Inventing the Idea of Race

By the end of the 1780s, roughly 700,000 slaves lived in the United States. Americans joined a raging transatlantic debate about the characteristics of Africans: were they naturally inferior, or were they made so by the degradations of slavery? The two most famous American entries in that debate are shown here; both were published in 1787, the same year as the creation of the United States Constitution with its memorable compromise over slavery.

Samuel Stanhope Smith, a Presbyterian minister and later president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), argued in his Essay for “the doctrine of one race.” Smith was responding directly to the Scottish philosopher Henry Home, Lord Kames, who had proposed the theologically problematic idea that “there are different species of men as well as of dogs.” Wrong, Smith said, hewing to the idea of a single Creation: darker skin colors were simply the result of many freckles melting together into a “universal freckle” in the heat of the tropics, rather like cookies in the oven. A sign of the transatlantic interest in Smith is this Edinburgh edition of the work, published just a year after the American original.

On the other side of the debate stood Thomas Jefferson, who owned about two hundred slaves at any given time. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson drew attention to “the real distinctions which nature has made” between blacks and whites. “[W]hether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion,” he wrote, “the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us.” Jefferson’s observations—which he catalogued at length—seemed to him to demonstrate that blacks were naturally inferior to whites. By the early 1800s, the biological view championed by Jefferson began to take hold more broadly, giving slavery in the South a new justification in what many believed to be the order of Nature itself.