Bind Us Apart

How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation


By Nicholas Guyatt

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Why did the Founding Fathers fail to include blacks and Indians in their cherished proposition that “all men are created equal”? The usual answer is racism, but the reality is more complex and unsettling. In Bind Us Apart, historian Nicholas Guyatt argues that, from the Revolution through the Civil War, most white liberals believed in the unity of all human beings. But their philosophy faltered when it came to the practical work of forging a color-blind society. Unable to convince others-and themselves-that racial mixing was viable, white reformers began instead to claim that people of color could only thrive in separate republics: in Native states in the American West or in the West African colony of Liberia.

Herein lie the origins of “separate but equal.” Decades before Reconstruction, America’s liberal elite was unable to imagine how people of color could become citizens of the United States. Throughout the nineteenth century, Native Americans were pushed farther and farther westward, while four million slaves freed after the Civil War found themselves among a white population that had spent decades imagining that they would live somewhere else.

Essential reading for anyone disturbed by America’s ongoing failure to achieve true racial integration, Bind Us Apart shows conclusively that “separate but equal” represented far more than a southern backlash against emancipation-it was a founding principle of our nation.






IN THE LAST DECADE OF the eighteenth century, Virginia was home to around 300,000 slaves: a third of the total number in the United States. What would happen if they were set free? A number of Virginians had raised this question—including, most famously, Thomas Jefferson—but in 1795 one resolved to answer it with a concrete plan for emancipation. St. George Tucker was a slaveholder and one of the state’s most prominent judges, but he was also an outsider. He had been born and raised in Bermuda, more than eight hundred miles north of the harsh plantation slavery of the West Indies, and had acquired his slaves through marriage. Tucker thought slavery a curse upon the state and the nation: it made a nonsense of the Declaration of Independence, and it brought the danger of a mass rebellion that might overwhelm the South. Like many Americans, Tucker had been watching the bloody slave uprising in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue, which would culminate in the death or expulsion of slaveholders and the establishment of the world’s first independent black republic, Haiti. Tucker was careful not to embarrass his white neighbors: slavery was an unfortunate condition which Virginians “could no more have avoided, than an hereditary gout or leprosy.” The state had taken its first steps toward abolition back in 1778, when the legislature had banned the importation of slaves from overseas. Tucker wanted to go further. Although he had never been to New England, he knew that slavery had been abolished there. So he wrote to a friend of a friend in Boston with a series of questions. Had black people been happily integrated after slavery? Were they hard working and intellectually curious? All things being equal, was emancipation a success?1

The recipient of Tucker’s letter was Jeremy Belknap, a Congregationalist minister from Boston. Belknap knew everyone: he wrote for magazines, supported numerous charities, and founded the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1791. His views on slavery were typical of his class and moment. He had been a strong supporter of abolition in Massachusetts, citing the language of the Declaration of Independence. He deplored the tendency of unscrupulous slave traders to prey upon Boston’s free black population, and in 1788 he organized a petition in support of the local free black community as it protested the kidnapping of free blacks by Caribbean slave traders. (The state responded by outlawing the practice, and three men who had been taken from Boston to the Swedish island of St. Barts were restored to the city.) Belknap knew Prince Hall, the free black artisan who had founded North America’s first black Masonic Lodge in 1784, and he was publicly upbeat about black ability. In private, though, he was snobbish and condescending about free blacks—and about the enthusiasm for liberty that prevailed among the poorer residents of Boston, regardless of race.2

For Belknap, an ardent nationalist, even a worthy cause such as antislavery could not be allowed to threaten American unity. When Benjamin Franklin and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS) petitioned the House of Representatives for immediate abolition in 1790, Belknap bemoaned the “contemptible politicians” among the PAS leadership who threatened the delicate compromises that had brought the federal government into existence. What if South Carolina were to say “we will keep our slaves, and you may keep your Quakers? What a contemptible figure will America make in the eyes of the world!” If abolition were to make headway in the South, it would require men like St. George Tucker to domesticate the idea. Belknap was delighted, then, to help his new friend. He prepared copies of Tucker’s questions and sent them to forty of his associates, including James Sullivan, the attorney general of Massachusetts; Prince Hall; and John Adams, who was enduring the final months of his unhappy vice-presidency in Philadelphia.3

The responses were revealingly inconsistent. Some of Belknap’s friends assumed that blacks couldn’t vote or hold office in Massachusetts; others insisted that they did both. Most respondents thought abolition a success, though a few wondered if a more gradual transition would have provided slaves with a better foundation for freedom. Two points of consensus among Belknap’s circle revealed the paradox at the heart of emancipation: nearly everyone accepted that abolition was an inevitable consequence of the Declaration of Independence, and nearly everyone agreed that abolition had failed to level the playing field for blacks and whites.

The problem seemed to stem from the experience of slavery itself. To be enslaved was to suffer an assault on one’s morals and outlook. John Eliot, another Boston clergyman, told Belknap that while free-born blacks were just as capable as whites, those who had been enslaved and denied an education displayed a “palpable difference” in their morals. This difference was entirely the product of “habits of life”—the travails of slavery—rather than of race. Unquestionably, though, it had strengthened prejudices among whites toward black people generally. “There is here a great number of worthy good men and good citizens that are not ashamed to take an African by the hand,” reported Prince Hall, the black Mason. “But yet there are to be seen the weeds of pride, envy, tyranny, and scorn, in this garden of peace, liberty and equality.”4

In his report to Tucker, Belknap wondered whether blacks had been so “oppressed with poverty and its attendant miseries” since emancipation that they might have been better off had they remained slaves. He wouldn’t attribute their problems to race, noting that there was no difference in “general, moral, or social conduct” between Boston’s free black population and poorer whites with the same levels of education. He praised the hundreds of free blacks who had volunteered in 1786 to help put down Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts. But the findings of his survey suggested that emancipation had not produced social harmony between races. Even if blacks were entitled to the promises of the Declaration of Independence, and race offered no grounds for discrimination, the abolition of slavery would not in itself create an equal society. Tucker thanked Belknap for his help and acknowledged his cautious conclusions. Some of his neighbors in Virginia had already assured him that slavery was “infinitely preferable to that degraded freedom [blacks] would enjoy, if emancipated.”5

To Belknap’s surprise, Tucker didn’t see the survey as an excuse to mothball his plans for emancipation. Instead, the Virginian marked out three alternatives to slavery, all deeply problematic in their own way. First, slaves could be freed on condition that they be exiled beyond the Mississippi River, an option that Thomas Jefferson had floated in his Notes on the State of Virginia. This would be expensive, probably impractical, and possibly cruel: “If humanity plead for their emancipation,” Tucker suggested, “it pleads more strongly against colonization.” Second, they could be freed but denied civil and political rights. This would take care of slavery, but would make blacks reluctant to work, perhaps even restive. If freed blacks saw second-class citizenship as a reason to “procure by force what you have refused to grant them,” white Virginians would gain little release from the anxieties that haunted the slave system. Finally, slaves might be freed and given the same rights as white people, regardless of the ways in which slavery had “depraved their faculties,” and despite the preponderance of “prejudices too deeply rooted to be eradicated” among white Virginians. The race war that was currently raging in Saint-Domingue made Tucker especially wary of this third path. But it was hard to hedge moral imperatives, or to rank the perils of emancipation against the dangers of doing nothing. Sometimes, Tucker confessed to Belknap, he felt “prompted to exclaim, Fiat Justitia ruat coelum.” Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.6

When Belknap circulated Tucker’s reply to his Massachusetts friends, their eyes caught on that alarming phrase. John Adams challenged Tucker’s premise directly: “What is justice? Justice to the negroes would require that they should not be abandoned by their masters and turned loose upon a world in which they have no capacity to procure even a subsistence.” Slavery had stripped blacks of skills and industry, perhaps even of virtue: if they were to be emancipated, this should happen gradually, for their sake as much as for the good of society in general. The Massachusetts attorney general, James Sullivan, had a similar reaction. Belknap handed him Tucker’s letter at dinner one night, and Sullivan promised to write a few lines in response at work. The next day, as his clerks and clients buzzed around him, Sullivan wrestled furiously with Tucker’s problem. “All the morning surrounded by people on business,” Sullivan wrote, “I have kept the pen in motion.” Sullivan noted Tucker’s anguish and suggested that the Virginian’s sensitivity “in some degree atones for the violation of human rights which his fellow citizens have been guilty of.” But could the black population be freed? Sullivan believed slavery had always corrupted its victims. Even the Israelites had been prone to “rebellions and insurrections” on their way to Canaan; their defiance of God’s word—the result of slavery’s corroding effects on human virtue—meant “that it was necessary to waste them all in the wilderness.” Sullivan had a better idea: slave children should be educated at the public expense. The only way to eliminate white prejudice was “by raising the blacks, by means of mental improvements, nearly to the same grade with the whites.” This was not a short-term fix; it would take decades, though eventually it would fit both blacks and whites for equal citizenship. In the meantime, while Tucker enjoyed the admiration of New England’s most distinguished citizens, Sullivan was clear on what should happen next: in his abolitionist thinking, St. George Tucker should “make haste slowly.”7

BANISHING BLACKS FROM THE DECLARATION of Independence was an awkward maneuver for educated Americans in the early republic. Science and religion offered little support for the idea of a permanent racial hierarchy. Instead, the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment era emphasized that appearance and achievement were conditioned by one’s surroundings and experiences. This was the settled view of the Comte de Buffon, perhaps the most important naturalist before Charles Darwin. Between 1748 and his death in 1793, Buffon published dozens of volumes of his Natural History, a massive work that attempted to describe and explain virtually everything: geology, mineralogy, plants, birds, horses, the weather, and, in the midst of all this, human beings. Buffon believed that differences in human skin color, facial features, and behavior were circumstantial rather than innate. Humanity had a common origin. People looked or behaved differently from each other solely because of their social and physical environment.8

Buffon isolated three factors as the cause of physical and behavioral differences: climate, diet, and what he called the “manner of living.” Peoples with darker skin lived in warmer climates; the features of European women were more attractive than the features of, say, aboriginal or Native American women because Europeans had the benefits of a better climate and more advanced civilization. “Race” was not an essential category but a consequence of experience. If a group of Europeans reverted to the life of primitive hunters, Buffon suggested, they would soon begin to resemble those “savage” peoples who populated the frontiers of the empire. To test this hypothesis, Buffon suggested a simple experiment: a group of people from Senegal should swap places with a group from Denmark. Within a few generations, he predicted, the appearance and habits of the two groups would become perfectly inverted.9

To say that Buffon rejected the idea of racial hierarchies—or that he doubted the utility of “race” more generally—is not to say that his thinking was free from cultural superiority. Buffon clearly believed that the best civilizations, as well as the most handsome men and women, were European. But he didn’t think that there was anything special about the human beings who currently lived in Europe, beyond their good fortune in being born in this optimal environment. People born in other parts of the world could achieve precisely the same things, if placed in the right circumstances. Buffon was decidedly not a cultural relativist—he occasionally marveled at other cultures, but didn’t question the superiority of European society. In the strict sense of the term, however, he was not a racist. He even suggested that human ingenuity might hedge against the effects of the harshest climates. Those living in the world’s torrid or frozen zones might emulate European civilization if given the tools and encouragement to do so. Even the most terrible experiences—including enslavement—could not crush the “seeds of virtue” that were every human being’s birthright.10

Buffon’s enormous Natural History (1749) offered the most influential account of human physical difference in the eighteenth century. COURTESY OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

Although Buffon’s theories were extraordinarily influential, he had his critics. In the 1770s and after, during a backlash against the rise of antislavery sentiment in Britain and France, a series of British authors speculated that black people were in fact permanently inferior to whites. A more subtle challenge came from other scientists who proposed grouping human beings into fixed categories. The Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus thought that all of humanity could be placed within one of four races; the German theorist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach proposed five. But neither Linnaeus nor Blumenbach suggested that their racial groups had been separately created. Nor did they dissent from Buffon’s belief that physical differences were created by environment and circumstance. Blumenbach was at pains to insist that his racial groups were fluid, and that “races” had permeable boundaries: “You see that all do so run into one another, and that one variety of mankind does so sensibly pass into the other, that you cannot mark out the limits between them.” Even the Enlightenment’s architects of “race” refused to depart from Buffon’s view that human beings shared both a common origin and an innate plasticity.11

In the young United States, Buffon’s Natural History was broadly applauded, save for one telling detail. In one of his twelve (!) volumes on quadrupeds, he had casually asserted that the animals of North America seemed a little smaller than their counterparts in Europe and Asia. He even claimed, improbably, that American mutton was “less succulent and tender” than its European equivalent. The suspicion that the North American climate was somehow enfeebling was taken up with gusto by Buffon’s compatriot, the Abbé Raynal, who insisted that the hardiest Europeans would “degenerate” in the New World. Buffon’s cautious speculation became clumsily chauvinistic in the hands of Raynal, who already had a complicated relationship with the United States. Although France became a vital ally to the Patriot cause in 1778, Raynal and other French intellectuals were snobbish about American claims that the Revolution had global significance. Degeneration was a tool for mocking American exceptionalism, but Benjamin Franklin—who spent much of the Revolutionary War in Paris as US envoy to France—had the best riposte. At a dinner one evening that brought Raynal and Franklin together, the Frenchman could not resist taunting the American. Franklin and his aides were seated on one side of the table, Raynal and the French guests on the other. “Let both parties rise,” Franklin ordered, “and we will see on which side nature has degenerated.” At five ten, Franklin was the shortest American at the table, but still comfortably taller than his “remarkably diminutive” hosts. Raynal, Franklin later told Thomas Jefferson, was “a mere shrimp.” Franklin could easily have tossed one of the French guests out of the window. (“Or perhaps two.”)12

The degeneration thesis fired Jefferson’s interest in natural history. This was why he never tired of the search for giant moose heads, mastodon skeletons, and other examples of American fecundity, many of which ended up in the entrance hall at Monticello. More seriously, it prompted him to defend the ability and potential of Native Americans. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, which made a sustained assault on degeneration, Jefferson insisted that the “vivacity and activity of mind” among the Indians “is equal to ours in the same situation.” Perhaps Jefferson would have become fascinated by Native Americans regardless of the French challenge, but Buffon and Raynal made the defense of Indian ability a patriotic imperative. The notion that Europeans looked down on America spread widely across the new nation: in the 1790s and 1800s, it was not unusual to find local newspapers from New England to Georgia trumpeting a giant radish or an “inimitable hog” to disprove the view that “nature degenerates in America.”13

In his emphasis on Native American ability, Jefferson was merely following the environmental theories of Buffon himself. In the Notes, however, Jefferson departed from the Frenchman in one crucial respect. “I advance it as a suspicion only,” he wrote carefully, “that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” Jefferson hedged this in countless ways: he warned that one could only speculate about black inferiority “with great diffidence”; that it would be a terrible thing to “degrade a whole race of men from the rank in the scale of beings which their creator may perhaps have given them.” Nonetheless, in Jefferson’s most sustained engagement with the issue of racial hierarchy, he had offered an unambiguous judgment: Native Americans had the same capacity as white people, but African Americans did not.14

This short passage has had an outsized influence on historians, who are accustomed to placing Jefferson in the vanguard of American thought. We’ll return later to the question of why he departed so dramatically from Buffon’s theory in the case of African Americans. For now, though, we need to place Jefferson’s jarring conclusions in context. First, his arguments about black inferiority drew plenty of criticism, especially from those who knew most about the orthodoxies of the Enlightenment. From South Carolina, the doctor and historian David Ramsay praised Jefferson for his “merited correction” to Buffon on degeneration, but chided him for his racism: “You have depressed the negroes too low,” Ramsay wrote. “I believe all mankind to be originally the same and only diversified by accidental circumstances.” The surveyor and land speculator Gilbert Imlay declared himself “ashamed, in reading Mr. Jefferson’s book, to see, from one of the most enlightened and benevolent of my countrymen, the disgraceful prejudices he entertains against the unfortunate negroes.” When the antislavery sections of the Notes were invoked by newspapers and reformers in the 1790s and 1800s, the section on black inferiority was usually omitted—unsurprisingly, perhaps, since it seemed to undermine the case for freeing blacks in the first place.15

The notorious passage on black ability even became a political issue in 1800, when Jefferson’s Federalist opponents seized on his remark about blacks being a “distinct race” to accuse him of blasphemy. One of Jefferson’s supporters supplied the newspapers with a letter he’d written in 1791 to the free black mathematician Benjamin Banneker, in which Jefferson declared that “nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of other colors.” If appearance didn’t always bear out this truth, Jefferson continued, this “is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa and America.” At other moments in his private correspondence, Jefferson incubated his earlier view on black inferiority. But he seems to have persuaded very few of his compatriots to accept his unorthodox position. The vast majority of writers and thinkers on race preferred Buffon’s emphasis on human adaptability, and Jefferson learned to couch his own views with more “diffidence” across the rest of his public life.16

The controversy over Jefferson’s Notes illuminates two further aspects of the debate over race in the early United States. First, by invoking the possibility that blacks were permanently inferior to whites, Jefferson had opened himself to the charge of religious infidelity. The same problem faced any proslavery writer in the southern states or the West Indies who denied the common origins of humanity. A separate creation for black people could not be squared with the descent of humanity from Adam and Eve; racism, put simply, was a rejection of the Bible’s authority. Ingenious proslavery theorists would eventually propose workarounds that might relieve some of this pressure, but the inconvenient truth of Genesis acted as a brake on racist theory throughout the antebellum years.17

If religious infidelity presented one threat to the budding race theorist, the accusation of prejudice was another. One of the core objectives of the Enlightenment had been to free people from irrationality and parochialism: to aggregate and disseminate knowledge in ways that would open up people’s minds and transcend their baser instincts. The word “prejudice” was an important part of this intellectual liberation. As we’ll see, the liberal white thinkers who confronted race in the early United States distinguished clearly between rational views about human difference and the knee-jerk reactions of the untrained mind. Human beings might easily recoil from people who looked different or who behaved in different ways; it was the duty of the liberal mind to see past this initial reaction and to bring knowledge and reason to bear on every situation.18

Many of the characters we will meet in this book discussed the dangers of prejudice; the most candid admitted that they themselves were vulnerable to its operation, though the task of the liberal mind was to free itself from the snare. “There is something exceedingly curious in the constitution and operation of prejudice,” wrote Thomas Paine in 1782. Unlike other vices and passions, it didn’t seem to limit itself to a particular people or personality; instead, “like the spider, it makes everywhere its home.” Even if one made one’s mind “as naked as the walls of an empty and forsaken tenement” or as “gloomy as a dungeon,” the spider would crawl back in, “fill it with cobwebs, and live where there seems nothing to live on.” The remedy was to keep thinking, to avoid complacency, to subject one’s instincts and passions to the closest scrutiny. Only in this way could one keep prejudice in check.19

One aspect of this battle against the “spider of the mind,” which will become increasingly important to our story, relates to another kind of hierarchy. Most of the actors in this book were middling and elite Americans: churchmen, writers, scientists, politicians, slaveholders. Although they typically defined themselves against prejudice—and pledged to remain alert for the first sign of cobwebs—these 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 the Indian lands of the West. In crafting national policies to address slavery or the future of Native Americans, liberal thinkers not only had to conquer their own prejudices, but also had to manage and account for those of poorer whites. In the process, they faced a terrible temptation: it would be easy to invoke the hostility of their less enlightened compatriots to mask their own reluctance to accept blacks and Indians as equals.

FOR JAMES SULLIVAN, THE BOSTON judge who corresponded with St. George Tucker, the evidence from black people in slavery—and even those who had briefly enjoyed freedom in New England—provided “great reason” to think blacks might be inferior to whites. But how could anyone know for sure, given the terrible damage done to their character by enslavement and prejudice? The only way to test the theory would be to give freed people the “same prospects” as white people, and “confer upon them the same advantages for the space of time in which three or four generations shall rise and fall.” This might “so mend the race, and so increase their powers of perception,” that they would eventually “exceed the white people.” The problem was getting blacks from the damaged state of slavery to a position in which their natural talents and potential could vindicate their equality. The nation would need to address the issue of “degradation.”

From the 1780s, liberal thinkers insisted that both black people and Indians would require an active process of education before they were ready for meaningful membership in American society. Although it was blacks, rather than Indians, who were initially described as “degraded,” by the 1810s the term was used to refer to Indians as well—and it had mutated considerably from its roots in the debilitating experience of slavery. There were important differences between the efforts to educate free blacks and to “civilize” Native Americans, but degradation eventually provided a comforting way to confront the apparent failure of both.20


On Sale
Apr 26, 2016
Page Count
416 pages
Basic Books

Nicholas Guyatt

About the Author

Nicholas Guyatt is professor of American history at the University of Cambridge and the author of five previous books, including Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation. He lives in Cambridge, UK.

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