Racial Segregation Was Invented by the Very Same Liberals Who Sought to Abolish Slavery

The following is an excerpt from the new book Bind Us Apart by Nicholas Guyatt (Basic Books, 2016): 

Edward Coles had a lot on his mind. In July 1814 he was private secretary to James Madison and spent his days managing the president’s business at a time of war. The United States had been fighting Britain and its Native American allies for nearly three years. Coles and Madison would be forced to flee the White House just a few weeks later, when British troops invaded and razed Washington. Coles still made time during that anxious month to write to Thomas Jefferson about the nation’s founding dilemma. “I never took up my pen with more hesitation, or felt more embarrassment than I now do in addressing you on the subject of this letter,” wrote Coles. But given the leisure now afforded by his well-deserved retirement, might Jefferson be able to devise “some plan for the gradual emancipation of slavery?”

Coles was twenty-seven years old. He came from a wealthy Virginia family, and had inherited twenty slaves from his father in 1808. The year before, as a student at the College of William and Mary, he had decided that he “would not and could not hold my fellow man as a slave.” The insight came to him in class one day, when he was listening to the president of the college “lecturing and explaining the rights of man.” Coles asked his professor (“in the simplicity of youth”) how it was possible to reconcile human rights and the equality of mankind with slaveholding. “I can never forget his peculiarly embarrassed manner,” Coles later recalled. “He frankly admitted it could not rightfully be done, and that slavery was a state of things that could not be justified on principle.” The only excuse for failing to end slavery was “the difficulty of getting rid of it,” his professor suggested. Coles continued to harass him when the class was over, insisting that the practical problems of emancipation were no excuse for apathy or inaction. In 1814, he was making the same point to Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson had been retired for five years at Monticello. He spent his days reading, entertaining, and corresponding with an extraordinary range of people. Sally Hemings, with whom he had been in a sexual relationship for more than a quarter of a century, was living in the servants’ quarters in the south wing. Four of Hemings’s six children had survived past infancy and were still on the mountain. (All enslaved, like their mother.) Jefferson was sixty-seven years old. He had criticized the institution of slavery since his time in the Virginia governor’s mansion in the 1770s, and as president of the United States he’d signed the bill that ended American participation in the international slave trade. And yet the nation’s slave population was still creeping upward. Edward Coles badgered anyone who would listen on this topic. When he and James Madison strolled through the nation’s capital and encountered “gangs of negroes, some in irons,” Coles upbraided the president for doing nothing to secure “the rights of man.” But Coles felt that Jefferson had a special responsibility to lead the nation’s struggle against slavery. He was, after all, the “immortal author” of “all men are created equal,” the nation’s founding creed. The time had arrived “to put into complete practice those hallowed principles contained in that renowned Declaration.”

In his reply, Jefferson conceded that “the love of justice and the love of country plead equally the cause of these people.” But what would happen to them (and their white neighbors) if slaves were suddenly set free? For decades, Jefferson’s anxieties about integration had weakened his antislavery convictions. Coles had his own solution: he would take his freed slaves to the western states and forge a new life with them there. Jefferson was alarmed by this plan to “abandon” them in the midst of white people. He urged a different solution: slaves should be freed gradually and on condition that they leave the United States. Coles should temper his radicalism until he found a way to reconcile “all men are created equal” with the need for racial separation. The former president would offer his best hopes to this effort, but no more. “I have overlived the generation with which mutual labors and perils begat mutual confidence and influence.” Antislavery, Jefferson declared, was an “enterprise for the young.”

Coles was unimpressed. He wrote again, rejecting Jefferson’s view that “the difficult work of cleansing the escutcheon of Virginia” should fall solely upon young men like himself. Elder statesmen were, in fact, “the only persons who have it in their power effectually to arouse and enlighten the public sentiment.” Hadn’t Benjamin Franklin become a convert to emancipation “after he had passed your age?” Coles dismissed Jefferson’s suggestion that his slaves would benefit more from a kindly master than from a liberator, or that their survival depended upon their exile from the United States. When he had completed his work for Madison, he vowed, he would take his slaves out of Virginia, free them, and live alongside them in “the country northwest of the River Ohio.” That letter went into a drawer at Monticello and remained unanswered. It would be another five years before the impetuous Edward Coles made good on his promise.

While Coles may have been an outlier, his correspondence with Jefferson reveals a broader truth about the evolution of slavery in America. Even slaveholders were aware of a contradiction between the nation’s founding principles and the practice of holding human beings in bondage. Abolition, the most obvious way to resolve that contradiction, would convert slaves into citizens at a stroke. But the vast majority of white Americans were nervous about what freed people might do next. Slavery had denied African-Americans an education and an opportunity to better themselves, and it had given them ample reason to resent the people who had benefited from their bondage. These anxieties crowded the minds of slaveholders and reformers alike and encouraged a third way of thinking: if slavery was immoral and multiracial citizenship was beset with difficulties, perhaps black people could be freed and resettled away from whites. This plan was usually known as “colonization,” and Jefferson was one of the first people in North America to endorse it. In the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War, the idea that the races might be separated became a mainstay of the movement against slavery in North and South alike. It was promoted by reformers across the country, but was especially popular in the northern states. St. George Tucker, perhaps the most influential legal mind in the South, wrote a long colonization proposal in 1796 and presented it to the Virginia assembly. In 1816, a group of politicians, clergymen, and antislavery activists from across the United States founded the American Colonization Society (ACS), a charity to encourage the resettlement of African-Americans in West Africa. In 1821, the society founded its own settlement, Liberia, with the support of President James Monroe. In 1833, James Madison, the last of the Founding Fathers, assumed the presidency of the ACS. Racial separation had become the most popular means of imagining a world after slavery.

Its appeal hardly faded in the decades before the Civil War, even as the slave population climbed inexorably. Henry Clay of Kentucky, perhaps the most influential nineteenth-century politician never to occupy the White House, succeeded James Madison to the presidency of the Colonization Society instead. Daniel Webster, the great Massachusetts statesman who had helped to found the ACS in 1816, lobbied for federal assistance to the society in the 1850s. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in the final pages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, dispatched her hero George Harris to Liberia. And Abraham Lincoln, in the first years of his presidency, did more to secure government support for black emigration than any politician since James Monroe. When he addressed a group of free blacks in Washington in the summer of 1862, with the war’s outcome uncertain, Lincoln insisted that they had a duty to leave the country and build a separate nation for African-Americans. “You may believe you can live in Washington or elsewhere in the United States,” he told them. “This is (I speak in no unkind sense) an extremely selfish view of the case.”

If so many of the most iconic figures in American life before 1865 were committed to the idea of colonization, why has it played such a muted role in our stories of slavery, abolition, and citizenship? For many historians, the idea that the entire black population of the United States could be resettled beyond the nation’s borders seems outlandish. Between the American Revolution and the Civil War, perhaps 20,000 African-Americans left for Africa or the Caribbean. The black population remaining in America increased across the same period by around 3.5 million.

Adapted excerpt from Bind Us Apart by Nicholas Guyatt. Copyright © 2016. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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