Minella on Guyatt, 'Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation'

Author: 
Nicholas Guyatt
Reviewer: 
Timothy Minella

Nicholas Guyatt. Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation. New York: Basic Books, 2016. 416 pp. $29.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-01841-3.

Reviewed by Timothy Minella (Emory University, Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry) Published on H-Slavery (June, 2017) Commissioned by David M. Prior

According to Nicholas Guyatt, white reformers in the early American republic found themselves caught between disgust for slavery and anxieties about how former slaves would integrate into postemancipation society. Colonizing former slaves and free people of color offered these “enlightened” whites a solution to their dilemma that sidestepped difficult questions about interracial marriage and the possibility of forming a multiracial republic. A similar analysis occurred in discussions about the future of Native Americans. White reformers argued that removing Indians to western territories would enable them to achieve “civilization” apart from the pressures of land-hungry, prejudiced whites. In both of these cases, moderate reformers settled on a segregationist solution that “directed Native Americans and African Americans to vindicate their freedom somewhere else” (p. 13).

Guyatt draws on a variety of sources, including manuscript collections from prominent officials and thinkers, published books and pamphlets, and government records. He develops his narrative in three parts. In part 1, Guyatt shows how white reformers came to the understanding that slavery and contact with “bad” whites had degraded the characters of blacks and Indians. He makes the potentially surprising observation that most educated American whites did not argue for the inherent inferiority of nonwhites. Enlightenment science, the Enlightenment attack on prejudice, and religious principles offered very little support for the racial inferiority of particular groups. Despite this rejection of inherent differences between the races, educated whites believed that enslavement had rendered slaves incapable of succeeding in society following their emancipation. Antislavery thinkers like Samuel Stanhope Smith proposed various schemes of education and moral training to prepare emancipated slaves for freedom. To compound the problem, the gradual abolition of slavery in northern states did not result in racial harmony, as blacks competed with poor whites for jobs in cities. White commentators bemoaned the stubborn prejudice of common whites towards blacks; John Adams, for example, suggested that northern white prejudice against blacks served as a source of degradation even more damaging than slavery itself. White reformers also thought that unenlightened whites, especially settlers in the West, had corrupted the character of Indians by selling them alcohol and inculcating habits of reprehensible idleness. While the degradation narrative denied that nonwhites were inherently inferior to whites, it nonetheless asserted that “slaves and freed people were currently inferior to whites,” a significant barrier to racial equality in the young republic (p. 38).

In part 2, Guyatt reviews another issue that would lead enlightened whites to embrace colonization: the potential for amalgamation of the races. In theory, enlightened Americans who proclaimed human equality should have supported interracial marriage, but a number of cultural obstacles stood in the way. Abigail Adams, for instance, confessed her visceral disgust towards black-white relations in a performance of Othello even as she recognized that her prejudiced reaction lacked a valid justification. With Native Americans, elites such as Thomas Jefferson harbored dreams of white-Indian marriages as the path to peace and prosperity in the West. But the common prejudice against intermarriage frustrated these plans. Guyatt brings up Indian schools as an example of the strong opposition to amalgamation. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) had set up a school for Native Americans and foreign students in Connecticut to instruct them in Christianity and “civilization.” Two Native American students at the school, John Ridge and Elias Boudinot, desired marriages with two local white women, Sarah Northrup and Harriett Gold, respectively. A firestorm of controversy erupted in response to the prospective unions, with howls of protest coming from newspapers and family members of the women. Even the white reformers who supported efforts to “civilize” the Indians disapproved of the marriages because the controversy would endanger funding and support for the ABCFM’s mission. Guyatt’s analysis of amalgamation ends with the fascinating story of Richard Mentor Johnson, a Jacksonian Democrat who lived openly with his slave mistress and secured white husbands for his multiracial daughters. Johnson opened a school for Indians on his property in Kentucky, and he had dreams of ascending to the presidency following his stint as vice president under Martin Van Buren. But this “practical amalgamator” was dogged by criticism of his unusual personal life and a series of embarrassing incidents, including an escape by one of his slaves aided by two of his Indian students. Skeptics of intermarriage pointed to Johnson’s example as proof of the insurmountable obstacles to peaceful integration of the races. Even radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison declined to endorse actual interracial marriage as he argued for the repeal of laws against interracial marriage. In the end, then, enlightened whites yielded to the widespread prejudice against amalgamation and did little to argue for a change in attitudes and practices.

In part 3, Guyatt explains how these nagging concerns surrounding degradation and amalgamation led enlightened whites to adopt colonization as “the deus ex machina of the antislavery cause” (p. 247). He traces the rise of the American Colonization Society and the founding of Liberia. By settling outside the United States, colonization advocates argued, former slaves would have a chance to reverse their degradation away from the crippling effects of lower-class white prejudice. The enthusiasm for colonization even led some proponents to suggest that a successful black colony would convince slaveholders to manumit their slaves; an outlet for former slaves would remove the objection that they could never live in peace with their former masters. Colonizing former slaves would also circumvent uncomfortable questions about intermarriage. In addition to colonization outside the United States, Benjamin Rush and others suggested schemes that would create black-only territories within American borders. Whites concerned about the future of Native Americans conducted a similar analysis. Continual impediments to the US government’s “civilizing” policy, such as white encroachment on Indian lands and the negative effects of alcohol, moved some white reformers to suggest a western Indian colony or potential state closed to white settlement. Although this proposal proved abortive, the discussion of a purely Native territory in Congress demonstrated the attractiveness of racial separation as a policy. Advocates of Indian removal piggybacked on this conviction that Native Americans could only achieve their own flourishing civilization apart from whites. President Andrew Jackson put the removal policy into practice when he forced many of the southeastern tribes to leave their lands and move westward.  

Written in a plain and accessible style, Bind Us Apart makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of race, slavery, and the policy of colonization in the early republic. Guyatt deftly brings together black colonization and Indian removal to demonstrate how both sprung from the conviction “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” (p. 7). In doing so, he demands that we take colonization seriously rather than dismiss it as impractical, as many scholars of slavery and abolition have done. Even though Liberia only saw a very small number of African American immigrants, the discussion about colonization “had detached the cause of antislavery from a commitment to accept black people as citizens, neighbors, family” (p. 11). The enthusiasm for colonization among moderate antislavery whites thus partly explains why states and the federal government failed to sustain a commitment to equal citizenship for black people during Reconstruction. Bind Us Apart will certainly find its place in upper-level courses on slavery and abolition. I was disappointed, however, that in a book with “enlightened” in its subtitle, the index lacks entries for “Enlightenment” and “science,” even though Guyatt has interesting thoughts on these subjects.

My criticism of Bind Us Apart probably asks too much of what is already an impressively detailed book. In the introduction, Guyatt styles the book as a “prehistory of ‘separate but equal’” (p. 1). Racial segregation, he correctly asserts, took place throughout the entire country after the Civil War, not just in the South. Guyatt contends that the origins of this legal and extralegal segregation lie in the early years of the republic, making “separate but equal” a “founding principle of the United States” (p. 12). He suggests that with the end of Reconstruction, “a new version of ‘separate but equal’ succeeded its liberal predecessor” (p. 330). This statement left me craving an explanation for how exactly segregation in the post-Reconstruction period built upon or rebelled against the liberal, segregationist colonization of the early republic. Guyatt does not say much about this transformation beyond noting that “the nation has always incubated a form of racial ‘improvement’ that sees space as a solution to the problem of race” (pp. 11-12). There seems to be an essential difference, however, between a policy of moving nonwhites out of the country (ostensibly to distance them from white prejudice) and a policy that leaves nonwhites where they are but forces them into separate institutions and facilities. But tracing this transformation would require a much larger book, and Guyatt has ably accomplished his task of elucidating the dilemmas that led white reformers to embrace colonization in the early republic. 

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Citation: Timothy Minella. Review of Guyatt, Nicholas, Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation. H-Slavery, H-Net Reviews. June, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=49894

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