BLACKS AND THE REPUBLIC

By 1790, the number of African-Americans far exceeded the Indian population within the United States. The status of free blacks was somewhat indeterminate. Nowhere does the original Constitution define who in fact are citizens of the United States. The individual states were left free to determine the boundaries of liberty. The North’s gradual emancipation acts assumed that former slaves would remain in the country, not be colonized abroad. Northern statesmen like Hamilton, Jay, and Franklin worked for abolition, and some helped to establish schools for black children. During the era of the Revolution, free blacks enjoyed at least some of the legal rights accorded to whites, including, in most states, the right to vote. Some cast ballots in the election of delegates to conventions that ratified the Constitution. The large majority of blacks, of course, were slaves, and slavery rendered them all but invisible to those imagining the American community. Slaves, as Edmund Randolph, the nation’s first attorney general, put it, were “not... constituent members of our society,” and the language of liberty did not apply to them.

Table 7.1 TOTAL POPULATION AND BLACK POPULATION OF THE UNITED STATES, 1790

State

Total Population

Slaves

Free Blacks

New England:

New

141,899

138

630

Hampshire

Vermont*

85,341

0

271

Massachusetts

378,556

0

5,369

Connecticut

237,655

2,764

2,771

Rhode Island

69,112

948

3,484

Maine**

96,643

0

536

Middle

States:

New York

340,241

21,324

4,682

New Jersey

184,139

11,423

2,762

Pennsylvania

433,611

3,737

6,531

South:

Delaware

59,096

8,887

3.899

Maryland

319,728

103,036

8,043

Virginia

747,610

292,627

12,866

North

395,005

100,572

5,041

Carolina

South

249,073

107,094

1,801

Carolina

Georgia

82,348

29,264

198

Kentucky*

73,677

12,430

114

Tennessee*

35,691

3.417

361

Total

3,929,623

697,624

59,557

*Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee were territories that had not yet been admitted as states.

**Maine was part of Massachusetts in 1790.

One of the era’s most widely read books, Letters from an American Farmer, published in France in 1782 by Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, strikingly illustrated this process of exclusion. born in France, Crevecoeur had taken part in the unsuccessful defense of Quebec during the Seven Years’ War. Instead of returning home, he came to New York City in 1759. As a trader and explorer, he visited most of the British mainland colonies, as well as the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys. Crevecoeur eventually married the daughter of a prominent New York landowner and lived with his own family on a farm in Orange County. Seeking to remain neutral during the War of Independence, he suffered persecution by both patriots and the British, and eventually returned to France.

In Letters from an American Farmer, Crevecoeur popularized the idea, which would become so common in the twentieth century, of the United States as a melting pot. “Here,” he wrote, “individuals of all nations are melted into a new one.” The American left behind “all his ancient prejudices and manners [and received] new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced.” Crevecoeur was well aware of what he called “the horrors of slavery.” But when he posed the famous question, “What then is the American, this new man?” he answered, “a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes.... He is either a European, or the descendant of a European.” This at a time when fully one-fifth of the population (the highest proportion in U.S. history) consisted of Africans and their descendants.

Like Crevecoeur, many white Americans excluded blacks from their conception of the American people. The Constitution empowered Congress to create a uniform system by which immigrants became citizens, and the Naturalization Act of 1790 offered the first legislative definition of American nationality. With no debate, Congress restricted the process of becoming a citizen from abroad to “free white persons.”

The artist John Singleton Copley, best known for his portraits of prominent Americans and Britons, painted this young African-American in the late 1770s. The subject probably worked on a New England fishing boat. This is one of the era’s very few portraits of a black person.

The law initiated a policy that some historians, with only partial accuracy, call “open immigration.” For Europeans, the process was indeed open. Only in the last quarter of the nineteenth century were groups of whites, beginning with prostitutes, convicted felons, lunatics, and persons likely to become a “public charge,” barred from entering the country. For the first century of the republic, virtually the only white persons in the entire world ineligible to claim American citizenship were those unwilling to renounce hereditary titles of nobility, as required in an act of 1795. And yet, the word “white” in the Naturalization Act excluded a large majority of the world’s population from emigrating to the “asylum for mankind” and partaking in the blessings of American freedom. For eighty years, no non-white immigrant could become a naturalized citizen. Africans were allowed to do so in 1870, but not until the 1940s did persons of Asian origin become eligible. (Native Americans were granted American citizenship in 1924.)

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