Nicholas Guyatt is the author of the new book Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation. His other books include Providence and the Invention of the United States, and his work has appeared in The Nation, the London Review of Books, and The Guardian. He is a university lecturer in American history at the University of Cambridge, and he lives in Cambridge, England.
Q: You begin and end the book with the story of Edward Coles. Why did you choose him as a focal point for the book?
A: Edward Coles is a really interesting figure that most Americans will never have heard of. He was born in 1786 in a slaveholding dynasty in Virginia, but at college he decided that slavery was morally wrong. He kept his epiphany from his family, for fear that they’d prevent him from inheriting his father’s slaves (which he planned to free).
He became private secretary to President James Madison in 1811, following his boss to the White House and urging him to do more to promote the abolition of slavery. Then, in the summer of 1814, a few weeks before the British burned Washington to the ground, Coles became the only person ever to confront Thomas Jefferson on the slavery question with Jefferson’s most famous words: “All men are created equal.”
Jefferson was then in retirement at Monticello, but Coles thought that the former president should do more to promote the abolition of slavery. Wasn’t it time, Coles told Jefferson, “to put into complete practice those allowed principles contained in that renowned Declaration?”
Jefferson did his best to wriggle away from this challenge, and insisted that it would be impossible for slaveholders to free their slaves without also making arrangements to settle them outside the country — a plan that went under the name of “colonization.”
Coles initially seemed to take a different view: in 1819, he freed the two dozen slaves he’d inherited and took them with him to Illinois, where he planned a new life as a farmer in a free state. But when he got there, he soon came to doubt whether white people and black people could live alongside each other in freedom.
He was fiercely antislavery: in 1822, he became governor of the state of Illinois, and spent a large part of his fortune opposing the efforts of white conservatives to make slavery legal in the state. But he lost faith in the idea of racial integration, and by the mid-1820s he had become a supporter of colonization — i.e., of a massive form of segregation.
I see Coles as a perfect representative of the “enlightened Americans” in the subtitle of my book: from North Carolina to Massachusetts, figures like Coles dominated the political and moral landscape of the early United States. They couldn’t reconcile “all men are created equal” with slavery; but they found it even harder to conquer their prejudices and hangups about racial mixing.
While they could seem incredibly egalitarian in their attacks on slavery, ultimately they failed to embrace racial integration. The colonization movement they founded quickly became the most “respectable” way for educated white people to imagine the end of slavery; its legacy was alive in the 1850s and early 1860s, when figures like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Abraham Lincoln also endorsed the idea that the best way to emancipate was to segregate.
Q: You write that "'separate but equal' lies at the heart of American history" and that its roots go back to the time of the Founding Fathers. How are the origins of the concept usually viewed, and why does your view differ?
A: We usually see “separate but equal” as an invention of the years following Reconstruction: racial segregation was something invented by white southern racists to keep black people in line after the abolition of slavery. The phrase itself became notorious after 1896, when it was used in the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that legalized southern segregation.
Thinking about segregation as a phenomenon of the 1880s and 1890s helps us to organize American history neatly: we have a fight over slavery before 1865, then a fight about giving equal rights to black people thereafter. But the simplicity of that narrative makes it harder for us to get at the root of America’s troubled racial history.
For a start, it suggests that no one was thinking about integration before the end of slavery, when in fact the question of integration was absolutely crucial to early conversations and proposals around ending slavery. It also sets up a regional story in which the North is on the side of freedom, and the South is on the side of racism.
I don’t want to excuse southern racism and slaveholding for a moment, but it’s really important to understand that educated and powerful northerners — even northerners who spoke loudly against slavery — had their own hangups about living in a multiracial society after slavery.
Those hangups were the basis for the colonization movement, which dominated the conversation about ending slavery before the 1830s, and continued to be viewed by white “moderates” as the most effective solution to the slavery problem until the shooting had started in the Civil War.
As late as August 1862, just a few months before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln berated a group of free blacks in Washington for refusing to found a black colony beyond the United States to which freed people could be relocated after slavery. Their refusal to leave their homeland was, according to Lincoln, “very selfish.”
This early debate about integration and segregation is absolutely crucial, because it created a pattern for later moments in which white Americans recognised racial equality in the abstract but did their best to duck its obligations. The white South clearly has a terrible history in that respect; but the story of America’s failures of integration is bigger than the South, and older than Jim Crow.
Q: In the book, you look at colonization as it applied to African Americans and Native Americans. What was similar or different in how the white supporters of colonization viewed African Americans as opposed to Native Americans?
A: In many ways, the story of how “enlightened Americans” viewed blacks and Indians is strikingly similar. Both groups were acknowledged to be equal in potential to white people, but both were believed to be some way from actually realising that potential.
Native Americans were seen as “savage” or backward, and needed a program of “civilization” to bring them up to speed with white America; African Americans were seen as “degraded” by the experience of being enslaved, and needed education and social training to emerge from slavery with any prospect of success in American life.
My “enlightened” subjects cooked up a series of “improvement” schemes for both blacks and Indians, involving education, agricultural training, religious instruction, and so on.
These were incredibly varied and interesting: they ranged from straightforward plans for black and Native education, to schemes that would bring black people or Native Americans into the homes of well-meaning whites who would teach them how to be “civilized”; to schemes in which benevolent whites would propose that other whites (usually poorer people!) should intermarry with blacks and Indians to accelerate the process of integration.
This patchwork of “improvement” schemes threw up as many problems as solutions, and enlightened whites eventually came up with a different idea: perhaps people of color could best be “improved” if they were moved away from white people entirely?
The major difference between the schemes came down to outcomes: the U.S. government under Andrew Jackson forced the vast majority of Indians across the Mississippi River, while no U.S/ president between James Monroe (1817-25) and Abraham Lincoln (1861-65) felt able to give federal support to colonization, given the increasingly proslavery sentiments of Deep South states like South Carolina and Georgia.
The crude way of putting this is to say that, ultimately, white Americans wanted Indian land and black labor. But that conclusion only really makes sense for the period after 1830, when the profitability of slavery went into the stratosphere.
For the first 50 years or so after “all men are created equal,” the fate of blacks and Indians in the United States was far from assured — and most “enlightened” whites found it hard to deny that slavery was a moral wrong, and that Indians had the potential to become citizens. I argue in the book that this early period was of crucial importance in establishing segregation as a “liberal” point of view among white elites.
Q: How would you describe the role of racism in the colonization movement, and what can we learn today from the history you portray in the book?
A: The great U.S. historian George Fredrickson observed nearly 50 years ago that, for a political crusade with such an obviously racist aim, the colonization movement was remarkably free of what you might call “overt” racism in its promotional rhetoric. The same is true for many of the early advocates of Indian removal, especially the missionaries and government officials who popularised the idea in Washington in the 1820s.
What’s so unnerving about efforts to relocate Native Americans and African Americans during the period before 1830 is that the white supporters of resettlement cheerfully insisted that blacks and Indians would benefit enormously from a new home — and that this removal was essential for people of color to realize their citizenship potential.
The advocates of colonization, in imagining an Indian state in the far West or a “United States of Africa” on the other side of the Atlantic, effectively argued that people of color would become more like white Americans if they were separated from them.
So it’s a deeply racist objective — a massive program of segregation, in effect — couched in the language of uplift, universalism and even racial equality. In some ways, you can see this as a forerunner to a phrase we all know in our contemporary moment: “I’m not racist, but…”
I think the book has a lot of relevance to the present debate about race in the United States. For one thing, we can see that, since the high-water moment of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, racism hasn’t disappeared.
The election of Barack Obama was hugely significant, but the underlying dynamics of race in American life are alarming: even under a black president, we have levels of child poverty, incarceration and police brutality that are wildly disproportionate across racial lines. We also have an embedded problem of residential segregation, which reinforces the parallel problem of school segregation.
If we see the roots of racial separation in Jim Crow and the overt racism of southern whites after the Civil War, we might reasonably wonder why a half-century of “progress” in racial attitudes since the 1960s hasn’t ended these problems of structural racism.
I’d argue that we’ve been looking in the wrong place: that racist outcomes don’t only come from reactionary or conservative intentions, but from liberal hangups about race and space that go all the way back to the Founding.
I’ve tried to show that “separate but equal” wasn’t the invention of defeated Confederates in the 1870s and 1880s, but a founding principle of the American republic. We need to go all the way back to the earliest days of the nation — and to some of the most “enlightened” figures from that Founding moment — to see how much work still needs to be done to get right with race.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve always wanted to write a book about empire and the United States — and, in particular, why Americans decided in the 19th century that they didn’t want the same kind of overseas empire that Spain, Britain and France had built up. So that might be where I go next.
But when you teach in a university, it usually takes five or six years to get a book written around all the other stuff you do in your day job. It’s important, then, to think carefully before you leap in!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: It was such a pleasure to work on this book, not least because I found so many interesting individuals to focus on. I’m very critical of the (mostly white) reformers and politicians who came up with the idea of colonization, but their stories are incredibly interesting - and, in many cases, heartbreaking.
It’s also fascinating to see how often Native Americans and African Americans warned these white reformers that their separation schemes weren’t going to work - partly because people of color weren’t going to sign up for them. And yet whites who styled themselves as liberal and enlightened continued to insist that blacks and Indians would eventually get with the program.
One simple message of the book is that your “improvement” schemes aren’t likely to succeed unless you can win over the people you’re purporting to help.
Today’s politicians and social commentators may be more self-aware in some respects than the Founding generation, but white liberals can still seem pretty detached on a lot of social questions — laying the blame for racism on, say, Trump supporters in flyover country rather than the political, economic and cultural structures that enjoy wide support from Democrats as well as Republicans.
I wouldn’t want to lecture anyone, but I think it’s important not to believe that someone else’s overt racism excuses you from the responsibility to interrogate your own role in a society that incubates high levels of racial injustice.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb