Author (Your Name)

Vicky Slagle, Colby College

Date of Award


Document Type

Senior Scholars Paper (Colby Access Only)


Colby College. American Studies Program


George Maier


Racism is deeply rooted in the American spirit and mind. In the same manner democratic ideals have touched the heart of this nation. During the period 1830-1860 these traditions crescendoed in American thought. From Nat Turner's Rebellion to the brink of Sumter, white attitudes toward blacks solidified to articulation. They shifted from vague indifference to a desire for direct political action. In the North, whites focused first on the moral issue of slavery and gradually became activated by the Southern conspiracy's threat to white, not black, civil liberties. The comparable Southern manifestation of this consolidation of feelings became apparent with the advent of Nat Turner, David Walker, and William Lloyd Garrison. Thrust into a defensive position, Southerners no longer rationalized slavery as "necessary but evil." Rather, Southern spokesmen advocated a "positive good" argument to defend the peculiar institution. Our purpose here is to look with a critical eye at this portrait of attitudes, analyzing shadows from the background which consequently illuminate the foreground. This interaction of political, economic, and moral forces blend the colors of the portrait, making it difficult to distinguish between appearance and reality. Hence an interlacing of books on many levels of understanding is necessary to discern the nature of the black image in the white mind. Our approach is not to thoroughly characterize the period, but to examine social and racial prejudices from an historical and literary point of view. This interdisciplinary method gives perspective to the complex problem of discerning what people believed they believed. In short, our purpose is to probe, through specialized reading, certain myths of America created or discovered between 1830-1860. According to Alexis de Tocqueville, a French visitor to the United States in 1831, a notable trait in American society was that it rarely questioned the majority impulse. Other contemporary writers were concerned with what Tocqueville had termed the "tyranny of the majority." For example, in his novel of social criticism, Home As Found, James Fenimore Cooper wrote that Americans "felt a secret confidence that, right or wrong, it was always safe to make the most fearless profession in favor of the great body of the community." Since the majority point of view provided an indispensable basis of existence in these years, we shall examine books which were mass-appeal expressions of historical force. Novels of social comment which rose to popularity during this thirty year span, reveal deep insights into the moral and psychological complexities of race relations. Therefore, esoteric writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman are substituted by Hentz, Hooper, and Stowe. Bestsellers, sentimental and stock as they may be, disclose widespread attitudes toward blacks. In addition to fiction, various historical, political, and personal accounts of the period color the portrait of 1830-1860. Our problem then is to examine white men's views and versions of black men. These images are hardly ever not diagrammatic and somewhat trite. But men inevitably bend beneath stereotypes, so that these images are useful as a reflection of white culture in its attempt to "justify racial proscription."


racism, American spirit, democracy, white men, black men


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