U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Interview with Nicholas Guyatt Author of Bind Us Apart

It seems appropriate to end the series of posts (1,2,3) about the intellectual history of race on the 4th of July with an interview with Nicholas Guyatt, author of Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation. This is an intellectual history arguing that the same enlightened logic that gave us the “self evident truths” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and commemorated on this day underscored the logic of segregation. Fittingly, Guyatt casts his study in his introduction as the “prehistory of ‘separate but equal.'”

Aside from Bind Us Apart, Guyatt is the author of four books, including Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607-1876. Guyatt teaches American history at Cambridge.

Since I have been casting this series of interviews as examining an upswing in the intellectual history of race, I thought to start by asking you where you see the state of the field and how does your recent book Bind us Apart figure in it?

(Channeling Presidential voice) I think the state of the field is strong! There’s always been a lot of high-quality work on race in the early United States, but there have been a few things that have cramped either the scholarship or the audience or both. One is the tendency of historians to write about African Americans and Native Americans in separate spaces, meaning that we have an historiography of ‘race’ that’s mostly about the former. That’s not always true—John Wood Sweet’s Bodies Politic is a good exception—but it’s definitely the case that scholars have struggled to integrate African Americans and Native Americans in a single frame, in writing the history of racial thinking. Another problem has been a tendency to assume that the story of race in North America is partly about the moment when ‘hard’ racism took center stage, as if we’re charting the “triumph of race” and then presenting this as the explanation for the massive expansion of slavery, for Indian removal, or whatever. And yet another problem has been the incredible gravitational field of work on slavery and abolition. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a huge amount of amazing work on slavery and abolition. But, like a black hole, it tends to suck everything towards it and perhaps also to distort findings that don’t entirely add up. One very obvious example: the willingness of many slaveholders in the early U.S. to accept the underlying facts of “all men are created equal”, and to see slavery not as a biologically necessary social condition but as an unfortunate legacy of the colonial era or a social problem to be managed against the challenges of abolition. Another example: antislavery activists who don’t want to live alongside black people in freedom. I’m not for a moment saying that all slaveholders were racial universalists or that all antislavery figures were racists; but I would argue that racial thinking was a good deal more fluid (and a good deal less reliable) than an older literature suggested. And that what’s really cool about more recent work is that it opens up some of these questions in interesting ways.

What I really appreciated about your book and others in this recent scholarship of race is that you don’t only offer findings, you also go out on a limb and suggest far reaching conclusions. Could you share with us how you came to draw broader conclusions about segregation and what you call the “prehistory of separate but equal.”

That’s easy. I think the that early United States doesn’t just have a slavery problem; it has an integration problem. In some ways, especially before the rise of the cotton complex in the decades after 1815, the integration problem is an even bigger drag on white plans to abolish slavery than the underlying economic logic of human exploitation. But the integration problem often gets lost because either (a) we automatically assume that integration was off the table, because of the triumph of ‘hard’ racism or whatever; or (b) we assume that the American story is basically reducible to a simple insight: white Americans wanted Indian land and black labor. Again, don’t get me wrong: it would be crass and wrong to deny that the land/labor grab is a basic fact of American history. But I think it’s also wrong to assume that that equation sat outside of history, and was equally applicable in all moments of American development. For me, the early United States is fascinating because it was a moment at which the logic of stealing labor and stealing land was powerfully countermanded by a number of currents: intellectual, social, even economic. In that moment, an ascendant logic of enlightened ‘benevolence’ looked both slavery and Native dispossession in the eye, and lavishly declared that both were wrong. But ultimately the ‘enlightened’ Americans of my book determined that the price of integration was too high, and they suggested schemes for segregation instead. When people of color rejected those, white people, African Americans and Native Americans were at an impasse; which was broken by a resurgence of the land/labor logic in the late 1820s and 1830s.

To insist that plans for “benevolent” segregation before 1830 were irrelevant because of what happened after 1830 seems reductive to me: we should understand the period from 1776-1830 on its own terms. The Founders deserve a ton of criticism, for sure, but as historians it doesn’t help us to assume that the grammar of race in the United States was always the same.

Are there any costs to casting the history of racial attitudes towards black people and Native peoples together in this way? Did you get any pushback from scholars who specialize in either one of these subjects?

I got a very funny rejection from one swanky university press editor who told me (indirectly) that the stories of Native Americans and African Americans were simply too different to place in the same frame. To be fair to that guy, you can’t deny that there are real distinctions between the two racial groups, even as scholarship in the past decade or two has shown us how (especially in the Southeast) they were deeply entangled in the late 18th/early 19th century. But Bind Us Apart is principally a history of how ‘enlightened’ white people—intellectuals, politicians, writers, reformers, clergy, government officials—understood what you might call the problem of diversity in an era of “all men are created equal”. One of the things the book tries to argue is that the improving gaze of white people in this era saw black people and Native Americans in very similar ways. So one can be an historian of that convergence of the white gaze without actually replicating it, I think. In fact, it’s crucial to see the overlaps between ‘enlightened’ white thinking about universalism/racial potential, degradation, colonisation, etc. It really isn’t a coincidence that reformers thought about using segregation as a means to tackle the ‘race problem’ for both black people and Indians during exactly the same moment of American history. So if that’s the focus of your book, I think it’s not unreasonable to put the two groups together. And it doesn’t prevent you from seeing the many ways in which the comparison/compression of black and Indian experience was doomed to failure, just in terms of the deficiencies of cultural knowledge manifested by my reformers and intellectuals.

I should say, though, that scholars these days are very supportive of putting African Americans and Native Americans together, either in connective or comparative histories. Rob Parkinson’s Common Cause is a great example—he integrates white anxieties about both Native and black people at every level of his book. I guess we still have to confront the fact that the principal race narrative in U.S. history is an African American/slavery/Jim Crow/civil rights narrative, rather than a more complicated story that incorporates Native Americans. That’s especially true for the twentieth century, as Margaret Jacobs has argued; but even for the 19th century, there’s a tendency in survey courses and general histories for Native Americans to disappear from the story after Jacksonian removal. That’s one reason I was so keen to present Jackson not as the avenging arm of the slave power, but as the guy who actually implemented ideas about ‘grand apartheid’ (to use a term from the South African context) that had been devised and refined by James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, among others.

Your book suggests a change in the tone of discussions in the early U.S. about race around the War of 1812, could you draw out what that change was about and maybe even venture a few words about why it happened then?

The War of 1812 was a game changer for Native peoples. As Adam Jortner and others have shown, it ended a wave of Native resistance that had challenged American supremacy north of the Ohio River since the 1780s. In turn, that produced a massive uptick in white settlement to Michigan, Ohio, Indiana etc., which meant that plans for ‘civilizing’ Indians were embarrassed by the reality of white expansion. That was the moment in which reformers like Isaac McCoy and Thomas McKenney, who would become the great insider-architects of Indian removal in the 1820s, began to speculate that a mass movement of Native people to the land west of the Mississippi would provide the federal government with a laboratory in which to ‘civilize’ without the distraction and challenge of white settlement.

For advocates of black colonization—principally liberal white reformers—the War of 1812 was the pivot towards a vision of black resettlement which had been glimpsed by white antislavery thinkers since the 1780s. (James Madison, the Marquis de Lafayette, St. George Tucker, William Thornton – all of these guys talked about colonization before 1800.) Paul Cuffe’s voyages to Sierra Leone were part of this mid-1810s pivot towards a fuller embrace of colonization; also the founding of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1816. The war may have shaken some of Virginia’s slaveholders into agitating for a more proactive scheme for emancipation—Alan Taylor’s Internal Enemy is good on this—but the founding of the ACS in 1816 wasn’t just a southern story. It was also about ‘liberal’ reformers in Massachusetts and New Jersey and Pennsylvania concluding that black-white integration in the big cities of the seaboard wasn’t working. The fifteen or twenty years after the War of 1812 were the high water moment for ‘benevolent’ segregation schemes: these were the years in which most white racial ‘moderates’ in the North and upper South argued that physical separation would be the prerequisite to solving the problem of non-white persistence on the American continent. The war created the conditions for the Native component of that story, especially in the Old Northwest; its outcome allowed for supporters of black colonization to envisage a new alliance with Britain in the case of creating black colonies in West Africa.

I should say that the 1810s are a really interesting moment, I think: the first flush of reforming zeal/optimism after the Revolution about the possibility of various racial ‘uplift’ schemes has now passed in the North and the upper South; but the brutal logics of industrial cotton production and mass Native dispossession/expulsion are still in the future. For younger scholars of racial thought/practice who are looking for a decade to mine more deeply, I’d humbly suggest that the 1810s are worth more scrutiny than they’ve received to date.

Bind us Apart casts many well-meaning “liberal” thinkers as complicit in Indian removal and more broadly in coming up with the intellectual rationale for segregation. Could you explain what exactly you mean by liberal? Do you see your book as part of a broader critique of liberalism, or maybe the enlightenment?

Yup, one of the things that bugs people about my book is my use of “liberal”, which I think makes today’s liberals think that I’m about to go Sean Hannity on them. In fact, the word is all over the sources on racial thinking in the late 18th/early 19th century—though usually as an adjective rather than a noun. “Liberal” thinking or “liberal” proposals were tied to liberality—a notion that most of us don’t really have in our current vocabularies of public sentiment. I would give a shout out here to Jason Opal, who wrote a great article back in 2008 in the JAH on liberality that really helped to crystallize my thinking. Liberal thinkers were those who took “an elevated moral position”, to quote from Jason quoting from Philip Hamburger. To keep borrowing from that article: “Liberality drew the religious, social, and economic aspirations of the Enlightenment into a devastating critique of local ‘prejudice’.” All of this helped me to make sense of the ubiquity of “liberal” in my sources. It was proudly used to describe schemes and ideas that were  consistent with the precepts and methods of the Enlightenment; that were suffused with Christian benevolence; and which were free from “prejudice”, another late 18th century word that we don’t always recognize as a term from the Founding era.

This version of “liberal” isn’t an economic, mid-19th century, John Stuart Mill conception of liberalism; or a late 17th/early 18th century Lockean liberalism, of the kind that used to structure many intellectual histories of the Founding. Instead, it’s rooted in the idea of benevolent rationality and “elevated morality”, to quote from Hamburger again. And it’s about the discarding of prejudices, which is why my “liberal” reformers hated the suggestion that they were racists. They knew that universalism, not racism, was the dominant legacy of the Enlightenment, and that decrying people simply because of the color of their skin reflected prejudice rather than an “elevated morality.” But some of them were also candid about their own difficulties in putting into practice what they knew to be right. When the Kentucky preacher David Rice argued in 1792 that racial mixing would probably be the consequence of abolishing slavery, he acknowledged that this went against the “prejudices of education” and against his personal racial hangups: “I acknowledge that my own pride remonstrates against it,” he said; but, crucially, he insisted that his pride “does not influence my judgement, nor affect my conscience.” Rice was an outlier in his moment: most of the Founders weren’t able to follow the logic of equality into an endorsement of racial amalgamation. But it’s crucial to realize that they were haunted by this logic, and cramped by the knowledge that simply declaring that you didn’t want your daughter to marry a person of color was to follow the dictates of prejudice rather than reason. Hence their growing fondness for racial separation schemes, which could honor their liberal sentiments against slavery or Native genocide without actually committing them to live alongside people of color.

The “liberal reformers” of my book were managing a set of ideas, ambitions and anxieties that were much more interesting—perhaps even more contemporary—than we might assume if we think that they were simple racists. That’s not to exonerate them in the slightest; perhaps it’s far worse that so many of them acknowledged that racism was wrong, then ended up accepting or promoting outcomes (like continental-scale racial separation) that were functionally racist.

All I would say, and this isn’t to leaven things at all, is that these reformers—drawn from the North and the upper South—were facing an integration challenge on a scale that hadn’t previously been seen in human history. They were also hamstrung by the fact that their ideas about universalism were deeply Eurocentric. A bit like Buffon, the French naturalist who helped to enshrine universalism and adaptability as essential characteristics of human difference in the 1750s, they had an idea that white people were at the apex of human development. To reject the belief that black people or Indians are permanently inferior to whites is a step in the right direction; but if you believe that the greatest thing for black people and Native Americans would be to BECOME white, either literally (in terms of changes of skin color) or intellectually, that’s still a major flaw in your racial perspective. (Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning is really good on this, if you haven’t read it yet.) So the guys I write about were incapacitated both by the scale of the problem, and the profound limitations of their ‘universalism’.

How should we view liberal reformers such as McCoy and McKenney, who you depict as doing so much to promote the cause of removal? Do you think it is the place of historians to morally judge them? 

I think the job of historians is to capture the ways in which historical actors saw the world, alongside the ways in which anyone might have seen the world at that moment given the knowledge and mores of the time. The gap between the racial insights of individuals and what you might call the racial ceiling of the moment is the really critical part, if you want to be inspired or disappointed by historical figures. One reason I’m skeptical about work that assumes that ‘hard’ racism was triumphant by the time of the American Revolution is that it creates low expectations for any of the Founders: “They lived in a different time, of course they were racist.” That’s only a legitimate point of view if you conclude that “all men are created equal” was never intended for, or extended to, people of color. As I said a second ago, I think it’s even more grim to recognize the fact that liberal Americans in the 1780s and 1790s usually acknowledged the basic fact that black people and Indians were humans, capable of the same development and achievement as white people, and that they ended up deciding without an embrace of hard racism that people of color belonged somewhere else. It’s not unreasonable or unhistorical to think that they could have done better; which for me is even more depressing than the “they were all racists” line of argument.

If there’s any judgement here, it shouldn’t be based on a transhistorical moral sensibility. As historians at our most judgmental, we can only measure people’s actions against the ‘ceiling’ of their intellectual and moral moment. And yes, I guess I’d say that my take on the Founding generation is quite critical in the sense that their endorsement of racial separation took place when other forms of racial coexistence were on the table. In the book, I try to show how we got to racial separation only when other ideas (uplift, intermarriage, etc.) had been debated and rejected by ‘moderate’, liberal whites.

Ultimately, I think white Founders weren’t willing to pay the price of integration—even when the economic price was considerably lower than it would become after the explosion of cotton in the 1820s and 1830s. White hangups over racial coexistence were formidable obstacles to integration before one factors in the greed of the cotton complex or the malevolence of the white plantocracy. And I think sometimes the master-narrative of American history lets a lot of influential and ‘liberal’ white people off the hook, not least because it tends to regionalize the racial problem as a Southern problem. Again, that’s why I think we need a much more critical and complex understanding of antislavery as well as of slavery.

Your book reads very well. It treads a nice line between rigorous scholarship and engaging story telling. Do you have any suggestions for junior scholars writing their first book how to pull that off?

Wait until your second book!

Just kidding. But really, it can be a good idea to write something a little more obviously monographic to get you started. Usually your PhD is perfect for this because you’ve scared yourself into writing something quite dry and careful. But a ‘safer’ first book gives you a lot of cover if you want to be more ambitious with your second, both in your argument and your style. When Eric Foner took me to school in his New York Times review of Bind Us Apart, at least he had a nice word to say about my first book!!

I didn’t see that review.

Worth reading! I think Foner is a gatekeeper of what I described above as the master-narrative of American history. His complaint that my book doesn’t fit that narrative is a back-handed compliment; or, at least, I’m keen to take it that way! But seriously, I think a lot of younger scholars are doing work on the complexities of race in the early United States that will eventually produce a rather different narrative for the early U.S. Of course slavery will still be central, but I think we’ll have a much better sense of how seriously white people thought about integration in the first half-century after independence. And, with luck, we’ll come to see that the crisis over segregation/integration wasn’t just a consequence of the Civil War and mass emancipation; but that the problems of ending slavery before 1860, or of managing Native persistence, were always about integration. I hope other scholars will do a much more extensive and thorough job than I’ve done in telling that hidden history of integration for the early U.S. That would be an awesome thing to see for the field, I think.

What are your future research plans?

My medium-term plan is to write a book about how Americans came to think about empire in the late 18th and 19th centuries by reading about or visiting other people’s empires: Ottoman, British, French, Spanish, Chinese, whatever. In some ways empire seems like a normative way of organising the world in the 19th century, so I’m keen to figure out why so many Americans rejected empire as a formal political model for the U.S. to follow. Before that, I’m writing a little book about a prison revolt by black and white Americans in 1815. It will be like an early-republic version of Blood in the Water, except (a) not as good, obviously, and (b) far less lucrative movie deal.

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