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British America Map

Diversity in the Mid-Eighteenth Century After 1700, colonial British America became increasingly diverse: as growing numbers of Africans were imported into the coastal South, large numbers of Germans and Scots-Irish immigrated to New York and Pennsylvania. By the middle of the century, Africans were about a third of the population in the South (and a majority in some coastal counties), and more Irish and Germans than English were coming to the mainland colonies. Most of the Irish were Scottish Presbyterians, but about a quarter were Catholic. The Germans were primarily members of pietistic Protestant movements such as the Moravians, who tended to form insular settlements and sought to maintain their distinctive language and culture. Some Anglo-Americans reacted to the growing diversity in racial terms. For example, Benjamin Franklin, who noted in Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind (1751) that “the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small,” called the German immigrants (and most Europeans) an alien “swarthy” race, and advocated keeping out “Blacks and Tawneys” in order to ensure that “the lovely White and Red” remained “the Complexion of my country.” European and African Ethnic Groups, North America, 1775.

While administered by the British government, on the eve of the American Revolution, the thirteen colonies were made up of a complex mix of European and African ethnic groups. (Carto-Graphics) Franklin’s outburst not only showed the ambiguous nature of Anglo-American racial concepts and how some white men continued to see an essential brotherhood between themselves and Native Americans, but it also pointed to how even the few colonists who, like Franklin, objected to the practice of slavery still accepted racist beliefs. In fact, the first American antislavery tract, Samuel Sewall’s Selling of Joseph (1700), while positing the essential unity of mankind beginning with a single creation, called for an end to importing African slaves because “there is such a disparity in their Conditions, Color & Hair, that they can never embody with us … but still remain in our Body Politic as a kind of extravasat[e] the Blood” that is, outside the community. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Anglo-American concepts of race were a confusing mélange of concepts, prejudices, fears, norms, and laws all of which coalesced into two seemingly contradictory yet reinforcing tendencies. The first was a bichrome, hierarchical demarcation of “white” versus “colored,” which was driven by the race-based slave system, generations of laws that painted blacks as inferior, and insecurities about black revolts. In this sense, differences among Europeans were perceived as ethnic rather than racial; the former could be readily altered or reshaped over time, while the latter was innate and unchangeable and marked the boundary between superior and inferior peoples. One element shaping this shift in perception was the increasing intermarriage between Native American survivors and blacks within areas of English domination. Anglo-Americans came to view the remaining coastal Native Americans as part of an undifferentiated “people of color,” and legislatures began to link Native Americans and blacks in restrictive racial laws. This bichrome view of race expressed the most fundamental characteristic of power and domination in colonial British America by the mid-eighteenth century.

It would be embedded in the first federal census of 1790, with categories of “slave,” “white,” and “all other free persons.” The second tendency was to emphasize human complexity and diversity, which was expressed primarily by the Enlightenment effort to catalogue and order the natural world by detailing innate and unvarying differences between species, including humans. This was driven in part by the continuing discovery of new and strange animals in the Americas, Africa, and Asia; it also was based on a growing understanding of reproduction, which emphasized the continuity of physical traits. In 1684, François Bernier differentiated mankind into four to six groups and, not surprisingly, picked skin color as the best characteristic to distinguish each race. A half century later, Charles Linnaeus in Systema Naturae tried to catalogue all living things, including humans, and nearly every subsequent scientific study began with that paradigm. This new system was vague and malleable, and, while it was not innately judgmental, it could be used to prove or disprove a hierarchy of races. Many Anglo-American intellectuals, including Benjamin Rush, proclaimed that whites and blacks were equal, and that all differences were environmental much as John Locke described the human mind, regardless of race, as a tabula rasa, or blank slate. Others, particularly Southerners deeply rooted in their slave societies, utilized Enlightenment ideas to solidify older, amorphous notions of race. Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, which he wrote between 1782 and 1783, used his observations of slave behavior to detail how they lacked “reflective” and “imaginative” abilities; he strongly suggested (“a suspicion only”) that blacks “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” Ironically, he also countered French scientist Georges Buffon’s contention that the North American environment “degenerated” animals (including humans), vigorously defending the essential equality between Europeans and Native Americans and pointing to cultural factors as the sole causes of Native American barbarity. By the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, scientific ideas of innate racial differences had joined with less reasoned prejudices to form the dominant concept of race.

Despite an upsurge of Enlightenment egalitarianism among some American intellectuals in the wake of the Revolution, most considered race to be considered innate and hierarchical: it was connected to skin color, denoted an individual’s intellectual and moral condition, and served as the key indicator of one’s social and legal status. Any recognizable amount of African ancestry would condemn an individual to the lowest rank. By the early nineteenth century, European and American intellectuals had rejected Enlightenment notions of environmentalism and, extending Jefferson’s ideas, constructed an increasingly elaborate system that ranked human races in terms of innate intelligence and morals, with Africans (or one particular group of Africans, which Europeans called the Hottentots) at the bottom. This marked the genesis of modern racism, because the notion of black inferiority was justified by supposedly dispassionate, provable scientific data, and also because such distinctions were unchangeable, and any modifications violated natural law. In this form, racism became deeply rooted in American culture and institutions, Northern as well as Southern, well before the Civil War. After the war, it continued to shape American thought and culture well into the twentieth century, essentially creating two worlds, white and black, within the United States. While the intellectual and legal tide has since turned, and race is increasingly depicted as a social and cultural construct akin to ethnicity, contests for economic and political power continue to divide whites and blacks in America.

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