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White Over BlackAmerican Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812$

Winthrop D. Jordan

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780807834022

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: July 2014

DOI: 10.5149/9780807838686_jordan

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(p.573) XVI Exodus
White Over Black

Winthrop D. Jordan

University of North Carolina Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter begins with the words that concluded President Thomas Jefferson's second inaugural address in 1805. Coming from him, from the Enlightenment, from rationalism and natural philosophy, from Virginia, the words effuse a special illumination. It was exactly two and a half centuries since Englishmen had first confronted Negroes face to face. Richard Hakluyt was then in his cradle and the idea of America not yet fully alive in England. Now, what had once been the private plantations of the English nation was transformed into an independent state seeking not only the “peace” but the “approbation” of all the nations. The transformation had been accompanied by similarly impressive alterations in the character of society and thought. The people had become what so many sixteenth-century Englishmen feared they might become—the governors.

Keywords:   President Thomas Jefferson, second inaugural address, Enlightenment, rationalism, natural philosophy, Richard Hakluyt

I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land, and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with his providence, and our riper years with his wisdom and power; and to whose goodness I ask you to join with me in supplications, that he will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures, that whatsoever they do, shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.

These words concluded the second inaugural address of President Thomas Jefferson in 1805. Coming from him, from the Enlightenment, from rationalism and natural philosophy, from Virginia, they effuse a special illumination. It was exactly two and a half centuries since Englishmen had first confronted Negroes face to face. Richard Hakluyt was then in his cradle and the idea of America not yet fully alive in England. Now, what had once been the private plantations of the English nation was transformed into an independent state seeking not only the “peace” but the “approbation” of all the nations. The transformation had been accompanied by similarly impressive alterations in the character of society and thought. The people had become what so many sixteenthcentury Englishmen feared they might become—the governors. As Jefferson said, magistrates were “servants” of the people. God no longer governed—much less judged—his people immediately; indeed “that Being” was now to be given “supplications” so that his “goodness” might endorse a people's continuance in peace and prosperity.

It would seriously mistake the meaning of Jefferson's words to see them as entirely a bland acclamation of the new society in America or as merely another stanza to God-on-our-side. They were these and more. His explicit identification of Americans with the covenanted people of Israel suggests that all Americans were very much in touch with what has been called too narrowly the old New England (p.574) firm of Moses and Aaron. The American people had been led out “from their native land,” though here there was a crucial difference, for Americans had once been truly “native” to England in a way that Israel had never been in Egypt. They had been planted in a land “flowing” with “comforts,” a land of plenty, a land surely of milk and honey. In their earliest years, as the process of maturation was so persuasively described, they had “providence”; later they had “wisdom and power.” As they grew they dispossessed the tribes of the land and allotted it in various portions to themselves. They killed and enslaved those people not of their own house, both the dispossessed tribes and the black sons of the cursed Canaanites whom their very ancient intellectual forefathers had driven out and killed when they achieved their deliverance from bondage.

All of which suggests that the most profound continuities ran through the centuries of change. Particularly, there were the tightly harnessed energies of a restless, trafficking, migrating people emerging from dearth and darkness into plenty and enlightenment. These were a people of the Word, adventuring into a New World; they sought to retain their integrity—their identity—as a peculiar people; they clamped hard prohibitions on themselves as they scented the dangers of freedom.

Which in turn rings of the twin themes which coursed through Elizabethan England—freedom and control. The same themes were changed upon in America; they may be summarized and at the same time most clearly illuminated by looking at a single, undramatic development in the heart of Jeffersonian America.

In 1806 Virginia restricted the right of masters to manumit their slaves.1 On its face not a remarkable measure, in fact it was the key step in the key state and more than any event marked the reversal of the tide which had set in strongly at the Revolution. It was the step onto the slippery slope which led to Appomattox and beyond.

There had been some sentiment in Virginia favoring restriction of manumission ever since passage of the law permitting private manumissions by will or deed in 1782. However, the appearance of widespread and insistent demand for restriction may be dated precisely at September 1800. The next year in the Virginia Senate, an amendment was offered to a consolidated slave bill requiring anyone freeing a slave to post $1,000 bond as security that the freedman would leave the state within two months; the amendment failed, seven votes to eleven. Public pressure mounted inexorably during (p.575) the next few years, especially as it became apparent that the Assembly's resolutions on colonization were not going to bring results. In 1805, the year of the last such resolution before 1816, a vigorous debate took place in the House of Delegates on a bill prohibiting private manumission; the bill was narrowly defeated, 81 to 72. At next year's session the House considered a similar bill which was finally defeated by only two votes. Undaunted, the proponents of restriction switched tactics by utilizing the popularity of Negro removal. Into a separate bill for the regulation of slaves the Senate quietly inserted an amendment providing that any Negro freed in Virginia had to depart the state within one year or face reenslavement. The delegates, many of them now reconciled by the absence of direct restriction on the property rights of slaveowners, approved the provision 94 to 65.2

Although some newly manumitted Negroes actually did leave Virginia in the following years, this provision was in fact a drastic restriction on manumission and was intended as such by members of the General Assembly. At the time of passage, Ohio already prohibited the entry of Negroes, and within a year the other three key states, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware, predictably forbade Negroes from entering to take up permanent residence.3 Further-more, the Virginia act of 1806 effectively prevented benevolent masters from providing manumitted slaves with the one endowment they most needed—land. As it turned out, the act did help cut appreciably the rate of increase of the free Negro population, and the opponents of emancipation remained satisfied with the measure's effectiveness as long as slavery lasted.4

The pattern of voting in the House to some extent mirrored sectional differences, for of course the more heavily Negro tidewater and piedmont counties aligned generally in favor of restriction; but so many delegates voted against what might be presumed to be the interests of their locality that it is clear that differences in personality (p.576) played fully as important a role in determining individual votes—as one would expect to begin with.5

No record of debate on the provision has survived, if in fact there was any. Fortunately, however, the spirited debates on the two directly restrictionist bills of 1805 and 1806 were partially reported in the Richmond newspapers.6 Brief as they are, these reports reveal with unusual clarity the attitudes which led the Virginia legislature to repudiate Virginia's most tangible expression of dedication to the principle of liberty for all men.

Easily the most significant element in these debates was the deep substratum of agreement which underlay the opposing arguments. Every speaker echoed the general consciousness that restriction of private manumission would constitute a direct betrayal of the faith of the Revolution. On the one hand, John Minor, the most vigorous friend of manumission, passionately reminded the House that “In past days these walls have rung with eulogies on liberty. A comparison between those times and the present is degrading to us,” Minor was able to shrink to absurd dimensions one of the most common arguments for restriction simply by setting it beside the altar of freedom: “Because a few men in detached neighborhoods complain of the loss of their sheep and hogs, shall you destroy a great principle?” Similarly utilizing the principle of liberty, John Love brought property rights to the defense of emancipation by reminding the House that to forbid private manumission was to deny masters the right to dispose of their property as they saw fit. On the other side, opponents of manumission frankly acknowledged that they were jettisoning the principles upon which the state and nation had been founded. Thomas B. Robertson argued that the bill proposed merely to renew an old prohibition, yet everyone knew that the long-standing prohibition of private manumission had given way, in 1782, to the impact of Revolutionary enthusiasm for liberty. No one knew this better than Robertson. All slaveholders, he declared, were offenders against principle: “The proposed measure (p.577) is necessary. I advocate it from policy; and not because I am less friendly to the rights of men than those who oppose the bill.” “Tell us not of principles,” he cried; “Those principles have been annihilated by the existence of slavery among us.”

Here in fact was precisely the agony in which Virginians writhed. The abandonment of the last vestige of emancipation was a stroke of realism, a confession of weakness, and a cruel confrontation with the damning fact that Virginia had failed to be true to herself. It was not, in 1806, an endorsement of slavery as a positive good. Restriction of manumission did not result, emphatically, from dedication to slavery or from special fondness for the institution and the style of life it sustained. That variety of attachment to slavery was to come later as the sharp spike of guilt sank deeper and deeper into Virginia's social consciousness. In 1806, Virginians stood upon the corner of that development; but they could only look back upon the generations of unheeding acceptance, upon their great awakening, and now upon the wreckage of their hopes for their society's regeneration.

The evident source of Virginia's mounting determination to bring a halt to individual acts of emancipation was fear of increase in the free Negro population. More correctly, it was fear of free Negroes as such. Long-standing hostility had been sharply aggravated by the sudden flood of manumissions after 1782. By the 1790's, free Negroes were being repetitiously characterized as lazy nuisances, harborers of runaways, and notorious thieves. They were further commonly depicted in the role of potential instigators of slave rebellion, as they had been occasionally for more than a century. After the Gabriel plot, of course, there was a barrage of such accusations: one petition to the General Assembly from a county well removed from the Richmond area complained that “it is notorious that the law for freeing Negroes hath tended to bring upon us our disturbed and distressed situation.”7 The arresting aspect of these accusations was, as always before, that they had little or no basis in fact. No free Negro had been implicated in the plot, despite the widespread disposition to suspect them on slightest provocation; yet Virginians for some reason seemed intent on regarding free Negroes as dangerous incendiaries.

Given these circumstances, one is virtually compelled to regard the reaction against free Negroes as functioning primarily on a (p.578) symbolic level. Most directly, free Negroes stood as perpetual representatives of the freedom for which slaves had actually struggled and were thought avidly to yearn. In this sense, especially in the wake of a slave rebellion, the free Negro embodied all too effectively the failure of white Americans to remain true to Nature and the corollary principles of liberty. From guilt concerning this failure to animosity toward the free Negro was an easy, perhaps a necessary, step. Still more compellingly, the free Negro was feared as an insurrectionary because his status was eminently suggestive of the equality which white men half-consciously feared would result from insurrection. Put another way, the free Negro and the slave revolt both served as symbols of the loss of white dominion; as such they were so inseparably linked to each other in the white man's mind as to warp his perception of the external facts. Functionally, free Negroes and insurrection were interchangeable manifestations of, and hence synonymous expressions for, the loss of white control over the Negro. In this sense, then, free Negroes had to be insurrectionaries.

It was in much the same sense, also, that the continued growth of the free Negro population had to result in physical intermixture. Proponents of the bills curtailing manumission were as fervently insistent on the inevitability of this development as were Jefferson and his fellow antislavery advocates for Negro colonization. Indeed the opponents of emancipation were considerably more explicit on the subject, not merely because a complete airing told to their tactical advantage, but because intermixture stood in such intimate relation with free Negroes and slave insurrection.

If these latter twin manifestations of Negro freedom implied the loss of the white man's control, then physical amalgamation doubly jeopardized his security by implying not only that Negroes were out of control but that white men were too. Long accustomed to relying upon slavery for the maintenance of social and personal controls, white men tended to view its termination (pacific or violent, little matter) as a cataclysmic, entire, and irrevocable disintegration of indispensable restraints. Perhaps white men sensed how tightly the institution had controlled the pattern of sexual relationships between the races, how handsomely it had afforded them a sexual license and privilege which could be indulged without destroying their most vital institution of cultural integrity, the family. The controls of slavery were essential not only for curbing the licentiousness of Negroes but, as the “swarms” of mulattoes so eloquently testified, for limiting the license of white men. For if the white man's sexual license were not prudently defined and circumscribed, (p.579) might he not discover that it was he, as much or more than the Negro after all, who was licentious? Above all, the white man had to sustain his feeling of control; in restraining the Negro he was at the same time restraining and thereby reassuring himself.

The necessity of retaining control was the mediating and binding factor in the equation of free Negroes with intermixture and insurrection. And the character of the terms in the equation makes evident how desperately white men felt that necessity. For in advancing as the principal reasons for curbing the free Negro the dangers of intermixture and insurrection, white Americans were expressing—in the language in which such things are expressed—how greatly they feared the unrestrained exercise of their most basic impulses. Neither danger existed in anything like the proportions they saw; the proportions were much more theirs than the Negro's. In this sense, white men were attempting to destroy the living image of primitive aggressions which they said was the Negro but was really their own. Their very lives as social beings were at stake. Intermixture and insurrection, violent sex and sexual violence, creation and destruction, life and death—the stuff of animal existence was rumbling at the gates of rational and moral judgment. If the gates fell, so did humanness; they could not fall; indeed there could be no possibility of their falling, else man was not man and his civilization not civilized. We, therefore, we do not lust and destroy; it is someone else. We are not great black bucks of the fields. But a buck is loose, his great horns menacing to gore into us with life and destruction. Chain him, either chain him or expel his black shape from our midst, before we realize that he is ourselves.

To chain the free Negro, to re-enslave him, was an intolerable offense to conscience; the urge to do so was sufficiently assuaged by threatening newly freed Negroes with reenslavement if they did not remove themselves. Preventing their increase was all that conscience would allow, since the intellectual and moral imperatives of Christianity, Revolutionary ideology, and “humanity”—taken collectively, the cultural conscience—placed effective, if somewhat indefinite, limits on what the white man could do to the free Negro. In other words, communal conscience prohibited extreme, overt manifestations of aggression against him. On the other hand, this same demand by the accretions of civilization that aggressions be restrained, also urged that the Negro be controlled because he was aggressive, that is, because he had been made to embody the white man's aggressions.

The supreme and tragic irony was that the white man's conflicting urges to liberate the Negro and to restrain him both derived (p.580) from the same allegiance to his own higher self. Of the two inner necessities, the urge to curb projected aggressions was certainly the more complex and perhaps in the long run the more powerful; certainly in 1806 circumstances lent themselves to its expression. By then, the failure to implement the principles of the Revolution, the Gabriel insurrection and its reverberations, and the diffuse but very real sense of insecurity characteristic of a young nation had synergistically generated a heavy charge of anxiety concerning maintenance of American physical and cultural identity. Release was possible through the restriction of manumission—an admirable outlet indeed, for it conveyed precisely the pent-up impulses without producing excessive shock to self-respect. To restrict the free Negro and thereby intermixture and insurrection was to fight the good fight for civilization and its restraints, for whiteness and the inner purity it signified. Failure in this struggle would mean for the white man betrayal of the values of his culture and loss of those things most precious to him, self-esteem and his sense of who he was and where he was going.

All this was as clear in the debates on the bills restricting manumission as irrational phenomena are ever likely to be in the context of rational discussion. The white man's strong sense of racial identity and solidarity found reflection in the frequent assertions that all Negroes possessed this sense. Thomas B. Robertson made this presumed feeling of solidarity among Negroes an argument for controlling them all by slavery. “For if the blacks see all of their color slaves, it will seem to them a disposition of Providence, and they will be content.” This was to say that white men would be content too. “But if they see others like themselves free,” he continued, still talking as much about white men as black, “and enjoying rights, they are deprived of, they will repine. Those blacks who are free, obtain some education; they obtain a knowledge of facts, by passing from place to place in society; they can thus organize insurrection. They will, no doubt, unite with the slaves.” Robertson was certain that “it is the free blacks who instil into the slaves ideas hostile to our peace.” It would have been more consonant with the facts to say that it was the white man who instilled into others ideas hostile to his own peace of mind.

Another delegate, Alexander Smyth, was more troubled by the complementary term in the equation of Negro aggression. He opposed emancipation, he declared, because he assumed no one wanted “blacks indiscriminately blended with our descendants” nor America inhabited by “a blended and homogenous race.” If Negroes were accorded equal political rights or even simple freedom, (p.581) he argued, inevitably they would struggle for complete equality and then for mastery. Proof lay in St. Domingo. Smyth had no doubt what equality meant: “I presume … that no white man will look forward with any complacency to that condition of society, in which the two races will be blended together: when the distinctions of colour shall be obliterated: when, like the Egyptians, we shall exhibit a dull and uniform complexion. If this state of society, then, is so disagreeable to our feelings, surely we will not encourage the policy, which is fitted to introduce it.” That Americans must not be allowed to become “Egyptians” was precisely the point; if Americans were not Americans as they conceived themselves to be they were lost. The people of a new nation had at all cost to prevent loss of nationality. Another delegate, thrusting home the case against emancipation, concluded with a poignantly explicit restatement of these most inner fears. “There are now 20,000 free blacks among us. When they shall become more numerous, they will furnish the officers and soldiers around whom the slaves will rally. We cannot now avoid the evil of slavery. Partial emancipation was not the proper remedy. If it proceeds, and they continue to mix with the whites as they have already done, as we daily see, I know not what kind of people the Virginians will be in one hundred years,”

The dilemma was apparent. Virginia's distress was then Ameri-ca's writ large. The white American wanted, indeed had, to remain faithful to himself and to his great experiment. In doing so he was caught between the necessity, on the one hand, of maintaining his identity as the fruit of England's and Europe's loins and as the good seed of civilization planted in the wilderness, and on the other, the necessity of remaining faithful to his own image as the world's exemplar of liberty and equalitarianism, as the best hope of the civilization which he cherished. Whichever path he took he seemed to abandon part of himself, so that neither could be taken with assurance or good conscience. Individual Americans divided according to their private necessities, while at the same time the nation divided in response to pressures generated by economic, demographic, and cultural differences, but no American and no section of America could rest at ease with the decision. For Virginians especially, for many Americans, and for the nation as a whole it was impossible to make a clearcut choice.

Within every white American who stood confronted by the Negro, there had arisen a perpetual duel between his higher and lower natures. His cultural conscience—his Christianity, his humanitarianism, his ideology of liberty and equality—demanded that he (p.582) regard and treat the Negro as his brother and his countryman, as his equal. At the same moment, however, many of his most profound urges, especially his yearning to maintain the identity of his folk, his passion for domination, his sheer avarice, and his sexual desire, impelled him toward conceiving and treating the Negro as inferior to himself, as an American leper. At closer view, though, the duel appears more complex than a conflict between the best and worst in the white man's nature, for in a variety of ways the white man translated his “worst” into his “best.” Raw sexual aggression became retention of purity, and brutal domination became faithful maintenance of civilized restraints. These translations, so necessary to the white man's peace of mind, were achieved at devastating cost to another people set permanently apart because they looked different from the white man generation after generation. But the enormous toll of human wreckage was by no means paid exclusively by the Negro, for the subtle translations of basic urges in the white man necessitated his treating the Negro in a fashion which lacerated his own conscience, that very quality in his being which necessitated those translations. So the peace of mind the white man sought by denying his profound inexorable drives toward creation and destruction (a denial accomplished by correlated affirmations of virtue in himself and depravity in the Negro) was denied the white man; he sought his own peace at the cost of others and accordingly found none. In fearfully hoping to escape the animal within himself the white man debased the Negro, surely, but at the same time he debased himself.

Conceivably there was and is a way out from the vicious cycle of degradation, an opening of better hope demanding an unprecedented and perhaps impossible measure of courage, honesty, and sheer nerve. If the white man turned to stare at the animal within him, if he once admitted unashamedly that the beast was there, he might see that the old foe was a friend as well, that his best and his worst derived from the same deep well of energy. If he once fully acknowledged the powerful forces which drove his being, the necessity of imputing them to others would drastically diminish. If he came to recognize what had happened and was still happening with himself and the Negro in America, if he faced the unpalatable realities of the tragedy unflinchingly, if he were willing to call the beast no more the Negro's than his own, then conceivably he might set foot on a better road. Common charity and his special faith demanded that he make the attempt. But there was little in his historical experience to indicate that he would succeed.


(1) . Shepard, ed., Statutes Va., Ill, 252. Jefferson's 2d Inaugural is in Ford, ed., Works of Jefferson, X, 136.

(2) . Virginia Senate Journal (1801–02), 67–68; Virginia House Journal (1804–05), 72, 73, 75, 76; Virginia House Journal (1805–06), 56, 59, 66, 68, 77, 87; Virginia Senate Journal (1805–06), 55, 56, 61, 67, 71–72. A slightly inaccurate account of the political movement for restriction is in Russell, Free Negro in Va., 59–72. For an antislavery reaction, Barnaby Nixon, A Serious Address, to the Rulers of America in General, and the State of Virginia in Particular (Richmond, 1806).

(3) . Russell, Free Negro in Va., 71–72. Members of the Assembly may not have realized that Ohio already forbade entry of Negroes, but everyone knew the obstacles to such migration were great.

(4) . This despite predictably lax enforcement in the early years after passage, ibid., 156.

(5) . From analysis of the 94 to 65 vote of 1806. See Earl G. Swem and John W. Williams, comps., A Register of the General Assembly of Virginia, 1776–1918 … (Richmond, 1918); “The Census—A Tabular Statement of the Free White, Free Colored, Slave, and Total Population in Each County … 1790 … 1850,” in Documents Containing Statistics of Virginia … (Richmond, 1851), no pagination; James Madison, A Map of Virginia, Formed from Actual Surveys, and the Latest as Well as Most Accurate Observations (Richmond, 1807).

(6) . Richmond Enquirer, Jan. 15, 1805; Richmond Va. Argus, Jan. 17, 1806. All the following quotations from the debates are drawn from these two reports.

(7) . Johnston, Race Relations in Virginia, 35. See also Luther P. Jackson, “Manumission in Certain Virginia Cities,” Jour. Negro Hist., 15 (1930), 288–89.