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The Ties that Bind

By: Allen C. Guelzo
October 4, 2016

f there is one class of Americans in the dim past whom we despise only a little less than the slaveholders and their apologists, it’s the people who thought the solution to slavery was to expel the slaves completely from the United States and colonize them elsewhere. In the wake of the American Revolution, one influential segment of anti-slavery opinion in both Britain and America held that the most direct path to emancipation lay through an exit. In Britain, they spearheaded the creation of Sierra Leone’s black colony; in America, Liberia’s black republic. Colonization had considerable appeal—Henry Clay was president of the American Colonization Society, and Abraham Lincoln, Francis Scott Key, and Daniel Webster were members or sympathizers. But even at its pre-Civil War apogee, white and black abolitionists denounced colonization as a cheap trick that made African Americans, not slavery, the problem to be eliminated. Lincoln’s willingness—even after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation—to dally with colonization is a serious blot on his record.

Nicholas Guyatt’s Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation is less the colonization movement’s history than an ironic commentary on its good intentions. (The title comes from a version of the song, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free,” which Guyatt heard Nina Simone perform in 1976, after she spent two years living in Liberia. For the line “remove all the bars that keep us apart” she sang “break all the things that bind us apart.”) Colonization wasn’t a complicated scheme for ethnic cleansing nefariously plotted by cunning racists, but the most enlightened, even liberal, solution to white racism. Unlike Paul Finkelman, George Van Cleve, or David Waldstreicher, Guyatt, a lecturer in modern history at the University of Cambridge, generously grants that slavery profoundly troubled most American founders. “Educated Americans in the early republic found it far harder to be outright racists than we usually imagine,” writes Guyatt. They understood that they had committed “the new republic to becoming something without precedent in the modern world: a multiracial society dedicated to equal rights and potential.” They feared that lower-class whites, proving themselves the real unequals, would degrade or debase free blacks. Only by removal from proximity to no-account whites could other races achieve their full potential.

Colonizationists believed exposure to white depravity—not race—rendered slaves “inferior.” The sooner blacks were removed from contact with ignoble whites, the better for blacks. The fearless revivalist, Samuel Hopkins, chided New Englanders in 1776 for their “strong prejudices” against African Americans, who were “by nature and by right, on a level with our brethren and children.” Those prejudices made Hopkins wonder if blacks “could be moved into those places in this land, where they may have profitable business” or “transported to Africa, where they might probably live better than in any other country.”

The suggestion that a place “in this land” might serve as well as Africa triggered Guyatt’s epiphany that colonization had a parallel in the treatment of the various Indian tribes the United States inherited from British rule in 1783. Both Henry Knox, the first Secretary of War, and his successor, Timothy Pickering, believed that “a man must be destitute of humanity, of honesty, of common sense” who could not see that Indians were whites’ natural equals. Unfortunately, many whites were that destitute. Contact with them brought on conflict and “bad habits” in the tribes. Even “civilized” tribes like the Cherokee could not avoid clashes with white squatters and trespassers. Only removal beyond the Mississippi could “preserve their old habits unmolested by settlers.”

Since most whites were not going to accord equal citizenship to Indians or blacks, Indian removal and black colonization seemed pragmatic solutions. The way whites responded to both the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut (where Indian youths courted and married white daughters from surrounding towns) and Richard Mentor Johnson’s black mistress and mixed-race daughters are Guyatt’s test cases for understanding why racial separation could be seen as a favor to blacks and Indians. Colonization/removal would shelter blacks and Indians from prejudice, and allow them to flourish without let or hindrance from whites.

Thus was born what Plessy v. Ferguson later described as “separate but equal”—conceived as a protective device for those who might be treated unequally. That colonization never worked (except in a handful of cases which no one would want to emulate) lay largely in the fact that it was supposed to be voluntary. It was assumed, much too easily, that blacks would understand and share the disgust their white patrons felt for white racists, and cheerfully enlist as colonizers. “Your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people,” Lincoln said in 1862. “But even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race…. It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.” But conditions in Sierra Leone and Liberia were hellaciously disappointing, which blacks knew, and even worse in the short-lived Caribbean colony on Île-à-Vache, which Lincoln sponsored in 1863. Why risk themselves and their families when they had been born, raised, and lived in America, and could read the Declaration of Independence? They saw no reason why they should be punished with expulsion when the whites’ hateful behavior was the real offense.

Guyatt’s interpretation will not delight Marxists, who see slavery and Indian removal as economic rather than racial issues, and prefer to believe that colonization failed because white America needed cheap black labor, while Indian removal succeeded because no one wanted Indian labor. It also falls somewhat short of recognizing how much colonization was a strategy for appeasing white opposition to emancipation. Colonization, wrote Frederick Milnes Edge in 1862, “was adopted to silence the weak-nerved, whose name is legion.” And white abolitionists rightly saw what the colonizationists tried not to see in themselves, that colonization was in fact “an opiate to the conscience.”

Surprisingly, the American Colonization Society remained in operation until 1964, by which time radicalized African Americans had twice toyed with the colonization humbug: once under Marcus Garvey in the 1920s, and then as expatriates like James Baldwin or separatists like the Nation of Islam in the 1950s and ‘60s. But Guyatt shows no interest in tracing colonization and removal into modern times. It is enough for him to twist the tail of racial virtue’s modern presumptions by demonstrating how “separate but equal” was not the first fruits of racism but of “its liberal predecessor.”