‘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 are created equal,” Thomas Jefferson proposed that the gradual emancipation of slaves should be accompanied by the deportation of blacks because of deep-rooted prejudice, innate racial differences, and the probable “extermination of the one or the other race” that, he said, integration would cause. Later, as president, Jefferson explored relocating African-Americans to various places, including the Caribbean, South America, Louisiana, the American West, and the African country of Sierra Leone. James Madison, the chief architect of the Constitution, proposed sending blacks to the “interior wilderness of America”—a scheme, Guyatt tells us, that had wide acceptance among colonizationists.

The most dogged advocate of colonization among the founders was James Monroe. As the governor of Virginia from 1799 to 1802, he tried to persuade both state and federal officials to carry out programs of racial separation. When he succeeded Madison as president in 1817, Monroe supported the American Colonization Society. He was a principal backer of the expedition in 1821 that led that year to the establishment of Liberia, the name of whose capital, Monrovia, paid homage to his contributions to the cause.

Guyatt reminds us that many other political leaders also endorsed colonization, including Henry Clay, John Taylor of Caroline, Theodore Frelinghuysen, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln. Guyatt writes that Lincoln, “in the first years of his presidency, did more to secure government support for black emigration than any politician since James Monroe.” Lincoln saw Central America as the optimal place for black relocation. Although after 1862 abolition and emancipation replaced colonization as his highest priorities, much of his popular appeal lay in the moderation of his antislavery arguments, which initially called for separation of the races in order to avoid the problems of an integrated society.

Advocates of colonization tried to shore up their position by insisting that they were doing African-Americans a favor by opening the way for their self-fulfillment and moral growth. One of the most original aspects of Guyatt’s book is its discussion of the reaction to what was called degradation: the belief that since slaves were severely damaged physically and emotionally, liberating them and sending them to a faraway place where they could have their own separate society would allow them to recuperate and prosper.


A more integrationist approach characterized the earliest advocates on behalf of Native Americans. Figures of the 1790s such as the secretaries of war Henry Knox and Henry Pickering and the Pennsylvania politician Arthur St. Clair endorsed a “civilizing” program whereby indigenous peoples were encouraged to adopt the ways of mainstream America. At first, it was widely thought that Indians would become American citizens after absorbing civilized norms through proximity to whites. Some reformers promoted integrated communities in the belief that mixing the races would improve the natives while creating harmony.

The reality of relations between whites and Native Americans proved otherwise. Whites moving westward collided with natives who had long occupied lands that the whites coveted. Guyatt discusses how land grabs, fraudulent treaties, and bloody battles marked relations between whites and natives from the 1790s onward.

As it became clear that proximity led to conflict, the removal of the Indians won favor among many who had formerly supported a process of peaceful integration. Jefferson, for instance, initially thought that the “natural progress of things” pointed to natives becoming “citizens of the US.” But as conflict with the Indians escalated, he said that Americans faced a heartbreaking choice: “To pursue them to extermination, or drive them to new seats beyond our reach.” He concluded that “we shall be obliged to drive them with the beasts of forest into the stony [i.e., Rocky] mountains.”

Although Jefferson thought the natives should retain their traditions and customs in their new locale, most politicians disagreed. Advocates of Indian removal used the same argument as those who viewed African-Americans as degraded; such degradation would be followed by improvement. It was conceded that whites could routinely murder Indians, occupy their land, defraud them, and sell them the alcohol that ruined them. The degradation of the natives was captured, with sardonic exaggeration, by Washington Irving, who noted that they “improved daily and wonderfully by their intercourse with whites,” as

they took to drinking rum, and making bargains. They learned to cheat, to lie, to swear, to gamble, to quarrel, to cut each other’s throats, in short, to excel in all the accomplishments that had originally marked the superiority of their Christian visitors.

Removal of the natives was rationalized by the argument that isolating them in the West would enable them to become virtuous and self-reliant. James Monroe declared that without the removal of the Indians, their “extermination will be inevitable,” whereas a new western home would encourage “all the arts and usages of civilized life” and would allow the different Indian nations to become a single “civilized people.” Conflict, Monroe said, would yield to “permanent peace.”

Guyatt is especially effective in demonstrating how well-meaning people, devoted to helping the natives, ended up causing their tragic displacement and marginalization. The Baptist minister Isaac McCoy traveled widely among indigenous peoples and witnessed poverty, alcoholism, and despair. By moving to the West, he said, the natives would be “on the same footing as ourselves” and would soon be just like other Americans. Thomas McKenney, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1820s, used the improvement policy as an incentive in negotiations with natives. He met with Chickasaw leaders to whom he promised a federally funded western colony with schools, work training, and an American-style government in exchange for their vast lands in the Southeast. When the Chickasaws took a vote and rejected removal, McKenney’s plan was stalemated.

This background of worthy intentions makes Andrew Jackson’s treatment of Native Americans seem especially harsh. After reading Guyatt’s account of previous figures who followed the civilizing policy, it comes as a shock to learn that Jackson targeted the very nations—the Chickasaws, the Cherokees, the Creeks, and the Choctaws—that had become most like the whites in their culture and practices (including, in some cases, slaveholding). During the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, these so-called civilized Indians were cheated of their ancestral lands by bogus treaties, rounded up, and forced to go on a grueling trek to the western frontier.

Daveed Diggs, who debuted the role of Thomas Jefferson in the Broadway show Hamilton; photograph by Josh Lehrer

Josh Lehrer

Daveed Diggs, who debuted the role of Thomas Jefferson in the Broadway show Hamilton; photograph by Josh Lehrer

Both of the movements Guyatt explores—Indian removal and black colonization—represented a moral dodge, a mix of twisted patriotism, spurious reasoning, and racism. The basis of all the equivocations and ethical lapses was fundamental confusion in the face of seemingly intractable social problems. Jefferson, who had once envisaged the abolition of slavery, remarked in frustration shortly before his death in 1826: “On the subject of emancipation I have ceased to think, because it is not to be a work of my day.”


Nearly three decades later, in a speech of 1854, Lincoln said that “if all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do” about slavery. His first impulse, he continued, “would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land.” But high costs and limited shipping made such a plan impracticable in the short run. The alternative, freeing the slaves and making them “politically and socially, our equals,” was also impossible, for “the great mass of white people will not [admit of this].”1

The latter fact—the reluctance of most Americans to treat blacks equally—led a considerable number of African-Americans to pursue racial separation. Guyatt informs us that one of the earliest moves toward colonization was made in 1773 by four Massachusetts slaves who petitioned the colonial assembly to be set free and taken to Africa. Other African-Americans devoted to emigration included Prince Hall, who, along with seventy-two others, in 1787 requested transportation “to Africa, our native country,” and Paul Cuffe, who pioneered nineteenth-century colonization by establishing a colony in Africa—an idea advanced, with variations, by later advocates of black emigration such as Benjamin Lundy, Martin Delany, Henry Highland Garnet, and, in the twentieth century, Marcus Garvey and others in the back-to-Africa movement. All saw emigration as preferable to the prejudicial treatment they experienced in the United States.

As it turned out, only around 20,000 American blacks were transported to Africa or the Caribbean between the American Revolution and the Civil War, a period when America’s black population increased by 3.5 million. But Guyatt is justified in emphasizing the importance of colonization as the only slavery-related movement that drew consistent support from both white northerners and southerners.

Guyatt shows that racial separation, with regard to both blacks and Native Americans, resulted from the failure by whites to accept even the possibility of integration and coexistence. Guyatt’s main point—that many who considered themselves enlightened were, in fact, hidebound—is persuasive enough that one can pardon the exaggerations of his subtitle, although it would be worth discussing such racial progressives as Roger Williams, the New Jersey Quaker John Woolman, or Samuel Sewall, the judge in the Massachusetts Bay Colony who wrote a pamphlet against slavery in 1700.

The term “racial segregation” in the title, however, is more open to question. Guyatt links the racial separation movements of pre-1860 America with the separate-but-equal ethos codified in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and prevalent during the Jim Crow era. On this point, Guyatt’s case would have been strengthened had he paid greater attention to the day-to-day racism not only in the South but in the North as well: the biases that kept blacks out of restaurants and public transportation, that were projected in blackface minstrel shows, and that produced the racial stereotypes of many popular novels. Such forms of daily discrimination anticipated Jim Crow more directly than did the physical separation of the races.

Racism was visible everywhere in pre–Civil War America—so much so that the black reformer William J. Watkins insisted that the “prejudice at the North is much more virulent than at the South,” an observation seconded by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who declared, “The prejudices of the North are stronger than those of the South.”2 Also, the racist arguments of antebellum American figures like the surgeon Josiah Nott and the Egyptologist George Gliddon, unmentioned by Guyatt, prepared the way for later American ethnographic science, which predicted the extinction of supposedly inferior races and was among the causes that led to lynchings, KKK raids, and other ethnically driven atrocities of the 1880–1950 period.

Even the once-progressive poet Walt Whitman said late in life, “The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not: always so far inexorable—always to be.”3 Guyatt overstates his thesis, then, when he says that the colonization movement caused “a rewiring of white thinking about race”; he seems to imply that the colonization movement revised previous views both racist and abolitionist. Actually, white thinking about race did not depend on the colonization movement. Deeply racist views were held by countless Americans.

It is to Guyatt’s credit, however, that he highlights the insidiousness of colonization. Many other forms of racism were so blatant as to be easily dismissed in retrospect. Few today could be drawn to blackface or would take seriously the pseudoscience of racial extinction. At least in public discourse we no longer hear the vernacular of nineteenth-century America cited by a contemporary journalist: “Nigger lips, nigger shins, and nigger heels, [were] phrases universally common.”4

It’s far more painful to consider the contradictions of Guyatt’s group of distinguished egalitarians. Jefferson’s affirmation of human equality in the Declaration of Independence is the single most important statement ever made by an American. In a society of ubiquitous inequality, it remains central and urgent in its call for justice. And yet, as historians often remind us, Jefferson was a hypocrite. At one time or another, he owned more than six hundred slaves. His instruction that the lash be used sparingly was not always followed by his overseers, such as the brutal Gabriel Lilly, who whipped enslaved workers in the nail factory at Monticello. In Notes on the States of Virginia, Jefferson described blacks as intrinsically and permanently inferior to whites. “Negroes…secrete less by the kidnies,” Jefferson wrote, “and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour.”5 Moreover, he continued, they were oversexed, dull, and unimaginative.

So far as we know, Jefferson never mentioned in writing Sally Hemings, the enslaved housemaid with whom, most historians now agree, he had a long-term sexual relationship and by whom he fathered at least six children. Guyatt contrasts Jefferson’s silence about this affair with the open, long-term interracial relationship between the Democratic politician Richard Mentor Johnson and a black woman, Julia Chinn. Johnson treated Chinn as his common-law wife from 1815, when he inherited her from his father, until Chin’s death in 1833. They had two daughters together, whom Johnson acknowledged as his own and whose education and large dowries he provided. Jefferson, on the other hand, not only hid his affair, Guyatt writes, but he recoiled from one of the solutions to the race problem posed by others: amalgamation (the era’s term for miscegenation). When the Virginia diplomat William Short wrote Jefferson endorsing amalgamation, Jefferson declared his “great aversion” to the idea, saying that the relocation of blacks abroad was “entirely practicable, and greatly preferable to the mixture of color here.”

Moreover, as Guyatt notes, Jefferson gave one of the first presidential orders for harsh action against Native Americans of the kind that became commonplace under Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. Jefferson advised William Henry Harrison, his military commander in the Northwest, that if Indians there proved resistant to friendly appeals, he should set up trading houses near them, drive them into debt, and then encourage them to “lop [the debts] off by a cession of land.” The Indians, Jefferson said, were in the palm of the United States, and “we have only to shut our hand to crush them”—a prescription for war that Harrison later carried out when he defeated rebellious natives at the Battle of Tippecanoe.

This is one of the few times in Bind Us Apart that Guyatt describes the feelings of the ethnic groups victimized by white oppression. The Indians that Jefferson and Harrison particularly wanted to destroy were Tecumseh, a Shawnee warrior, and his brother Tenskwatawa, a prophet who incited an Indian revolt on the premise that whites were the offspring of the Great Serpent, the force of evil in the universe. The village where Tecumseh lived, known as Prophetstown, was conquered by Harrison in a savage military campaign. Tecumseh was killed in a later battle, the Indian rebellion was put down, and a pattern was set for violent takeover that later generations of Indian fighters did not forget. Jefferson set in motion a process of ethnic cleansing that contradicted his earlier goal of extending citizenship to Native Americans.

Guyatt’s book shows the degree to which some of the early founders—among the finest political minds of their time—were deeply bigoted about race. He thus raises fundamental questions about the basis of American democracy that still divide the country.