Nicholas Guyatt is University Lecturer in American History at the University of Cambridge. This interview is based on his new book, Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation (Basic Books, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Bind Us Apart?
NG: As someone who grew up in England, I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider when it comes to the big narratives of American history. This is probably a disadvantage in lots of ways, but it also means that you sometimes notice different things. Two of those observations inspired me to write Bind Us Apart. The first is that American historians very rarely write about African Americans and Native Americans within the same frame, despite the fact that white reformers and politicians in the early republic were engaging with both populations simultaneously. Although the experiences of blacks and Indians were by no means identical, this tendency to keep them apart in the scholarly literature is one that I’ve always been keen to challenge.
The second observation is even more rudimentary: as someone who learned at high school about the fight against slavery in the antebellum period, and the triumphs of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, it seemed incredibly odd to me that an entire century elapsed before the passage of effective civil rights legislation in the 1960s. If we accept the dominant paradigm that America has been on a ‘journey’ towards racial enlightenment, or that the nation has ‘grown’ over two centuries to extend the promises of “all men are created equal” to everyone, that century seems hard to fathom. And that’s even before we get to the overwhelming evidence of racial inequality and segregation in our own historical moment, fifty years after the supposed capstones of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. So this led me to think that there might be some serious limitations to white American thinking about race — even the thinking of “enlightened” and liberal whites — that we’d somehow missed in our stories of racial “growth.” Bind Us Apart is an attempt to explain why even whites who styled themselves as enlightened proved to be unreliable supporters of black and Native equality in American history.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Bind Us Apart?
NG: The book argues that most educated Americans in the decades after the Revolution accepted that blacks and Indians had a claim to “all men are created equal,” but that this equal potential could only be secured through programs of racial uplift and ‘improvement’ that would accompany emancipation or westward expansion; when these uplift projects failed, for a variety of reasons, liberal whites argued instead that the long-term solution to the racial ‘problem’ in America was to convince black people and Indians to move somewhere else — to vindicate their supposed equality through separation. ‘Separate but equal’ was northern (or national) before it was southern, liberal before it was conservative, and a product of the Founding era rather than the late nineteenth century.
(I freely admit that the semi-colon above is cheating.)
JF: Why do we need to read Bind Us Apart?
NG: I think we need a new paradigm for thinking about the origins of the racial crisis in America. We can’t downplay the enormous horrors of slavery or the cupidity, avarice and open racism of many slaveholders and expansionists. But I think we also need to ask why so many white Americans who described themselves as “liberal” — a word they defined to mean enlightened, benevolent and free from prejudice — failed to accept racial integration or vindicate racial equality in the first decades of the United States. Slavery came under serious intellectual assault at the end of the eighteenth century, long before the economic and technological changes that made slave-produced cotton the most lucrative crop in the world; similarly, Founders like Washington and Jefferson were lavish in their acknowledgment of Native American rights and potential, but still managed to dispossess and kill thousands of Indians who wouldn’t conform to their rhetoric. By the 1830s, it’s easy for us to imagine that the principal moral drama in the United States concerns the expansion of slavery: heroic antislavery campaigners battle with villainous slaveholders, and the battle for emancipation seems synonymous with the realization of racial justice. My book argues that, in the formative decades of the early republic, the moral debate was really about integration rather than slavery; that it encompassed Native and African American peoples; and that it was resolved, by the majority of liberal whites, in favor of separation. Although it’s hard to draw a straight line from the 1780s to the present, I think we need to confront these liberal roots of segregationist thinking. If we’re open-minded enough to peer into this moment of American history, we might find the debates and perspectives of liberal whites in the Founding period to be uncomfortably familiar.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
NG: That’s easy: I read a lot of Chomsky when I was a teenager, especially Deterring Democracy and Year 501. I was (and still am) in awe of his achievements and commitments, but I felt that his view of American history was unremittingly bleak: a lot of bad people doing very bad things. I absolutely buy the bleak thing, but I’ve always felt that what makes history fascinating is the way in which people convince themselves that the things they’re doing aren’t actually bad at all. That’s not an American invention, of course, but I think that American history has been shaped by a particularly enduring set of claims about the nation’s lofty purpose and value. In that sense, it’s a terrific place to do the history of moral evasion (or moral contortionism), which is what I’ve ended up doing.
JF: What is your next project?
NG: I’m not sure! Having written a book about manifest destiny and another about race, I had thought that the next one would be about empire — which would mean I’d covered all the Chomsky bases and could go on to write romantic fiction. I have an idea for a book about how Americans came to understand imperialism in the nineteenth century through their experience of other people’s empires. But it’s been a huge privilege to think seriously about Native and African American history, so I’m torn. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.
JF: Thanks, Nicholas!