A review of A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic, by Bruce Dain
The left today is utterly schizophrenic when it comes to the question of race. Just raise the possibility, as Charles Murray once dared to do, that the races have different attributes and you will promptly be informed that race does not really exist—that it is merely "constructed" or, stronger stuff still, "socially constructed." Well, then take Leftist thinkers at their word and declare that the individual is the only important biological category. You will then immediately be assailed for failing to acknowledge the importance of "diversity" and of the decisive role that groups (meaning, mostly, racial groups) play in forming identity.
This contradiction, some will say, may be overcome if race is regarded primarily in "cultural" terms. Viewed in this light, it can be admitted that race is indeed very important. It is especially so because Euro-Americans (whites) historically reified race and made it a criterion for justifying slavery and colonialism. But ascribing the meaning of race entirely to culture, especially in this negative sense, does not quite fit all of leftist thinking either. In the end, few want to say that race is mostly the unfortunate byproduct of someone else's negative conceptions. On the contrary, one's race or culture is supposed to be something to be valued and maintained. It is a matter of pride to be black, red, yellow, or brown, if not white.
Nowhere does the Left's—and in this case not just the Left's—schizophrenia become more apparent than on the once highly charged question of "amalgamation" or "miscegenation." Even the use of these terms today is a matter of some sensitivity, with many looking for alternative formulations. But whatever it is called, demographers have recently been busy measuring rates of intermarriage, and it turns out that "exogamy" (the technical term for marrying out of one's group or tribe) is now quite common. For Asian Americans and Hispanics born in this country, more than one-third marry out. The percentage is much lower for African-Americans (about one-tenth), although the rate of increase in recent times has been very large.
Judgments about amalgamation are surprisingly varied and confused. This could be seen from the controversy over the 2000 census on whether to permit racial self-categorization—the so-called Tiger Woods option. Those favoring this change did so for different reasons. In many instances, people could be found celebrating the effusion of different "identities" on the principle that all should be able to take pride in their particular race. For others the decisive point was just the opposite: the multiplication of identities, whatever people might now think, really meant the beginning of the end of race. As for the opponents, they agreed fully with this latter view, only they evaluated it differently. They insisted that allowing racial choices beyond the classic (or "natural") racial categories would regrettably undermine the idea of race. Short-term practical considerations also clearly played a role. A complete change of census categories would reduce the numbers of minority groups, which in turn would lead to a loss of political clout and cuts in certain benefits. The play of political ambitions is of course a key factor in all of this, because as amalgamation proceeds (if this is what occurs), race consciousness may increase rather than decrease. Those who do not marry out will find reason to oppose miscegenation as a way of increasing their own claims to becoming group spokespersons, attacking in particular those who betray the cause.
In the legal realm, the state today has a position of neutrality toward amalgamation. American states no longer ban interracial marriage, as many Southern states once did. These laws, directed against white-black marriages, were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, in the appropriately named case of Loving v. Virginia. Nor are there any policies in effect, as a few once proposed, to provide direct encouragement of amalgamation. The most that can be said, and it is not very much, is that the state today offers a mild and indirect inducement to miscegenation by giving the same legal preferences that are now granted to certain designated minorities to the progeny of interracial couples.
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Given all the complexities on these matters, there is every reason to welcome a new book on the subject of the origins of race thinking in America, A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic, by Bruce Dain, a professor of History at the University of Utah. Dain's work is sure to be a helpful reference for all who are interested in this topic. Dain surveys a wide range of material, discussing not just those who created the science of ethnography in America, but also many of its critics, including a number of African-American writers whose works until now have not been widely known. Dain proves himself to be a most careful reader and interpreter, and his book provides the fullest account to date of the intellectual debate on the scientific aspects of race. Dain displays another virtue as well. He refuses to indulge in the all-too-tempting technique of exploiting the shock value of the most racist pas- sages in many of these works as a way of avoiding analysis. He goes the extra mile to try to explain the logic of these writers, following it carefully up to the point where, in some cases, it becomes only too clear that sheer prejudice or a political agenda—and nothing approaching the spirit of genuine science—is at work.
Yet for all of its considerable merits, Dain's book is one in which the sum of the parts is much greater than the whole. A Hideous Monster lacks a compelling thesis or overall argument. As a result, readers may find themselves spending a good deal of time consulting the index (fortunately, a good one) in order to select the specific topics and themes of interest to them. Dain's failure here is related to the fact that he never considered any of the literature of political science that examined the role of ethnology in relation to other important foundational ideas. Dain never mentions Abraham Lincoln or provides any serious discussion of natural rights.
The book's erudition nevertheless provides rich material for analysis. Within the field of ethnology, the most interesting theme is the debate between proponents of what can be called—these are my terms—the school of deep difference and the school of relative sameness. The discussion must begin, as Dain's does, with Jefferson's Notes on The State of Virginia, which introduced the science of natural history or ethnology to America. (Previous to the late 18th century, there were numerous discussions of race, but it was only at this time that thinkers tried to treat the question under the rubric of a systematic science.) For some reason, Jefferson in this work delves into the scientific question of the status and character of the human races. On the speculative question of origins, Jefferson hesitates between seeing the races as different species (polygenism) or as distinct varieties within the same species (monogenism). But whatever the historical origin, Jefferson argues that the races today, in the case especially of blacks and others, have become quite different. These differences are of course physical, but they are more than that. They apply to other attributes. In the case of blacks and whites, the black, while the equal to the white in many respects, is inferior in the two highest human qualities, imagination and reason. No doubt nurture accounted for part of the difference (in the case of the Indian, Jefferson thought it accounted for almost all of it), but Jefferson concludes—as a conjecture—that a significant part of the difference is now natural. Moreover, nature seems to provide or suggest important instruction for the political world. Race differences supply one criterion for what is "a people" and hence what is a natural foundation of community. Nature also provides a sanction against miscegenation. Nature has or intends a hierarchy, which man violates by miscegenizing, which has the effect of pulling down the higher races.
A huge debate has taken place on why Jefferson engaged at all in this discussion. One view is that he was an adept of pure science, and he felt obliged to pursue the science of natural history where it led him. As a man of the Enlightenment, he was convinced that scientific knowledge, while it might occasionally cause difficulties, must ultimately work well for society. Another view holds that Jefferson included his scientific findings because they served—or so he believed—a constructive political purpose. Independent of any ethnographic considerations, Jefferson had become convinced, on political grounds, that the two races could not live together harmoniously in America. Slavery had led to a deadly mix of hatred on the part of the black and contempt on the part of the white. To save the experiment of republicanism, Jefferson proposed a two-part strategy. Slavery had to be ended and each race needed to be in its own community, which would be achieved by the black being colonized, originally probably in areas to the West. The scientific findings provided backing for this policy by lending support to a separation of the races. Finally, others have suggested deep-seated psychological motives on Jefferson's part that were a result of shame and a psychosexual complex. If not Thomas Jefferson himself (a matter on which DNA evidence has not been conclusive), then certainly members of his family—and of course a significant part of the caste of slaveholders—availed themselves of slave women. American slavery, in addition to being a system of compulsory labor, was, as Abraham Lincoln later so aptly put it, a system of "forced concubinage."
Opposing Jefferson's "deep difference" views was the scientific view that the races were relatively the same, and that, as a consequence, there was no insuperable natural barrier to their living together. This view entailed, obviously, claiming that all races were of the same species (monogenism), with any systematic differences resulting from environmental or accidental in- fluences. Of course, accepting an environmental view did not by itself mean that the races were substantially alike now, as they could have solidified into different varieties. (Indeed, many in the monogenetic camp were leading proponents of difference and held strongly racist views.) Those environmentalists arguing relative sameness accordingly added other arguments. These included the claims that distinctions among groups were not absolute but gradual (a position that questioned the fixedness of race); that there was a wall between physical attributes (which varied considerably) and non-physical attributes (which varied only slightly or not at all); and that the differences, being caused by environmental influences, might be eliminated, perhaps rapidly, under changed conditions. This last argument gave rise to an extreme claim that presumably could use science to prove total equality or uniformity and settle the whole question. If physical differences disappeared under changed circumstances—if blacks could become white—then surely this would remove any issues about differences in non-physical attributes.
Speculations on this score were suggested by one of America's important early thinkers, Dr. Benjamin Rush, and for a time perhaps by Samuel Stanhope Smith, whom Dain identifies as the most important and influential American theorist of monogenism in the 19th century. After graduating from Princeton he came to Virginia in 1773 and shortly thereafter became the first president of Hampden Sydney College. Returning later to his alma mater, he married President Witherspoon's daughter, and, upon Witherspoon's death in 1794, he became president of Princeton in 1795, a position he occupied until 1812. Stanhope Smith is justly honored at Princeton today by a building in his name that houses the function of greatest importance to the faculty of any university: parking administration.
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Stanhope Smith was a clear foe of Jeffersonian views on race. He defended his position in favor of monogenism in a work entitled An Essay on the Causes and Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species, presented first in 1787 and then redone in a second (and much reworked) edition, published in 1801. Stanhope Smith was a difficult, even a turgid, writer, who in the first edition appeared to support a rapid environmentalist position, suggesting that black students at Princeton were becoming whiter as they were exposed to both the physical environment of New Jersey and the cultural environment of a Princeton education. But in the later edition, he claims that this was a misinterpretation and that environmental conditions alone could not change blackness, except over a very long period. The elimination of race—meaning chiefly, it would seem, the elimination of a distinct black race in America—could therefore only come from miscegenation, and in a colony in the Western territories of America to be inhabited by free slaves, he proposed a plan for the state to give any white who should marry a black " a double portion of land."
Stanhope Smith, like others who argued a position of relative sameness, had difficulty in being able to express a biological theory that could explain at one and the same time difference and sameness. Scientists today have a more sophisticated language to account for this point, which is not to say that they have proven it. A standard account today is that there are a small number of genes controlling skin color and that these can easily have been transformed, as a result of environmental factors and selection, during the relatively short period in human history during which population groups lived in (partial) physical separation. The genes controlling nonphysical attributes are far more numerous and complex, and any change of these in the amount of time available would be unlikely. This view is favored today because it accounts for observable and hereditary physical differences while at the same time claiming uniformity in other respects. It is therefore a sign of current hypersensitivity about the question of race that so many have chastised Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker for a recent statement that was substantially in line with this view: "blacks and Latins take the heat better than most whites."
After the 1830s the science of ethnology took off in America. Two approaches were employed. One was to observe the behavior of populations of different races and then attempt to control for the effect of conditions. What remained was attributed to natural differences. Another approach was to study physiological variations among the races—for example, bone structure and especially skull sizes (phrenology). The assumption in the last case was that skull size was related to brain size, which in turn was related to intelligence. This approach had the trappings of a harder science, with its precise measurements, although in reality it assumed at the outset the conclusion it was attempting to prove.
The dominant position in ethnology emphasized deep differences, whether based on a claim of polygenism or of evolved varieties. American ethnology had the strongest proponents of polygenism, which included such figures as Samuel Morton, Louis Agassiz, and Josiah Nott and George Gliddon, whose writings were cobbled together in a huge and well-known text entitled Types of Mankind (1854). Nott went so far as to sponsor an abridged translation of Arthur de Gobineau's Essay on the Inequality of the Races—Gobineau is widely known as the father of racist theory—in which the passages arguing for monogenism were omitted. Polygenism, besides the moral implications of its claim of innate differences, added in one version the hypothesis that amalgamation would lead to the extinction of all, as the progeny of intermarriage would not prove fecund over time. By no means were all who stressed deep differences (including polygenism) supporters of slavery, but Nott and Gliddon were highly active in the pro-slavery cause. Their views were later reflected in the position of Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, when he declared in 1861 that the Confederacy was established on "the great truth that the negro is not the equal of the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition."
Dain's failure to investigate systematically the bearing of the scientific question on the issue of political first principles is regrettable. He ignores completely the work of Harry V. Jaffa, who carefully articulated the three alternative foundational ideas that were in play in the middle of the 19th century: the doctrine or science of natural right; the science of natural history; and History as understood by the "historical school." (The last was the position of John C. Calhoun, which identified right with the historical practices or origins of a community.) Jaffa and his followers have insisted on the importance of studying these foundational ideas, arguing, just as Lincoln did, that the loss of the foundation of natural rights and its displacement by one or the other of these foundational ideas would spell the end of the republican experiment. As Lincoln wrote to Henry Pierce in 1859: "It is now no child's play to save the principles of Jefferson from total overthrow in this nation…. The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society. And yet they are denied and evaded, with no small show of success. One dashingly calls them 'glittering generalities'; another bluntly calls them 'self-evident lies'; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only to 'superior races'. We must repulse them, or they will subjugate us."
Besides reasoning from the actual consequences, there is the additional theoretical question of trying to determine what kind of knowledge can be used to supply guidance for political life in its different realms. While the proponents of the historical school have been faulted for offering no standard beyond practice, the same cannot be said of natural history (ethnology). It purported to be a science and to offer an unchanging understanding of nature. On what basis, one might ask, is one to prefer, for the foundation of society, the science of natural right to the science of natural history? For even if the science of ethnology of the 19th century is known today in many respects to have been defective, and even if some of its versions could be seen by the astute layman as politically tainted, still it cannot be denied that much of the scientific work that purported to establish deep differences among the races was probably deemed "good" or sound science at the time. Nor can one reasonably expect a working politician to have independent views on the scientific merits of such questions. (Abraham Lincoln no more spent his time studying skull sizes than Bill Clinton did studying DNA.) In brief, are sciences different, and is one more appropriate to serve as a foundational idea?
There is a revealing sidelight in this regard. In his various "colloquies" with Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln made clear at several points that probably the main appeal of Douglas's position with the public was tied to the question of "amalgamation," to Douglas's being "horrified at the thought of mixing blood by the white and black races." Science or "philosophy," as Lincoln calls it, had made that much of an impression. Much of Lincoln's June 26, 1857 speech on the Dred Scott decision is on this subject, and Lincoln has sometimes been faulted (or, as the case may be, praised) for statements in that speech opposing amalgamation. (In fact, though much more would have to be said on this subject, the issue turns on the point that for Lincoln the question of slavery is far more important than the question of amalgamation—and that in any case, even by Douglas's own ethnological standard, slavery cannot be justified: "slavery is the greatest source of amalgamation.") But the point of interest here is that whatever Lincoln may have thought about the findings of the existing science of ethnology, he resisted applying its theoretical premises to questions about the foundation of societies. Again, one may ask, what is it that should make the science of natural right authoritative in this arena rather than the science of biology?
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What commends the science of natural right, it would seem, is the fact that while positing claims about psychology (the nature of man) as a natural science—claims that a pure scientist could study—we observe also that this science was developed in conjunction with political science and political philosophy. The science factored in a political logic, not perhaps in changing anything about natural science, but in determining how much of it to use and in what ways. The chief job of the science of natural rights, after all, was to provide a basis for erecting sound and just societies. This starting point stands in contradistinction to the claims of some of the pure natural sciences. These are developed in the spirit of a general inquiry of nature, absent political considerations. They are then applied to the political order on the assumption that they should somehow fit. Thus over the years various political actors have attempted to apply the principles of ethnography, of Darwinian biology, and even of physics, to politics, on the view that these sciences, which explain the foundation of physical nature, should govern political life as well.
Why, we may ask, does man seek to ground societies on some kind of non-partisan standard beyond politics itself? The paradoxical answer, it would seem, is that it is because everything in the political realm is subject to being contested and disputed. Man seeks something firm and unshakeable outside of politics, something connected to something higher or beyond politics that is permanent and stable. Pure science (nature) would seem to supply one such standard. Ironically, however, we find that the pure natural sciences have been fickle and dangerous political guides. The errors and crimes committed under their authority are too numerous to recount. Although it is welcome today that some political theorists claim to have discovered inside the biological realm principles that support healthy constitutional politics, it would be in principle unwise to hold political foundations to shifting developments and speculations in this field. The natural sciences have a different function, and we have no reason to expect that all things fit nicely together.
Following this logic, if we treat the science of natural rights as authoritative for political foundations, it is important also to be precise about its claims. No doubt some of its core principles can conflict with arguments from the natural sciences, as the jurisdictions of these sciences sometimes overlap. But beyond these occasional conflicts, in which natural rights must stand its ground in the political realm, it is not the proper role of the science of natural rights to be stretched into making claims outside of its proper field of competence. There is nothing, for example, in the science of natural rights that proves that all races (in whatever sense race may or may not exist) or all groups (in whatever sense that they may or may not exist) must be exactly the same in all attributes. As tempting as some may find it to try to invoke the authority of the science of natural rights to settle such arguments, it is unwise to push such claims too far. We do not live today in an age of authority, in which political principles can or should try to dictate conclusions to the natural sciences within their realm. And it would be foolish to put in jeopardy the claims of the science of natural rights by allowing them to be manifestly disproved by the natural sciences.
As for the sciences that treat questions of race, they hold some theoretical interest and may or may not be relevant to various forms of policy debates. These sciences will continue doing whatever it is that they do, probably always enmeshed in controversy and rarely as free of political influence as they sometimes claim. But like any natural science, they will always be subject to revision on the basis of further inquiry.