‘The offspring of infidelity’: Polygenesis and the defense of slavery

‘The offspring of infidelity’: Polygenesis and the defense of slavery

Emory University
506 pages
Publication Number: AAT 3332327
ISBN: 9780549849544

Christopher Luse, Instructional Assistant Professor of History
University of Mississippi

This dissertation examines an internal debate within the antebellum South over the nature of slavery and race. Focusing on the printed materials of the public sphere, this work explores the impact of a newly popular doctrine within ethnology, polygenesis, on the southern defense of slavery. Supporters of polygenesis claimed that non-white races were not merely inferior, but separately created species with fundamentally different physiological, intellectual and moral natures. For centuries polygenesis had been over shadowed by the orthodox doctrine in ethnology, monogenesis, which claimed that all races descended from a common ancestor (Adam and Eve). Under attack from antislavery forces, white southerners turned to polygenesis. They asserted that only the permanent inferiority of blacks justified bondage. Southern physicians were at the forefront of popularizing this defense, using their knowledge of medicine and physiology to claim that blacks resembled apes more than Caucasians. Southern newspaper editors took up the cause to refute abolitionist attacks. Supporters developed the theory of “hybridity,” claiming that people of mixed racial ancestry were “hybrids” doomed to disease, infertility and an early death. Southern supporters used this theory to assert only slavery prevented “amalgamation.” In response, southern Christians heatedly attacked this new “infidelity” as undermining the Bible, the chief defense of slavery. Southern ministers defended their vision of “Christian Slavery.” They claimed that southern slavery was based on a beneficial paternalistic master-slave relationship. Polygenesis undermined the common bonds of humanity necessary for paternalism. Southern Christians used the latest scientific research to argue for a common physical and moral nature among all the races. With the coming of the Civil War, southern Christians attempted to reform slavery up to “Bible Standards” by legalizing slave marriages and access to the Bible. They failed. In the aftermath of defeat, many white Christians adopted polygenesis to attack Reconstruction and racial equality.

A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Emory University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of History

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Proslavery Ethnology
  • Chapter 2: Hybridity and Other Threats
  • Chapter 3: Christian Slavery
  • Chapter 4: The Moral and Theological Critique
  • Chapter 5: The Scientific Critique of Polygenesis
  • Chapter 6: I he Crisis of Christian Slavery
  • Bibliography


On the eve of the secession of South Carolina, Reverend James Henley Thornwell held southern slaveholders to Scriptural standards and found them wanting. Thornwell, a reluctant secessionist, delivered a jeremiad to call on southerners to repent as they faced the fiery trial of preserving their embattled slaveholding community. The Presbyterian Thornwell, a prestigious clergyman often called “the Calhoun of the Church,” denounced a grave threat to slavery. The target of his wrath was not only the ravings of abolitionists, but the “science, falsely so-called” which defended slavery by making “the slave a different being from his master.” Thornwell maintained “those who defend slavery upon the plea that the African is not of the same stock with ourselves, are aiming a fatal blow at the institution by bringing it into conflict with the dearest doctrines of the Gospel.” Thornwell viewed with consternation the increasing popularity of polygenesis, a previously marginal theory within ethnology. This emerging school not only asserted the inferiority of “lower races,” but claimed their separate creation as species with fundamentally different natures. Within the antebellum South a paradoxical debate raged. Southern white Christians, staunch defenders of slavery, attacked this new form of scientific racism by defending the humanity of black slaves. The southern critics of polygenesis even employed many of the same arguments and sources as abolitionists. Thornwell aimed his harshest anathemas at southerners who adopted this “infidel” theory to defend slavery. Thornwell admitted that “our offense has been, that in some instances we have accepted and converted into a plea, the conclusions of this vain conceit.”

In his brilliant sermon Thornwell managed to address the most important themes of the controversy. He argued “such speculations have not sprung from slavery. They were not invented to justify it. They are the offspring of infidelity, a part of the process by which science has been endeavoring to convict Christianity of falsehood.” Thornwell was only partially correct. Polygenesis, and scientific racism as a whole, had multiple roots. The debate involved not only slavery, but the long process of accommodation and conflict between science and religion within Western culture. It did not pit enlightened scientists against obscurantist religious bigots, although the polygenists loved to claim as much. Foes of polygenesis like Thornwell defended an established vision of the relation of science to religion that proclaimed the unity between the Word and Works of the Creator. The troubled but vital partnership between Christianity and science underwent profound strain due to the use of ethnology to defend slavery and racial subordination. Because, with apologies to Thornwell, it is clear that the necessity to defend slavery and racial subordination drove the development of polygenesis, which also became very popular in the North and Europe. The Northern Democratic Party, especially, used polygenesis to denounced calls for racial equality.

I propose to resurrect and analyze a half-forgotten debate which illustrates major issues in antebellum intellectual and cultural life. I contend that the controversy was much more prominent in the sectional turmoil than has been generally appreciated. The issue was fiercely contested in the pulpit, the lecture platform, in newspaper editorials and on the political stage. The debate was not the mere hobby-horse of a small group of researchers confined to erudite scientific journals. Its prominence is reflected in both secular and denominational newspapers. I have sought the most popular sources available. In part, this explosion of material was due to significant innovations in print technology and transportation during the era. The late antebellum era witnessed a massive increase in the circulation of newspapers and reading material. I have assembled this weight of material to demonstrate that the controversy was pervasive in the public realm. Newspaper editorials often assumed the basic points of the issue to be public knowledge. The conflict affected a host of pressing issues, from slavery to the rise of new scientific disciplines to the nature of republican government. The debate pervaded the public sphere.

The debate illuminates southern slavery and southern culture as a whole. Historians continue to debate heatedly the nature of slavery. The controversy over polygenesis uncovers a uniquely conservative, patriarchal and religious worldview as well as a serious indigenous challenge to this Christian, paternalistic ideology. The antebellum South increasingly denounced the powerful currents of egalitarianism, religious liberalism, and “infidelity” sweeping the western world, but they could not separate themselves from them. Southerners saw themselves as modern men participating in the larger developments of Western civilization. They used the latest innovations in sociology, political science and natural history to defend an institution denounced as immoral and archaic by the rest of the Western world…

…Along with abolitionism and socialism, proslavery Christians wrestled with another “ism,” racism. At the heart of the ethnological debates was the nature of race. In order to understand the antebellum controversy it is necessary to deal with some of the theoretical issues of race. Nineteenth century ethnologists celebrated their increased understanding of human differences as a major advance in understanding the natural world. They believed that they discovered the nature of human variations in the same fashion that Isaac Newton discovered the laws of physics. They believed they had gained insight into the plans of the Creator. “Race” was an expression of natural law, not an artificial human category. In contrast, for the past eighty years, biologists, anthropologists and geneticists have been dismantling the idea of race as a valid scientific concept. In a fascinating instance of foreshadowing, antebellum critics of polygenesis anticipated a number of the modern assaults on race. Opponents repeatedly pointed out the impossibility of clearly defining racial boundaries. They presented the imperceptible gradations of complexion, hair and physiognomy among the races. Proslavery Christians even denied that there existed a uniform, degraded “Negro Type.” Modern geneticists have mapped the extraordinary amount of genetic overlap between the various “races,” concluding that on the most basic level of chromosomes and genes, the races are the same. As Audrey Smedley puts it, the “Biogenetic variations in the human species are not the same phenomenon as the social clusters we call ‘races.'” Modern scientists have largely abandoned race in favor of geographically based “breeding populations” with varying gene frequencies.

Modern anthropologists have traveled a similar path. Beginning in the early twentieth century with the pioneering work of Franz Boas, anthropologists have stressed the plastic nature of human behavior and capacities. Anthropologists view human behavior as mostly culturally determined and transmitted. For the purposes of this study, the most crucial insight is that race is socially and culturally constructed. Race is an ideology, not a science. Barbara J. Fields writes “Race is not an element of biology (like breathing oxygen or reproducing sexually), nor even an idea (like the speed of light or the value of pie) that can be imagined to live an eternal life of its own. Race is not an idea but an ideology.” Racial thought is inseparable from the purposes it serves within a specific society, the conflicts it attempts to resolve (or disguise), the hierarchies it justifies and the meanings it explains. The ideology of race is the descriptive vocabulary of the everyday reality of power relations, more specifically, of the historic ability of European peoples to dominate other peoples. Ideologies of race are always historic despite their focus on the natural world. Most scholars insist that “race” did not exist in anything like its modern form until the era of European discovery and expansion. Race was the product of unique historical developments despite the efforts of ethnologists to give permanency to racial categories. Like all ideologies, although not “real” in a scientific sense, race is the cultural expression of very real social relations. Race is a human invention in much the same sense as political systems, art or literature. And like all human creations, it changes according to the needs of its society.

The seductive power of race as an ideology rests in its explanatory power and its simplicity. Racial ideologies empower all members of the superior social caste to make immediate judgments on the worthiness and intelligence of the “lower races” which determine the allotting of power and privileges. Almost as important is its ability to comprehensively explain the world. This power underscores a contention of this project: that polygenesis represented the first comprehensive racial ideology. This new doctrine explained all of human history and culture in terms of permanent, inherent racial traits. Earlier theories on the origin and nature of races focused narrowly on how physiological distinctions originated. They attempted to explain how peoples seemed to differ. Early ethnologists sought explanations for human variations that preserved the idea of a common human origin. In contrast, polygenists placed race at the center of human history. They focused on why humans differed.

The late emergence of polygenesis as a prominent theory underscores one aspect of racism. Race as a concept did not emerge through scientific research or historical investigation, but through the experience of domination and exploitation. For centuries prior to the emergence of sophisticated racial theories, “folk racist” beliefs of the inferiority of other races were prevalent in America. Most of the scientific findings of polygenists justified long standing beliefs concerning Indians and Africans. In Colonial America, whites contended that only Africans could labor in the semi-tropical South and that mulattoes were weaker and more diseased than the pure races. Nineteenth-century ethnologists gave a veneer of  authority to these beliefs by expounding theories of “hybridity” and “acclimation.” Racial ideologies are nothing if not purposeful. They almost always address a pressing need, whether it is the need to justify the necessity of enslaved labor to grow staple crops, or the necessity to control a dangerous “middle caste” between black slaves and white freemen.

By the late antebellum era, “folk racist” beliefs solidified into a set of core contentions concerning “lower races.” This increasing sophistication underscores the dynamic and fluid nature of racist beliefs. As slavery came under increasing attack, basic assumptions concerning blacks could no longer be taken for granted. They required increasing support and evidence. Among the most important “principles” of scientific racism were that races represented permanent distinctions which could be measured and evaluated. These distinctions organized themselves in a hierarchy of racial “types.” “Types” were idealized representations which disguised all the innumerable complexities among actual peoples. In antebellum racial types, all Caucasians possessed the profile of a Grecian god, while all blacks were ape-like and prognathous. These types expressed the true nature of the distinct races. These types represented not merely physiological differences, but basic moral, spiritual and intellectual distinctions. Racists emphasized that surface somatic variations were merely signs indicating the more fundamental racial “essences.” White seeming quardoons were in a deep physiological and psychological sense still black or an unnatural mixture. Ethnologists contended that these fundamental distinctions reflected God’s will embodied in natural law…

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