Theories of Race

James McCune Smith

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    James McCune Smith



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Born a slave in New York City in 1813 (liberated by the Emancipation Act passed in New York in 1827), James McCune Smith became a physician, an activist, an essayist, and one of the most learned men in the nation. A polyglot who possessed Latin and Greek as well as several modern languages, Smith also founded the Radical Abolition Party and worked with Frederick Douglass to establish the National Council of Colored People. Like Douglass, he worked across the racial divide to press the abolitionist cause; also like Douglass, he eventually broke with the white supporters of that cause over a number of issues, including the question of whether the Constitution was or was not, as Douglass had argued, a “liberty document.” Unlike the charismatic Douglass, however, he did not make a reputation as a lecturer, devoting himself instead to his position as the doctor at the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York, and to the publication of essays in support not only of abolition but of full social equality for black people. Published in newspapers, the most perishable of forms, they were not collected and published until 2006.

The passage excerpted below was written for The Anglo-African Magazine in 1859, the year of John Brown’s disastrous raid on Harper’s Ferry, which Smith had supported. In it, we see evidence of Smith’s early medical training in Glasgow (1832-37) in his command, which approaches overkill, of the methods and terminology of phrenology, osteology, and dermatology. But we also see evidence of his more mature essayistic style, a sometimes ironic, allusive, or affective use of language that his modern editor John Stauffer describes as “an open-ended symbolic process.”* Responding to arguments for the differences between the races put forward by Petrus Camper, John Augustine Smith, and especially Thomas Jefferson, Smith uses every rhetorical, statistical, and professional weapon at his disposal to attack the notion that there is any biological or genetic difference between the races that would warrant differential treatment, much less a permanent separation of the races. His evidence for the latter argument includes “a colored grand-daughter of Thomas Jefferson”—a direct reference to the widely circulating rumors of Jefferson’s relationship to his slave Sally Hemmings.

*John Stauffer, “Introduction,” The Works of James McCune Smith:  Black Intellectual and Abolitionist (Oxford and New York:  Oxford University Press, 2006), xiii-xl, xxix.  

“On the Fourteenth Query of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia”


“What further is to be done with them?” enquired Thomas Jefferson in 1787. “What, then, is to be done?” is demanded of Dr. Dewey fifty-seven years afterwards [Orville Dewey, A Discourse on Slavery and the Annexation of Texas (New York: C. S. Francis, 1844)]. These questions relate to the colored population of these United States. “What further is to be done with them?” “What is to be done with them?” Can they be elevated to the same rank with the white citizens of this great Republic? This question involves another, Is the standard occupied by the whites really elevated above that occupied by the black population? . . .

It is better to lay aside, then, this word “elevation,” because it is uncertain in its meaning. Let us put the same question in another form: Can the black and the white live together in harmony under American institutions, each contributing to the peace and prosperity of the country, and to the development of the problem of self-government involved in American institutions? . . .

If there be no reason, founded upon democratic institutions, which prevents the harmonious dwelling together of these two races, is there anything in the races themselves which constitutes such a prohibition? Mr. Jefferson contends that there are physical and mental distinctions between the negro and the white man—distinctions which must ever prevent them from an equal and harmonious participation in the blessings of democratic freedom. . . .

On the 268th page of his Notes on Virginia, Mr. Jefferson asks: “Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the State,” &c. He answers, on the next page, “Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race. To these objections, which are political, may be added others which are physical and moral,” &c.

Mr. Jefferson then states the physical and mental differences which exist, and which, in his opinion, will forever prevent the incorporation of the blacks into the State. His arrangement of these views is so mixed and confused, that we must depart from it, and consider, first the physical, secondly, the mental differences between the races.

First, In regard to the physical differences between the races.

In discussing this portion of the subject, we will not confine ourselves to the views announced by Thomas Jefferson, but will examine all the views and statements which have been urged since his work appeared, and which support his views.

The physical differences which are urged as existing between whites and blacks are, first, those which relate to the bones of the body; secondly, those which relate to the muscles; thirdly, those which relate to the texture of the hair; and fourthly, the color of the skin.


Or those which are said to exist in the bones, do not relate to the number of the bones, for in this both races are alike; nor do they relate to the form of the bones, because as much difference is found to exist between the forms of the bones of different individuals, who are undoubtedly white, as are said to exist between the blacks and the whites. And these very differences, so far from being characteristic, simply prove this: that whilst there are the same individual varieties in each race, there are also the same general resemblances. The fallacy in the argument has consisted in this: the variations in the black race have been arranged together, and have been called the type of the race, and as such have been compared with, not the varieties, but the general type of the whites, and from this unfair comparison, the illogical conclusion has been adduced that there is a permanent difference between these two races. This argument is about as conclusive as if we were to select all the white men in this city who have grey eyes, and to argue that because the color of their eyes differs from that of the remainder, therefore the two classes belong to different races.

In illustration of this view, let us take up one of the osteological differences alleged to exist between the white and black races. It has been said by many writers, and among the rest by Dr. John Augustine Smith, that there is a permanent difference in the form of the skull, exhibited by these two races. This view will be found in the abstract of a lecture on the different races of men, by Dr. J. A. Smith, in an appendix to Lyell’s Lectures on Geology, printed at the office of the “Tribune.”

It is said by the learned lecturer, Dr. Smith, that the skull of the negro approaches very nearly to the form of the skull of the ape, and recedes very much from the form of the skull of the white or Caucasian race.

In proof of this, he states that the facial angle in the Caucasian is eighty degrees, in the ape sixty-four degrees, in the black seventy degrees.

The skulls selected from the white race for this admensuration were rather above than below the usual admeasurement; whilst the skulls selected from the blacks were extreme cases of acuteness of this angle or flatness of the forehead. They constituted the exceptions. That there are cases amongst the whites in whom the facial angle is equally acute will be evident to any one who will take the trouble to look at a profile of Henry Clay, General Lafayette, or at most of the heads found on French and Spanish coins of the latter part of the last century.

This is sufficient to destroy the general conclusion that there is less difference between the facial angle of the ape and the black than between the angle of the latter and the white.

There is further proof that this conclusion is not a true one. The skulls of the apes used by Professor Camper, who was the author of this mode of mensuration, were the skulls of young apes; in the skull of the young of this animal there is a greater approximation to the facial angle of man, than in the adult ape. Mr. Owen, the most distinguished of British naturalists, has shown that the facial angle of the adult troglodyte is only thirty-five degrees, and that of the ourang or satyr thirty degrees.

Hence, if we grant that the facial angle of the negro measured only seventy degrees, it is between thirty-five and forty degrees larger than the facial angle of the ape; while it is only ten degrees less than the most obtuse angle of the European head. And this is only one of the many wide chasms, if they may be so called, which divide the human species from all other species of animals. . . .

But this facial angle itself has been assumed to be the measurer of intellect; and this assumption is based upon two things not yet proven: First, that intelligence bears some proportion to the development of the brain; Second, that the facial angle is a measure of the quantity of brain. It would require more time than we have at present to expose the fallacy of the first assumption; but its relation to this subject is destroyed if we can overthrow the second. The facial angle is not a measure of the quantity of brain in man. So far from this, it is neither a measure of the solid contents of the skull, nor of the relative position of the different parts of the brain contained in the skull. . . .

Mr. Owen has recently set this question at rest, by showing “that strongly marked and most important characters distinguish the quadrumanous type from that of the human skull.” In apes, the cranium, properly so termed, is a small rounded case, and is altogether posterior to, and not at all above the face. The antero-posterior diameter of the basis of the skull is very much longer than in man. The most striking circumstance which displays the difference is the different situation occupied by the zygomatic arch in the plane of the basis of the skull. In all races of men, and even in human idiots, the entire zygoma is included in the anterior half of the basis cranii; in the head of the adult troglodyte, or chimpanzee, as well as in that of’ the satyr, or wang, the zygoma is situated in the middle region of the skull, and in the basis occupies just one-third part of the entire length of its diameter. Posterior to the zygomata, the petrous portions have in the simias a large development in the antero-posterior direction. Another most remarkable character, in respect to which those anatomists have been greatly deceived who compared only young troglodytes with man, is the position of the great occipital foramen, a feature most important as to the general character of structure, and to the habits of the whole being. This foramen in the human head is very near the middle of the basis of the skull, or rather it is situated immediately behind the middle transverse diameter, while in the chimpanzee it is placed in the middle of the posterior third of the basis cranii. In the heads of young apes, which heretofore have been the subjects of comparison, this foramen is situated much more forward, or near to the middle of the basis of the skull. Still its position is obviously posterior to the situation of the same foramen in the human skull. “I have carefully examined,” says Dr. Prichard, “the situation of the foramen magnum in many negro skulls; in all of them it is in precisely the place which Mr. Owen has pointed out as the general position of the occipital hole in the human skull.”

From these and similar facts, it is evident that, far from there being any great and uniformly marked differences in the elementary shape, form, or size of the skulls of the African and the white, there exists in reality a uniform resemblance, proving that, from the bony structure of the human frame, there can be deduced the sublime argument of the unity of the human race. . . .

That climate, or, more properly speaking, geological position, has a powerful influence upon the bony structure of man, is a proposition which numerous facts in our own sphere of observation tend to support. The colored race now living in Maryland and Virginia have a depth of chest and symmetry of form so very remarkable that we have been able to tell the birthplace of very many men of those States by a simple examination of their chests.

Only two hundred years have elapsed since their ancestors, made up of every of the many diversities of the African tribes, first landed at Jamestown; yet two centuries have made a marked uniformity in the frames of men who would otherwise have retained their original varieties. This could only be the result of geological influences. . . .

Thus much on the topic of osteology. There is no reason to infer, from the structure of the skeleton, that there are distinctions and permanent differences between the framework of the white and black races.

We shall say little about the muscular system. One poor, persecuted muscle— that which constitutes, principally, the calf of the leg—has been the cause of earnest speculation by those who have sought differences where the Almighty has stamped uniformity. These earnest seekers after, not the truth, but the differences, cannot deny the fact that this muscle does exist in both races, but they rejoice in finding it smaller and higher up in the leg of the black than in that limb in the white.

The head and front of this offending, is, that the black race have less calf than their brethren of the fairer hue. Even this “soft-impeachment” is not universally true. It is only the exception; and it is to be found, as Mr. Walsh states in his Notes on Brazil, among those miserable slaves who are made to bear very heavy burdens on their heads, from an early age. . . .


The hair is named by Mr. Jefferson as affording one of those physical differences between the whites and blacks, which must ever prevent the blacks from being incorporated into the State. The short, curly, or crisp hair of the negro, is compared with the long, flowing locks of the whites,; and from this comparison it is inferred that the two races cannot live in the same land. Nay, other writers—Dr. Nott, of Mobile, for example—enumerates this among the reasons which lead him to believe that the two races are of a distinct species—as much so as “the swan and the goose.” . . .

Upon this point Dr. Prichard very happily remarks that “if this cuticular excrescence of the negro were really not hair, but a fine wool—if it were precisely analogous to the finest wool—still this would by no means prove the negro to be of a peculiar and separate stock, since we know that some tribes of animals bear wool, while others of the same species are covered with hair.

“But,” continues Dr. Forey, “the so-called woolly hair of the negro is not wool in fact, but merely a curled and twisted hair. This has been proved by microscopic observation . . . .”

There is another fact which may be added, to wit; that this woolly hair of the negro may, by proper care, be made nearly straight. . . . .


is, in the opinion of Thomas Jefferson and his followers, another objection to incorporating the blacks into the American Republic. This may be called the “physical distinction” upon which the question is made to rest by the opponents of the black man in this Republic.

Mr. Jefferson asks, with an air of triumph, “Is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of’ beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of color in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?” We regret that a sense of propriety prohibits us from finishing this quotation, for the argument against the part which must be omitted is full and conclusive.

In reply to what has been quoted from Mr. Jefferson, it would be sufficient to give the testimony of Mr. Waddington, in regard to a race of black men whom he saw on the eastern coast of Africa. He says, “The general complexion of the Shegya is jet black—clear, glossy, jet black—which appeared to my then unprejudiced eyes to be the finest color that could be selected for a human being. Mr. Jefferson himself, if we may credit the statement of Dr. Bacon, in his account of the colored Virginians who are now living in Liberia—Mr. Jefferson himself has left living testimony against his own expressions above quoted —testimony whose close resemblance to himself, and partial inheritance of his talents, should forever close the mouths of men who refer to Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia as proof of the impossibility of incorporating the. colored race into the State. “That testimony,” says Dr. Bacon, “is a colored grand-daughter of Thomas Jefferson.” . . .

Such testimony is enough to show that there is nothing essentially hideous or distinctly deformed in a black complexion.

Let us take a more general view of this matter, the complexion of the human skin. The fact is, that the term white is an arbitrary one when used in contradistinction to black, the latter meaning the colored mixed race now enslaved in this Republic.

A more accurate investigation of the subject has shown that there are but three great varieties to the human complexion, varieties under which all mankind may be classed. The Leucos or white variety, the Xanthic or yellow variety, and the Melanic or black variety.

1st. In regard to the leucos or white complexion. The word white, in physics means a combination of all colors—a reflection from the white object, of all the rays of color—hence the object itself is perfectly colorless. . . .

White, has often been termed, from Lord Bacon’s time, the color of defect. The whiteness of the hair is owing to a defect of a peculiar secretion. It is in age, when the frame has lost its vigor, and the life has extended beyond its prime, that the hair of men—not albinos—turns white. A similar delicacy, or deficiency in strength of constitution, appears to accompany the leucos or albino variety of mankind from birth. It is congenital deficiency. Hence the pure white is a deformed variety of the human species. . . .

2nd. The xanthous variety of complexion is marked by yellow hair and light eyes. The color of the skin is fair but not white, and is agreeably relieved by that ruddy tint which characterizes the sanguine temperament. The xanthous variety of mankind appears to have a degree of the same delicacy which marks the leucoses. Medical writers, from the time of Galen, have remarked a certain degree of irritability and delicacy of constitution in what they term the sanguine temperament. Persons of very fair complexion are often less robust than those of more swarthy hue. The xanthous variety composes a much larger proportion of mankind than the leucos variety. The north of Europe, including the Danes, the Belgians, a portion of the Germans, and the northeastern part of Asia—to wit, Eastern Siberia—and even some of the Highlands of Africa, are principally inhabited by the xanthous variety of mankind.

3d. The melanocomous, or dark-haired variety of mankind, is distinguished by black hair, dark eyes, and a complexion, varying from a bright brunette of the Italian to jet black of the negro. Men of the melanic variety are of the choleric or melancholic temperament, and have generally sounder and more vigorous constitutions, and are less susceptible of morbific impressions from external causes than the sanguine. This variety composes the greatest proportion of the human race. . . . To this variety of mankind, says Dr. Prichard, the negro belongs.

Hence it appears that the black comprises no special variety of the human race, no distinctive species of mankind, but is part and parcel of the great original stock of humanity—of the rule, and not of the exception. He also belongs to that variety which is endowed with the most powerful constitutions. . . .

It is a familiar fact that the hue of a white man can be greatly changed by a residence in a torrid climate.

Hence it would seem, that the color of the skin, be that color what it may, does not mark a distinct species in man.

A curious enquiry here suggests itself: What was the original complexion of mankind? Deeply interesting as is this enquiry, we cannot examine into it at present. Dr. Prichard (vol. 1, p. 220 [4th edition]) records his belief that the original complexion of the human race was the dark or melanic complexion. . . .

We have now arrived at a resting place in this tedious array of facts. We have carefully examined into the principal physical differences, which are alleged to constitute a bar in the way of incorporating the black men into the American State.

Do these differences in reality constitute such a bar? “Words,” said Mirabeau, “are things.” The history of words would be one of the most interesting of all histories. You may have observed that we use the word black, as distinguishing the class whom we have under consideration. This word “black,” and the other word “negro,” were the common, the usual, term used for this class, at the time Mr. Jefferson wrote. That is more than fifty years ago. The newspapers, sure indices of public opinion, now call this same class “colored people.” The class is the same, the name is changed; they are no longer blacks, bordering on beastiality; they are “colored,” and they are a “people.” I will not stop to enquire whether the word “colored” be used as a euphony for black, nor whether it marks the fact of an already perceptible change in the hue of the skin of this class. It answers our argument if it show, and it does show, a lessening of the distance— a step towards harmony and reciprocal kindness between man and his fellow man —between the black and the white man in this Republic.

The question is already partly answered; the physical differences do not constitute a permanent bar, because the public voice has already softened the terms which denote those differences. . . .

Whilst Jefferson, Dewey, and last of all Doolittle, raise their impotent voices to exclude the blacks from the United States, Henry Ward Beecher exclaims from his pulpit, with higher instincts and keener insight, “What! drive out the colored people from among us? I would as soon, with these two hands, undertake to uproot and cast out every shrub, bush, and tree that grows between this and the Rocky Mountains!”

Magazine Excerpt

John Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men:  Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2002).  

John Stauffer, ed., The Works of James McCune Smith:  Black Intellectual and Abolitionist (Oxford and New York:  Oxford University Press, 2006).