A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, United States on 2013-01-09 20:40Z by Steven

A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic (review)

Civil War History
Volume 52, Number 2, June 2006
pages 180-182
DOI: 10.1353/cwh.2006.0034

Michael A. Morrison, Associate Professor of History
Purdue University

A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic. By Bruce Dain. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002. Pp. 321.)

A Hideous Monster of the Mind is a closely argued, nuanced, and sophisticated study of the intellectual history of the construction of race in the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War. Bruce Dain positions this fine study in multiple contexts. Dain first broadens his analysis by demonstrating that the intellectual construction of race took place as part of a transatlantic dialogue among European naturalists and philosophers on the one side and American theorists—politicians, religious figures, and scientists—on the other. Thus Dain’s consideration of the multiple and plastic meanings of race reflect and extend evolving Anglo-European theories of humankind and the differences with in it. Finally in what is the most significant contribution of an important book on race, Dain integrates black theorists and writers such as Phyllis Wheatley, Prince Saunders, David Walker, Hosea Easton, and James McCune Smith into his description of “black people’s own sense of blackness” (ix).

Dain is careful not to allow his analysis to collapse into neat “black” and “white” polarities of racial thinking. Nor does his narrative of a developing understanding—or more precisely misunderstanding—of racial differences move along a straightforward, linear path. Theories of the origin and meaning of racial differences were various, inconsistent, and often at odds with one another, and they moved along interconnected lines of communication among white elites, black activists, naturalists, physicians, philosophers, abolitionists, and apologists for slavery. Central to their considerations and definitions of race and racial differences was “whether slaves and ex-slaves were capable of citizenship in a republic?” Implicit in this broad proposition was the impact of slavery on the enslaved, the plasticity or immutability of human nature, and underlying questions of reproduction, heredity, history (natural and human), and race mixing.

Thomas Jefferson provides a point of departure. He believed that blackness was a God-given natural entity (a “distinct race”) and that, accordingly, American slavery was an intractable problem: blacks—free and freed—”were too inferior and resentful to be citizens of Virginia” (31). Not only would blacks not have a place or role in the republic, according to Jefferson and others of his mind they posed an internal threat to its harmony. White reaction to the Haitian Revolution, which constitutes one of the strongest and most original chapters in the work, broadened those concerns and fears to encompass free blacks and mulattos.

Nineteenth-century African Americans who engaged race theory begged to differ. As their writings emerged in the 1820s—primarily in the African-American newspaper Freedom’s Journal and David Walker’s Appeal . . . to the Collective Citizens of the World—they dilated on blacks’ “enduring redemptive Christianity and sense of race as defined by exploitation and suffering in the modern Atlantic world” (113). Aware of the white authors, their writings were both informed by and a reaction to those racial theories. Stressing the mutability of the human condition, an author writing in Freedom’s Journal, concluded that race was a category that was a function of white prejudice. The author turned Jefferson’s argument on its pointed head, rejecting any relationship between skin color and intelligence or its obverse skin color and degradation. David Walker went further damning New World slavery as the worst form of debasement and insisting that there were only two racial entities: “blacks and whites, the two poles of human virtue and venality” (144).

Building on but taking a slightly different trajectory from Walker, Hosea Easton began with the assumption that monogenism was a given and that any perceived differences among humans were a heritable variation in response to the environment. Slavery, he concluded, not skin color or immutable racial differences produced prejudice. Thus as a disease of…

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