A Review: “Bind Us Apart”

Interracial marriage proposals two centuries ago.

Guyatt, as his subtitle suggests, shows that most anti-slavery Americans during the late 18th and early 19th centuries were segregationists: They typically wanted gradual emancipation with ex-slaves then moving to Africa or lands west of the Mississippi. That’s well-known among historians. But Guyatt also reports on a gutsy minority who thought the road to racial reconciliation lay in “amalgamation” via intermarriage between whites and Indians (no one called them Native Americans then) or between whites and blacks.

 

We recommend 30 books in our Books of the Year special section. Nicholas Guyatt’s extraordinary book Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation would be one of them except for an impediment: Basic Books published it last year. I missed it then, so I want to give it very honorable mention here.

Guyatt, as his subtitle suggests, shows that most anti-slavery Americans during the late 18th and early 19th centuries were segregationists: They typically wanted gradual emancipation with ex-slaves then moving to Africa or lands west of the Mississippi. That’s well-known among historians.

But Guyatt also reports on a gutsy minority who thought the road to racial reconciliation lay in “amalgamation” via intermarriage between whites and Indians (no one called them Native Americans then) or between whites and blacks. Such proposals, now largely forgotten, grew out of Christian belief: “When they consulted the authorities of scripture or science … a separate creation for black people could not be squared with the descent of humanity from Adam and Eve; racism, put simply, was a rejection of the Bible’s authority.”

Among the Christian amalgamators:

  • In 1784 Virginia legislator Patrick Henry proposed a law offering 10 pounds (a British laborer’s half-year wage) to any white man who married an Indian woman. A white woman would receive a similar payment for marrying an Indian man, in the form of a voucher to purchase the agricultural equivalent. (He hoped that it and she would help to “civilize” him.) Intermarried couples would be tax-exempt and would receive five pounds and free education for every child they had. Henry’s bill had momentum until he became Virginia’s governor: Without his presence it fell just short of becoming law.

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