The Final Settlement

America after the compromise. (via Wikipedia)

America after the compromise. (via Wikipedia)

The Compromise of 1850 goes down in many textbooks as a kind of high water mark for American statesmanship. Faced with serious threat to the future of the nation, the Senate came together under the leadership of elder statesmen Clay and Webster and averted a civil war. A decade later, other, lesser politicians would not match their epic triumph and so war came. The originator of the omnibus strategy, Henry Foote (D-MS), said as much outright.

The facts do not bear that out by any measure save one: no civil war erupted in the 1850s.  As I wrote yesterday, the compromise only entertained the full support of a tiny minority of Congress, which shifted its votes to support the demands of one section, then the other. By that time, Daniel Webster had left the chamber for a post in the Fillmore cabinet and Henry Clay gave up in exhaustion and left matters to Stephen Douglas.

Of course, the men of the time did not know a war would come only a decade later. Nor did they then know their final settlement to preserve a Union half slave and half free would endure only four years. They did settle immediate and important questions: They admitted California. They resolved the Texas boundary dispute. They gave territorial government to Utah and New Mexico. They gave the South at least a symbolic answer to its runaway slave problem and salved the North’s conscience by abolishing the slave trade in the District of Columbia. They surely believed in the finality of their settlement, as no more territory remained unorganized to dispute.

Fillmore, speaking of the Compromise in his first annual message in early December, insisted:

The series of measures to which I have alluded are regarded by me as a settlement in principle and substance–a final settlement of the dangerous and exciting subjects which they embraced. Most of these subjects, indeed, are beyond your reach, as the legislation which disposed of them was in its character final and irrevocable. It may be presumed from the opposition which they all encountered that none of those measures was free from imperfections, but in their mutual dependence and connection they formed a system of compromise the most conciliatory and best for the entire country that could be obtained from conflicting sectional interests and opinions.

For this reason I recommend your adherence to the adjustment established by those measures until time and experience shall demonstrate the necessity of further legislation to guard against evasion or abuse.

Speaking in the Senate in December, Douglas said:

At the close of the long session which adopted those measures, I resolved never to make another speech upon the slavery question in the halls of Congress. I regard all discussion of that question here as unwise, mischievous, and out of place.

The Armistice of 1850

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

On July 31, 1850, the omnibus failed and hope of a settlement must have faded with it. But the compromise bloc, if not as large as Clay hoped, did not simply evaporate when the Great Compromises repaired to Newport. Illinois’ Stephen Douglas stepped into Clay’s place. Clay and Douglas planned as much, in a sense. Douglas never expected much from the omnibus and kept himself off the Committee of Thirteen. Clay assented, seeing Douglas’s distance from the omnibus as an insurance measure. If it failed, Douglas could step in as an independent voice for compromise. Maybe the new Democrat (first elected to the Senate in 1846) could do what the ancient Whig could not.

The Little Giant, all five feet and four inches of him, worked and drank with equal vigor. He saw that Clay did not command the loyalty of his own party. Its internal divisions ran too deep and so the compromise majority must come from the ranks of Democrats. But no true compromise majority existed to lead, Whig, Democrat, or bipartisan. Instead Douglas saw that a Lower North and Upper South compromise minority could join with the majority of each of the two sections in turn to enact the measures that section generally favored.

Douglas went to work assembling those majorities and on August 9 the Senate passed a new Texas boundary settlement that gave the state more than thirty thousand square miles beyond what the omnibus had promised, in exchange for $10 million. Bills admitting California, and giving New Mexico a territorial government, and the new fugitive slave law soon followed. For the slave trade in Washington, the Senate waited on the House. The House passed the Senate’s bills in short order and Fillmore signed them without delay. The final measure, abolishing Washington’s slave trade, passed both chambers on September 16 and 17, receiving Fillmore’s signature the same day.

Compromise prevailed, the Union endured, and a substantial number of politicians pickled their livers in celebration. Or did they? Douglas made the Clay Measures law, in modified form, but the Compromise of 1850, to paraphrase Voltaire, involved neither compromise nor Union. David M. Potter makes the point in The Impending Crisis:

on all the crucial roll calls by which the six measures of compromise passed in both the Senate and the House, only once in one house did a northern majority and a southern majority join in support of a bill.

They agreed in the Senate on the New Mexico bill, with the North 11 to 10 in favor to the South’s 16 to 0. Even agreement came sectionally lopsided. On Texas, the Senate split with the North in favor to the South’s even division. Utah passed with eleven of sixteen Northern senators opposed. The fugitive slave act passed with unanimous Southern support in the Senate and many Northern abstentions. (Millard Fillmore secured those by  lobbying his fellow Whigs.) On the admission of California and abolishing Washington’s slave trade, the North gave lopsided majorities to measures the South strongly, if not quite universally, opposed. The divisions ran on sectional, not party lines.

One cannot call this a compromise in the sense that it enjoyed broad support. Rather positions stood largely unchanged. Adversaries did not so much come to agree as fail against a much smaller compromise bloc that held the balance of power. Potter wrote:

In the Senate, four senators voted for the compromise measure every time, and eight others did so four times while abstaining on the fifth measure; in the House 28 members  gave support five times and 35 did so four times out of five.

The Senate thus boasted 13.33% core compromisers and 26.67% mostly pro-compromise for a total of 40%. The House claimed 12.17% and 15.21%, respectively, for a total of 27.38%. These thin reeds make for a feeble consensus and neither party truly surrendered to, much less accepted, the outcome. Potter called it only an armistice. But for the first time since 1846, some semblance of sectional peace came to the nation.

Millard Fillmore and the Fall of the Omnibus

I left off on the Road to War with Zachary Taylor’s death on the Fourth of July, from tainted food in the midst of an incipient border war between the federal garrison in New Mexico and the state forces of Texas over that state’s disputed western claims. The day prior, delegates from nine southern states convened at Nashville to weigh their section’s future, inside the Union or out.

Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore

Taylor took No Territory to the grave with him. Clay’s measures had already seized the initiative from his plan and Old Rough and Ready’s political mentor, William H. Seward, spoke in the Senate on his own program instead of his pupil’s. Into the White House came the Vice-President, a New York Whig like Seward in party and home state but unlike him in policy. Millard Fillmore, notable to most Americans probably only for his obscurity, no more shared Taylor’s No Territory position than he did Seward’s Higher Law position. The two men shared a party but hailed from different factions therein.

Fillmore pocketed Taylor’s orders for the New Mexico garrison, ignored its application for statehood, accepted the resignations of Taylor’s entire cabinet, and threw his support behind the Clay Measures. By then the real work on the compromise took place in the Clay-chaired Committee of Thirteen, to which the Senate referred all measures on resolving the crisis. Therein Clay took up a strategy suggested by Henry Foote (D-MS) to combine all his resolutions into a single bill in the hopes that it would have enough to offer to each side for them to take the bitter pill of concessions that came together, which they could never take on their own.

Clay’s omnibus strategy had its merits. It removed the risk of voting for one measure based on the promise of support for a separate, later measure. No one had to rely on the good faith of their opposites, always scarce in politics and rarer still in times of such deep division. It did honestly offer up something for everyone and did honestly require of everyone serious concessions. Perhaps the North got more concrete and immediate benefits, but the South received some assurances and at any rate sought more theoretical goals like a slaveholding southern California state which they did not have the ability to realize in the near future regardless.

In May, the Committee of Thirteen reported out essentially Clay’s plan, despite earlier protestations that he considered and intended something compatible with Taylor’s vision. The sense of progress bolstered the position of the moderates at the Nashville convention, who passed a resolution in favor of extending the Missouri Compromise line and adjourned with the passing threat to reassemble if it did not receive satisfaction from Congress.

James A. Pearce

James A. Pearce

At the end of July, with Taylor’s body barely cold and matters in New Mexico still tense, the omnibus came up for a full Senate vote. Past revisions of the Texas-New Mexico section of the omnibus leaned somewhat in Texas’s direction. Maryland’s Whig James A. Pearce wanted to remove those revisions and fell for a scheme to do so in two steps, first removing the entire New Mexico section of the omnibus and then reinserting the original version. He won the vote for removing the section, but promptly lost on reinserting 28 to 29, then lost on putting back in measures for a New Mexican territorial government.

So the omnibus collapsed. Southerners who might have unwillingly supported California’s admission as part of the package scented blood in the water and moved to have its part of the omnibus deleted as well, leaving only provisions for a territorial government in Utah within the bill. That eviscerated bill, stripped of the substantive measures designed to resolve the conflict, limped through the Senate to the cheers of anti-compromise senators from Seward to Jefferson Davis. Six months of exhausting effort spent the aged Clay. He vowed to switch to a separate bill strategy and persist, but ultimately surrendered to age and the tuberculosis that would kill him in the summer of 1852, leaving Washington two days later to rest and recover in Rhode Island.

The Diseased and Peculiar Science of Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright (Table of Contents)

In 1851, Dr. Samuel Cartwright of Louisiana presented a paper to the Medical Convention of that state. The same year, DeBow’s Review reprinted it for a much wider audience. Therein, Cartwright explained that black people had two mental illnesses unique to their species which accounted for their apparent resistance to slavery by means of running away and more passive methods like breaking tools, sabotaging crops, working as slowly as they could, and so forth.

In 2013, a friend of mine suggested I write something about the mental health of slaves. Drapetomania, one of Cartwright’s mental illnesses came to mind immediately. I tracked down the original paper, as reprinted in DeBow’s, and decided to do a short series on it. I quickly realized that Cartwright’s position went beyond simply calling slaves sick. He had, in a limited way, tried to make a scientific argument. It would make little sense to focus on the two diseases he invented in isolation. So I dug into a project I privately called Climbing Mount Cartwright. Now that everything is available to the public, and since the series grew quite a bit longer than expected, it’s past time for some help navigating it.

The Diseased and Peculiar Science of Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright


Some context and thoughts about why slaveholders required explanations like Cartwright’s.


Background on Cartwright’s education and the basic definitions of the maladies, with a comment on mental health.

On Species

The position that different races of people constituted different species and its place in nineteenth century biology.


Why Cartwright believed polygenism, focusing on the hardness of bones.

More Peculiarities

More about why Cartwright believed polygenism, focusing on the shapes of bones actually caused by rickets, malnutrition, and heavy physical labor.

Peculiar Brains

Cartwright’s position on the size of the brains and arrangement of the nervous system of black people, relying on the German naturalist Soemmerring.

Peculiar Blood

Cartwright’s novel position that black people suffered a lack of oxygen to the brain, based on anecdotal observation, and its effects. He actually describes some combination of malnutrition and exhaustion.

Tiedemann on Brains

A naturalist working fifteen years before Cartwright demolishes his authority on brain size with solid science…

Tiedemann on Nerves

…and does the same for the general arrangement of the nervous system, leaving the scientific basis for Cartwright’s position entirely void even by period standards.


Cartwright’s first novel diagnosis taken in a bit more depth.

Dysaethesia Aethiopica

Cartwright’s second novel diagnosis.

Primary Sources

Cartwright’s paper in DeBow’s Review, published in three parts with a fourth containing responses to critics. I have not found the full text anywhere online by itself, but the parts are on pages 64, 209, 331 and the response to critics on 504. Tiedemann’s paper is available as a PDF.

As I said when I began the project, it is the work of a layperson. I welcome any constructive criticism, especially if I’ve gotten something wrong on the science.

The Diseased and Peculiar Science of Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright (Dysaesthesia Aethiopica)

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

(Previous in the series: IntroductionOverviewOn SpeciesPeculiaritiesMore PeculiaritiesPeculiar BrainsPeculiar Blood, Tiedemann on Brains, Tiedemann on Nerves, Drapetomania. Full text of Cartwright’s paper can be found here in three parts on pages 64, 209, 331 and with a response to critics on page 504. The full text of Tiedemann’s paper here as a PDF.)

Drapetomania rolls off the tongue and fits with what most laypeople, this random guy on the internet included, think the name of a mental illness ought to sound. It shares the same lexical space with pyromania, kleptomania, and other maladies that live in the common consciousness long after their formal names changed and changed again. Dysaesthesia Aethiopica does not. I confess that each time I type it, I double-check the spelling. But the diagnosis tells us still more about how Cartwright, and by extension others, viewed slaves. In this case especially, Cartwright refers to the extensive experience of owners and overseers with the malady, which they called “rascality.”

Dysaesthesia Aethiopica, the disease of lacking work ethic, has the distinction among mental illnesses of clear physical symptoms visible to casual observation. Cartwright says

It differs from every other species of mental disease, as it is accompanied with physical signs or lesions of the body discoverable to the medical observer, which are always present and sufficient to account for its symptoms.

I have no doubt that slaves with visible sores did not work quite so hard as slaves without. Sick people don’t generally have enormous reserves of energy as their body’s resources go into fighting their illness or mending their wounds. Malnutrition impairs the immune system and leaves one more vulnerable to illness as well. But Cartwright treats lesions as something that just happens. One wonders how many the slaves he observed acquired those lesions from the lash.

One must concede the point, though. A sick or beaten slave probably did not work quite the same energy or diligence that a slave in better health and enjoying better treatment would demonstrate. What human being would, excepting moments when one tries to forestall another beating?

While he pronounces the lesions sufficient for diagnosis, Cartwright lists additional symptoms:

From the careless movements of the individuals affected with the complaint, they are apt to do much mischief, which appears as if intentional, but is mostly owning to the stupidness of mind and insensibility of the nerves induced by the disease. Thus, they break, waste and destroy everything they handle, -abuse horses and cattle,- tear or burn or rend their own clothing, and, paying no attention to the rights of property, steal others, to replace what they have destroyed. […] They slight their work, -cut up corn, cane, cotton or tobacco when hoeing it, as if for pure mischief.

Why, they act like people in a terrible situation trying to resist it! How does one cure such a horrible condition? Cartwright prescribes having

the patient well washed with warm water and soap, then, to anoint it all over with oil, and to slap the oil in with a broad leather strap; then to put the patient to some kind of hard work in the open air and sunshine, that will compel him to expand his lungs, as chopping wood, splitting rails, or sawing with the cross-cut or whip saw.

In other words, the cure involves washing open wounds, beating with a leather strap, and then working the slave hard. Cartwright does allow, however, that when putting the slave to hard labor under the hot sun as part of the cure an owner should allow the occasional cool drink.

But an ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure:

Slaves are not subject to this disease, unless they are permitted to live like free negroes, in idleness and filth-to eat improper food or indulge in spiritous liquors. It is not their masters’ interest that they should do so; as they would not only be unprofitable, but as great a nuisance to the South as the free negroes were found to be in London, whom the British government, more than half a century ago, colonized in Sierra Leone to get them out of the way.

That theme runs through Cartwright’s entire piece: nothing good can possibly come of treating black people like people. They must remember their place and be put in it. He makes no bones about the fact:

According to my experience, the “genu flexit” -the awe and reverence, must be exacted from them, or they will despite their masters, become rude and ungovernable, and run away.

Slaves benefits so much from slavery, Cartwright would have us believe, that one must drag compliance out of them and medicate resistance with the lash.

The Diseased and Peculiar Science of Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright (Drapetomania)

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

(Previous in the series: IntroductionOverviewOn SpeciesPeculiaritiesMore PeculiaritiesPeculiar BrainsPeculiar Blood, Tiedemann on Brains, Tiedemann on Nerves. Full text of Cartwright’s paper can be found here in three parts on pages 64, 209, 331 and with a response to critics on page 504. The full text of Tiedemann’s paper here as a PDF.)

Having run down the basics of Cartwright’s case, however lacking, where he went with it deserves some attention. From those peculiarities which do not withstand scrutiny, Cartwright deduced that black people have two unique mental illnesses: Drapetomania and Dysaesthesia Aethiopica. He made them up, of course, but certainly slaves did run away and put less than their best efforts into the tasks their masters compelled them to perform. Who wouldn’t?

To explain Drapetomania, Cartwright refers to the Bible. Thus we immediately pass out of doing science and into theology. Brains, nerves, and blood aside, Cartwright believes black people naturally suited to slavery because his God says so.

To ascertain the true method of governing negroes, so as to cure and prevent the disease under consideration, we must go back to the Pentateuch, and learn the true meaning of the untranslated term that represents the negro race. In the name there given to that race, is locked up the true art of governing negroes in such a manner that they cannot run away. The correct translation of that term declares the Creator’s will in regard to the negro; it declares him to be the submissive knee-bender. […] If the white man attempts to oppose the Deity’s will, by trying to make the negro anything else than the “submissive knee-bender,” [italics in original] (which the Almighty declared he should be,) by trying to raise him to a level with himself or by putting himself on an equality with the negro; or if he abuses the power which God has given him over his fellow-man, by being cruel to him, or punishing him in anger, or by neglecting to protect him from the wanton abuses of his fellow servants and all others, or by denying him the usual comforts and necessaries of life, the negro will run away; but if he keeps him in the position that we learn from the Scriptures he was intended to occupy, that is, the position of submission; and if his master or overseer be kind and gracious in his bearing towards him, without condescension, and at the same time ministers to his physical wants and protects him from abuses, the negro is spell-bound and cannot run away.

One could get the idea that black people had inner lives just like white people and made decisions rational decisions that weighed the risk of escape and punishment against the chance for freedom. Cartwright goes on to note that two classes of owner most often had runaways: those who ruled their human property leniently and those who ruled it very brutally.

As they proved countless times and by the thousands during the Civil War and on a smaller scale before then, black people did not in fact prefer slavery. They voted for freedom with their feet. Running away always meant risking recapture and possibly horrific punishment. It meant leaving behind friends, loved ones, and one’s home all at once in the hope that one could make it to an unknown, distant place. People simply do not hazard that kind of thing lightly.

Taking Cartwright at his word, why did slaves treated comparatively leniently run away more often? I submit that as thinking beings they expected that if recaptured, their owners would continue the accustomed leniency. Punishment might come, but the punishment of an owner or overseer inclined to leniency had to provoke less fear than that of one inclined to brutality.

In the latter case, slaves treated too harshly have every reason to run. Punishment might carry with it special dread when one knows it will come from a brutal, sadistic owner or overseer, but the terror of staying and the appeal of escape had to increase together. We see this play out all the time. People can only take so much before desperate courses of action take on a far more reasonable cast.

But let we be too kind to Cartwright for suggesting a balance of gentle and harsh treatment, the doctor recommends this treatment to cure Drapetomania:

When sulky and dissatisfied without cause, the experience of those on the line and elsewhere, was decidedly in favor of whipping them out of it, as a preventative measure against absconding, or other bad conduct. It was called whipping the devil out of them.

Prophylactic whippings don’t count as arbitrary or brutal treatment. Slaves had every reason for sulking and dissatisfaction, even if Cartwright can’t admit it, so he has in effect written a prescription for the lash for any slave suffering a lack of acting talent. The only balance he really advises is a balance of terror: terrorize slaves just enough that they fear your wrath more than running but not so much as to drive them to flight anyway.

The Diseased and Peculiar Science of Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright (Tiedemann on Nerves)

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

(Previous in the series: IntroductionOverviewOn SpeciesPeculiaritiesMore PeculiaritiesPeculiar BrainsPeculiar Blood, Tiedemann on Brains. Full text of Cartwright’s paper can be found here in three parts on pages 64, 209, 331 and with a response to critics on page 504. The full text of Tiedemann’s paper here as a PDF.)

Cartwright’s position that black people have fundamentally smaller brains than white people simply does not withstand scrutiny, deriving as it does from an authority, Soemmerring, working from isolated samples and not borne out by Tiedermann’s more extensive survey. His original claim that black people suffer from insufficiently oxygenated blood derives from nothing more than his anecdotal observations. This leaves him with one more claim, which I have mentioned before:

According to Soemmerring and other anatomists, who have dissected the negro, […] all the nerves going from the brain, as also the ganglionic system of nerves, are larger in proportion than in the white man. The nerves distributed to the muscles are an exception, being smaller than in the white race. Soemmerring remarks, that the negro’s brain has in a great measure run into nerves.

Friedrich Tiedemann

Friedrich Tiedemann

The final remark, from Soemmerring via Cartwright, at least has the benefit of evocative prose and so has often come to mind as I write these posts. But as I said yesterday, Tiedermann evaluated Soemmerring here as well:

Soemmerring was the first who compared the size of the brain with the thickness of the nerves. He says that the nerves on the basis of the brain are somewhat thicker in the Negro than in the European. This difference seemed to him particularly remarkable in the olfactory and optic nerves, and in the nervi quinti. This difference is not visible in the nerves of the brain of the Negro Honore (Plate XXXII.); they are quite as small as the nerves in European brains: nor did I find any difference in the brain of the Bosjes woman, nor in the two Negro brains in the Museum of Comparative Anatomy at Paris. We cannot, therefore, allow that the Negro brain is smaller than that of the European compared with the size of the nerves, or that the nerves of the Negro are thicker than those of the European.

Tiedermann has far more limited samples of brain and nerve tissue to evaluate. Soft flesh does not keep as well as hard bone and so one can only expect it on hand in smaller quantities. But the four specimens Tiedermann had access to do not match Soemmerring’s claim.

Tiedermann examines the brains he has in great detail, comparing sizes by various other measures, further supporting his position that black and white brains have no fundamental differences. He ultimately concludes:

I. The Brain of a Negro is upon the whole quite as large as that of the European and other human races. The weight of the brain, its dimensions, and the capacity of the cavum cranii prove this fact. Many anatomists have also incorrectly asserted that Europeans have a larger brain than Negroes.

II. The nerves of the Negro, relative to the size of the brain, are not thicker than those of Europeans, as Soemmerring and his followers have said.

III. The outward form of the spinal cord, the medulla oblongata, the cerebellum, and cerebrum of the Negro show no important difference from that of the European.

IV. Nor does the inward structure, the order of the cortical and medullary substance, nor the inward organization of the interior of the Negro brain show any difference from that of the European.

Tiedermann concludes with an affirmation of the equal intellectual abilities of people black and white alike, remarking with full knowledge of Cartwright’s antecedents, that

Some have even believed the falsely supposed natural inferiority of the intellectual and moral faculties of the Ethiopian race, to be an excuse for slavery.

He certainly had Cartwright’s number. Taken together with his measurements of skulls, Tiedemann’s dissections leave Cartwright without a scientific leg to stand on.

The Diseased and Peculiar Science of Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright (Tiedemann on Brains)

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

(Previous in the series: IntroductionOverviewOn Species,PeculiaritiesMore PeculiaritiesPeculiar Brains, Peculiar Blood. Full text of Cartwright’s paper can be found here in three parts on pages 64, 209, 331 and with a response to critics on page 504.)

Last time, I wrote a bit about how Louisiana physician Samuel A. Cartwright claimed to discover, not via chemical analysis, not via anatomical investigation, but by simple anecdote that black people simply did not get enough oxygen to their brains. That, combined with just how small a brain a black person had, made the whole species unable to govern themselves and best suited to slavery. But those same small, oxygen-starved brains made them prone to mental illnesses that caused a rejection of slavery.

I left the discussion of oxygenation of the blood off with a note about the importance of representative samples that I want to repeat by way of a bad example of my own: Based on my current observations, the human species consists of men thirty-two years of age who require corrective lenses. Fifty percent wear beards. I made the observations with my own eyes from a sample readily at hand: myself and a friend. While he and I constitute a sample of humanity, we do not constitute a representative sample. Drawing generalizations from us just leaves one with absurdity, like the notion that no human women or people over the age of thirty-two exist.

Friedrich Tiedemann

Friedrich Tiedemann

That said, I want to return to Cartwright’s brain measurements. Here I rely on the German anatomist Friedrich Tiedemann (1781-1861), who investigated the matter of brain size and nervous system arrangement and published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, volume 126, in 1836. (Full text here as a PDF.)

Tiedemann examined, among others, the work of Cartwright’s go-to anatomist Soemmerring. While he opposed slavery, Tiedemann did not write a political hit piece aimed at Soemmerring and those who followed him. He took the matters of brain size and nervous system configuration as questions of science. There he found many flaws in his predecessors’ work:

they neither take any notice of the size and weight, nor the age and sex of the bodies, the brains of which they examined; and, lastly, they weighed far too few to draw any general conclusion.

Tiedemann wrote in English, but his native German shows through. To put it more concisely: they had an insufficient sample size. Tiedemann too had mostly European brains available to him, but did receive one black person’s brain. The man died of smallpox and Tiedemann’s son-in-law and son dissected him and sent the brain along, preserved in alcohol. One wonders what the postman said.

To his measurements of the organ itself, Tiedemann added proxy measures from forty-one skulls of certain ethnicity he had available, filling them with dry millet seed and comparing the weight of the whole with and without the seed to learn their capacities. His samples range from native Africans living in Africa to slaves from Suriname and North America. He compared those to seventy-one skulls of Europeans ranging from Don Cossacks and Turks to Finns, Prussians, Irish, Poles, Italians, and Spaniards. Going still farther, he measured the capacities of Asian, American Indian, and subcontinental Indian skulls as well. His findings, backed by pages of tables showing the figures for each skull:

It is evident from the comparison of the capacity of the cavum cranii of the Negro with that of the European, Mongolian, American, and Malayan, that the activity of the skull of the Negro, in general, is not smaller than that of the European and other human races.

I don’t know that Cartwright read Tiedemann’s paper, but it antedates his writing. He shows an awareness of other European writers  who differ but does not mention Tiedemann and dismisses the others as writing for political, not scientific motives. Whether Cartwright knew Tiedemann and ignored him or did not know him at all, I must leave to his biographers.

In any case, Tiedemann’s skull survey, combined with the inadequate samples of Cartwright’s authorities, fatally undermine the keystone of the Louisiana physician’s thesis: Black people simply do not have radically smaller brains. Nor can we take seriously his anecdote-driven case for inadequate oxygenation of their blood. But Cartwright might cling to one more peculiarity, that black people have much denser peripheral nervous systems than white people have. There too Cartwright relies on Soemmerring and there too Tiedemann looked into matters. More on that tomorrow.

The Diseased and Peculiar Science of Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright (Peculiar Blood)

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

(Previous in the series: IntroductionOverviewOn Species, Peculiarities, More Peculiarities, Peculiar Brains. Full text of Cartwright’s paper can be found here in three parts on pages 64, 209, 331 and with a response to critics on page 504.)

We left off with Soemmerring’s measurements of brain size and nervous system arrangement, which Cartwright used as the keystone of his position that the separate species of black people had fundamentally different consciousnesses and needs that predisposed them to all manner of vice from which slavery uplifted them. But those unfortunates, so saddled with small brains, likewise fell prey to madness that made them run away from slavery (Drapetomania) or to resist it by means of poor work ethic (Dysaethesia Aethiopica). These maladies did not afflict whites as they arose from the peculiarities of the black person’s nervous system.

Cartwright did not draw an entirely straight line from smaller brains and denser nerves elsewhere to the behavior he sought to explain. He added one other variable:

The great development of the nervous system, and the profuse distribution of nervous matter to the stomach, liver, and genital organs, would make the Ehtiopian race entirely unmanageable, if it were not that this excessive nervous development is associated with a deficiency of red blood in the pulmonary and arterial systems, from a defective atmospherization or arterialization of the blood in the lungs-constituting the best type of what is called the lymphatic temperament, in which lymph, phlegm, mucus, and other humors predominate over the red blood.

In other words, the brain does not get enough oxygen to work properly. This brings about:

indolence and apathy, and why they have chosen, through countless ages, idleness, misery, and barbarian to industry and frugality-why social industry, or associated labor, so essential to all progress in civilization and improvement, has never made any progress among them, or the arts and sciences taken root in any portion of the African soil inhabited by them; as proved by the fact that no letters, or even hieroglyphics-no buildings, roads or improvements, or monuments of any kind, are anywhere found, to indicate that they have ever been awakened from their apathy and sleepy indolence to physical or mental exertion. To the same physiological causes, deeply rooted in the organization, we must look for an explanation of the strange facts […] -why no form of government on abstract principles, with divisions of power into separate departments, has ever been instituted by them? -why they have always preferred, as more congenial to their nature, a government combining the legislative, judicial, and executive powers in the same individual, in the person of a petty king, a chieftain, or master? -why, in America, if left alone, they always prefer the same kind of government which we call slavery?

As a person who does not always take the best care of himself, I can tell you that missing a few meals or not eating enough of the right sort of foods to keep you going leaves one rather apathetic and sleepy too. One need not starve to feel the effects and once one is feeling unusually sleepy and apathetic one does not think at one’s best and necessarily remember and draw the proper conclusion that one ought to eat something. I know that I have not.

Cartwright does not blame malnutrition, however. He holds that the small brains of black people predispose them to breathing bad air which we would say lacks sufficient oxygen. How does he establish this? He made some observations:

This is proved by the fact of the universal practice among them of covering their head and faces, during sleep, with a blanket, or any kind of covering they can get ahold of. If they have only a part of a blanket, they will cover their faces when about to go to sleep. If they have no covering, they will throw their hands or arms across the mouth and nose, and turn on their faces, as with an instinctive design to obstruct the entrance of the free air into the lungs during sleep.

Certainly too much carbon dioxide breathed back in at the expense of fresh oxygen does a body no good. But Cartwright tells us about a universal practice without quoting any figures. We have no numbers for how many black people slept like this, either in his Louisiana or in Africa where he insists the resulting disorders reach their worst extent.  Cartwright knows that no such studies yet existed, confessing that the fact “has heretofore escaped the attention of the scientific world.”

He could have done one himself and we might today call this Cartwright’s Syndrome. Instead the doctor insists we take him at his word that all black people do this and he knows because, well, we just have to trust him. Good science requires representative samples of a population, not one man’s say-so. I raise this point because the same problem occurs in those brain measurements on which Cartwright rests so much. More on those tomorrow.


MLKWe never got MLK Day off at my school, unless it accidentally coincided with the semester-ending records day. This may have happened a few times, but more often than not I and all the other kids sat in school that day. Instead we got off the first day of deer hunting season. Discussing this once, a woman told me very bluntly that deer hunting just meant more to our culture.

She had the right of it. In my lily-white town, having a few and going off in the woods with your gun to freeze various body parts in hopes of killing a deer for meat you didn’t need and would probably give away mattered more. Lily-white towns have that privilege. I never noticed it until high school when teachers started pointing out that other districts got MLK Day off.

Decades after his assassination, popular memory has turned King into a bland secular saint. Pretty good for a guy who died as one of the most hated men in America. Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, a history of the white backlash that transformed American politics over the years between Johnson’s 1964 landside and Nixon’s 1972 landslide, sums it up:

For over a decade now [in 1968], Martin Luther King had faced the risk of violent death every day of his life. The threats had now become so serious that the plane that bore him on his next trip to Memphis, a seething city rotting beneath fifty days of uncollected garbage, had to be guarded overnight. The takeoff had to be delayed an extra hour nonetheless, for one more search of the baggage compartment. More people bore a murderous hatred toward him than toward any other single American  After all, hadn’t the governor of Tennessee just said he was “training three thousand people to start riots”? But this was the same man, simultaneously, toward whom more Americans bore such a love that they’d be willing to lay down their lives for him. Here was a symbol of how divided the nation had become.

King lived with that. The threats, he knew too well, amounted to more than hot air. In 1958, a man nearly stabbed him to death. Just getting up every day to that fear and not running away from it is a kind of heroism, much the same kind that millions of black people had getting up every day to the realities of slavery and then Jim Crow. I suppose one gets used to it in a way, but the weight of it never really vanishes.

Reagan celebrating his election as California's governor in 1966

Reagan celebrating his election as California’s governor in 1966

I don’t want to remember the secular saint of all Americans today. That lie comforts us. I want to remember instead that a substantial portion of American leaders virtually cheered the assassination. Taking my quotes again from Nixonland, Ronald Reagan called the killing

a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break.

They chose to break the laws of Jim Crow and in so doing brought about a kind of righteous retribution. Reagan does not quite come out and applaud, but does not shy from saying that King and by extension the rest of the movement had it coming.

South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, then far more than a doddering, embalmed Senator that somehow still showed up every Congress, told his constituents

We are now witnessing the whirlwind sowed years ago when some preachers and teachers began telling people that each man could be his own judge in his own case.

Georgia governor Lester Maddox went a step further, calling King “an enemy of our country” and fortified himself in his office behind 160 state troopers, threatening to raise the capitol’s flags from half-mast during King’s funeral.

Perlstein describes the Chicago Tribune’s start at whitewashing

in an editorial the morning of the funeral, [it] refused to acknowledge the existence of any racial impasse at all. “The Murder of Dr. King was a crime and the sin of an individual,” it said. “The man who committed the act must come to terms with his maker.” The “rest of us” were “not contributory to this particular crime.”

One might think James Earl Ray a lone nut. I cannot deny that he pulled the trigger, but like John Wilkes Booth, Ray did not appear ex nihilo. They came from that half of America that so opposed the policies of their targets as to wish them dead. The only daylight between Booth and Jefferson Davis amounted to the six hundred thousand lives Davis spent against the one Booth spent. Both men sought essentially the same goals.

The internet has no shortage of quotations from the speech about King’s dream. I offer, not in its place but in addition to it, the Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.


I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

That King deserves a place in our memory, not the bland, inoffensive man that we have carefully constructed to ask nothing of us but a sort of empty reverence. We should remember the King that demands things of us, that sees a more just world and asks why we drag our feet getting there. That King knows people stand in the way and will always stand in the way, so we will always have conflict. Those fights are worth having, not for King’s sake as he’s beyond our help, but for our own and for generations yet to come.