Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation

By Nicholas Guyatt

Basic | $29.99 | 403 pages

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

In light of the current political climate, the search is on for the origins of prejudice and racial segregation in the history of our republic. Where does this blight come from in our American democracy? Does the concept of Jim Crow hold the answer for the need for white privilege and entitlement? Can the rationale and reason for black oppression be explained in the notion of “separate but equal?”

The separation of the races, Nicholas Guyatt suggests in his astonishing book, Bind Us Apart, didn’t start with the Civil War or the cotton economy. He moves us back to the Founding Fathers, those liberal reformers and their dissent against the British Crown, and their thirst for religious freedom and their cry against taxation without representation.

Needless to say, the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights embraced equality but with one drawback: that of granting basic freedoms to the Native Americans and African-Americans. Although Thomas Jefferson, as president, had signed a bill banning the country’s active participation in international slave trade, he still owned slaves on Monticello and saw integration as not the solution of bondage of the dark men and women. Some of his peers thought the slaves should be freed and taken to the wilderness of the western states, but Jefferson put off any action on the problem, saying antislavery was “an enterprise for the young.”

Whereas Jefferson’s notion of “all men are created equal” disturbed the framers, the idea of ending human chattel evaporated in a mist against the practical solution of abolition. The whites feared what a liberated mass of blacks could do. Would anyone be safe? Would they remember the past injustices suffered by them? Slavery was the cruel barrier that held them in check. Some endorsed a newly-advanced theory of “colonialization,” an idea that gained momentum during the era between the Revolutionary era and the Civil War. One of the brightest lights among the Washington elite, James Madison, promoted the American Colonialization Society, an organization to remedy slavery by collecting freed slaves and shipping them back to Africa.

In the end, only 20,000 were settled in Liberia, as an all-black colony under federal protection.

To counter the threat against freed slaves, writer David Walker penned in his 1829 Appeal To The Colored Citizens Of The World: “This country is as much as ours as it is the whites. Whether they will admit it now or not, they will see and believe it by and by.”

Liberal meant something different back then. In early America, it meant you were an enlightened white person, manifesting “a Christian benevolence to others” and rejecting “the temptations of prejudice,” according to Guyatt, a history professor at the University of Cambridge. However, liberals saw blacks as marked by the scourge of slavery and Native Americans as too savage to be integrated in intermarriage with whites. They promoted huge groups of Indians to be removed west of the Mississippi so the refugees could enjoy “their natural rights” and attain some semblance of economic achievement.

The antislavery struggle, with the ideas of William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, frightened some moderates of the abolitionist movements because of the social consequences of emancipation. During Abraham Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglass in 1858, the rival of Honest Abe scared the citizenry with the threat of a race-blind society. “If you Black Republicans think the Negro ought to be on a social equality with your wives and daughters, you have a perfect right to do,” Douglass warned. The future president said that slavery should be ended by “systems of gradual emancipation,” preferring the freedom of all slaves and sending them to Liberia.

After the rise of the North in the battle between the States, some Christian thinkers wondered if the biological curse of Africans was the most damning strike against the cause of equality. Many thought they lacked a soul and could never be elevated to the humanity of whites.

Both white Americans and some of their European counterparts viewed the segregation of the races as the reasonable solution to slavery. Even the educated enlightened were staunch segregationists with supposed progressive ideas, did not think the entrenched system of intolerance and racism would end and the bright promises of Reconstruction was doomed to fail.

In the end, they were correct in their assessment. The campaign to “civilize” Indians and blacks fizzled before it really started. President Andrew Jackson’s policy of Indian removal sent a signal that the tribes would benefit from being away from a hostile white presence. The tribes will never forget the harsh Trail of Tears, where many of their number perished.

Guyatt’s view of early America’s reformers and their view of racial politics show the contradiction at the heart of the national conscience. This country, “retains an instinct for racial separation that manifests itself even among those who foreswear racist beliefs,” Guyatt writes. “You can see it in the beating or killing of African Americans who end up in the “wrong” neighborhood, or in the chronic problem of housing discrimination in major cities, or in the struggles against poverty facing Native and African American communities across the country.”

America, Guyatt concludes, has a long way to go in the fight against the ingrained problems of prejudice and racism. Unfortunately, it was in our DNA from the start of our collective history.

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