Pious White Reformers and Race, Then and Now

The old refrain that white liberals are the bane of systemic change applies differently when we are looking at the record of white liberals during the first half of this country’s 240-year official history. This was a time when enlightened white reformers—and  religiously motivated reformers in particular—exercised actual power. But the use they made of that power comprises a dismaying narrative of faulty assumptions, mixed motivations, and a deep-seated, if unacknowledged, racism.

This is the burden of English historian Nicholas Guyatt’s Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation, published earlier this year and deserving of a wide readership.

In his review of the book for the Times, Columbia University’s Eric Foner took issue with Guyatt’s use of the term “liberals” to describe white social reformers, noting that to be a “liberal” meant something quite specific in the 19th-century context. I agree with Foner that Guyatt’s use of “liberals” may be anachronistic and a bit fuzzy, but in my view that use is also apt in the context of Guyatt’s overall argument that it was America’s best and brightest, not its troglodytes, who designed a policy of “uplift via removal” to deal with what they regarded as the grave challenge posed by “degraded” Native Americans and African Americans living in close proximity to whites.

Guyatt’s book is divided into three sections, each treating a major theme or phase in the white reformers’ efforts. He devotes four of his chapters to “degradation,” three to “amalgamation,” and four to “colonization.”

To be clear, most of the white civic leaders who fretted about “degradation” did not believe that people of color were in any way inferior to white people—certainly not inferior in God’s eyes. They believed “all men are created equal” to be the literal truth (although the author of those words did not), and they were acutely conscious that honoring the Declaration of Independence necessitated doing away with the institution of chattel slavery as soon as possible. Emancipation was on everyone’s mind at the turn of the 19th century, both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line.

But as Boston clergy leader John Eliot told his fellow Congregationalist eminence Jeremy Belknap, the problem with emancipation was that slavery assaulted and undermined an individual’s morals and outlook: slavery “degraded” its victims.

In 1795 Belknap was invited by St. George Tucker, a Virginia slaveholder who anathematized slavery, to share his wise counsel on what could be done for the South’s former slaves upon their emancipation. Belknap in turn solicited the views of 40 distinguished New Englanders. Pondering the responses Belknap collected, Tucker concluded that there were only three ways to go: Blacks could be freed on the condition that they be exiled beyond the Mississippi River; they could be freed but denied civil and political rights; or they could be freed and given the same rights as white people despite the ways in which slavery had “depraved their faculties.”

The primary problem usually cited in regard to the third option was the one that John Adams raised in critiquing Tucker’s entire emancipation scheme: “Justice to the negroes would require that they should not be abandoned by their masters and turned loose upon a world in which they have no capacity to procure even a subsistence.” The secondary problem was the likely horrified white response to having a huge number of newly-freed blacks living among them in both the North and the South.

The alleged “degradation” of black people ruled out normal social intercourse—widespread emancipation without separation of the races was unthinkable

Although “degradation” was first used to describe the condition of enslaved Africans, by 1810 the term was also being applied to Native Americans. And while a number of enlightened whites believed that the natives of this continent had nobler natures than white people, the problem (again) was that they had been rendered dependent and degraded via their corrupting interactions with lower-class Europeans. Absent an aggressive program of “civilizing” these people, they could not be permitted to remain living cheek-by-jowl with whites; moreover, they occupied highly desirable land north and west of the Ohio River and smack in the middle of the rich uplands of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi.

Benevolent whites therefore took it upon themselves to organize a number of “civilizing” projects, then pressed for voluntary migration of the natives to lands beyond the Mississippi, then finally lent their support to a policy of forced removal.

The white liberals arguing for “amalgamation,” i.e., intermarriage, got a more respectful hearing than we might expect but were ultimately unpersuasive, despite the fact that other New World powers of that time—the French and Spanish—had pursued amalgamation with some degree of success. The cause of amalgamation suffered a major setback during the 1820s when it was discovered that a couple of natives enrolled at a special mission school in Cornwall, Connecticut, were consorting with, even marrying, local white girls. The school’s managers, led by the redoubtable Lyman Beecher, went ballistic.

Meanwhile, the idea of amalgamation between whites and African Americans barely got beyond the conceptual stage, despite the reality that many if not most white slaveholders (from Mr. Jefferson on down) preyed sexually on the women in their service. Exploitation, yes; amalgamation, never.

The voluntary (or involuntary) removal of the Native Americans and the colonization of freed Blacks on the west coast of Africa  were the two strategies that eventually found the most favor among white leaders in the young Republic. The fact that many thousands of Native Americans were removed by one means or another has mainly to do with all that incredibly valuable land they they controlled—land coveted by the horde of white settlers pouring over the Appalachians and across the Ohio. And the fact that very few free blacks were ultimately settled in Liberia—despite the enormous prestige and influence of the American Colonization Society—has mainly to do with the failure of large-scale emancipation to actually materialize in view of the rapidly escalating value of slave labor following the introduction of the cotton gin at the start of the 19th century.

Guyatt simply takes it as a given that a huge proportion of the would-be reformers were Christian clergymen or else sons of clergymen or else persons strongly shaped by religion, like Quakers William Thornton and Anthony Benezet. He reels off the names of pious reformers and their various “benevolent” endeavors in each chapter, and most are names that reasonably well-educated people today may not recognize, e.g., Stephen HopkinsEzra StilesSamuel Stanhope SmithDavid RiceJedidiah MorseJeremiah EvartsRobert Finley, and Isaac McCoy.

We speak today of the fecklessness of white liberals, and I certainly am among those who have decried, in these pages and elsewhere, the special fecklessness of white Christian progressives when it comes to the hardcore issues of race and class. The difference between today’s progressives and the “benevolent” reformers of 200 years ago is that those pious reformers actually had the ear of Congress and of six successive chief executives—whereas faithy liberals in our era talk mainly to themselves.

But there is also a telling and dolorous similarity between the two groups when it comes to people of color: enlightened whites of the 21st century continue to offer all sorts of ideas about “what needs to be done” for the sake of racial justice. But only rarely do they/we bother to sit with and learn from the main victims of racial oppression. Normal social intercourse is still not the norm. The message continues to be a mixed one: you (people of color) deserve full equality in every dimension of life; just don’t come too close.