Racial Theory

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European prejudices against Africans are ancient. But systematic, socially significant explanations of racial difference—racial theory—began in the late eighteenth century. Such rationalizations of race played an increasingly important role in the escalating race and slavery debates that ran from the Revolution to the Civil War.

In the eighteenth century, as long before, most Europeans and European Americans believed that Africans descended from Adam and Eve and were thus fully human. Departures from the supposed white human norm were seen as functions of environment. In keeping with the idea that acquired characteristics are inherited, the hot African sun and African "savagery" had made "blacks" biologically distinct, ugly, and stupid. Only in the era of "all men are created equal" and the American Revolution was antiblack prejudice first seriously challenged, and only then did Anglo-Americans countenance the idea of universal emancipation. Intellectually, the challenge to prejudice came in terms of instances of accomplished blacks. According to the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, humanity was defined by the possession of reason and imagination. Hence African Americans of high achievement—such as the Boston slave poet Phillis Wheatley and the Maryland mathematician Benjamin Banneker, who helped survey the site of the District of Columbia and published a noted almanac—seemed to prove that blacks were fully human, created equal. So did the tens of thousands of African Americans who fled to British lines and were promised freedom during the Revolution itself.

The initial white response was not to deny human unity and descent outright. Instead, prominent European Americans like Thomas Jefferson argued that, whatever explained black inferiority, blacks were now too distinctly marked ever to become American citizens with full political rights. Either they had to remain in bonds or they had to be sent away through some sort of program of gradual emancipation and forced emigration. Otherwise, as Jefferson proclaimed in his intensely prejudiced 1785 book, Notes on the State of Virginia (which came close to denying human unity), race war would ensue:

Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature, and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.

One of Jefferson's harshest white critics, the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) president Samuel Stanhope Smith also feared slave insurrection and race war, and championed an all-white America. Smith's Essay on the Causes of Variety of Complexion (1810) was the most important early American scientific statement on race; according to Smith, blacks could become true Americans only if they whitened up or intermarried with whites.

Thus, as American racial lines hardened into a stark black-versus-white divide, people of African descent became a fundamental challenge to the existing social order. Among Africans in the New World, a consciousness of "blackness" across the Atlantic world grew in response to the horrors of the Middle Passage and New World slavery as well as to the unfulfilled promise of "all men are created equal." Soon blackness combined with egalitarianism to yield a new "black" nation. The first great successful slave rebellion in world history, the Haitian Revolution, destroyed the French sugar colony of Saint Domingue and established the "black republic" of Haiti in 1804. American slave rebels like Gabriel Prosser wanted to follow suit in the United States. Slaveholders made the "horrors of Saint Domingue" into a bogey; American white abolitionists and early African American protest writers like the Freemason Prince Hall and, later, the contributors to the first black newspaper, Freedom's Journal, published from 1827 to 1829, championed the Haitian rebels as black George Washingtons. All the while, the complex multiracial—black, mulatto, white—dynamics of Haitian events were ignored. By the 1820s African Americans like the Journal writers were drawing on the same French Enlightenment sources cited by Haitians to argue that the founders of civilization themselves, in Ancient Egypt, had been black. In this view, black people were fully equal and deserved a place in the new nation without having to whiten up. If anything, Bostonian David Walker proclaimed in his incendiary 1829 Appeal, a call for messianic slave rebellion in the United States, blacks might claim racial superiority over whites, who had always been "an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and bloodthirsty set of beings, always seeking after power and authority." Walker, however, also held the door open to racial reconciliation in the United States.

It is hard to know to what degree Walker's brand of African American black racialism was deeply felt or whether he was being provocative. It is, however, indisputable that such blackness shaped white racial thought. Walker and the Journal writers were instrumental in convincing William Lloyd Garrison and other white reformers to abandon gradualism and emigration and champion immediate emancipation and black citizenship. Hence the radical abolitionist movement was multiracial from the start. The path of racial theory was one of constant intensification. The ambiguity and hypocrisy of the Jeffersonian era gave way to increasingly sharp and explicit expressions of "hard" racism, antislavery, and proslavery, leading to the Civil War and Emancipation.

See alsoAbolition of Slavery in the North; Abolition Societies; African Americans: African American Responses to Slavery and Race; Antislavery; European Influences: Enlightenment Thought; Gabriel's Rebellion; Haitian Revolution; Jefferson, Thomas; Proslavery Thought; Slavery: Slave Insurrections; Women: Writers .


Bay, Mia. The White Image in the Black Mind: African-American Ideas about White People, 1830–1925. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Dain, Bruce. A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Fredrickson, George. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Jordan, Winthrop D. White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

Bruce Dain