Sean P. Harvey
“Race,” as a concept denoting a fundamental division of humanity and usually encompassing cultural as well as physical traits, was crucial in early America. It provided the foundation for the colonization of Native land, the enslavement of American Indians and Africans, and a common identity among socially unequal and ethnically diverse Europeans. Longstanding ideas and prejudices merged with aims to control land and labor, a dynamic reinforced by ongoing observation and theorization of non-European peoples. Although before colonization, neither American Indians, nor Africans, nor Europeans considered themselves unified “races,” Europeans endowed racial distinctions with legal force and philosophical and scientific legitimacy, while Natives appropriated categories of “red” and “Indian,” and slaves and freed people embraced those of “African” and “colored,” to imagine more expansive identities and mobilize more successful resistance to Euro-American societies. The origin, scope, and significance of “racial” difference were questions of considerable transatlantic debate in the age of Enlightenment and they acquired particular political importance in the newly independent United States.
Since the beginning of European exploration in the 15th century, voyagers called attention to the peoples they encountered, but European, American Indian, and African “races” did not exist before colonization of the so-called New World. Categories of “Christian” and “heathen” were initially most prominent, though observations also encompassed appearance, gender roles, strength, material culture, subsistence, and language. As economic interests deepened and colonies grew more powerful, classifications distinguished Europeans from “Negroes” or “Indians,” but at no point in the history of early America was there a consensus that “race” denoted bodily traits only. Rather, it was a heterogeneous compound of physical, intellectual, and moral characteristics passed on from one generation to another. While Europeans assigned blackness and African descent priority in codifying slavery, skin color was secondary to broad dismissals of the value of “savage” societies, beliefs, and behaviors in providing a legal foundation for dispossession.
“Race” originally denoted a lineage, such as a noble family or a domesticated breed, and concerns over purity of blood persisted as 18th-century Europeans applied the term—which dodged the controversial issue of whether different human groups constituted “varieties” or “species”—to describe a roughly continental distribution of peoples. Drawing upon the frameworks of scripture, natural and moral philosophy, and natural history, scholars endlessly debated whether different races shared a common ancestry, whether traits were fixed or susceptible to environmentally produced change, and whether languages or the body provided the best means to trace descent. Racial theorization boomed in the U.S. early republic, as some citizens found dispossession and slavery incompatible with natural-rights ideals, while others reconciled any potential contradictions through assurances that “race” was rooted in nature.
Jennifer M. Spear
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
On December 20, 1803, residents of New Orleans gathered at the Place d’Armes in the city center to watch as the French flag was lowered and the flag of the United States was raised in its place. Toasts were made to the U.S. president, the French first consul, and the Spanish king (whose flag had been lowered in a similar ceremony just twenty days earlier), and the celebrations continued throughout the night. The following day, however, began the process of determining just what it meant now that Louisiana was a part of the United States, initiating the first great test of the ability of the United States to expand its borders and incorporate both territories and peoples. The treaty ratifying the transfer, signed in Paris the previous April 30th, promised that “the inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States,” where they would experience “the enjoyment of all these rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States.” These inhabitants included thousands of people of French and Spanish descent, several thousand slaves of African descent, and about fifteen hundred free people of at least partial African ancestry; most of these inhabitants spoke French or Spanish and practiced Catholicism. In addition, the territory was home to tens of thousands of indigenous peoples, many of whom still lived on traditional territories and under their own sovereignty. For a few inhabitants of the Louisiana territory, incorporation did lead to “the enjoyment of all these rights” and gave some small grain of truth to Jefferson's hope that the trans-Mississippi region would undergird the United States as an “empire of liberty,” although even for Europeans of French and Spanish ancestry, the process was neither easy nor uncontested. For most, however, incorporation led to the expansion of the United States as an empire of slavery, one built upon the violent dispossession of native peoples of their lands and the expropriated labor of enslaved peoples of African descent.
“Twenty and odd” Africans arrived in Virginia aboard a Dutch vessel in 1619 shortly after permanent colonization of the English Americas began. There has been significant academic debate about whether the enslavement of peoples of African descent in England’s early 17th-century colonies was an inevitable or “unthinking decision” and about the nature and degree of anti-black racism during the 17th century. The legal and social status of African peoples was more flexible at first in the English colonies than it later became. Some Africans managed to escape permanent enslavement and a few Africans, such as Anthony Johnson, even owned servants of their own. There was no legal basis for enslavement in the British Americas for the first several decades of settlement and slave and servant codes emerged only gradually. Labor systems operated by custom rather than through any legal mechanisms of coercion. Most workers in the Americas experienced degrees of coercion. In the earliest years of plantation production, peoples from Africa, Europe, and the Americas often toiled alongside each other in the fields. Large numbers of Native Americans were captured and forced to work on plantations in the English Americas and many whites worked in agricultural fields as indentured and convict laborers. There were a wide variety of different kinds of coerced labor beyond enslavement in the 17th century and ideas about racial difference had yet to become as determinative as they would later be. As the staple crop plantation system matured and became entrenched on the North American mainland in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and planters required a large and regular supply of slaves, African laborers became synonymous with large-scale plantation production. The permeable boundaries between slavery and freedom disappeared, dehumanizing racism became more entrenched and U.S.-based planters developed slave codes premised on racial distinctions and legal mechanisms of coercion that were modeled on Caribbean precedents.