How liberals invented segregation: The real history of race, equality and our Founding Fathers

Even for reform-minded Founding Fathers, "separate but equal" was more important than "all men are created equal"

Published April 24, 2016 9:58AM (EDT)

Cover detail of "Bind Us Apart"   (Basic Books)
Cover detail of "Bind Us Apart" (Basic Books)

Excerpted from "Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation"

Edward Coles had a lot on his mind. In July 1814 he was private secretary to James Madison and spent his days managing the president’s business at a time of war. The United States had been fighting Britain and its Native American allies for nearly three years. Coles and Madison would be forced to flee the White House just a few weeks later, when British troops invaded and razed Washington. Coles still made time during that anxious month to write to Thomas Jefferson about the nation’s founding dilemma. “I never took up my pen with more hesitation, or felt more embarrassment than I now do in addressing you on the subject of this letter,” wrote Coles. But given the leisure now afforded by his well-deserved retirement, might Jefferson be able to devise “some plan for the gradual emancipation of slavery?”

Coles was twenty-seven years old. He came from a wealthy Virginia family, and had inherited twenty slaves from his father in 1808. The year before, as a student at the College of William and Mary, he had decided that he “would not and could not hold my fellow man as a slave.” The insight came to him in class one day, when he was listening to the president of the college “lecturing and explaining the rights of man.” Coles asked his professor (“in the simplicity of youth”) how it was possible to reconcile human rights and the equality of mankind with slaveholding. “I can never forget his peculiarly embarrassed manner,” Coles later recalled. “He frankly admitted it could not rightfully be done, and that slavery was a state of things that could not be justified on principle.” The only excuse for failing to end slavery was “the difficulty of getting rid of it,” his professor suggested. Coles continued to harass him when the class was over, insisting that the practical problems of emancipation were no excuse for apathy or inaction. In 1814, he was making the same point to Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson had been retired for five years at Monticello. He spent his days reading, entertaining, and corresponding with an extraordinary range of people. Sally Hemings, with whom he had been in a sexual relationship for more than a quarter of a century, was living in the servants’ quarters in the south wing. Four of Hemings’s six children had survived past infancy and were still on the mountain. (All enslaved, like their mother.) Jefferson was sixty-seven years old. He had criticized the institution of slavery since his time in the Virginia governor’s mansion in the 1770s, and as president of the United States he’d signed the bill that ended American participation in the international slave trade. And yet the nation’s slave population was still creeping upward. Edward Coles badgered anyone who would listen on this topic. When he and James Madison strolled through the nation’s capital and encountered “gangs of negroes, some in irons,” Coles upbraided the president for doing nothing to secure “the rights of man.” But Coles felt that Jefferson had a special responsibility to lead the nation’s struggle against slavery. He was, after all, the “immortal author” of “all men are created equal,” the nation’s founding creed. The time had arrived “to put into complete practice those hallowed principles contained in that renowned Declaration.”

In his reply, Jefferson conceded that “the love of justice and the love of country plead equally the cause of these people.” But what would happen to them (and their white neighbors) if slaves were suddenly set free? For decades, Jefferson’s anxieties about integration had weakened his antislavery convictions. Coles had his own solution: he would take his freed slaves to the western states and forge a new life with them there. Jefferson was alarmed by this plan to “abandon” them in the midst of white people. He urged a different solution: slaves should be freed gradually and on condition that they leave the United States. Coles should temper his radicalism until he found a way to reconcile “all men are created equal” with the need for racial separation. The former president would offer his best hopes to this effort, but no more. “I have overlived the generation with which mutual labors and perils begat mutual confidence and influence.” Antislavery, Jefferson declared, was an “enterprise for the young.”

Coles was unimpressed. He wrote again, rejecting Jefferson’s view that “the difficult work of cleansing the escutcheon of Virginia” should fall solely upon young men like himself. Elder statesmen were, in fact, “the only persons who have it in their power effectually to arouse and enlighten the public sentiment.” Hadn’t Benjamin Franklin become a convert to emancipation “after he had passed your age?” Coles dismissed Jefferson’s suggestion that his slaves would benefit more from a kindly master than from a liberator, or that their survival depended upon their exile from the United States. When he had completed his work for Madison, he vowed, he would take his slaves out of Virginia, free them, and live alongside them in “the country northwest of the River Ohio.” That letter went into a drawer at Monticello and remained unanswered. It would be another five years before the impetuous Edward Coles made good on his promise.

While Coles may have been an outlier, his correspondence with Jefferson reveals a broader truth about the evolution of slavery in America. Even slaveholders were aware of a contradiction between the nation’s founding principles and the practice of holding human beings in bondage. Abolition, the most obvious way to resolve that contradiction, would convert slaves into citizens at a stroke. But the vast majority of white Americans were nervous about what freed people might do next. Slavery had denied African Americans an education and an opportunity to better themselves, and it had given them ample reason to resent the people who had benefited from their bondage. These anxieties crowded the minds of slaveholders and reformers alike and encouraged a third way of thinking: if slavery was immoral and multiracial citizenship was beset with difficulties, perhaps black people could be freed and resettled away from whites. This plan was usually known as “colonization,” and Jefferson was one of the first people in North America to endorse it. In the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War, the idea that the races might be separated became a mainstay of the movement against slavery in North and South alike. It was promoted by reformers across the country, but was especially popular in the northern states. St. George Tucker, perhaps the most influential legal mind in the South, wrote a long colonization proposal in 1796 and presented it to the Virginia assembly. In 1816, a group of politicians, clergymen, and antislavery activists from across the United States founded the American Colonization Society (ACS), a charity to encourage the resettlement of African Americans in West Africa. In 1821, the society founded its own settlement, Liberia, with the support of President James Monroe. In 1833, James Madison, the last of the Founding Fathers, assumed the presidency of the ACS. Racial separation had become the most popular means of imagining a world after slavery.

Its appeal hardly faded in the decades before the Civil War, even as the slave population climbed inexorably. Henry Clay of Kentucky, perhaps the most influential nineteenth-century politician never to occupy the White House, succeeded James Madison to the presidency of the Colonization Society instead. Daniel Webster, the great Massachusetts statesman who had helped to found the ACS in 1816, lobbied for federal assistance to the society in the 1850s. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in the final pages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, dispatched her hero George Harris to Liberia. And Abraham Lincoln, in the first years of his presidency, did more to secure government support for black emigration than any politician since James Monroe. When he addressed a group of free blacks in Washington in the summer of 1862, with the war’s outcome uncertain, Lincoln insisted that they had a duty to leave the country and build a separate nation for African Americans. “You may believe you can live in Washington or elsewhere in the United States,” he told them. “This is (I speak in no unkind sense) an extremely selfish view of the case.”

If so many of the most iconic figures in American life before 1865 were committed to the idea of colonization, why has it played such a muted role in our stories of slavery, abolition, and citizenship? For many historians, the idea that the entire black population of the United States could be resettled beyond the nation’s borders seems outlandish. Between the American Revolution and the Civil War, perhaps 20,000 African Americans left for Africa or the Caribbean. The black population remaining in America increased across the same period by around 3.5 million. Given the negligible number of black emigrants before 1863, and the transcendent achievement of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, historians have often consigned colonization to a footnote in America’s struggle against slavery.

In fact, racial separation 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. For much of the nineteenth century, the most respectable way to express one’s loathing for slavery was to endorse the logic of colonization. Free blacks came to see this logic as the biggest threat to their future in the United States. In 1829, the Boston-based writer David Walker, in his Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, warned his fellow blacks to resist the “colonizing trick” and stand firm against the offer to relocate to Africa. “This country is as much ours as it is the whites’,” he wrote. “Whether they will admit it now or not, they will see and believe it by and by.” Although Walker’s ideas broke through to a small group of white radicals—most notably to the Boston reformer William Lloyd Garrison, who had previously supported the Colonization Society—the mainstream of public opinion in both the North and the Upper South remained firmly committed to colonization. The radical abolitionists who clustered around Garrison and his newspaper, The Liberator, were a tiny minority in the three decades before the Civil War. Most critics of slavery believed that the only way to break its grip on America was to move black people somewhere else.

The story of black colonization has played a peripheral role in our understanding of the struggle against slavery. It has almost never featured in our analysis of another pivotal episode in nineteenth-century American history: the removal of Native Americans. In the earliest years of the republic, successive presidents committed themselves to a policy of “civilizing” the Indian nations living east of the Mississippi River. Federal officials, missionaries, and reformers promoted the idea that Native Americans could be incorporated into the United States: white settlers on the frontier would live alongside Indians and eventually intermarry with them, producing a single people in the West. After the War of 1812, and the suppression of a massive Native uprising led by the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh, the rhetoric of politicians and reformers changed. The anticipated marriage (figurative and literal) between Indians and white settlers had failed to materialize. As western settlers continued to disrupt Native communities with alcohol, land seizures, and violence, eastern reformers concluded that the original “civilizing” model was doing more harm than good. In 1824, President James Monroe told Congress that Indian nations should move west of the Mississippi, where the federal government might more easily manage their journey toward “civilization.” The same policy was adopted by the administration of John Quincy Adams in 1826 and enthusiastically endorsed by Andrew Jackson through the passage of the Removal Act of 1830.

The parallels between black colonization and Indian removal are striking. Both came to dominate the national conversation in the two decades following the War of 1812. Both were premised on the idea that contact between non-whites and whites tended to “degrade” the former, preventing them from achieving their natural potential and making equal citizenship all but impossible. Both promised a happier future for non-whites beyond the borders of the United States in self-governing and prosperous offshoots of the American republic. Crucially, both were couched in terms of benevolence. Missionaries and religious reformers took the lead, anchoring their good intentions with a simple promise: colonization should be voluntary. When African Americans and Native Americans expressed wariness or outright opposition, the white architects of colonization insisted that blacks and Indians would eventually realize the benefits of resettlement and willingly leave the United States.

Most high school history students know that things didn’t turn out this way. Andrew Jackson was so determined to remove Native peoples from the southeastern states that he abandoned the pretense of consent, exchanging colonization for expulsion. The Trail of Tears in 1838–1839, when thousands of Cherokees were forcibly marched by the US Army across a thousand miles to Oklahoma, has become our most enduring image of Indian removal. But this profoundly illiberal outcome took root in the same soil that had nourished black colonization: the insistence that racial segregation was a benevolent and far-sighted measure that would allow non-white people to thrive. If we place these efforts to resettle black people and Indians in a single frame, 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.

In accounting for these removal initiatives, it’s tempting to conclude that the early United States was a blindly racist society, worlds apart from the refined morality of today. This is, I think, a mistaken assumption. One of the arguments of this book is that educated Americans in the early republic found it far harder to be outright racists than we usually imagine. When they consulted the authorities of scripture or science, early Americans couldn’t easily conclude that non-white people were different from or permanently inferior to themselves. Colonization proposals were crafted by intellectuals, reformers, and politicians—men (and occasionally women) who saw themselves as “liberal” in their sentiments. To be liberal in the early United States involved specific beliefs and actions: it meant that you embraced the rational thought of the Enlightenment, that you manifested a Christian benevolence to others, and, most importantly, that you were determined to reject the temptations of “prejudice.” With few exceptions, the architects of racial separation in the early republic emphatically denied that blacks or Indians were permanently inferior to whites. Instead, they spoke of their duty to help non-white people complete their journey toward “civilized” status.

Liberal whites in the early United States faced two distinct challenges that set them apart from European reformers. First, the American republic encompassed very large numbers of non-white people. In the 1780s, when reformers William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson launched their celebrated assault on slavery in the British Empire, they could promote abolition without owning its social consequences. The British sugar islands of the Caribbean were overwhelmingly populated by black slaves who were ruled by a tiny white minority. Emancipation there would produce a black society, and would likely displace the tiny knot of white planters who had ruled those islands with the lash. In the United States, the demography of slavery was very different. In 1800, black people made up just a fraction of the population in New England, and were a small but significant minority in New York and Pennsylvania. But in Virginia, home to the greatest number of slaves in the Union from the Revolution to the Civil War, blacks were nearly 40 percent of the total population. Farther south, the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia had a black majority, and looked more like the Caribbean than New England. When we factor in the significant numbers of Native Americans who lived east of the Mississippi—perhaps 200,000 at the opening of the nineteenth century, with twice that number living in areas that would later become part of the United States—we can see that the challenge of integrating non-white people in the American republic was enormous. The abolition of slavery and the extension of “civilization” to Native American nations would create a genuinely multiracial republic. Reformers would need to acknowledge this reality as they plotted their strategies for freeing slaves or incorporating Indians.

The second challenge was more abstract, but no less profound. In 1776, the United States declared independence from Britain with a devastatingly simple phrase: “All men are created equal.” While Thomas Jefferson may not have originally intended those words to encompass non-white people, they had leaked into the struggle for black and Indian rights long before Edward Coles threw them at their author in 1814. In Massachusetts, enslaved people drew upon the state constitution’s claim that “all men are born free and equal” to demand their freedom. The state’s judges found in their favor in 1783, and slavery in Massachusetts was outlawed. Over the following decades, anti-slavery societies founded by black and white activists employed the Declaration’s most sonorous line relentlessly. “That a people who have declared ‘that all men are by nature equally free and independent,’” wrote the Virginia judge St. George Tucker in 1796, “should in defiance of so sacred a truth . . . tolerate a practice incompatible therewith, is such an evidence of the weakness and inconsistency of human nature, as every man who hath a spark of patriotic fire in his bosom must wish to see removed from his own country.” While the Spanish and the British had organized their colonial possessions around hierarchies of wealth or title, the new United States had declared itself a horizontal society. But this meant that the end of slavery or the incorporation of Native Americans would commit the new republic to becoming something without precedent in the modern world: a multiracial society dedicated to equal rights and potential.

Excerpted from "Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation" by Nicholas Guyatt. Published by Basic Books. Copyright © 2016 by Nicholas Guyatt. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Nicholas Guyatt

Nicholas Guyatt is a university lecturer in history at the University of Cambridge. He is a regular contributor to the Nation, London Review of Books, and Guardian. Guyatt lives in Cambridge, England.

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