Darwin sought to not only produce a new scientific truth, but also to put an end to polygenism, the current scientific discourse on human origins that gave tacit and at times explicit support for slavery: ‘... when the principle of evolution is generally accepted, as it surely will be before long, the dispute between the monogenists and polygenists will die a silent and unobserved death.’ (Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, p. 235)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Thomas Jefferson - Natural History, Politics, Benjamin Banneker, and Slavery

Descendents of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings at Monticello in 1999

“O! That mine enemy would write a book! Has been a well known prayer against an enemy. I had written a book, and it has furnished matter of abuse for want of something better.
(Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Samuel Brown, March 25, 1798).

Rebekah Higgitt’s post on Thomas Jefferson Thomas Jefferson, science enthusiast prompted a number of responses including a very good post by Will Thomas on Jefferson’s Natural, Moral, and Political Philosophy of Race and Slavery  which deserves to be extended and amplified here.  There is indeed nothing “straightforwardly heroic” about Jefferson. This is what makes him such an interesting and important figure in America for he in many ways embodied the contradictions and the less “straightforwardly heroic” aspects of the history of the United States. It would be easy, and no doubt correct to say, that Jefferson has a Shakespearean quality to his biography and posthumous construction that few other President’s possess. It is his rhetoric that is heard from every emancipatory movement, most notably the Civil Rights Movement, but also from the forces of reaction as well.

That said – for it is as easy to read the future back into an individual’s past as it is to read the future into the past in general – to understand Jefferson as a person “of his time” is by no means to offer an apology for his faults. It is to instead place him in his time when the politics of nation forming were so contested that one should not be surprised to find at least some of them played out in the Notes on the State of Virginia. To put him in his social and historical context does not explain away his faults, but casts a brighter light on them and on our own.

Jefferson was already embroiled in political controversy and in fact originally published the Notes on the State of Virginia anonymously because he feared in particular a religious backlash that would harm his political ambitions. While the work has philosophical/theoretical aspects, it is essentially a work of Natural History motivated by political forces. The
book was commenced and for the most part composed during perhaps the darkest period of his life, in the final months of his career as a wartime governor of an invaded Virginia and in the troubled period immediately following his retirement from that office. The motivating impulse behind Jefferson’s book was the desire of the French government to amass a body of pertinent information concerning the American states, with whose fortunes the French were becoming increasingly involved at a time when the outcome of the American Revolution appeared extremely dubious. During the summer of early autumn of 1780, at approximately the same time as the disastrous battle of Camden which saw the rout of a demoralized Virginia militia, Francois Marbois, the secretary of the French legation in Philadelphia, circulated a semi-official questionnaire concerning the American state among various influential members of the Continental Congress. One such set of questions Marbois transmitted to Joseph Jones, a member of the Virginia delegation and uncle of James Monroe. Jones, in turn, gave them to the person he thought most capable of answering the queries, the thirty-seven-year-old governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson.
William Pedeu, Introduction to Notes on the State of Virginia, xi-xii.
Ultimately, Jefferson had to put aside the manuscript to escape the British forces and later Tarleton’s raid on Monticello only to pick it up again after his retirement from government in 1781. But at the time he began its composition, Jefferson was, in effect, trying to convince the French to continue their aid to the revolutionary forces. With this in mind, we can understand the mix of topics found in the Notes as being the result of the constraints of both politics as well as late 18th century Natural History. In many ways, the Notes show us that science, rationality, and ideology were as mutually constitutive then just as they are now.

The Notes on the State of Virginia is a work of Natural History, and its dispute with Buffon is both scientific but also political when seen in the light of its origins in Marbois’ queries. One takes from it that there should be no fear of supporting the Americans; the species in the new world are not degenerate, whether we are talking about species of elk or species of human, nor of European settlers exposed to the workings of food and climate. Note that the discussion is appropriately in the chapter on “Productions Mineral, Vegetable and Animal” where Jefferson is replying to the query to give “A notice of the mines and other subterraneous riches; its trees, plants, fruits, &c.” The chapter supplies what resources might be of potential commercial interest to the French. . In contrast the discussion of slavery occurs in response to Query XIV “The administration of justice and description of the laws?” and is to be found in the chapter on Laws. This has more than passing significance, as laws can be changed, while the products of nature are for Jefferson and other Naturalists, fixed.

So while the Jefferson’s text is consistent with geographical treatises of its day, that consistency is to be found with the geographical treatises required for the government of populations and territories. It is not so much an exchange with the Enlightenment savants of Europe as it might at first appear as it is a report to the State.

As a work motivated by politics and social upheaval (i.e., the queries of the French ambassador) but based in the Natural History of the late 18th Century. Jefferson’s work is expressive of the science of his time. It is “straight-fowardly racist” not only because it is bigoted by our standards, but because it is based in a Natural History which had created racial categories to classify human variety and bequeathed those categories to us. Jefferson’s views rightly strike us as racist, but he would have not known the term. While we can easily see the racism, we do not see the racialist thinking as easily because we ourselves continue to unthinkingly dwell within the racial classifications of Linne and Blumenbach. At least the facial angle of Camper has lost favor except in the training of artists.

Jefferson’s views rested on the authority of Natural History, geography, and the emerging fields of physical anthropology and comparative morphology. His use of classical authorities is a case of what is missing being as important as what is there. Jefferson’s Notes is also a profoundly secular work which does not rely on religious authority and is at times skeptical of scientific knowledge as well. As Kant would soon point out, it was an age where Enlightenment was possible, but it was not an Enlightened Age. Within this mix Jefferson’s attention to fixity, colour, skin, climate, and aesthetics fits quite neatly. Whether species are fixed or variable and the extent of the effects of climate and food on the body, the status of “hybrids” including mulattoes, were all interlocked debates within Natural History. Buffon’s degeneracy was an attempt to account for variation in nature with great emphasis on climate.

But aesthetics was also central, especially in attempts to classify human variety. The facial angle of Camper and Blumenbach’s classification, despite their differences, both relied on aesthetics to understand human variety. In the context of Natural History, aesthetics is not , as we see it, a subjective evaluation, but instead beauty can be rationally understood (Blumenbach) and measured (Camper). 

Jefferson indeed always “invokes the-cutting-edge research” when making his claim about racial superiority and inferiority, and yet he is unsure of the inferiority of Africans as definitively established.” Truly, Blumenbach was a monogenist who unlike Jefferson championed Phillis Wheatley. That our racial classification can be traced to him is another irony of history as Blumenbach the monogenist was known to remark in reference to our ideal of beauty:
"If a toad could speak and were asked which was the loveliest creature upon God's earth, it would say simpering, that modesty forbad it to give a real opinion on that point." 30
And as a Monogenist he held that the races were not separate species:  
Neither must we take merely one pair of the races of man which stand strikingly in opposition to each other, and put these one against the other, omitting all the intermediate races, which make up the connection between them. We must never
forget that there is not a single one of the bodily differences in any one variety of man, which does not run into some of the others by such endless shades of all sorts, that the naturalist or physiologist has yet to be born, who can with any grounds of certainty attempt to lay down any fixed bounds between these shades, and consequently between their two extremes. ( Anthropological Treatises, p.297-298) 

Blumenbach on Camper 
Facial line of Camper.
He imagined, on placing a skull in profile, two right lines intersecting each other. The first was to be a horizontal line drawn through the external auditory meatus and the bottom of the nostrils. The second was to touch that part of the frontal bone above the nose, and then to be produced to the extreme alveolar limbus of the upper jaw. By the angle which the intersection of these two lines would make, this distinguished man thought that he could determine the difference of skulls as well in brute animals as in the different nations of mankind. p.234 
Camper's facial angle.

And yet he will describe the Caucasian type (he coined the term) "simply beautiful in form." (Anthropological Treatises, p.100)   Blumenbach’s description of the Caucasian variety: 
Blumenbach's Caucasian skull
85. Caucasian variety. I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighbourhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian; and because all physiological reasons converge to this, that in that region, if anywhere, it seems we ought with the greatest probability to place the autochthones of mankind. For in the first place, that stock displays, as we have seen, the most beautiful form of the skull, from which, as from a mean and primeval type, the others diverge by most easy gradations on both sides to the two ultimate extremes (that is, on the one side the Mongolian, on the other the Ethiopian). Besides, it is white in colour, which we may fairly assume to have been the primitive colour of mankind, since, as we have shown above, it is very easy for that to degenerate into brown, but very much more difficult for dark to become white, when the secretion and precipitation of this carbonaceous pigment has once deeply struck root. p.269
Before any physical difficulties, such as skin, bone and hair, Jefferson points to the social factors preventing future social accord. The “deep rooted prejudices of whites; ten thousand recollections of blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations, the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties....” (229). Political disputes are primary and “physical and moral” distinctions come after. Vitally important, yet this chapter is on Laws and the discussion of whether there could be racial harmony comes in the context of a discussion of the proposed legal code of Virginia, especially the section that was not approved for the ending of slavery and black colonization and resettlement.

The colonization plan quote in full:
To emancipate all slaves born after passing the act The bill reported by the revisors does not itself contain this proposition but an amendment containing it was prepared to be offered to the legislature whenever the bill should be taken up and further directing that they should continue with their parents to a certain age then be brought up at the public expence to tillage arts or sciences according to their geniuses till the females should be eighteen and the males twenty one years of age when they should be colonized to such place as the circumstances stances of the time should render most proper sending them out with arms implements of household and of the handicraft arts seeds pairs of the useful domestic animals &c to declare them a free and independent people and extend to them our alliance and protection till they shall have acquired strength and to send vessels at the same time to other parts of the world for an equal number of white inhabitants to induce whom to migrate hither proper encouragements were to be proposed It will probably be asked Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state and thus fave the expence of supplying by importation of white settlers the vacancies they will leave Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained new provocations the real distinctions which nature has made and many other circumstances will divide us into parties and produce conversions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race To these objections which are political may be added others which are physical and moral....
Which is where Will Thomas picks up the quote.

One might ask what is the real distance between Jefferson’s proposal, the seizure and colonization of Liberia, or the demand for reparations when allied with the back-to-Africa movements? Of course there are differences, but the similarities abound as well.

The special place of education is also indicative of Jefferson’s ambivalence. By old age, he was discouraged that reason might bring about an end to slavery. He however remained convinced that either through education or through war, slavery was destined to end. “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” Autobiography, 68. http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=800&chapter=85776&layout=html&Itemid=27

For all his repulsion, he tacitly admits it is false as the plan for resettlement is necessitated by the inevitable mixing that would occur if those born to freedom remained in the state. (240) He says that the Romans had it easy because the mixing of slave and master would not “stain the blood of the master” (240) although the Romans made no racial distinctions as we have used since Linneaus and Blumenbach. At the same time, just a few pages later Jefferson’s proposed penal reforms eliminate the concept of the “corruption of the blood” in the penal code. 

While slavery appears in the section on laws, the section on Productions Mineral Vegetable and Animal contains the passage on Albino blacks (70/71) that marks the Notes as a work of Natural History, for Jefferson notes that these are monstrosities in keeping with other works of late Natural History.
To this catalogue of our indigenous animals I will add a short account of an anomaly of nature taking place sometimes in the race of negroes brought from Africa who though black themselves have in rare instances white children called Albinos. I have known four of these myself and have faithful accounts of three others. The circumstances in which all the individuals agree are these. They are of a pallid cadaverous white untinged with red without any coloured spots or seams in their hair of the same kind of white short coarse and curled as is that of the negro all of them well formed strong healthy persect in their senses except that of sight and born of parents who had no mixture of white blood. Three of these Albinos were sisters having two other full sisters who were black. The youngest of the three was killed by lightning at twelve years of age. The eldest died at about 27 years of age in child bed with her second child. The middle one is now alive in health and has issue as the eldest had by a black man which issue was black. They are uncommonly shrewd quick in their apprehensions and in reply. Their eyes are in a perpetual tremulous vibration very weak and much affected by the fun but they see better in the night than we do. They are of the property of Col Skipwith of Cumberland. The fourth is a negro woman whose parents came from Guinea and had three other children who were of their own colour. She is freckled her eye sight for weak that she is obliged to wear a bonnet in the summer but it is better in the night than day. She had an Albino child by a black man. It died at the age of a few weeks. These were the property of Col Carter of Albemarle. A sixth instance is a woman of the property of a Mr Butler near Petersourgh. She is stout and robust has issue a daughter jet black by a black man I am not in formed as to her eye sight. The seventh instance is of a male belonging to a Mr Lee of Cumberland His eyes are tremulous and weak. He is tall of stature and now advanced in years. He is the only male of the Albinos which have come within my information Whatever be the cause of the disease in the skin or in its colouring matter which produces this change it seems more incident to the female than male sex. To these I may add the mention of a negro man within my own knowledge born black and of black parents on whose chin when a boy a white spot appeared. This continued to increase till he became a man by which time it had extended over his chin lips one cheek the under jaw and neck on that side. It is of the Albino white without any mixture of red and has for several years been stationary. He is robust and healthy and the change of colour was not accompanied with any sensible disease either general or topical. pp.119-121
And so we see another ambiguity. The monstrosities indicate a lack of fixity in the Negro, and yet under the Query on Law, skin and color are again considered essentially fixed characteristics. 

Clearly this does not imply any sort of sainthood for Jefferson either in terms of his views on human difference or in his politics as President (the Embargo/Non-Intercourse acts for example ruined the export economy of New England and along with a series of natural disasters, fundamentally altered the geography from New England to Ohio. Of course, as a Virginian, Jefferson was not very concerned about the welfare of his political opposition in the North.

But the focus here is on the place of Natural History in his politics and personal life. It was two years after the publication of the Notes that Jefferson and Hemings began their liaison. The complexities of that relationship again mirror the complexities of the social melieu of Antebellum America.  At this same time, Jefferson’s other actions indicate his continued ambivalence to scientific ideologies of racial inferiority. To quote a portion of a long footnote by Pedeu: 
In 1791, a Negro mathematician and surveyor named Benjamin Banneker, who had been hired to assist Andrew Ellicott in laying out the City of Washington, sent Jefferson a copy of an almanac he had compiled. In acknowledging the gift, Jefferson wrote: ‘Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colors of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence in Africa and America..... I have taken the liberty of sending your Almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris,... because I consider it as a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them’ (TJ to Banneker, August 30, 1791). p. 287.

The full text of the letter to Benneker again exposes the ambiguities of the day:
-- I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th instant and for the Almanac it contained. No body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colors of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa & America. I can add with truth, that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body & mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances which cannot be neglected, will admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your Almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and member of the Philanthropic society, because I considered it as a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them. I am with great esteem, Sir
Jefferson wrote on the same day to Condorcet: 
I am happy to be able to inform you that we have now in the United States a negro, the son of a black man born in Africa, and of a black woman born in the United States, who is a very respectable Mathematician. I promised him to be employed under one of our chief directors in laying out the new federal city on the Patowmac, & in the intervals of his leisure, while on that work, he made an almanac for the next year, which he sent to me in his own handwriting, & which I inclose to you. I have seen very elegant solutions of Geometrical problems by him. Add to this that he is a very respectable member of society. He is a free man. I shall be delighted to see these instances of moral eminence so multiplied as to prove that the want of talent observed in them is merely the effect of their degraded condition, and not proceeding from any difference in the structure of the parts on which intellect depends. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trr031.html 

Jefferson’s utopianism was exemplified by his belief in abolition being forced through education, and education being the cornerstone of his resettlement proposal and even appears in the letter to Benneker. It is not surprising that his tombstone mentions his founding of the University of Virginia, and not his having been president. Though it is idle speculation, one would think that given Jefferson as a whole, he would not be unhappy to discover that he had been wrong. As for the Notes, they provided ample fodder for his political rivals. So much so that in 1789 Jefferson wrote to Samuel Brown: 

“O! That mine enemy would write a book! Has been a well known prayer against an enemy. I had written a book, and it has furnished matter of abuse for want of something better.”
(TJ to Dr. Samuel Brown, March 25, 1798).