Racial segregation is typically considered an illiberal product haunting modern American history, its most familiar guise being the “ Jim Crow” laws that segregated the American South from the 1870s through to the 1960s. But in his provocative book, “Bind Us Apart,” Nicholas Guyatt argues that we need to look both to an earlier period and some unexpected sources if we are to illuminate the origins of American apartheid.
Segregation, Mr. Guyatt argues, was not original to postbellum America. It dates, instead, to “the nation’s founding dilemma”: slavery. Thomas Jefferson’s writings, for instance, are replete with segregationist notions. And the mission of the American Colonization Society, supported by James Madison and James Monroe, was segregationist to the core. Founded in 1816, the ACS from 1821 to the Civil War collected free blacks in America and shipped them to Africa for resettlement in the all-black colony of Liberia. While “historians have often consigned colonization to a footnote in America’s struggle against slavery,” Mr. Guyatt says, in fact segregation provided the main plot for white America’s confrontations with race in antebellum America. “Racial separation,” he writes, “served as a rallying point for slavery’s opponents for more than seventy years, from the publication of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia in 1785 to the first years of the Civil War—perhaps even later.” Did segregationist ideas impact early America in other ways?
The forced removal in 1838-39 of 10,000 Cherokees to Oklahoma is an infamous event, but Mr. Guyatt urges us to see Indian removal against the story of black colonization. “If we place these efforts to resettle black people and Indians in a single frame,” he writes, “an unsettling but inescapable truth emerges. White reformers, politicians, and churchmen believed that non-whites could only realize their innate potential as human beings—and perhaps even their equality with whites—by separating themselves from the American republic.” American liberals, he writes, saw segregation “as the principle means of imagining slavery’s demise in the early republic”; they were the unlikely forefathers of “Jim Crow.”
Mr. Guyatt, who teaches history at the University of Cambridge, makes many convincing arguments in this book. Part one, “Degradation,” demonstrates that white Americans often considered black Americans and Native Americas to be potential equals—but only in the future. In the present, they were thought inferior because they were hopelessly “degraded”—blacks by the corrupting power of slavery, Indians by exposure to frontier lawlessness.
Many intelligent Americans held these ideas, including Jefferson and Madison, as well as prominent physicians such as Benjamin Rush and David Ramsay. They and many others get attention in Mr. Guyatt’s engaging narrative. His account is so all-embracing that at times it fragments into stories that overlap thematically but do not intersect.
BIND US APART
By Nicholas Guyatt Basic, 403 pages, $29.99
In part two, “Amalgamation,” the author shows that by the 1790s many “enlightened thinkers” expected the imminent end of slavery but did not “embrace interracial unions.” Rejecting intermarriage, though, did not mean no interracial sex. “Free whites and enslaved blacks had engaged in interracial sex since the arrival of slaves in America in the 1620s.” And there were those who rejected the general rule of no intermarriage. Some, like the Kentuckian Richard Mentor Johnson (1780-1850), were open about their “practical amalgamation.” Johnson, a U.S. congressman and the famed killer of Shawnee leader Tecumseh, had a long-term relationship with Julia Chinn, a mulatto slave he had inherited from his father. Their union produced two daughters, Imogene and Adaline. Both girls married white men, causing much public outrage; intermarriage was illegal in Kentucky at that time.
In the book’s final section, “Colonization,” Mr. Guyatt shows how Americans of all descriptions, and even their European visitors and correspondents, came to see separation of the races as the only practical alternative to continued slavery. Segregationists included the anti-slavery English agitator Granville Sharp; the Marquis de Lafayette of France; and Virginia’s elite slaveholders, such as George Washington. Blacks, too, held such views, including several who in 1773 petitioned for their freedom in Massachusetts. That ubiquity might suggest a qualification to the controversial claim of Mr. Guyatt’s subtitle—that “Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation.” Perhaps so, but they were not alone.
Mr. Guyatt’s argument might usefully be qualified in other ways. He shows that racial segregation found some support in the Enlightenment’s “benevolent” concern for the well-being of America’s non-whites. But his account plays down other guiding ideas. Racial segregation often reflected a raw fear of racial mixing and racial warfare, as well as anxieties felt by the liberal and illiberal alike.
Jefferson—complicated as always on issues related to race—captured these tensions with frightening clarity in a description of the “founding dilemma” that Mr. Guyatt quotes but does not sufficiently unpack: “Deep rooted prejudices, entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have received; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, which divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”
For many of Jefferson’s contemporaries, segregation seemed a solution to this predicted cataclysm. But the Enlightenment also spawned ideas about natural rights and a common human nature that, with time, offered more attractive solutions. Many have worked to achieve this inclusivity and are working still.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."