How Mixed-Race Politics Entered the United States: Lydia Maria Child’s ‘Appeal’

How Mixed-Race Politics Entered the United States: Lydia Maria Child’s ‘Appeal’

ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance
Volume 56, Number 1, 2010 (Nos. 218 O.S.)
pages 71-104
DOI: 10.1353/esq.0.0043

Robert Fanuzzi, Assistant Chair and Associate Professor of English
St. Johns University, Queens, New York

For scholars of the colonial and early national United States, it is difficult if not impossible to retell the story of social egalitarianism and political liberty without recounting the social, political, and legal codes governing the practice of miscegenation. Under both the colonial British regime and the post-Revolutionary political order of the United States, these laws and customs operated hand in hand with the equally determinate laws of slavery and citizenship, helping to decide who was a democratic subject and who was not.

In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Virginia, prohibitions against mixed-race marriages and extramarital unions along with their mixed-race offspring helped to create a new, putatively classless caste system, which equated the dignity of free labor and property holding with a pure British ancestry and the indignity of coercive labor with an African ancestry. In doing so, these laws paved the way for a historic argument for civic equality that rendered the American colonist the genetic bearer of English liberty.  In the new American republic, miscegenation laws functioned even more transparently as citizenship decrees, stipulating the whiteness of politically enfranchised subjects and, often capriciously, the blackness of the enslaved or disenfranchised. The logical outcome of these laws, the “one drop of blood” provision, was a testament to the determination of the privileged caste to maintain an artificially scarce supply of citizens by keeping their legal, economic, and political assets from their mixed-race descendants.

Miscegenation laws and regulations played an equally formative role in the civic culture of the antebellum era, when social prejudice against race mixing helped to police civil relations and to foreclose the scope of civic activism…

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