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From Winthrop D. Jordan’s The White Man’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States (Oxford University Press, 1974), chap. 8.

The Imperatives of Economic Interest and National Identity

For  the post-revolutionary generation of white Americans, the most pressing political problem was formation of a viable national union.

The existence of the United States of America was  not - and it sometimes requires effort of mind to remember this – inevitable.  It is  easy today to underestimate the disintegrative pressures that bore upon the union of ex-colonies forged by the necessity of uniting against British “tyranny.” By examining these pressures‘ as well as the efforts made to resist them, it is  possible to see how closely the primary political  problem was interrelated with the presence of Africans in, America and with white men’s thoughts about black.

The major factor making for sectional division in the United States was the proportion of blacks in the population. By the 1790’s it was clear that slavery was going to survive only in the area of high concentration of blacks in the states south of Penn­sylvania. Yet in the late eighteenth century sectional division lacked the clarity it was later to take on. Economic differences and the pattern of antislavery sentiment within the South blurred the distinction between northern and southern states, since it was by no means definite that Virginia and Maryland would not be­ come “northern” states by accomplishing general emancipation. Despite the presence in the tobacco colonies of the twin factors which eventually proved determinative, slavery and a high pro­portion of Negroes, there was every reason to set off the upper “South” from the lower: proportion of blacks, profitability of slavery, abolition sentiment‑the very tone of society. North Carolina served as an anomalous borderland, characterized by a relatively low proportion of Negroes, and a culture which belonged, everyone agreed, almost in a class by itself. There was not one South but two and a half.

While attending to these sectional realities and especially to economic changes which were working to solidify them, it is necessary to bear in mind that sectional discord over, slavery depended on the existence of a rational union and that existence of  a union made the presence of blacks in America a national problem. Discussion of certain issues, especially in the national Congress after 1789, stirred dormant hostilities. Of itself the rise of an independent American nation contained subtle and elusive implications for the Negro which were of far‑reaching importance. For task of building a new nation did‑not consist simply in laying down the bricks and mortar of national government; a ra­tionale for the new structure was needed. Without some sense of who and why Americans were a people, and therefore a nation, work could not even begin,


Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793. Its impact may be seen in statistics of cotton production. The nation harvested 6,000 bales in 1792; and 178,000 in 1810 Expansion of cotton production was not, however, the midnight reprieve of a doomed institution, for in 1793 slavery was flourishing in the Lower South.

Thus when South Carolina banned slave importations in 1787 the Assembly was not responding to lack of demand for slaves, nor of course to antislavery sentiment. Many South Carolina planters were in debt; they had purchased more slaves than they could pay for, partly because they had lost slaves to the British occupation. For sixteen years South Carolina stuck by its decision, gingerly extending the ban on imports for two or three years at a time. After 1794 members of the legislature had to face the unpleasant fact that reopening the trade would bring down the outrage of the nation on South Carolina for being the only state to permit slave importation. But the imperatives of expanding agri­culture  proved irresistible. South Carolina’s ports were at last thrown open in 1803. The way west was to be paved with Negroes. Even after the federal prohibition of January 1, 1808, slave importation continued on a much reduced scale as a smuggling operation.

In the Upper South, the dynamics of economic development drove in a different direction. Virginia’s principal crop, tobacco, recovered rapidly after the war but underwent no great expan­sion. Cotton was grown, but not in great quantity. Many tidewa­ter planters, the riches of their soil robbed by tobacco, turned to more diversified farming and especially to grains such as wheat. It was in the tidewater region that blacks were concentrated, an ever-growing proportion of the eastern population. Far from wanting more slaves, many white Virginians wanted to rid them­ selves of the ones they had. In the I790’s a British traveler re ported that Virginia’s slave population was increasing rapidly; estates were “overstocked,” a “circumstance complained of by every planter,” though “humanity” (hopefully) prevented planters selling their slaves or casting them loose. While the unprofitability of slavery in the Upper South pointed toward eventual emancipa­tion, it also suggested a more immediate, rewarding remedy. Superfluous slaves could be sold to the Lower South. And they were. The price differential told the story: in 1797 prices for prime field hands ran about $300 in Virginia and $400 in Charleston.


Even prior to these developments there had of course been sectional disagreements. The first rumblings of sectional discord appeared with the first tenuous “continental” union in 1774. Members of the Continental Congress argued over inclusion of blacks in the army and whether slaves should be counted when taxes were apportioned among the states. After the ‘war the slavery issue reappeared in novel form when Congress debated the future of the Northwest Territory. In 1784 a vote in the Congress to exclude slavery north of the Ohio River was lost for the inelegant reason that a New Jersey delegate was home sick in bed. The sectional pattern of voting was clear. Northern delegates were unanimous for exclusion, while only two southerners voted for it. On the third try, in 1787, proponents of excluding slavery were successful.

That same year, when the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, delegates found that forging a new national gov­ernment necessitated dealing with the hard facts of slavery. One major issue concerned slave representation and taxation: the several states’ very different proportions of blacks raised the question whether slaves were persons or property. If slaves were to be ­included when apportioning representation, northerners asked, why not cattle as well? Despite the implications of this question, the dispute involved political definition and practice, not ethical eval­uation of Negroes, No one claimed that slaves were not human beings. In the end, of course, the Convention decided to count three-fifths for apportionment of representation and taxes. This famous compromise was a practical resolution –of political interests, but it  embodied more logic than has commonly been supposed. For the slave was, by social definition, both property and man, simultaneously partaking of the qualities of both; the three-fifths rule treated him accordingly, adding only a ludicrous fractional precision. Framing a national constitution forced men to say it outright: the Negro as a slave was only three­fifths a person.

Manifestly the Convention could not consider even the even­tual abolition of domestic slavery; proposals for this would have sent half the delegates packing. The overseas slave trade, so widely deplored, was another matter. An overwhelming majority of dele­gates wanted to ban the traffic immediately or after a few years. But South Carolina and Georgia were, as James Madison put it, “inflexible on the point of the slaves.” C. C. Pinckney of South Carolina warned that, while he did not favor the traffic person­ally, the two southernmost states would most certainly reject the Constitution if denied slave imports. The founders wanted‑and the point requires emphasis‑union m or h n an end to the slave trade. With the aid of New England votes obtained by concessions on navigation laws, the twenty-year prohibition on federal action was inserted in the Constitution, a monument to pragmatic poli­tics and to the ideal of national union.

Far from soothing sectional disagreements, creation of a new national government fostered sectional tension over slavery. A powerful federal Congress looked like a magnificent fulcrum to antislavery organizations, and in 1790 petitions against the slave trade were presented to the House of Representatives. Several southern Representatives wanted the House to refuse considera­tion of the petitions, and the debate which followed laid bare sectional interests before the nation. Representative Thomas Scott of Pennsylvania set forth the antislavery case in language which would have been almost inconceivable a generation earlier: I look upon the slave trade to be one of the most abominable things on earth; and . . . I . . . oppose it upon the principles of humanity, and the law of nature.” William Loughton Smith of South Carolina, whose bitter speech on the same issue lasted two hours, dwelt insistently on the horrors of racial intermixture, to which every man in the House, he hoped, had the utmost aversion. Like so many southerners after him, Smith lectured the nation on the peculiar sociology of the South: “The truth is,” Smith declared, “that the best informed . . . citizens of the Northern States know that slavery is so ingrafted into the policy of the Southern States, that it cannot be eradicated without tearing up by the roots their happiness, tranquillity, and prosperity.” Smith’s angry speech revealed the near impossibility of defending slavery without derogating the Negro: “It is well known that they are an indolent people, improvident, averse to labor: when emancipated, they will either starve or plunder.” Pennsylvania’s Scott, appalled beyond eloquence, could only gulp in reply that advocacy of slavery was “a Phenomenon in Politics.”

As time went on, sectional anger over slavery seemed to subside. For several sessions after 1800 Congress was undisturbed by the slavery issue. Antislavery groups no longer petitioned the House - a reflection of growing timidity and declining zeal in the antislavery movement. Relative quiet might have prevailed until the end of the slave trade’s twenty-year immunity from congressional prohibition had not South Carolina reopened old wounds in 1803. Legal resumption of the traffic in South Carolina aroused proposals in Congress for a $10 duty on imported slaves, the maximum permitted by the Constitution. Debate was warm but not unrestrained. Samuel Latham Mitchell of New York, though strongly antislavery, stressed joint sectional responsibility: “the citizens of the navigating States bring negroes from Africa, and sell them to the inhabitants of those States which are more distin­guished for their plantations.” Such careful phraseology was characteristic of the debate. More striking still was the pathetic need for reassurance that the slave trade received no public support: speaker after speaker arose to declare that he and everyone present abhorred the noxious traffic, and South Carolina’s Representatives, while vigorously opposing the tax, were at pains to point out that they personally would have opposed their state’s action.

It became clear, though, that the international trade would be ended. When the Constitution finally permitted action, in the session of 1806-7, congressional debates on the bill prohibiting the trade were hard‑fought and bitter, but significantly they bore on enforcement and on disposal of contraband slaves, not on whether a bill should be passed. And with enactment of the law banning the international slave trade which took effect January 1, 1808, slavery was no longer a really divisive issue in the Union. The chief aggravation was relieved: the albatross of the slave trade was no longer strung around the national conscience. The prevailing sense of victory and elation was heightened by Britain’s prohibition of the trade that same year. Congress and the nation turned their energies to quarreling with Great Britain about other matters, and, when the Second War for Independence came in 1812, it brought, striking contrast to the first, no benefit to black Americans. Not until westward expansion reintroduced sectional bitterness in the Missouri Compromise debates of 1819-20 did Congress find itself troubled again by Negro slavery. Americans had learned to fear its divisive power, particularly after the first and bitterest clash in 1790. Jefferson’s “firebell in the night,” in 1820, was actually a second alarm. The first fire had been brought under control, many thought, in 1807.


To many of Jefferson’s contemporaries the Revolution was not the end but the beginning of a glorious chapter in the history of man, the opening act of a glorious drama to be played out on the open stage of a virgin continent, with sympathetic vibrations confidently expected in the Old World. It was not the past which required elucidation so much as the present and future - including the future of America’s Negroes.

Americans inherited from their Revolution instruction as to the future in only one area ‑ government. Thus the Revolution gave a peculiarly political bias to American nationalism; it provided instructions to establish governments suitable for the “republican genius” of the American people. But it failed to give guidance concerning the peculiar nature of the American people other than that they were “republican,” which was principally a political concept. Important questions were left unanswered: Who were these people to be governed? What were they like? Why was there any reason to place them under one national government?

To some extent the assumption of republicanism answered these questions. As it bore upon Afro-Americans the republican self-image was logically negated or blurred by chattel slavery, and as the national destiny continued to unfold, the antislavery people seized upon what was in a very real sense a violation of self. As Theodore Dwight proclaimed in 1794, “If any thing can sound like a solecism in the ears of mankind, it will be this story - That in the United States of America, societies are formed for the promotion of freedom.” While Americans knew themselves to be a republican, virtuous, and politically independent people, however, their character - as they saw it - nonetheless remained unclear. Their struggle for cultural independence involved fighting on two fronts, proving both difference from the Old World and unity among Americans. With non-political institutions, perceptible progress was possible. Americans could point, for example, to more than a dozen new colleges, scores of academies, and hopes for a national university. Genuine cultural independence from England could not, however, be adequately assured by a proliferation of extra-political organizations. How could Americans be sure that they had acquired their own truly independent culture?

 For a century and a half the white people of the American continent had thought of themselves primarily as colonial Englishmen. The Revolution undercut this self-conception with disconcerting suddenness. Political independence discredited the old self-image by strongly implying that Americans were not in fact Englishmen of any sort. To proclaim convincingly non-Englishness as an accomplished fact was at once essential and impossible; the clash between political independence and the inertia of cultural heredity made for uncertainty and ambivalence. Americans still spoke English. Institutions such as family, churches, learned societies, and representative government had arisen on English models, no matter how markedly transformed by New World conditions. White Americans could scarcely toss these aside as mere excess baggage.

For additional confirmation of their own distinctive character, Americans might perhaps have seized upon the indisputable fact that their continent had not been settled by Englishmen exclusively but by peoples from all the western regions of the Old World. In defining themselves, ,Americans might have pointed to a new amalgam of nationalities as confirmation of American distinctiveness. Physically, by blood, the American could accurately have been described as a new man. On this matter it has been customary to quote St. Jean de Crevecoeur’s Letter from an American Farmer (1782):

. . . whence came all these people? they are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes . . . . What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men . . . .  

These are striking words; few observations on the American peo­ple have been quoted more frequently, with approval, as demon­strating both the fact of amalgamation and America’s warm wel­coming of the process. But in fact Crevecoeur (a naturalized American who was born, and died, in France) was not expressing a common view, and historians have since relied heavily on his words because at the time virtually no one else was saying the same thing. Certainly no one else put such emphasis on the fusion of bloods. In the late eighteenth century the idea that the “American” was a “new man” by reason of physical amalgamation was the exceptional opinion of a romantic French immigrant.

 Of course physical amalgamation had in fact occurred. Non‑English people had flocked to America in large numbers and in many cases had lost their genetic distinctiveness. But they had lost as well their cultural distinctiveness to the voracious dominance of English customs, institutions, and language. Especially, one of the most powerful forces making for cultural homogenization in the colonies was the overwhelming preponderance of the English tongue, which was native to many “non‑English” settlers, such as the Scots, Irish, and Scotch‑Irish. This is to say that Americans had good reason for thinking of themselves as modified Englishmen rather than as products of a European amalgam.

The postwar need for strong unified government tempted Americans to emphasize the nation’s unity even, to the point of utterly ignoring existing diversities. As John Jay wrote in the first Federalist paper, “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country, to one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing  the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.” This thinking left Afro-Americans in an obvious place - out.

To assess the nature of the American people was to assess the Negro by implication, simply because blacks lived in America. Because they viewed the architecture of their culture as modified English rather than fused European, most white Americans were not led to ponder the dynamics of cultural amalgamation in America, much less the pronounced African element involved. In fact there was little consideration given to the possibility that African language and manners had contributed to American uniqueness. Even more so with physical intermixture. Even St. Jean Crevecoeur could praise physical amalgamation in America only by ignoring utterly the single most important element in the process as it was actually occurring: “What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European, or the descendant of an European . . .. .” Presumably the Negro was not an American.  

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