Race relations in early New York

The only way to visit 19th-century America is with a European traveler. There have always been Americans who wrote of America—sometimes their spelling and grammar is quite strong. Toward the end of the century, some are almost trustworthy. Even the staples of the high-school reader—Twain, Melville, Hawthorne, and so on—are not at all to be sneered at. And then, of course, there are the Confederates. I don’t think it’s possible to call a man informed if he’s never read a book by a Confederate.

But broadly speaking, receiving America from the American pen is like receiving, say, Turkey, from the Turkish pen. The Turkish Turkey is an amazing country which ought to exist. For the real Turkey, one is better off with Paul Theroux. I’m becoming increasingly respectful of these national fantasies and could easily be convinced that, in some ways, they are more important than reality. Indeed, since the world has become America, we can only receive America from the Americans. Everyone educated in 2012 is educated as an American. There is certainly no Europe to shed external light on our epistemic struggles. Hence the daily grapple with narrative’s morass. Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everyone!

But that is now and this was then. Though Mrs. Trollope has her fans, I don’t think it’s disputed by any serious reactionary that the our two best sources in the early 19th century are Captain Hall and Captain Hamilton (Navy and Army respectively). So far as I know, neither was Jane Austen’s boyfriend, but both would have fit perfectly in her drawing-room. If the millions of ordinary Americans who lost their hearts to Emma Thompson in Sense and Sensibility knew what that society made of theirs (never mind what it would have made of ours), faint ripples of doubt might shimmer lightly across their television pictures.

As now, in the early 19th century thinking men came in two schools of thought: enlightened racists and ignorant communists. Did I say that? I meant, of course, ignorant racists and enlightened progressives. This is Dr. King’s day, so I feel it would be inappropriate to excerpt Captain Hall—who, alas, is a bit of a racist. He didn’t know any better. I’m sure Stephen Jay Gould could have set him straight.

But Captain Hamilton comes to America and finds… credible evidence of human neurological uniformity! Which claims him at once as a believer. And who doesn’t want to believe? Hey, a neighbor’s gotta have faith in something.

It’s true that Captain Hamilton’s terminology is a little out of date, but we can ascribe this failing to the absence of Dr. King’s redemptive powers—like forgiving Plato for not being a Christian. It would be difficult to describe our author as a politically correct progressive in the 20th-century sense (i.e., as a communist), but there is a definite and delightful odor of mild, pre–Reform Whiggery in his advanced opinions.

But—I describe too much. We’ll let the Captain take it away. Thomas Hamilton, Men and Manners in America, 1833:

It has often happened to me, since my arrival in this country, to hear it gravely maintained by men of education and intelligence, that the Negroes were an inferior race, a link as it were between man and the brutes. Having enjoyed few opportunities of observation on people of colour in my own country, I was now glad to be enabled to enlarge my knowledge on a subject so interesting.

I therefore requested the master to inform me whether the results of his experience had led to the inference, that the aptitude of the Negro children for acquiring knowledge was inferior to that of the whites. In reply, he assured me they had not done so; and, on the contrary, declared, that, in sagacity, perseverance, and capacity for the acquisition and retention of knowledge, his poor despised scholars were equal to any boys he had ever known.

“But, alas, sir!” said he, “to what end are these poor creatures taught acquirement, from the exercise of which they are destined to be debarred, by the prejudices of society? It is, surely, but a cruel mockery to cultivate talents, when, in the present state of public feeling, there is no field open for their useful employment. Be his acquirements what they may, a Negro is still a Negro, or, in other words, a creature marked out for degradation, and exclusion from those objects which stimulate the hopes and powers of other men.”

I observed, in reply, that I was not aware that, in those States in which slavery had been abolished, any such barrier existed as that to which he alluded. “In the State of New York, for instance,” I asked, “are not all offices and professions open to the man of colour as well as to the white?”

“I see, sir,” replied he, “that you are not a native of this country, or you would not have asked such a question.” He then went on to inform me, that the exclusion in question did not arise from any legislative enactment, but from the tyranny of that prejudice, which, regarding the poor black as a being of inferior order, works its own fulfilment in making him so. There was no answering this, for it accorded too well with my own observations in society, not to carry my implicit belief.

The master then proceeded to explain the system of education adopted in the school, and subsequently afforded many gratifying proofs of the proficiency of his scholars. One class was employed in navigation, and worked several complicated problems with great accuracy and rapidity. A large proportion was perfectly conversant with arithmetic, and not a few with the lower mathematics. A long and rigid examination took place in geography, in the course of which questions were answered with facility, which I confess would have puzzled me exceedingly had they been addressed to myself.

I had become so much interested in the little party-coloured crowd before me, that I recurred to our former discourse, and inquired of the master, what would probably become of his scholars on their being sent out into the world? Some trades, some description of labour of course were open to them, and I expressed my desire to know what these were. He told me they were few. The class studying navigation, were destined to be sailors; but let their talents be what they might, it was impossible they could rise to be officers of the paltriest merchantman that entered the waters of the United States. The office of cook or steward was indeed within the scope of their ambition; but it was just as feasible for the poor creatures to expect to become Chancellor of the State, as mate of a ship.

In other pursuits it was the same. Some would become stonemasons, or bricklayers, and to the extent of carrying a hod, or handling a trowel, the course was clear before them; but the office of master-bricklayer was open to them in precisely the same sense as the Professorship of Natural Philosophy No white artificer would serve under a coloured master. The most degraded Irish emigrant would scout the idea with indignation.

As carpenters, shoemakers, or tailors, they were still arrested by the same barrier. In either of the latter capacities indeed they might work for people of their own complexion, but no gentleman would ever think of ordering garments of any sort from a schneider of cuticle less white than his own. Grocers they might be, but then who could perceive the possibility of a respectable household matron purchasing tea or spiceries from a vile “Nigger?” As barbers, they were more fortunate, and in that capacity might even enjoy the privilege of taking the President of the United States by the nose. Throughout the Union, the department of domestic service particularly belongs to them, though recently they are beginning to find rivals in the Irish emigrants, who come annually in swarms like locusts.

On the whole, I cannot help considering it a mistake to suppose that slavery has been abolished in the Northern States of the Union. It is true, indeed, that in these States the power of compulsory labour no longer exists; and that one human being within their limits, can no longer claim property in the thews and sinews of another. But is this all that is implied in the boon of freedom? If the word mean any thing, it must mean the enjoyment of equal rights, and the unfettered exercise in each individual of such powers and faculties as God has given him. In this true meaning of the word, it may be safely asserted, that this poor degraded caste are still slaves. They are subjected to the most grinding and humiliating of all slaveries, that of universal and unconquerable prejudice. The whip, indeed has been removed from the back of the Negro, but the chains are still on his limbs, and he bears the brand of degradation on his forehead. What is it but the mere abuse of language to call him free, who is tyrannically deprived of all the motives to exertion which animate other men? The law, in truth, has left him in that most pitiable of all conditions, a masterless slave.

It cannot be denied that the Negro population are still compelled, as a class, to be the hewers of wood, and drawers of water, to their fellow-citizens. Citizens! there is, indeed, something ludicrous in the application of the word to these miserable Pariahs. What privileges do they enjoy as such? Are they admissible upon a jury? Can they enrol themselves in the militia? Will a white man eat with them, or extend to them the hand of fellowship? Alas if these men, so irresistibly manacled to degradation, are to be called free, tell us, at least, what stuff are slaves made of?

But on this subject, perhaps, another tone of expression—of thought, there can be no other—may be more judicious. I have already seen abundant proofs, that the prejudices against the coloured portion of the population prevailed to an extent, of which an Englishman could have formed no idea. But many enlightened men I am convinced are above them. To these I would appeal They have already begun the work of raising this unfortunate race from the almost brutal state to which tyranny and injustice had condemned it. But let them not content themselves with such delusive benefits as the extension of the right of suffrage recently conferred by the Legislature of New York.*

*—The Legislature of New York in 1829 extended the right of suffrage to men of colour, possessed of a clear freehold estate without encumbrance of the value of 250 dollars. A very safe concession, no doubt, since to balance the black interest, the same right of suffrage was granted to every white male of twenty-one years, who has been one year in the State. It might be curious to know how many coloured voters became qualified by this enactment. They must, indeed, have been rari nantes in gurgite vasto of the election.

The opposition to be overcome, is not that of law, but of opinion. If, in unison with the ministers of religion, they will set their shoulders to the wheel, and combat prejudice with reason ignorance with knowledge, and pharisaical assumption with the mild tenets of Christianity, they must succeed in infusing a better tone into the minds and hearts of their countrymen. It is true, indeed, the victory will not be achieved in a day, nor probably in an age, but assuredly it will come at last. In achieving it they will become the benefactors, not only of the Negro population, but of their fellow-citizens. They will give freedom to both; for the man is really not more free, whose mind is shackled by degrading prejudice, than he who is its victim.

As illustrative of the matter in hand, I am tempted here to relate an anecdote, though somewhat out of place, as it did not occur till my return to New York the following spring. Chancing one day at the Ordinary at Bunker’s to sit next an English merchant from St. Domingo, in the course of conversation, he mentioned the following circumstances. The son of a Haytian general, high in the favour of Boyer, recently accompanied him to New York, which he came to visit for pleasure and instruction. This young man, though a mulatto, was pleasing in manner, and with more intelligence than is usually to be met with in a country in which education is so defective. At home, he had been accustomed to receive all the deference due to his rank, and when he arrived in New York, it was with high anticipations of the pleasure that awaited him in a city so opulent and enlightened.

On landing, he inquired for the best hotel, and directed his baggage to be conveyed there. He was rudely refused admittance, and tried several others with similar result. At length he was forced to take up his abode in a miserable lodging-house kept by a Negro woman. The pride of the young Haytian (who, sooth to say, was something of a dandy, and made imposing display of gold chains and brooches,) was sadly galled by this, and the experience of every hour tended farther to confirm the conviction, that, in this country, he was regarded as a degraded being, with whom the meanest white man would hold it disgraceful to associate. In the evening, he went to the theatre, and tendered his money to the box-keeper. It was tossed back to him, with a disdainful intimation, that the place for persons of his colour was the upper gallery.

On the following morning, my countryman, who had frequently been a guest at the table of his father, paid him a visit. He found the young Haytian in despair. All his dreams of pleasure were gone, and he returned to his native island by the first conveyance, to visit the United States no more.

This young man should have gone to Europe. Should he visit England, he may feel quite secure, that if he have money in his pocket, he will offer himself at no hotel, from Land’s End to John O’ Groat’s house, where he will not meet with a very cordial reception. Churches, theatres, operas, concerts, coaches, chariots, cabs, vans, wagons, steam-boats, railway-carriages and air-balloons, will all be open to him as the daylight. He may repose on cushions of down or of air, he may charm his ear with music, and his palate with luxuries of all sorts. He may travel en prince, or en roturier, precisely as his fancy dictates, and may enjoy even the honours of a crowned head, if he will only pay like one. In short, so long, as he carries certain golden ballast about with him, all will go well.

But when that is done, his case is pitiable. He will then become familiar with the provisions of the vagrant act, and Mr Roe or Mr Ballantine will recommend exercise on the treadmill, for the benefit of his constitution. Let him but show his nose abroad, and a whole host of parish overseers will take alarm. The new police will bait him like a bull; and should he dare approach even the lowest eating-house, the master will shut the door in his face. If he ask charity, he will be told to work. If he beg work, he will be told to get about his business. If he steal, he will be found a free passage to Botany Bay, and be dressed gratis on his arrival, in an elegant suit of yellow. If he rob, he will be found a free passage to another world, in which, as there is no paying or receiving in payment, we may hope that his troubles will be at an end for ever.

Ah, England! You’ve come a long way, baby.