Negro Question.” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country 41, p. 29. For the case relating to the Irish, see our first column.
Adam Smith 1976. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, edited by W. B. Todd. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 30. Online: Cannan edition.
E. G. Wakefield 1835. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. [Edited by E. G. Wakefield.] London, 1:27
The argument that the first of Carlyle’s Latter-Day Pamphlets, the February 1850 “Present Time,” ought to be read as Carlyle’s response to Mill is found in David Levy, “How the Dismal Science Got its Name.” Journal of the History of Economic Thought, March 2001; How the Dismal Science Got Its Name. Michigan 2001 fall.
“Thomas Carlyle 1965  Past and Present,” edited by Richard D. Altick. Boston, pp. 211-12.
(Carlyle 1850, 54-55).
James Anthony Froude, 1885. Thomas Carlyle: A History of His Life in London 1834-1881. New York. 2:15
Charles Dickens, 1977  Bleak House, edited by George Ford and Slyvère Monod, New York, p. 40. Denman 1853, p. 11: “… unluckily we cannot disassociate [Mrs. Jellaby] from some papers in the ‘Household Words,’ which appear to have been written for the taste of slave traders only.” Dickens’ “Noble Savage”—published after Denman’s attack—makes his modern admirers blanch.
The painting is owned by David Levy. A widely-distributed and discussed poster made from the painting is in the Fraser Collection of the University of Liverpool. We shall see more of this in later columns.
The Plenipotent Key to Cope’s Correct Card of the Peerless Pilgrimage to Saint Nicotine of the Holy Herb: &c. Liverpool, 1878, p. 14. The “Colorado beetle” is the adult form of the potato bug, we learn from the OED.