Our Own Herrenvolk

In Red and Black: Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History

by Eugene D. Genovese
Pantheon, 435 pp., $10.00

The peculiar creed of American racism did not arrive full blown with national independence. It did not even reach full growth under slavery. In fact it was not until half a century after the abolition of slavery that formalized racism—the doctrine of innate and permanent inferiority of non-whites—reached its peak of power and influence and commanded an almost universal consensus among whites of the United States. In recent years two brilliant studies, one by David B. Davis have illuminated the origins of the creed, but the former has not so far carried the story to the end of the eighteenth century and the latter extends his only to the early years of the nineteenth century.

By that time American whites had already come to regard Negroes as permanently alien and unassimilable, but they still clung—and continued to cling until the fourth decade of the century—to the environmentalism characteristic of Enlightenment thinking. Mental, moral, psychological, even physical traits considered peculiar to blacks could be attributed to environment. “The universal freckle” was a phrase characteristic of the environmentalist credo, used by Samuel Stanhope Smith in 1787. Racial characteristics so explained were regarded as neither innate nor unchangeable.

George M. Fredrickson, to whom we are already indebted for a valuable book on the intellectual impact of the Civil War, picks up the history of the debate over the character and destiny of Afro-Americans where his predecessors left off and builds on their findings. His starting date, 1817, marks the founding of the American Colonization Society. Concerned over the degraded condition of free blacks in the North, the colonizationists sought to encourage migration to Africa. But they could at the same time eulogize “the African genius,” admire a proud African past, and contend that return to Africa was the only escape from ineradicable Negrophobia in America. The abolitionists began their crusade against slavery with an attack on the colonizationists, but their crusade paradoxically coincided with the triumph of a newly systematized doctrine of black inferiority, permanent inferiority.

The new doctrine was useful to the defenders of slavery, but it was only partly generated by them. Contributions came from Europeans, who were seeking justification of imperial expansion over people of color in Africa and Asia at the same time as Americans were justifying black slavery. Northern scientists and journalists of the Jacksonian persuasion came forward with prolific elaborations of the theory of “polygenesis,” the notion that whites and blacks were separate species. In that era racism and democracy formed a strange marriage, a union destined to be of fateful durability. “Herrenvolk democracy,” Fredrickson calls it, borrowing the term from Pierre van den Berghe.

Dr. John H. Van Evrie, a proslavery writer of New York, was “living proof,” according to Fredrickson, “that it was possible, in a certain sense, to be an ultrademocrat and a virulent racist at the same time.” Van Evrie called the presence of the Negro in America “the …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.