How the concept of “separate but equal” emerged from whites’ inability to envision full civil rights for blacks and Native Americans after emancipation.
The failed universal assertion that “all men are created equal” continues to haunt America’s history of racial relations. In this compelling work of wide research, Guyatt (History/Univ. of Cambridge; Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607-1876, 2007, etc.) delineates how the subtle arguments over colonization and removal were actually articulated by progressive reformers from the earliest era. Contradictions abound: while most early framers and “liberals” did generally believe in the Enlightenment notion that nonwhites could achieve their full potential when offered the proper environment, reformers could not get past what they saw as slavery’s “degradation” of the human condition, thus hindering blacks and Native Americans from being incorporated as full citizens. This “degradation” occurred from integration among whites—especially as Indians were continually pushed out of their land, corrupted by alcohol and treachery, and blacks were abused and ill-educated—and thus the happy ideal of “one nation only” began to give way to visions of separate colonies for nonwhites to keep them from being “ruined” by the majority. Guyatt points out how the War of 1812 brought home the “recognition among liberal Americans that the United States itself had become the obstacle to Indian advancement.” Moreover, despite early experiments, anti-slavery reformers such as missionaries and magazine editors could not stomach the thought of “amalgamation,” as was practiced in the South as an open secret. As a British historian, the author brings up some fascinating comparative examples—e.g., prominent reformer Granville Sharp’s efforts to establish a free-labor colony in Sierra Leone. As a popular solution to “the negro problem,” the influential American Colonization Society was supported by the most freethinking men of the day—e.g., James Monroe, the Marquis de Lafayette—yet it could not overcome fears of the social consequences of abolition.
A nuanced study of the illusory, troubling early arguments over emancipation and integration.