Our Ruinous Betrayal of Indians and Black Americans

‘Battle of the Thames—Death of Tecumseh’; engraving by William Wellstood after a painting by Alonzo Chappel, 1882
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library
‘Battle of the Thames—Death of Tecumseh’; engraving by William Wellstood after a painting by Alonzo Chappel, 1882

A nineteenth-century mural in the Illinois state capitol building is remarkably progressive about race. It depicts the Virginian Edward Coles in 1819, bound for Illinois on a flatboat on the Ohio River, liberating the seventeen slaves he had brought with him.

Not hinted at by the mural is the disquieting aftermath of Coles’s act against slavery. Although Coles, who served as the governor of Illinois in the 1820s, blocked efforts to bring slavery into the state, he was pilloried for his liberal views. He became isolated and bitter. Instead of sustaining his commitment to equal rights for African-Americans, he argued for their deportation to Liberia, the American-formed colony in West Africa. Coles, who had earlier declared that blacks and whites must enjoy the same rights, now said that the races could never “associate as equals, and live in harmony and social intercourse.” He tried to persuade his ex-chattels to leave America (they refused), and he devoted himself to colonization, the movement to relocate African-Americans out of the country.

Coles’s behavior is one of many examples of backsliding or hypocrisy presented in Nicholas Guyatt’s revealing and richly informed book Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation. Coles was representative of his era, as Guyatt shows, because his noble intentions proved to be a fragile cover for an underlying perplexity on racial issues. Guyatt provides much evidence of what Edmund S. Morgan called “the American paradox”—the conflict between the nation’s egalitarian ideals and its unjust treatment of ethnic minorities.

Guyatt reveals new dimensions of this paradox by tracing early efforts by politicians, reformers, and clergymen to remove free blacks and Native Americans to areas distant from white Americans. Historians who discuss colonization typically refer to 1816, the year of the founding of the American Colonization Society, and then move on to the establishment of Liberia and relocation efforts by politicians from Henry Clay to Abraham Lincoln who opposed slavery while promoting racial separation.

Often mentioned is the hostility to colonization on the part of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, which caused a division in antislavery ranks. On the subject of Indian removal, it is of central importance that Andrew Jackson advanced forcing the southeastern indigenous peoples along what became known as the Trail of Tears. Guyatt demonstrates that standard treatments of racial separation neglect the early history of the colonization movement, which attracted many who believed that they were fulfilling the goals of the nation’s founders.

Indeed, as Guyatt makes clear, the founders themselves were among the strongest supporters of racial separation. Only a few years after he wrote the nation-defining words “all men…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.