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When All Men Were Created Separate, But Equal

After the revolution, former slaves and native populations were forced to segregate from the new Republic.

Gilder Lerman Institute

Racial segregation, we are often told, has its roots in the Jim Crow South. After the Civil War, victorious northerners attempted to integrate a society that for centuries had been defined by slavery. In no time, white southerners overthrew the federal government’s Reconstruction-era policies, enacting a slew of local segregation laws in their place. The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision sanctioned these “separate but equal” laws, and if northern liberals bore any responsibility, it was in so easily accepting them. 

If only history were so simple. In his brilliant and provocative new book, Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation, Cambridge historian Nicholas Guyatt demonstrates that the roots of “separate but equal” reach much further back than Reconstruction America—they were present at the nation’s founding. The logic of segregation, he argues, was in large part created by antislavery, enlightenment-era white liberals in the north and the south during the first decades of the Republic. During this period, the nation’s most learned, liberal minds—including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, as well as equally progressive next generation figures such as John Quincy Adams—embraced segregationist policies based on Enlightenment ideals. 

Basic Books, 419 pp., $29

Central to these policies was the notion that all human races shared a common origin. The Enlightenment’s leading scientific thinkers had, during the latter eighteenth century, begun to lay they foundations for modern notions of race. Few had a larger influence than the French natural philosopher the Comte de Buffon, perhaps the most revered naturalist before Charles Darwin. Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, Buffon argued that all human beings were part of the same species and that any physical differences that emerged were the result of the natural environment and social circumstances. Hot climates could explain darker skin colors, for instance, and social structures—like forms of government and systems of labor, including slavery—might lead certain groups to become “degraded.” 

Even when other Enlightenment naturalists, like the creator of the modern taxonomic system, Carl Linneaus, began to place these groups into different racial categories, almost no serious thinker questioned whether all groups were part of the same species. In true Enlightenment fashion, they insisted that any perceived racial deficiencies could be overcome, mainly through a change in the natural environment and an improvement in social conditions. Drawing upon these principles, enlightened white Americans could argue that if blacks appeared less intelligent or more morally depraved than whites—a point nearly all of them conceded—it was largely the result of slavery. Deprived of the rudiments of civilization—education, Christianity, freedom—blacks became “degraded into a perpetual bondage,” as Franklin wrote in 1790. Give blacks freedom, educate and convert them, the thinking went, and all their alleged deficiencies would disappear. 

Slaveholders and settlers who suggested otherwise, that African and Native Americans were innately inferior or irreversibly degraded, risked the opprobrium of the leading liberal minds. And yet, Guyatt argues, it was the liberal-minded founders, not their less enlightened adversaries, who laid the foundation for the “separate but equal” mindset. He sees the ideology’s origins not in the late-nineteenth century’s Jim Crow laws, but in their largely forgotten early-nineteenth century equivalents: the attempts to recolonize freed slaves back to Africa and to resettle Native Americans along the western frontier. 

Liberal leaders hatched both ideas in the 1780s, and the following generation of progressive minds began putting them into action in the 1820s. Guyatt stresses that black colonization and native resettlement were resolutely not based on the presumption of African and Native Americans’ innate inferiority, but on the idea that if both groups were removed from the “degrading” effects of white society, they could realize their full potential. In the end, he writes, colonization and resettlement provided a “life raft for liberal whites, who were caught between the unambiguous promises of 1776”—that is, the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men were created equal”—“and the practical difficulties of creating a mixed-race republic.” 

The histories of African American colonization and native resettlement tend to be treated as footnotes to early American history. But Guyatt uncovers their surprising purchase among America’s most prominent leaders, all the way up to Abraham Lincoln, despite the policies themselves being practical failures. Rarely are colonization and resettlement studied together, however, and rarely are they cast as anything but duplicitous ploys concocted by racist whites utterly opposed to either group’s equality. But at the turn of the nineteenth century, it was enlightened white liberals who largely pushed the idea of black colonization and native resettlement, and that they did so out of a genuine belief that African and Native Americans could become the equal of whites.

The idea of colonizing freed slaves voluntarily, either by returning them to Africa or resettling them on the western frontier, emerged simultaneously with the antislavery movement in the 1780s. Thomas Jefferson understood the conundrum faced by reform-minded slaveholders, as he was himself at once intellectually opposed to slavery yet fearful of emancipation’s consequences: “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” In subsequent decades he was joined by a raft of less contentious leaders who history has tended to treat as benighted, benevolent souls. Edward Coles, a young, idealistic Virginian who had served as secretary to President James Madison, moved to the Illinois Territory in 1819, freeing his 18 slaves when he arrived, but when white residents filed a lawsuit against him for doing so, he quickly became a champion of colonization. Coles told his former slaves, who refused to emigrate, that their hard work “confirm[ed] my opinions of the unity and equality of man.” Yet he continued, until his death in 1868, to be an outspoken leader of the colonization movement, which had established Liberia as a colony for freed slaves in 1821. Abraham Lincoln greatly admired Coles, meeting with him in 1861, and, in his famous debates against Stephen Douglas three years earlier, had said that he preferred to “free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia.” Free black leaders themselves entertained the idea until the mid-1810s, when they realized that few blacks were interested. But white antislavery leaders continued to push voluntary colonization as a way to appease slaveholders, who insisted that freeing their slaves without resettling them would invite a race war.

Meanwhile, northern states struggled to integrate their small free black populations freed during the revolution—by 1804 all of them had emancipation laws on the books. Yet while they congratulated themselves on their benevolence, the northern states were also among the first to segregate whites from blacks. Massachusetts made interracial marriage illegal in 1786; Pennsylvania, home to the early republic’s largest free black community, technically allowed black citizenship, but de facto discrimination effectively barred them from participating in its central rights: owning property, serving on juries, and voting. Nationally, Guyatt explains, the federal government tended “to either restrict black rights or to fudge the question of citizenship.”

In this context, colonization went from being a marginal idea in the 1780s to a central plank of the white antislavery platform in the 1820s. In 1816, national antislavery leaders formed the exclusively white American Colonization Society in an effort to answer the question that befuddled northerners as much southerners: What to do with blacks after slavery? Perhaps most provocatively, Guyatt argues that even the more radical white antislavery leaders that emerged in the 1830s provided fodder for colonization by expressing their revulsion at intermarriage, then called amalgamation. Though radical antislavery leaders largely rejected colonization, in publicly voicing their disdain for intermarriage, they proved that even they were unwilling to accept one possible consequence of emancipation. In 1833, Lydia Maria Child, an early member of William Lloyd Garrison’s new radical movement, denounced slaveholders’ argument that they were in effect endorsing intermarriage: Such a claim was “perfectly ridiculous and unfounded,” she wrote. “No abolitionist considers such a thing desirable.”

Guyatt can at times overstate his case. He shows, after all, that Garrison and his allies worked hard, and successfully, to overturn Massachusetts’s anti-amalgamation law in 1843. Guyatt dismisses this effort as “symbolic,” arguing that radical antislavery leaders saw the law as a “legal embarrassment” rather than an indication of their approval of interracial marriage. Perhaps, but he tends to equate disapproval of intermarriage with disapproval of an interracial society, which is a questionable assumption. Moreover, Guyatt underplays the extent to which racial prejudice guided British antislavery opinion, suggesting that the “separate but equal” mindset had uniquely American origins. Yet, as Guyatt notes, Sierra Leone, the British antislavery colony established in 1787, provided the template for Liberia. He argues that British abolitionists justified Sierra Leone’s creation mainly in economic terms, to prove that a free labor African colony could be as profitable as slave-based Caribbean ones. While technically true, this overshadows the way Sierra Leone also served to mask British society’s inability to integrate its own free black population. To argue that racial integration was as much a problem for Britain as it was for the United States is not to discount the depths of America’s racial divide; it is to gesture toward the magnitude of the problem.

Many of the same white liberals who backed colonization promoted Native American removal. Jedidiah Morse, a Connecticut missionary who recruited African Americans to resettle in Sierra Leone in 1815, could be found four years later lobbying Congress to set up a western territory for Native Americans. Like most early liberal advocates of resettlement, Morse believed that providing natives with a separate territory would save them from the negative influences of white society: for too long, he argued, land-hungry settlers did nothing but provoke violence on the frontier, plying natives with guns and liquor rather than, as originally hoped, teaching them the benefits of “civilization.”  

One main difference distinguishing native resettlement from black colonization, Guyatt argues, was that white liberals originally embraced intermarriage between natives and whites. Beginning in the 1790s, federal officials promoted native-white intermarriages as a means to civilize natives, ease westward expansion, and ultimately absorb natives into the new nation. Again, it was Jefferson who best articulated this hope: In 1808, he told a delegation of Delaware and Mohican leaders visiting Washington: “You will mix with us by marriage, your blood run in our veins, and will spread with us over this great island.”

But Native Americans were no less skeptical of liberal reform efforts than African Americans. As a result, earlier plans for native integration gave way to a full-on push for resettlement, especially after the War of 1812. During the war, Ohio Valley nations, led by the Shawnee leader Tecumseh, allied with the British in an attempt to stave off further westward expansion. When U.S. forces killed Tecumseh in 1813, the dream of integration died with him, and white reformers began to see resettlement as the only way to prevent their further annihilation. Reformers like Morse genuinely believed that voluntarily resettling eastern nations in a separate western territory would pave the way for both their survival and, as he wrote in an influential 1822 report, the “enjoyment of the privileges of citizens.” But when the Cherokees, among the largest remaining nations east of the Mississippi, refused to voluntarily resettle, less enlightened officials turned to force. By 1838, the Andrew Jackson’s successor Martin Van Buren had ordered the military to expel 10,000 Cherokees from the southeast in what became known as the Trail of Tears.

The differences between native removal and black colonization have tended to obscure their deeper congruities. Guyatt poignantly captures the parallels not only by showing that many liberal advocates of native resettlement also endorsed black colonization, but also by teasing out the subtler dynamics unifying both histories. Both these liberal efforts failed in large part because they denied Native and African Americans any say in their own future, and instead strove to appease a wary white majority. When many whites proved unwilling to fully accept either group, liberal reformers could blame the problem of integration on less enlightened whites, using a “separate but equal” justification to obscure their own unexamined prejudices.

After all, Guyatt reminds us that liberal reformers accepted that African and Native Americans were “currently inferior to whites.” Still, they insisted that their inferiority was reversible and did so to counter more blatant racist ideas premised on innate inferiority and used to justify the enslavement of blacks and violence against natives. To ignore the differences between enlightened white racial ideas and the balder bigotries they tried to defeat is to ignore the depth and breadth of our troubled racial history. Our racial divides persist today in part because we have left unchecked a version of our history that traces the origins of our racism to either the bigotry of white southerners or the baser instincts of crude white settlers. By demonstrating that segregationist ideas began at the founding, were sanctioned by well-intentioned white liberals, and had spread across the nation, Guyatt has written a remarkable history that matches the gravity of the problem.