Founder of Hampden-Sydney College, President of Princeton, recipient of honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale, and prominent cleric in the Presbyterian Church, Samuel Stanhope Smith was also a progressive in many ways, espousing liberal views on marriage, slavery, and religion. He was president of Princeton from 1795 until 1812, when the college’s trustees, alarmed by the introduction of physics and chemistry into the curriculum of a college that had been devoted to the training of Presbyterian ministers, forced his resignation. Among Smith’s achievements was a text written as an address to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia when he was a young professor at Princeton, An Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species (1787), which secured his recognition as an anthropologist.
In this essay, Smith asserted and celebrated “the unity of the human race” against those who, like Kames, had argued for theories of heritable racial distinctions and polygenesis, and took extended issue with Thomas Jefferson’s views on the capacities of black people. In 1810 Smith published a new edition of his work that was thoroughly revised and nearly doubled in length, and included extended refutations of Charles White and Kames as well as a vivid essay on the “savagism” of the American Indian. This text became one the most influential American statements on monogenism in the nineteenth century, notable for its prescient and emphatic declaration of the stakes of the inquiry into human difference, which he phrased in unambiguous terms: “the denial of the unity of the human species tends to impair, if not entirely to destroy, the foundations of duty and morals, and, in a word, of the whole science of human nature.”
Smith’s Essay grew out of a specifically American context. While others in Europe shared his convictions about race, the debate there did not have the same consequences as it did in a country that had committed itself to a principle of equality in theory while creating radical forms of inequality in practice. Smith argued for equality on moral, philosophical, political, and religious grounds, and attempted to demonstrate that any observable differences among peoples were the result of climate, the “state of society,” and “habits of living.” For Smith, the notion of a fixed racial hierarchy, or even the concept of racial distinctions, contradicted both the Bible and “true philosophy,” and violated the principle of a common human nature for which the American Revolution had been fought. Such differences as were commonly recognized were, he said, simply differences of “complexion” to which a host of moral, intellectual, and cultural capacities had been illegitimately and unnecessarily attached.
In the American context, the theoretical issue of race became focused on the issue of black and white and, to a lesser extent, red. Smith investigated the “cause” of these colors as a way of explaining and ultimately discounting human difference as such. He attacked the question at the root, arguing that mankind was created by God in a civilized condition somewhere in Asia. Dispersal across the earth into different climates had resulted in different skin tones, about which Smith had a complicated theory. In the warmer climates, he said, humanity acquired a darker color as heat thickened the skin and liberated the bile, resulting, as he said in a footnote, in “a universal freckle” in black people. As a further effect of heat and local “habits of living,” some peoples degenerated into “savagism.” But such differences were literally skin deep, and skin color, like habits of living, could be changed. The human form was remarkably plastic, and given altered circumstances and sufficient time any differences in color and culture between the most and the least advanced of peoples could be eliminated. The apparent dullness of Negroes in America reflected no more than their degraded situation. “Genius requires freedom,” Smith argued, and in the right conditions black people would be able to compete with whites in all areas.
This argument undoubtedly seemed to many, including the author, to be a generous imagining consistent with the commitment to universal liberty enshrined in the founding documents of the new country. Smith was not a boldly original thinker, however, and his work retained as a premise the concept of an ordered hierarchy in nature, with what he called a “great chain” connecting the various human groups. Although Smith insisted on the chain as a principle of unity, others such as Charles White would emphasize the singularity of each link. The notion of what White called “gradation in man” would provide a foundation for virtually all theories of Negro inferiority. Moreover, Smith’s argument carried the implication that, since God intended mankind for society, the societies with the most advanced social structures were the most perfect, as well as the most aligned with the original design of creation. Since savagery represented a degeneration from this original design, it was expected and earnestly to be hoped that Africans in America would gradually de-Africanize in this and other respects, losing their Negroid features and behaviors and acquiring something of the “solicitude for personal beauty which is felt in polished society.”
Smith could see this transition occurring in the difference between the appearance and demeanor of field slaves when compared to that of house slaves. (He may have observed this transition at close range, as a 1784 newspaper advertisement suggests that he owned at least one slave during his time at Princeton.) Directly anticipating observations made by Franz Boas over a century later, Smith reported a change—for the better, according to him—in the physical form of the descendants of Negroes brought to America as slaves.
Effecting such a gentling and lightening alteration in the entire black population could only be accomplished by social engineering on a vast scale. Smith shared his plan with his Princeton students, telling them that if the nation set aside a large district in the West and offered grants to white people to settle there and to marry blacks, in time the distinctions created by the diversity of complexions would be obliterated.* Many Americans in the early nineteenth century were attracted to colonization as a possible solution to the problem of slavery, including Jefferson, James Madison, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Harriett Beecher Stowe, and Abraham Lincoln.
While speaking in defense of the “science of human nature,” Smith in fact insisted on a pre-scientific understanding of humanity based on philosophy, theology, and universalist humanitarian sentiments. Over the course of the nineteenth century, these would consistently lose ground to the methods and assumptions of science which, as Frederick Douglass would comment, are “favorable to division.”
*See Nicholas Guyatt, Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation (New York: Basic Books, 2016).
The unity of the human race, notwithstanding the diversity of colour, and form under which it appears in different portions of the globe, is a doctrine, independently of the authority of divine revelation, much more consistent with the principles of sound philosophy, than any of those numerous hypotheses which have referred its varieties to a radical and original diversity of species, adapted by the Creator, or by the necessary laws of the material world, to the respective climates which they were destined to inhabit. As there are several species of animals which seem to be confined by the physical laws of their constitution to a limited range of climate, and which either cannot exist, or do not attain the perfection of their nature, in regions either much farther to the North or to the South than those in which the Creator has planted them, superficial observers have been ready to conclude, from analogy, that different species of the human kind must have been originally circumscribed, by the forming hand of nature, within certain climatical limits, in which she has placed them, whence have sprung those varieties in external aspect, and in mental endowments, which distinguish the respective tribes of men from one another. But in contradiction to this principle, experience demonstrates that man is not exclusively confined in his range to any definite lines upon the earth. Although the fineness of texture, and delicacy of organization of the human constitution, renders it extremely susceptible of the impressions of climate, as well as of all other causes which act upon the animal frame, its peculiar flexibility, at the same time, enables it to adapt itself with wonderful facility, and without materially injuring the organs of life, to every degree of temperature from the extreme heats of the torrid, to the perpetual rigors of the frozen zone. . . . Why then should we, without necessity, assume the hypothesis that originally there existed species of the human kind? And not only without necessity, but contrary to the principles of true philosophy, since all its varieties may be accounted for, which I hope to demonstrate in the course of this essay, by the known operation of natural causes.
Different species must be subject to different laws both in the physical and moral constitution of their nature. The whole philosophy of man, therefore, is confounded by that hypothesis which divides the kind into various species, radically different from one another. The laws of morals designed to regulate the mutual intercourse of mankind, we derive from examining our own nature, or collecting the common sentiments of men in society, united together by a common system of feelings and ideas. . . . Varieties may be created in the same species either in the animal or vegetable kingdom, by varying their culture, and, sometimes, by transferring them to a different soil, or climate; but to all these varieties, where there is no radical diversity of kind, the same general laws will still apply. To man, in like manner, may be applied the same general principles of moral and physical action, if it be ascertained that all their differences indicate only one original species. But, destroy this unity, and no certain and universal principles of human nature remain. We have no general and infallible standard by which to judge of the moral ideas and habits of different nations, or even of different men. Besides, if human nature actually embraces different species of men, by what criterion shall we distinguish them? What is their number? Where do they now exist pure and universal? (7-9)
The hypothesis that the human kind is divided into various species, radically different from one another, is commonly connected in the systems of philosophers with another opinion, which, however general the assent by which it has obtained, is equally contrary to true philosophy, and to the sacred history; I mean the primitive and absolute savagism of all the tribes of men. . . .
The original, and absolute savagism of mankind, then, is a principle which appears to me to be contradicted equally by sound reason, and by the most authentic documents which remain to us of ancient history. All the earliest monuments of nations, as far as we can trace them, fix their origin about the middle regions of Asia, and present man to us in a state already civilized. From this centre we perceive the radiations of the race gradually shooting themselves towards every quarter of the globe. Savage life seems to have arisen only from idle, or restless spirits, who, shunning the fatigues of labor, or spurning the restraints and subordinations of civil society, sought, at once, liberty, and the pleasures of the chace, in wild, uncultivated regions remote from their original habitations. Here, forgetting the arts of civilized life, they, with their posterity, degenerated, in a course of time, into all the ignorance and rudeness of savagism, and furnished ample materials to the imagination of the poets for the pictures they have presented to us of the abject condition of the primitive men. But let us consult reason, as well as history, for the truth, or probability of their pictures.
Hardly is it possible that man, placed on the surface of the new world, in the midst of its forests and marshes, capable of reason, indeed, but without having formed principles to direct its exercise, should have been able to preserve his existence, unless he had received from his Creator, along with his being, some instructions concerning the use and employment of his faculties, for procuring his subsistence, and inventing the most necessary arts of life. (11-12)
The existence of civilized society in the world is a proof that man was never in such an abject state [as savages depicted by Horace]. Infinitely more wretched than those animals which provide by instinct for their subsistence, and accommodation, and are furnished with natural arms for the purpose, adapted to their respective states, a thousand ages would not have been sufficient to raise them to the art of the beaver.
Besides, uncivilized man is a lazy, improvident, and filthy animal. . . . Nothing but the controlling influence of some civilized power could ever induce a savage to wield a spade, or guide a plough. . . .
A just philosophy, therefore, grounded on fact and experience, will lead us to the conclusion which the sacred scriptures propose as an elementary principle of our belief; that man, originally formed by a wise and beneficent Creator, was instructed by him in the duties, and the most necessary arts of life. Thus were laid, in the very commencement of the race, the foundations of domestic, social, and civil order. From the primitive man, thus instructed, have descended the various tribes of men upon the earth. . . . (18-19)
If we compare together only those varieties of human nature by which the several sections of mankind differ most widely from one another, the difference is so great that, on the first view, it might very naturally lead to the conclusion that they must belong to distinct species. But, when we come to examine more particularly the intermediate grades which connect the extremes, and observe by what minute differences they approach, or recede from, one another; and when we observe further, that each of these minute gradations can be traced to obvious and natural causes, forming so many links, as it were, in the great chain connecting the extremes, we are ready to call in question our first impressions, and perceive the necessity of subjecting them to a new and more rigorous examination. . . .
Of the chief causes of the varieties of the human species I shall treat under the heads
Of Climate—Of the State of Society—and, Of the Manner of Living.— (22-23)
The power of climate to change the complexion is demonstrated by facts which constantly occur to our observation. In the summer season we perceive that the intensity of the sun’s rays in our climate tends to darken the colour of the skin, especially in the labouring poor who are more constantly than others, exposed to their action. In the winter, on the other hand, the cold and keen winds which then prevail contribute to chafe the countenance, and to excite in it a sanguine and ruddy complexion. . . . But in proportion as heat or cold predominates in any clime, it tends to impress a permanent and characteristic complexion. . . . These effects, in countries where heat and cold succeed each other in nearly equal proportions, are transient and interchangeable. But where the climate, in any given proportion, repeats the one, or the other, of these impressions, there, in the same degree, is formed a correspondent and habitual colour of the skin. . . . [The Creator] has formed the human constitution with such flexibility in its organization, that it is capable of accommodating itself to every situation on the globe, to which business or necessity may call men, or a liberal curiosity and the desire of improvement may invite them. (28-30)
Before proceeding to treat directly of the causes of the various degrees of dark complexion observable in the different tribes of the human species, it will not be improper to propose two or three preliminary remarks on the structure of the skin, the seat of colour. This fine integument, although extremely delicate, and susceptible of the lightest impressions from many causes both external and internal, is, however, in its organic texture, among the least mutable parts of the human body. Hence any colour introduced into its substance is not easily eradicated. Figures stained in it with paints inserted by punctures become indelible. For the same reason, freckles, though consisting only of partial stains impressed on the surface of a fair skin by a slight exposure to the sun and air, cannot be removed but with great difficulty; and in persons of a certain ruddiness of complexion, such as is found commonly united with hair of a dark red, or deep orange colour, can never be entirely effaced. [Two footnotes to this passage assert, first, that “White may be regarded as the colourless state of skin, and all the shades of the dark colours as different stains inserted into its substance”; and second, “It has been remarked, and not without reason, that a dark colour of the skin may be considered as a universal freckle.”] (31-32)
Descending still farther to the South, along the sea coast of the Carolinas and Georgia, we often meet among the overseers of their slaves, and their laborious poor, with persons whose complexion is but a few shades lighten than that of the aboriginal Iroquois, or Cherokees. Compare these men with their British ancestors, and the change which has already passed upon them, will afford the strongest ground to conclude that, if they were thrown, like our native indians, into a state of absolute savagism, they would, in no great length of time, be perfectly marked with the same complexion. Not only is their complexion thus changed, but a visible and striking alteration seems to have been produced on their whole constitution. So thin and meagre frequently are they in their persons, that their limbs seem to have a disproportioned length to the body; and the figure of the skeleton appears often, very distinctly, through the skin. If these men, unmixed with others whose state in society enables them to enjoy in greater abundance the conveniences and real comforts of living, and consequently the means of preserving themselves from the deteriorating impressions of the climate, had been found in a distant region where no memory of their origin remained, they would have furnished to the advocates of different species belonging to the human kind, an example as strong, and as much to the purpose of their argument, as most of those on which they now rely with the greatest confidence. (44-45)
In rebutting Smith, White had referred to his observations of the physical state and dimensions of Negroes. In reply, Smith pointed out that White had examined only “a single African skeleton,” and while his inferences may represent “that miserable and degraded class of Africans who are introduced as slaves into the islands of the West-Indies, or the United States of America,” they do not represent “the posterity of the Africans,” whose physical condition improves remarkably over time, as a result of which “the American negro is visibly losing the most uncouth peculiarities of the African person, and physiognomy.” (151-52)
. . . the physiognomy, and the whole figure and appearance of the African race is undergoing a favorable change. Among the males you frequently meet with men of straight, active, and vigorous persons, who present to you foreheads as open, full, and finely arched as the whites. And among the females it is not uncommon to meet with good features and a pleasing expression of countenance. And if we consider beauty of form in the mixed race as of any account in this question, there are not perhaps in the world persons of finer figure and proportions than are found among the mulattos of St. Domingo or Jamaica.
. . . The climate of Africa requires less attention to them [children] for their preservation and safety, than the more rigorous climates of the North. And a savage and barbarous people not feeling the same solicitude for personal beauty which is felt in polished society, they perceive few motives, derived from this source, to depart from the natural indolence of savagism in the care of their children. These children, left during a great portion of the day, on the ground at the doors of their huts, to their own struggles and efforts, at that period of life when they are first beginning to move from place to place, will frequently distort their limbs by accidents, or by wrong and violent positions. But without taking these accidental ills into the account, the common way of moving at that age being on their hands and feet, much stress is necessarily laid on the legs and thighs. And this not being in a perpendicular position, will naturally tend, at an age in which the bones are in a soft, and almost cartilaginous state, to give a gibbous form to these limbs. I am the more inclined to ascribe the effect to this cause for a reason that will be very obvious to a planter in the southern states of America, who has daily opportunities of observing the great difference in the figure of the legs and thighs that subsists between his field, and his domestic, slaves. Among the former, in whose quarters the necessities of their state concur with the mildness of the climate, and the natural indolence of slavery, to produce great negligence, and inattention in the nursing and management of their children, the gibbous form of these members is almost as common as among their African ancestors. Among the latter, on the other hand, who are carefully nursed, you generally find much straighter persons, and, frequently persons which would be esteemed handsome in any nation. (155-57)
On Thomas Jefferson’s claim that Negroes lack intellect or imagination, Smith writes:
These remarks upon the genius of the African negro appear to me to have so little foundation in true philosophy that few observations will be necessary to refute them. . . .
I am inclined . . . to ascribe the apparent dullness of the negro principally to the wretched state of his existence first in his original country, where he is at once a poor and abject savage, and subjected to an atrocious despotism; and afterwards in those regions to which he is transported to finish his days in slavery, and toil. Genius, in order to its cultivation, and the advantageous display of its powers, requires freedom; it requires reward, the reward at least of praise, to call it forth; competition to awaken its ardor; and examples both to direct its operations, and to prompt its emulation. The abject servitude of the negro in America, condemned to the drudgery of perpetual labor, cut off from every mean of improvement, conscious of his degraded state in the midst of freemen who regard him with contempt, and in every word and look make him feel his inferiority; and hopeless of ever enjoying any great amelioration of his condition, must condemn him, while these circumstances remain, to perpetual sterility of genius. It is unfair to compare the feeble efforts of the mind which we sometimes behold under slavish depression, with the noble ardor which is often kindled even in the wild freedom of the American forest. (162-64)
Bruce Dain, “Culture and the Persistence of Race,” in A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 40-80.
Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1968).
Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010).