The Mind of Frederick Douglass

By Waldo E. Martin Jr. | Go to book overview

8. A Composite American Nationality

Race was an ambiguous, albeit vital, concept in the nineteenth-century Western world. Among other things, it commonly referred to a nationality, a nation-state, an ethnologically distinct people, or simply an exotic and mysterious people. From individual personality to international relations, much of what was important to nineteenth-century Western civilization was understood in the context of race. What environment had been to the preceding century -- especially to the enlightened humanist -- race, to a large extent, became in the nineteenth century -- especially to the romantic nationalist. Race came to function as a necessary, if not wholly sufficient, explanation for almost everything, including Western colonialism and imperialism. Dr. Robert Knox, influential British professor of anatomy, propounded this increasingly popular and powerful outlook. "Race," he wrote, "is everything: literature, science, art -- in a word, civilization depends on it." 1

Racial thought before and throughout the nineteenth century revealed a complex and sometimes bewildering range of beliefs, attitudes, and ideals, ranging from benign paternalism to vicious racism. During the nineteenth century, however, the study of race assumed a theoretical and scientific mantle of sophistication as scientists, intellectuals, and propagandists endeavored to comprehend it by minimizing its characteristic' ambiguity. 2 Their failure illustrates the disastrous human impact of a potent human myth -- race -- and the invidious ramifications of its most malignant extreme -- racism.

Race in nineteenth-century America clarified the status quo among the various known peoples and underlaid America's national identity. An acute awareness of racial differences was a critical factor enabling architects of the emerging United States to develop a sense of their own separate racial (Anglo) and national (American) identities which they fused into a single identity -- Anglo-American. Benjamin Franklin's essay, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, published in 1754, graphically captured the emotive vision of the United States as a white country. He asked: why "darken its People? why increase the sons of Africa, by planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys [Native Americans], of increasing the lovely White . . . ?" Expanding upon that theme during the Civil War, Samuel S. Cox, an Ohio congressman, noted that history revealed this country was "made for white men; that this Government is a Government of white men; that the men who made it never intended by

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The Mind of Frederick Douglass
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Part One - The Shape of a Life 1
  • 1 - The Formative Years and Beyond 3
  • 2 - Abolitionism: the Travail of a "Great Life's Work" 18
  • 3 - The Politics of a Race Leader 55
  • 4 - Humanism, Race, and Leadership 92
  • Part Two - Social Reform 107
  • 5 - The Ideology of White Supremacy 109
  • 6 - Feminism, Race, and Social Reform 136
  • 7 - The Philosophy and Pursuit of Social Reform 165
  • Part Three - National Identity, Culture, and Science 195
  • 8 - A Composite American Nationality 197
  • 9 - Ethnology and Equality 225
  • Part Four - The Autobiographical Douglass 251
  • 10 - Self-Made Man, Self-Conscious Hero 253
  • Epilogue 281
  • Notes 285
  • Bibliography 309
  • Index 317
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