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

A brief programming note, Gentle Readers:

The death of Zachary Taylor seems like a good place to take a break from the Road to War, a series that has focused largely on white men vying with one another on grounds from which they excluded the very people most impacted by their decisions and instead examine how they looked upon the victims of the institution over which they fought: the slaves themselves. I may alternate Road to War posts with posts on the subject I’m about to introduce, but my history of juggling multiple projects at once does not inspire confidence. If you can’t stand the cliffhanger of the brewing Texas-New Mexico border war, the internet has plenty of spoilers. I do promise to return to the subject in time and the following series should not drag on interminably.

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

An Introduction

The defense of slavery took many forms. Slaveholders appealed to Biblical authority. They insisted on the moral superiority of slave labor to exploitative, savage, or degrading free labor. They maintained that white people simply could not work in the tropics, even in the face of small farmers who did just that near to their own plantations, but the same tropics ideally suited black people. But ultimately, defending slavery requires declaring it right, good, and natural or, at the very least, as right, good, and natural as one could hope for. Indeed, slavery improved not just the condition (not to mention finances) of the white owners but also uplifted the slaves themselves.

So why did slaves run away? Why did slaves throw less than their best efforts into their work? Why did they break tools? Why did they steal? If they benefited so much, why did they so often behave as if the burdened instead of liberated by slavery? Making slaves obey and produce greatly occupied the minds of the planter class, when if they really had the natural order working on their behalf one would expect things to simply fall together like water running downhill.

Nat Turner's Revolt of August 1831 claimed the lives of no more than 70 whites, including the infant who held legal title to him in 48 hours. Virginia executed 55, including Turner, and vigilante violence claimed the lives of up to 200 black people not involved.

Nat Turner’s Revolt of August 1831 claimed the lives of no more than 70 whites, including the infant who held legal title to him and other children, in 48 hours. Virginia executed 55, including Turner, and vigilante violence claimed the lives of up to 200 black people not involved. States across the South tightened restrictions on slaves in the aftermath, including forbidding teaching them to read.

The planters had the wrong premise. Slavery did much for them, but only exploited the slave. On some level the planters had to know that, if not in perhaps in those terms. Nothing terrified them like a slave uprising, but their everyday lives must have shown them countless reminders of the truth: all around them, outnumbering them, cooking their food, watching their children, with them when they slept and when they woke, lived people they exploited brutally. What would happen to them and their families if the pose of domesticity fell away in the face of ugly truths.

That tension goes a long way toward explaining the very defensive behavior of many slaveowners, even beyond the vast fortunes made by and invested in slave property. But how could they reconcile it enough to sleep at night? Like people of all ages, many probably became skilled at not thinking about it. But when someone criticizes you for something, you have to think about it and at least briefly face that doubt. Likewise when one’s own slaves ran away or passively resisted by dragging feet, deliberately misunderstanding, breaking tools, stealing, or the innumerable other small ways they resisted, one had to wonder.

Many authorities offered answers for the troubled slaveowner. In addition to the Bible and various philosophical arguments, the enlightened nineteenth century had science with which to offer consolation. I take as my text for the moment Dr. Samuel Cartwright’s Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race, a paper he presented to the Medical Convention of Louisiana in 1851, as reprinted in DeBow’s Review. I cannot say how widely the South accepted every detail of Cartwright’s ideas, but I do hope to grapple with his writing both as an artifact to explore an aspect of how slaveowners viewed their victims and as an example of the long and lamentable history of racist pseudoscience in the United States.

I am no more a scientist than I am a historian and, in all honesty, even less the former than the latter. I admire science. I live, walk, and see thanks to science’s advances and so feel a kind of personal obligation to do right by it. So I shall give it the best effort I can as a some random guy on the internet.

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