[The following passage from Fraser’s Magazine uses the occasion of the appearance of the last volume of Carlyle’s Frederick the Great (1858-65) to survey his major ideas with particular reference to his relations to Transcendalism and Utilitarianism. Although the article readily admits that its author accepts many of the ideas of Bentham and his followers, it defends Carlyle, who so loathed that school of theory and politics, on the grounds of the good influences he has had. He is not, the essay claims, merely someone who complains a lot: “It is, however, very far indeed from being true that Mr. Carlyle is a mere Jeremiah, and that his lamentations have no practical issue or application. In point of fact his writings have produced a strong practical effect on many people, and are well calculated to produce such an effect. They are quaint and strangely-worded sermons on all the great moral virtues. Mr. Carlyle's object is to exhort his readers to truth, industry, fortitude, justice, belief and trust in God, and other things admitted by moralists of all times and countries to be the cardinal and fundamental virtues. That he does this in a most effectual manner, is proved by the. immense influence and popularity which, in fact, he has acquired” [784]. After stating Carlyle’s major influence, the article turns to one point on which his thought turns out to be inconsistent and poorly thought out — slavery. — George P. Landow

It is when we compare the judgment of Mr. Carlyle on the one hand, and that of the British Parliament on the other, upon some specific question, that we get the strongest impression of his injustice to popular institutions and ways of arguing. Take, for instance, the slavery question. The British Parliament, after years of agitation, discussion, inquiry, aud the like, arrived at last at the conclusion that slavery was a sin and a shame, which must be abolished at any price, and abolished it accordingly was at the price of £20,000,000 sterling and a great deal of power of producing sugar in the West Indian islands and especially in Jamaica. Mr. Carlyle always resented this. He thought that the British public had been imposed upon by effeminate cant. He considered that the black man was a kind of booby, an inferior, unlovely creature who, above all things, required to be well governed. He liked permanence: why "should not servants be hired for life? Was it not on the whole better for Gurth, the thrall of Cedric the Saxon, to go about with an iron collar round his neck, loyally attached (in every sense of the word) to Cedric, than that he should squat on a patch of waste land, and there bask in the sun and look at the pumpkins grow ing of themselves? In short, was not slavery the decree of nature, fact, and the gods, who 'wish, besides pumpkins, that spices and valuable products be grown in the West Indies?' So that' Quashee, if he will not help in bringing out the spices, will get himself made a slave again, and with beneficent whip, since other methods avail not, be compelled to work.'As Mr. Biglow puts it,'the blacks ought to labour, and we lie on sofies, and reelise our Maker's original idee.' Mr. Carlyle, however, certainly wished for slavery freed from ita abuses. 'How to abolish the abuses of slavery, and save the precious thing in it,' and there is much more to the same purpose.

Here the British nation and Mr. Carlyle are distinctly at issue on a definite point. Abolish slavery says the one—reform it says the other. Mr. Carlyle entirely omits to notice the fact that it was precisely because long experience and repeated trials showed that it could not possibly be reformed that it was at last abolished. The 'gods, whoever they may be, must have a most passionate and insatiable appetite for sugar if they are so anxious to have it grown in Jamaica and Ttemerara, that they are willing, in order to get it, that one set of human creatures shall be turned into beasts of burden, and another set into something very like beasts of prey. Those which Mr. Carlyle himself regarded as the abuses of slavery were the very incidents which made it profitable. A slave who could not be sold, who was allowed to marry, who could learn to read and write, who could give evidence in courts of justice, who was to be protected by law from his master's cruelty and lust, would be about as unprofitable a piece of property as a man could have. Let any man imagine himself owning farmlabourers on such terms, and being bound to support them. Or suppose that a man had a dog which he was not allowed to drown or to sell, or to separate from her puppies, or even to sequester from the other sex, which he was obliged to support in decent comfort, and out of which in return he got the service of having certain beggars barked at. Who would not avoid such a gift like the plague? A black slave, with the essential privileges of freedom, plus the right of permanent residence and support on a particular estate, would be a ten times worse incumbrance than such a dog. It was the concession of such privileges to serfs which put an end to serfdom in Europe. Treat blacks as you treat cattle in all respects, and you may perhaps under circumstances gratify 'the gods' by making them grow sugar. Treat them like men, and slavery becomes an insupportable nuisance to the master. Hence, so long as the essential point of slavery — irresponsible proprietary power vested in the master — is permitted to exist, any attempt to remove the abuses of slavery will be futile. The slave will be treated as a mere instrument of avarice and lust, without the faintest regard either to his own moral elevation, or to the 'gods,' or to God Almighty, or to the growth of sugar and spice, or to any one thing in the heavens, or the earth, or the water under the earth, except the personal profit and pleasure of the slave-owner. It was the conviction of this fact that led the British nation to abolish the whole system as incurably bad and vile, and it is not a week's insurrection at the end of thirty-three years that will convince them that they were wrong. It is because he resolutely shuts his eyes to all these facts, and because he persists in viewing a most deliberate act done on the most mature consideration as a mere piece of sentimental weakness, that we think Mr. Carlyle unjust, in this as in some other cases, to popular institutions and convictions.

It is remarkable that in some cases Mr. Carlyle falls into transparent fallacies in his heat on this topic. For instance, he talks of slavery as a 'hiring for life.' Do I hire my horse for life when I retain the right to sell him at any moment? The horse would probably take a very different view of the transaction, and maintain with some plausibility that he was not 'hired' at all, but bought out and out, which is quite another thing. The truths that slavery and nothing else caused the American civil war—that the North found it necessary, as the very first step towards reconstruction, to abolish it utterly, and that they are now attempting, with the best prospect of success, to reorganize the whole condition of Southern society on the basis of freedom to the blacks, ought to teach Mr. Carlyle that democracy and its doctrines on this subject have more in them than he has been disposed to admit.

Such are a few illustrations of the injustice which Mr. Carlyle appears to be guilty of towards Benthamites, Democrats, and Philanthropists. He does not see that in pouring upon us the vials of his wrath, he is really hitting his friends, who have been guilty of no other offence but that of trying to give a definite practical shape to much of his own teaching by substituting cosmos for chaos in various departments of life to the best of our judgments and oppportunities. [794-95]

Related Material


“Mr. Carlyle.” Fraser’s magazine. 72 (December 1865) 778-810. Hathi Digital Library Trust version of a copy of the periodical in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 29 January 2016.

Last modified 29 January 2016