[Marxism] Nicholas Guyatt’s ‘Bind Us Apart’

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Dec 24 07:27:50 MST 2019

(In this review, Eric Foner has problems with Nicholas Guyatt's new book 
that argues that our Founding Fathers were racist to the core. I have 
heard through the grapevine that Foner has "no dog in this fight" when 
asked how he stood on the Project 1619 controversy.)

Nicholas Guyatt’s ‘Bind Us Apart’
By Eric Foner
April 29, 2016

How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation
By Nicholas Guyatt
Illustrated. 403 pp. Basic Books. $29.99.

Half a century ago, inspired by the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. 
Board of Education, historians embarked on an effort to identify the 
origins of racial segregation. C. Vann Woodward insisted that rather 
than existing from time immemorial, as the ruling’s opponents claimed, 
segregation emerged in the 1890s. Others located its genesis in 
Reconstruction or the pre-Civil War North.

Eventually, the debate faded. Now, Nicholas Guyatt offers a new 
interpretation. Segregation and its ideological justification “separate 
but equal,” he argues, originated in the early Republic in the efforts 
of “enlightened Americans” to uplift and protect Indians and 
African-­Americans. After trying and abandoning other policies, these 
reformers and policy makers concluded that only separation from whites — 
removal of Indians to the trans-Mississippi West and blacks to Africa — 
would enable these groups to enjoy their natural rights and achieve 
economic and cultural advancement. Thus, almost from the outset, the 
idea of separating the races was built into the DNA of the United States.

Guyatt, who teaches at the University of Cambridge, is the author of a 
well-­regarded book on the history of the idea (still very much alive 
today) that God has chosen this country for a special mission. In “Bind 
Us Apart” he addresses another theme central to our national identity: 
Who is an American? To find an answer he offers a detailed account of 
early national policies toward Indians and blacks.

By the somewhat anachronistic label “liberal” — usually applied, when 
referring to the 19th century, to believers in limited government, free 
trade and individual liberty — Guyatt means adherents of Enlightenment 
values, including the repudiation of prejudice against others. These 
people realized that the presence of subordinate racial populations 
could not be reconciled with the affirmation that “all men are created 
equal” in the Declaration of Independence. They assumed that what 
appeared to be black and Indian inferiority resulted from oppressive 
circumstances, not innate incapacity. With proper education and 
training, these groups could become equal members of American society.

This belief led to a “civilizing agenda” whereby the federal government 
encouraged Native Americans to form compact communities where they would 
take up settled farming and abandon communal land holding for the 
benefits of private ownership. The ultimate aim was that whites and 
Indians would “become one people,” in the words of Thomas Jefferson.

One of Guyatt’s surprising findings is how many liberals believed that 
the Indian population should be assimilated through intermarriage. “You 
will mix with us by marriage,” Jefferson told an Indian delegation in 
1808. “We shall all be Americans.” Not all whites agreed, of course. In 
the 1820s “all hell broke loose” in Cornwall, Conn., when two young 
Indian men who arrived to study at a religious school ended up marrying 
local white women.

Despite the liberals’ vision of harmony, conflict reigned on the 
frontier. After the War of 1812 broke the power of Indian nations east 
of the Mississippi River, hundreds of thousands of white settlers poured 
across the Appalachians, eyeing Native American land. Reformers feared 
the Indians were destined for extinction. The only alternative, they 
concluded, was for them to be transported far from the white presence. 
In this interpretation, Andrew Jackson’s policy of Indian removal, which 
produced the infamous Trail of Tears, reflected not so much a hatred of 
Indians but a desire to ensure their survival.

When it came to African-Americans, the liberals’ preferred approach was 
removal to Africa, a policy known as “colonization.” Guyatt is correct 
to insist that historians have not taken the idea of colonization 
seriously enough. It was hardly a fringe movement; statesmen from Thomas 
Jefferson to Henry Clay and, as late as 1862, Abraham Lincoln saw 
colonization as the only way to end slavery peacefully and with the 
consent of slaveholders. It also attracted some support among blacks. 
Most, however, strongly resisted; indeed their opposition to 
colonization was a crucial catalyst for the emergence of radical 
abolitionism, which demanded equal rights for blacks within the United 

Like Indian removal, Guyatt argues, colonization emerged after reformers 
abandoned the idea that blacks could be assimilated into American 
society. The first emancipation — gradual abolition in the Northern 
states — was not coupled with colonization. Reformers assumed that 
children born to slaves would find a place as free Americans after 
serving apprenticeships that helped them overcome the “degradation” 
caused by slavery (not by innate inferiority).

Guyatt makes clear that rather than being fixed, racial attitudes evolve 
historically. The initial status of free blacks in the new nation was, 
to say the least, confusing. The Naturalization Act of 1790, which 
barred nonwhite immigrants from becoming citizens, envisioned a racially 
exclusive Republic. Yet in the same decade the federal government issued 
certificates of citizenship to black sailors as well as white to protect 
them from impressment by the British Navy. Black men could vote in most 
of the original 13 states. As the 19th century progressed, however, 
prejudice steadily increased and free blacks’ rights were stripped away. 
And intermarriage was even less of an option than with Indians. The 
charge that abolitionists were promoting racial “amalgamation” helped to 
spark anti-black riots, including one in New York City in 1834. With 
racism becoming more and more intractable, many critics of slavery 
(Lincoln among them) came to believe that the only way to rid the 
country of the institution and secure blacks’ rights was by separating 
the races.

Guyatt’s juxtaposition of attitudes and policies relating to Indians and 
blacks yields important insights. But the book is not entirely 
persuasive. For one thing, its structure seems at odds with its 
argument. Chapters on Native Americans alternate with those on blacks, 
creating a disjointed narrative that makes it difficult to find the 
links between the two stories. Like many writers with a bold thesis, 
Guyatt is prone to exaggeration. Given the fact that only a few thousand 
black Americans ended up in Liberia, established in Africa by the 
American Colonization Society, can we really say that “separate but 
equal” was a “founding principle of the United States”?

Guyatt may be guilty of taking too seriously the claims by proponents of 
separation that they were motivated by the best interests of blacks and 
Indians. As recent studies suggest, colonizationists seemed remarkably 
indifferent to the fate of those they sent to Africa. Long after it was 
apparent that emigrants had a better chance of survival if they settled 
at sites on higher ground, the society continued to deposit them at 
Monrovia, Liberia’s low-lying, malaria-infested capital.

It is difficult to assess Guyatt’s claim that those he calls “liberal” 
invented segregation. Many advocates of racial separation were hardly 
free from prejudice. Some colonizationists seemed more interested in 
ridding the country of free blacks than ending slavery or improving the 
black condition. Indeed, the Colonization Society relentlessly opposed 
efforts to uplift blacks in this country for fear of making them 
reluctant to depart. Indian removal owed a great deal not to liberals 
but to outright racists, including Southern planters who coveted Native 
American land for the rapidly expanding Cotton Kingdom. Many reformers 
strongly opposed the policy. Was Andrew Jackson an “enlightened 
American” when it came to relations with the Indians?

Viewing the story fundamentally as a problem of race relations obscures 
the crucial difference between the place of Native Americans and blacks 
in the emerging national economy. The bottom line is this: To fulfill 
their own aspirations, white Americans needed Indian land and black 
labor. That is why Indian removal took place but black colonization — 
apart from a few thousand souls — never did.

Eric Foner is the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia 
University and the author, most recently, of “Gateway to Freedom: The 
Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.”

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