Nicholas Guyatt’s Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial SegregationDonald Thoresen
Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation
New York: Basic Books, 2016
Throughout history, whites have tended to feel a need to dissect the philosophical implications and practical consequences of their actions. Passion and emotion are rarely the driving forces behind white historical movement. Ideas are considered and debated, actions taken based on those ideas are considered and debated, and then finally the actual consequences of those actions are analyzed — often for millennia. One of the advantages of the study of American history is that it provides us with a relatively recent and well-documented archive with which to work. The tension inherent in the merging of the social and the political can be charted and analyzed more easily in America than in other geographical areas and historical eras due to our proximity to it.
Early American history is essentially the history of what modern white people do when given a continent. It is, to a large degree, a study of specifically white moral imperatives, white social forms, white imaginations, white politics, and white identity. Many of the issues now facing white Americans have antecedents in colonial and early American history. In Bind Us Apart, the new book by University of Cambridge lecturer in American history Nicholas Guyatt, the ways in which whites dealt with racial issues in the decades surrounding independence are discussed. He focuses primarily on segregation, both formal and informal, and the debates American whites had about how best to deal with the very obvious racial problems occurring in their world and also how they proposed to prevent these problems from snowballing into the future and undermining the political and demographic integrity of the country. The two groups of great concern to whites of that time were, as one would expect, Indians and blacks. In essence, he attempts to demonstrate how the ideas of race held by “enlightened” whites (those whites who were sincerely concerned with the plight of other races in North American) were in fact racist themselves — a rather unoriginal thesis, but well-argued in this book. As a contemporary Leftist critique of Enlightenment-based racial conceptions, he succeeds in his task. From a White Nationalist point of view, however, what he demonstrates is the obvious drawbacks of racial diversity, the practical beginnings of the pathological altruism that plagues white America today, and the constant negotiation between racially conscious whites and uninformed, hopelessly idealistic elites.
It is obvious that Indians and blacks are very distinct peoples with very different historical relationships with America. Indians, despite posing numerous problems for the country, were generally held by Americans in some esteem (then, as now, often of an irrational, romantic nature). Blacks were either seen as people who did not but could be taught to uphold white behavioral standards or as people incapable by nature of assimilation into white society. Many — perhaps most — whites felt a paternalistic responsibility towards both groups. This was certainly true of white policymakers and various other influential members of society, especially in the North. This responsibility took many different forms. Each form was contingent upon the advocate’s general worldview, personal experience, and/or moral framework but the author argues that each form can be grouped into one of two broad categories: amalgamation or colonization. Amalgamation refers to the belief that an interracial society was practicable and included everything from notions of “separate but equal” to public advocacy of miscegenation. Colonization refers to the creation of separate territories for Indians and blacks, either in North America or elsewhere. (Regarding blacks, it is important to note here that the author does not delve much into the arguments made by the slavery advocates in America; his concern is almost exclusively with those who rejected slavery and how they dealt with those blacks who were already free, as well as how they proposed to deal with the future complications inherent in the abolition of slavery).
The first part of the book examines the moral and practical reasoning behind the decision to pursue either amalgamation or colonization. Central to the debate surrounding policy regarding slavery, blacks, and Indian affairs was the notion of “degradation.” Whites, wherever the stood on the anti-slavery political spectrum, were generally concerned with maintaining the cultural integrity of both white areas (though this seems to be less true for the white elite) and the cultural integrity of Indians and blacks. Especially with regard to Indians, many whites believed that the close proximity of whites to Indians had a negative, and ultimately unjust, impact on them. It was clear that Indian cultures were threatened socially (by alcoholism, for example) and demographically by the spread of whites deeper into the continent. The question, then, was how to resolve this: was it better for Indians to be acculturated into American society or was it better for them to be separated from whites? In the case of blacks, once freed, would they do better if integrated into white society or would they also need to be separated in order to thrive?
Abolitionists, usually Northerners and Christians, tended to believe that Indians and blacks were wholly equivalent to whites except for the color of their skin and the effects of environmental factors which had prevented them from flourishing. These people believed that the obvious lack of progress and civilization (i.e., the attainment of white cultural standards) resulted only from lack of exposure and oppression. If provided with education and the freedom to build communities based on the knowledge handed down to them by whites, they would do so, and in doing so, they would demonstrate to the world the validity of the Christian idea of fundamental equality before God. Abolitionists felt that slavery contradicted both Christian teaching and the Declaration of Independence and that its effects could be reversed with proper management. The author writes that “the language of degradation was rooted in the idea that African Americans . . . retained their innate human potential and ability [but] it also affirmed the view that slaves and freed people were currently inferior to whites” (p. 38). While there was internal debate as to whether abolition should be an immediate or gradual process, the idea of racial degradation “had quickly become a powerful argument” against slavery by its emphasis on “the corrosive effects of the institution on human beings whose subjugation had no scientific or religious justification” (p. 38).
The notion of Indian racial degradation was a bit more complex. They had not been enslaved and they also had a long history of interaction, both positive and negative, with the whites of the continent. They were, for example, trading partners who provided a market for white goods at the same time that they engaged in violent conflict with whites who were encroaching on their land. But white expansion was seen as being as inevitable as Indian resistance. It was simply what human groups did. A great deal of effort was made to ease this tension, however, and to preserve the best of the relationship while preventing the worst. It is, to a large degree, the economic aspect of this relationship (especially if one considers westward expansion itself as largely an economic process) that caused much of the friction between American elites and those whites who actually lived around Indians. There were clear economic benefits to the white-Indian relationship for those in power, but also drawbacks in the form of unused territory and unavailable resources. There were also similar drawbacks for those whites who were “in the trenches” so to speak, i.e., those whites who were actually participating in the expansion.
Just as it is common today for one particular group to feel the most antipathy towards the competing racial or ethnic group in closest proximity to them, the whites on the frontier and elsewhere who had to deal with Indians in some sort of face-to-face capacity were more inclined to view Indians as a threat. And just as today, those who were removed from the “on the ground” racial conflict found it very easy to look down upon those “unenlightened” whites who could not or would not free themselves from what the elites believed to be merely irrational prejudice. Those who actually experienced the perils of daily interaction with Indians very often concluded that they were inassimilable. Dr. Guyatt writes: “. . . better-off Americans referred easily and often to the prejudices of the people at large: the poorer whites who lived alongside black people in the East, or were rushing toward Indian lands in the West” (p. 28).
This “rushing toward Indian lands” greatly complicated the issue. It is commonly assumed that whites simply destroyed Indian communities with no regard for Indians whatsoever in a ravenous desire for continental conquest. This is a gross misconception. It cannot be argued that whites did not seek land and resources and that ultimately white interests superseded those of Indians. Nor can it be argued that Indians were not harmed by whites. But what is often left out of the story, and which this book makes clear, is that within the context of universal human racial and ethnic conquest, American whites were more humane than any other conquerors in history. The Mughals slaughtered Hindus when they entered India, the Aztecs slaughtered rivals in their conquest of what would become Mexico in ways almost too horrible to describe, the Mongolians brutally slaughtered tribe after tribe in their conquest of Asia, and so on and so on. Thousands upon thousands of pages have been written detailing the carnage of human conquest. Territorial conquest is not a white phenomenon, it is a human one. What makes the white conquest of America unique is how much intellectual and financial resources were expended on humane (in intent, if not always in practice) expansionary efforts. In no way can the movement of whites across the continent be considered peaceful or can every interaction with Indians be considered a shining example of ethical behavior, but the concern for the various Indian tribes, who could have been decisively crushed at any time if the government willed it, is unparalleled in history. The “enlightened Americans” spoken of by the author were truly attempting to bring an element of restraint, fairness, and order to the usually terrifically violent march of history.
Debates raged over how to expand with the least amount of harm to the Indian population. As discussed above, there were two basic choices: assimilate the Indians into white society through education and moral instruction or provide them with sovereign territory to the west of the United States, either in perpetuity or with the goal of eventually incorporating these Indian territories back into the country at a later date as states, complete with citizenship and political equality for their inhabitants. Quite understandably, many Indians rejected either one or both of these ideas and conflict ensued. Some Indians found that having semi-autonomous territories in American states was beneficial to them. These tribes, notably the Cherokee, found the civilizing process to be conducive to their collective well-being, while others violently resisted it.
A very similar debate occurred regarding blacks. For abolitionists, it was clear that slavery needed to be ended. But what to do with the free blacks? Some abolitionists were absolutely convinced of both the biological and moral equality of blacks and whites. Others, usually those in the South with vastly more knowledge of blacks than the whites in the North, were more likely to believe that it was in the best interest of blacks to be removed from American territory and allowed to exist independently. However, even in the North, as more and more freedmen moved into its major cities, racially discriminatory laws that had not existed before began to be passed. The author writes that the state constitutions of Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania were each amended within the first few decades of the 19th century to make blacks ineligible to vote (pp. 69-70). But why? Did the citizens of these states just decide to become prejudiced against people with black skin, or was the increasing presence of blacks coming to be seen as an obvious social negative? The former seems highly unlikely. Just as Southern whites were more likely to view blacks as a destructive collective because of their close proximity to, and intimate knowledge of, blacks and their behavioral patterns, it seems that Northerners were experiencing the same thing. The author, of course, is of the opinion that this turn towards explicit racial thinking on the part of whites was merely the result of irrational prejudice, even on the part of those who were, quite obviously, sincerely concerned for the future of the black race. This notion is tiresomely familiar to all who study contemporary racial issues.
Though these changes in the Northern political climate did not change attitudes towards slavery, they forced abolitionist whites to become increasingly concerned with the ramifications of their political struggle. Yet, for abolitionists, black inferiority seemed certainly to result from the institution of slavery, the failure to educate free blacks properly, and white prejudice. The latter increasingly came to be seen as a powerful source of the degraded state of blacks in the 1810s and 1820s (p. 85). That this idea of white prejudice being the cause of black degradation likely had its origins in direct observations of the failure of integration and education of blacks, coupled with the refusal to alter preconceived notions of racial equality in light of new information, is lost on the author.
Dr. Guyatt quotes the New York abolitionist George Newbold: “[Whites] adopt a system towards [blacks] which is directly calculated to debase and brutalize the human character . . . and then condemn them for the moral and intellectual desolation which this system has produced” (p. 86). This argument, of course, reemerged with a vengeance in the 20th century, despite the overwhelming abundance of evidence to the contrary. Such is the power of white altruism, in both its organic and strategically manipulated forms, that an idea with little evidence to support it even in the late 18th and 19th centuries could retain its powerful hold on whites into the 21st. If one is convinced that a particular race, in principle, is as capable in all areas as any other, despite consistently demonstrating not to be, the fault must surely be external in nature. An incredible amount of intellectual energy is spent on coming up with any other possible reason for racial differences than the simple existence of actual racial differences.
White altruism influenced Indian policy as well. A number of public figures argued that the reason for the degraded state of Indians was their proximity to whites, especially those on the frontier who were seen by elites as “white trash” and who were thought to have a corrupting influence on them. General Anthony Wayne, for example, argued for a “neutral zone” between the two races “which would be zealously guarded by Congress” to protect Indians from whites (p. 88). In contrast, the preacher Morgan John Rhys argued that whites and Indians should live among each other so that they would “become one people” (p. 89). Another even suggested that Indian “pioneers” move east in order to observe and learn from whites (p. 89). Indian schools were founded and missionary work in Indian territory continued unabated as the federal government attempted to civilize the various tribes and incorporate them into America. The desire for the country’s Indian policy to not go down in history as analogous to the Black Legend of the Spanish conquest was made explicit by more than one government official (p. 98). Yet as time went on, it became apparent to most that a mixed race society was vehemently resisted by most whites, as well as most Indians, and so the debate switched from “an emphasis on how whites and Indians could be brought together, to a suspicion that both sides might fare better if kept apart” (p. 111).
The second part of the book is entitled “Amalgamation.” In it the author traces the history of race-mixing, both social and biological, as a solution to American racial woes. As the author notes, the attempted governmental and social encouragement of miscegenation was widely practiced in the colonial world. Whether as a method of fostering commercial relationships, as a method of uniting the “best” white families with the “best” native families, or simply as a means to create a populace in which the natives had mixed loyalties and thus less desire to revolt against colonial rule. Miscegenation was far from uncommon but “never became widespread in . . . British North America,” despite its encouragement by elites (p. 119). Among these elites who thought that miscegenation was a key aspect in the civilizing of Indians were George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, it may come as a surprise to some that “intermarriage was the stated goal of federal Indian policy throughout the first decades of the republic” (p. 124). A law that would pay interracial couples to marry, to pay these couples for each interracial child produced, and provide tax credits was even proposed — but rejected — in 1784 as part of these efforts (p. 122). Even with encouragement from the elites, who tended to hold romantic views of Indians in the seclusion of their Eastern estates and the halls of government, the vast majority of whites did not engage in such behavior.
Black and white miscegenation was a slightly different problem. Based on the assumption that “all men were created equal,” an idea found both in the Declaration of Independence and the Bible, abolitionists were at a loss to argue against miscegenation. If what they held to be true applied to the institution of slavery, it should logically apply to all other institutions as well. This was a controversial idea, even among abolitionists, and some truly interesting mental gymnastics were undertaken to resolve the issue, including the physician Benjamin Rush’s notion that black skin was a variation of leprosy and so, despite being equal to whites in every other way, miscegenation should be discouraged to as not to infect whites with the disease (pp. 126-27). Abolitionists, despite their professed belief in human equality, found it very hard to disconnect themselves from the demonstrably innate human preference for one’s own race. Some were very explicit about their hypocrisy, occasionally even admitting that they abhorred the idea in practice, but maintained that race-mixing was to the benefit of all and should be encouraged even if they themselves refused to participate in it (p. 128). The similarity between elites’ attitudes towards miscegenation then and now will come as no surprise to White Nationalists.
In practice, race-mixing between Indians and whites was relatively uncommon and generally confined to the frontier. Those whites who did engage in this behavior were generally considered to be of the lowest class despite the noble role they were (theoretically) playing in American racial unification. Some of the byproducts of white-Indian couples, in fact, ended up not being a source of stability but a thorn in the side of the government due to the increased likelihood of their identifying as Indians rather than whites. These individuals, likely as a result of an increased IQ as well as a deeper familiarity with white cultural norms, became highly effective leaders of their tribes. Others urged their tribes towards acculturation and thus, in a very real way, betrayed their own people. Instead of producing a new race of civilized mixed-race American citizens, miscegenation often produced further instability in both white and Indian societies. The supposedly irrational view of the half-breed as “especially unreliable and dangerous” is shown to have a strong basis in fact (p. 134).
In other cases, white government officials in charge of various aspects of Indian policy who had believed in miscegenation as politically expedient and/or practiced it themselves, changed their minds after seeing its effects. Benjamin Hawkins, a Princeton-educated Congressman and a federal agent to the Indians of Indiana for twenty years, believed that he was obliged to set an example for other agents and proceeded to take an Indian wife. He also embarked on an extramarital mission to create as many half-breeds as possible. However, his interaction with Indian culture, particularly their very different kinship networks and disregard for white patriarchal norms, led him to conclude that he had made a terrible mistake. He ended up trying very hard to discourage Thomas Jefferson from continuing his advocacy of intermarriage (pp. 139-44).
In the final chapter of part two, Dr. Guyatt further describes these issues, focusing mostly on biographical examples of those who held particular views about amalgamation. One example is of particular interest for White Nationalists: that of Hezekiah Niles, a newspaper editor from Baltimore and a staunch (gradual) abolitionist. Though he believed that slavery should be abolished for all the usual reasons, he had a very interesting solution. The author writes that Mr. Niles believed that “southern masters should treat male slaves with humanity and kindness, reforming the institution without actually abolishing it, while slave women should be transferred in huge numbers to the northern states” (p. 163). The goal was to decrease the extant black population by segregating the sexes, and thus decreasing the birth rate of blacks, who would soon be vastly outnumbered by the ever-growing white population. But perhaps most interesting of all were his thoughts on the fate of the black women sent to the north. He wrote that “the natural increase of the white people would soon swallow them up, as it were; and by adventitious mixtures, the effect of common association with the whites, and the operation of the climate, the dark complexion might in time be nearly removed if not wholly eradicated” (p. 163). That this bizarre and genocidal theory was conceived by an abolitionist not only provides weight to the author’s theory of the “racism” of “enlightened whites” but provides a much deeper insight, which the author is probably intellectually incapable of perceiving, into the twisted thought process of racial egalitarians. For Mr. Niles, the evil of slavery should be ended — with not a trace of immorality — by destroying an entire race of people, indeed two entire races. Granted, his theory of relatively speedy climatic evolutionary change was not without basis in the science of the time, but his willingness to sacrifice racial biodiversity, and cause a terrific amount of social unrest in both white and black communities, for the sake of a misguided universalism echoes that of contemporary elites who, while claiming to advocate racial diveristy, actually behave as if they are hell-bent only on creating some malleable, interchangeable, and counter-revolutionary raza cósmica.
Ideas such as the above were not without critics, of course. But other ideas were almost as strange, including the highly suspicious proposal of slave-owning abolitionists to allow the spread of slavery into new states so as to create a dispersed and therefore less troublesome post-abolition black population. Dr. Guyatt writes: “The antislavery slaveholders of the South would destroy the institution of slavery by extending it across the nation” (p. 165). Like the idea of Mr. Niles, this idea further demonstrates the absurd lengths many went to in order to attempt to solve the race problems in America without simply admitting that the races should separate for the good of all. These problems were apparent to everyone but some resorted to fantastical utopian solutions, others to disingenuous and self-serving policies under a pretext of morality, but all of these proposals to somehow create an interracial society were studies in illogical thinking and ignorance. There was, however, another contingent of abolitionists who were far more practical, far more honest with themselves and others, and far more ethical than those who advocated amalgamation: those who argued for racial separation.
In the third and final part of the book, entitled “Colonization,” the author describes those who, while recognizing that slavery was a horrific and outdated institution (at least among whites; it is practiced in numerous non-white countries to this day) and that Indian culture was being greatly harmed by white expansion, were convinced that the best way to handle these problems was to make concrete plans for the creation of separate territories for the different races. The first sentence of this section is an interesting one. He writes: “The plans to colonize Native Americans and African Americans beyond the United States became popular for a simple reason: they promised to relieve liberal whites from the challenges of integration” (p. 197). At once it summarizes one of his key points (that “enlightened” liberal whites were racist) and raises some very interesting questions that the author does not address in the book, nor has likely ever considered in his entire life: what the challenges of integration actually were; whether or not these challenges had any basis in something other than white prejudice against “skin color”; what exactly would the benefits to blacks and Indians be (never mind whites) if forced to integrate into white society, especially if whites were irredeemably “racist”; what, after determining the specific benefits that would be gained, the origins of these benefits actually were or, to put in another way, why these benefits were impossible to find in, for example, Africa; and finally, although his answer would almost certainly be “white racism,” why integration has still not worked and whether or not this demonstrates that those who advocated separation were, in retrospect, correct. An attempt to answer any of these questions honestly would have made the book better and even more interesting, but would also have produced some currently distasteful answers and exceedingly uncomfortable intellectual impasses.
The idea of creating separate territories for blacks and Indians was not new. The British, who had used black hostility towards American whites and promises of freedom and land, as a tool for military recruitment during the American Revolution, had found themselves with approximately 20,000 freed slaves in various British territories following their loss of the colonies (p. 201). The ones who ended up in London (about half), were unable to fit into British society (as usual, the author blames white prejudice) and efforts were made by sympathetic Britons to create a new colony for them in Sierra Leone but this did not do particularly well (pp. 202-205). The French hero of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, made a similar attempt. He conceived an idea to relocate freed slaves to Cayenne (what is now French Guiana) as a “laboratory for black improvement” through free labor, but the French Revolution interfered (p. 208). Despite being free, the blacks in Cayenne revolted in the tumult of the revolution’s aftermath. In 1802, the French easily reestablished slavery, and the experiment was over (pp. 205-10). Despite the failures of these attempts, there was sufficient interest in both abolition — and avoiding the racial strife that almost everyone believed it would cause — that ideas such as these continued to circulate and gain in popularity.
It is crucial to note that it was not only whites who advocated the creation of colonies of freedmen but blacks as well. For blacks, living around whites was deemed to be too uncomfortable, and many expressed a desire to, as Prince Hall stated, “live among our equals . . . and be more comfortable and happy than we can be in our present situation” (p. 211). For white abolitionists, the idea of colonization was at least partially a political strategy: if Southern slave-owners could have their fears of large free black populations in their states assuaged by plans for removal, they would be more likely to accept abolition (p. 217). But even this political calculation was rooted in a desire to end the inhumanity of slavery.
The most commonly proposed location for colonization was Africa, for rather obvious reasons. But there were others, including the Caribbean and even the American West. The Virginian judge and professor of law, St. George Tucker, believed that whites would not accept free blacks in their communities, that blacks would resent this, and that, as the author writes, “race war would ensue” (p. 218). He proposed that, following abolition, blacks be given the choice of second class citizenship in Virginia or move west with “the possibility of complete equality beyond the boundaries of the United States” (p. 219). Benjamin Rush (of “black skin as leprosy” fame) purchased 20,000 acres of land in Pennsylvania, 5,000 of which would be devoted to an internal “colony” of free blacks (pp. 222-23). But the proposals for colonization in the West faced an interesting problem entirely unrelated to white “racism”: Indians did not like blacks. The author suggests that this was the result of the fact that Indians “could never admire a people so thoroughly subdued by the whites,” but alternative reasons easily spring to mind, not least of which is the nearly universal dislike of encroachment by foreigners into one’s homeland (p. 251).
In each of these cases, and many others, these men were sincerely concerned with the fate of blacks but recognized that integration, let alone amalgamation, was a pipe dream. It is interesting to note that, at least in this book, little interest is shown by these elite social engineers in the concerns of whites, other than as impediments to black progress due to simple prejudice. The effects of free blacks upon early American white society — of which there is plentiful documentation — is largely absent from the author’s discussion. But, for these men, did white cultural and demographic hegemony seem to be an eternal given? Despite having arrived at reasonable solutions to America’s race problems, were these men as unconcerned with their own kind as whites generally are now? It is quite possible that another historian with access to the archives used by Dr. Guyatt could demonstrate that these men were indeed concerned for the fate of whites as well as blacks and that the information was simply ignored, but, if the current lack of concern for whites by the elite class is part of an historical pattern, then it is probable that there was in fact little concern back then either.
Indians presented a different set of problems. First, there was no other continent or disconnected land mass of some sort to which they could be justifiably sent. There was, however, a vast expanse of territory in the West. Additionally, the interaction between whites and Indians was far more complex and deeply rooted than that between whites and blacks. Efforts had been made to civilize Indians long before the Revolution and, as noted above, there was a popular romantic mystique and respect for Indians among whites, even if strained and tenuous at times. But whites kept on moving west with no “principled” regard for Indian sovereignty, a process that George Washington said would require a “Chinese Wall” to stop (p. 231). As this westward expansion continued, Indians engaged in violence against whites. Indeed, even in “settled” parts of America violent conflict was a regular occurrence.
Perhaps the best example of a failed attempt to integrate, and which ended up resulting in separation, is that of the Cherokee nation. An attempt had been made to create the semi-sovereign “nation within a nation” in their Southeastern homeland, but inevitably the white population of the region grew, encircled Cherokee land, and eventually started moving into it. The Cherokees, as one would expect, resisted this. Other tribes had already escaped to the West, but the Cherokees were much more resistant to leaving their ancestral lands. Though some did eventually move, they were not welcomed with open arms by the various other Indian tribes into whose territory they had relocated. The government, which had an explicit duty (based on various treaties signed with the Cherokees) to protect them from white settlers, had all but given up attempting to restrict white migration onto their land. This had become a rather serious problem, and it became clear that the Cherokee, the tribe which had been most accommodating to whites and most receptive to white culture, would have to go.
Battles with Indians were almost continually taking place on the western frontier, and many Indians fought for the British in the War of 1812. Relations between whites and Indians continued their downward trajectory throughout the early 19th century. Cherokee territory steadily decreased, with many moving westward, and others moving into smaller sections of land reserved for them by the government and trying to create viable communities there. As the author notes, some began to speculate at this time about the disappearance of Indians altogether: “Indians would have to choose between survival in the West and extinction in the East” (p. 244).
As the Indian situation grew even more dire, private efforts to civilize Indians intensified. Missionary work increased, more schools were built, some whites became increasingly concerned with the continuing degradation of Indian communities, and the government tried to figure out how to manage it all. To go into detail about the raging debates that took place in the halls of government concerning what to do about the Indians would take up far too much space here, but few readers will be unaware of what eventually happened. The Indian Act of 1830 was passed and Southeastern Indians were forced to trade their lands for territory in the West, with little but the promise of governmental aid for travel expenses. Though originating in the idea of colonization, an honest attempt to secure the existence of the Indian race while not limiting white expansion or harming white interests, the 1830 legislation was, as the author notes, “plainly intended to secure removal, not colonization” (p. 303).
At the same time the United States government was dealing with the Indian problem, the inevitability of abolition became increasingly apparent and plans for the free black population had to be accelerated. Thomas Branagan, an Irish-born American abolitionist, believed that the “South was corrupting the North with free blacks” (p. 248). Curiously, the author does not explain why he thought so. Instead he refers to Mr. Branagan’s “hang-ups about integration” as being the impetus for his proposal to create a colony in the West that was “at least 2,000 miles from Philadelphia” (p. 248). Despite what seems to have been some ambivalence about black integration based on personal experience, he still maintained that blacks would thrive outside of white control. Others proposed that Puerto Rico be purchased from Spain and turned into a black colony (p. 250). Thomas Jefferson believed that Louisiana would fit the bill (p. 250). He even thought that Haiti might work, having expressed admiration for Toussaint L’Ouverture’s organizational skills and law-and-order style of governance (p. 254). It seems that Mr. Jefferson was unaware that, upon achieving independence from France, slavery was restored under black rule. But no serious action was ever undertaken by the government to create a black colony in North America or its environs, which left private citizens with the burden of trying to create a colony in Africa.
Various whites and blacks still focused on Sierra Leone which, despite its early troubles, seemed to be a viable option. A black seaman named Paul Cuffe made intensive efforts to establish American blacks there. He gained the support of numerous abolitionists in the United States and Britain, which had taken control of the country in 1807. In an early example of the merchant class acting against white interests for the sake of profit, Southern plantation owners worried that Sierra Leone, which had been trying to build its agricultural base, would prove to be a strong and unwanted market competitor, as well as a boon to the British economy at the expense of the American plantation owners (p. 263). So, instead of supporting efforts to help boost the already established and increasingly successful colony of Sierra Leone, American elites began to look for their own African land to colonize. Many influential Americans began to work tirelessly to secure support for this idea. In 1816, the American Colonization Society (ACS) was formed with the idea that an African colony would free Northern blacks from the prejudice of whites, provide opportunities for freed slaves from the South, and encourage slaveholders to free their slaves with no fear of creating an interracial society — or as one ACS member put it, to allow slaveholders to “yield to the suggestions of humanity” (p. 270).
A scouting mission was sent to Africa and a colony was created on Sherbo Island in southern Sierra Leone, far from the British black colony of Freetown. Between deadly diseases and disagreements among ACS officials and blacks on how to manage the colony, the project failed miserably (p. 274). ACS officials then began negotiations with an African king who controlled territory about 300 miles south of Sierra Leone, but the king refused to give up his highly lucrative trade in slaves, which would have rendered the colony worthless from the point of view of the abolitionists (p. 274). Finally, in 1821, after much haggling with local rulers, the ACS purchased Cape Mesurado, approximately 200 miles south of Sierra Leone and renamed it Liberia, a colony which its founders had hoped would “vindicate the principle of separate-but-equal” (p. 275). This project cannot be considered a success, however. The ACS paid for free blacks to leave but not many did. In part, this was because the program was not backed by the government. But it was also entirely voluntary, both on the part of the slaveholders and the blacks. Slaveholders had to incur the expenses and travel arrangements to the ports, which they did not particularly want to do, and most free blacks did not want to leave America — a fact which seems remarkably odd considering their supposedly horrific existence entirely at the mercy of horribly racist, violent whites both in the North and the South.
What we see in this book is far more important than what the author sets out to prove. Rather than just a narrative about white racism, Dr. Guyatt unintentionally demonstrates the relatively deep concern (certainly by world-historical standards) whites had for other races throughout early American history. As described in the opening paragraph of this piece, whites tend not to make rash decisions, instead mulling over various possibilities and the ramifications of every action. They also generally attempt to offer their opponents a square deal whenever possible. In those situations when white interests necessitate some level of cruelty or deception, guilt and embarrassment are very often involved, very often needlessly so (such is the white soul). This deep sense of altruism is both a strength and a weakness. On one hand, it enables whites to move across historical time and space without the levels of barbarity that we see in almost every other race when engaged in similar expansions. It also enables white societies to be relatively stable and safe and maintain a high level of social trust. On the other hand, the white sense of fair play is easily turned into self-loathing and collective ethnomasochism by those races that lack that sense of fair play and use it to their advantage. It is no secret that Jews, for example, believe that they are not ethically obligated to be honest or fair with anyone but other Jews (and, in practice, Jews will take advantage of other Jews with relative ease too). They are thus in a unique position to manipulate whites into feeling multigenerational guilt for historical events that have been either blown wildly out of proportion or are little more than routine human events on the historical continuum. Contemporary whites have been conditioned into having feelings of manly respect for other races (as in the case of Indians) perverted into self-hatred and a refusal to act in their own interest.
Another important lesson from this book is that racial interests are universal. People prefer to be around those of their own kind, and when push comes to shove, one race will generally take its own side in any conflict. The Indians in North America knew clearly that they were engaged in a battle for their very existence. Blacks knew it too, but it manifested itself in different ways due to differing environmental and biological contexts. Indians resisted white civilization because it was white civilization, not because it offered them nothing in the way of technological progress or material comfort. It would be ridiculous to assume otherwise. Indeed, if one were to suggest now that Indians ought not to have resisted white conquest he would quickly be branded a racist, a crackpot, or both. Yet when whites resist the invasion of Muslims, for example, the exact opposite is true. The racist is the man who suggests that whites do precisely what the Indians did: resist.
This book is, unintentionally, a chronicle of multiracial resistance to diversity in the stormy world of early America. There is a great deal to this book that could not be explored in this piece. As such, it would be worthwhile for anyone who has read this far to investigate the book on his own. Despite its fundamental problems, it is a fascinating read and it is unlikely that any reader could come away from it without some new insight into race and history. But what, in closing, can we say specifically about the author’s contention that the “enlightened” liberal whites of early America were racist? They most certainly were. So what?
1. It is a commonly understood in academia that Americanists are more averse to using theory in their historical analysis than their counterparts in other fields of history. This gives Americanists the reputation of being rather dull and conservative. However, this aversion is really just the result of an abundance of documentation which leaves little room for speculation. More specifically, American history is resistant to the level of creative (re)interpretation seen in other fields by Leftist historians simply because so little is left to the imagination.
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