David Wong, Roger Taney, and Donald Trump

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

Sorry for the late post, Gentle Readers. I felt quite unwell during my normal writing time.

Ever since Donald Trump became the nominee-presumptive of the Republican Party, the media have treated us to a stream of pieces on how we must understand his supporters. They may have picked a narcissist and clown straight out of interwar Italian politics, but we need to look on them with empathy. In principle, I agree wholeheartedly. I deal regularly with people who have done worse still, though they do have the good decency to have put themselves out of our misery. Future historians will probably feel much the same about the Trump movement.

You can’t get around it. To actually understand what drives people, especially people with politics you loath, you need to treat them as rational and sensible as anybody else. Calling them dupes or fools as much removes their agency and reduces them to a stereotype one may loathe with ease but comprehend not at all. You end up like Samuel Cartwright, explaining slave resistance as a form of mental illness. What holds true for slaves also holds true for slaveholders, though historians have traditionally had far less trouble emphasizing with them than their victims. Aside from a few black historians and radicals, the academy didn’t get on board with understanding black Americans as thinking beings capable of understanding, holding values, and acting accordingly until better than halfway through the twentieth century.

My obvious political inclinations aside, I ought to be the target audience for pieces on understanding Trump Country. I have largely avoided them, except one shared with me by a friend. There are multiple reasons for that, including my general contempt for media industry multi-millionaires who tell us they understand “real America,” the compulsory ignorance of the subject one finds in reporters parachuted in without context to pretend-report on something for thirty seconds, and skimming headlines and opening paragraphs to show how devotedly they live up to my expectations. But I did read the one. Let’s pick it apart.

A few things going in, Gentle Readers. As the numerous ads and whatever lives in the sidebar when you load up the page will show, Cracked doesn’t aim for serious journalism. (Its history pieces don’t withstand casual scrutiny either.) But now and then someone writes a piece meant for serious consideration, as David Wong has. I intend to take it as such, humor site pedigree aside.

We must begin with the title. Wong suggests that half of America lost its mind. It grabs the reader’s attention, but Wong frames his article just the opposite. He does not portray Trump supporters as insane or demented. They have real grievances, which he reduces down to a rural vs. urban divide. To prove it, he hauls out one of those red vs. blue county maps. It turns out the diverse cities, shockingly, tend to support candidates who less devoted to white supremacy. The much whiter rural counties vote the other way.

I could stop right here, but Wong digs himself deeper. He paints a picture of neglect and negative stereotyping. Urban America doesn’t care about rural America. All the television and movies have to do with cities. When disaster strikes, you’d best have a major media operation nearby or don’t expect to make CNN. We all know the stereotypes of rural life, that bonanza of inbred hicks who only take their hands off the cross they’re using to beat a LGBT person to death in order to light it on fire. I don’t know about the inbreeding -none of my business- but that sounds like my neighbors. They do not like the idea of living with people of different color, sexuality, or non-Christian religion. Wong puts those up as stereotypes, but he admits to their truth:

But what I can say, from personal experience, is that the racism of my youth was always one step removed. I never saw a family member, friend, or classmate be mean to the actual black people we had in town. We worked with them, played video games with them, waved to them when they passed. What I did hear was several million comments about how if you ever ventured into the city, winding up in the “wrong neighborhood” meant you’d get dragged from your car, raped, and burned alive. Looking back, I think the idea was that the local minorities were fine … as long as they acted exactly like us.

Wong had a more charmed childhood than I did. Casual dismissal of non-whites happened every day. I can’t count the times I’ve heard family members start a sentence, stop and visibly struggle, then finally blurt out “coloreds!” with extra emphasis just so you know what they really mean. Fairness demands that I recognize the ecumenical nature of their hatreds; they had nothing nicer to say about other people who dared come in the wrong colors or religions. But of course you’d be polite to someone’s face. Small communities can’t afford a full-on white power operation, aside local government, so we content ourselves with more petty species of viciousness. Say nothing in front of your victim, but be sure it gets out behind their backs. Plain, honest folk in real America don’t need that explained to them.

Maybe that racism seemed one step removed to Wong -who is white like me; he writes under a pseudonym- but you can’t honestly put it at arm’s length. We both learned to associate minorities with dangerous, criminal behavior and took those who didn’t rape and murder people every day for fun as deviations from the norm. I can’t imagine the victims agree.

It goes on in this vein. The white racial resentment or, to use a word more familiar to its practitioners, entitlement, just boils off the screen. Wong knows as much and acknowledges it. He doesn’t pretend that rural America has somehow, double-secret, turned into a bastion of tolerance. His quest to highlight Trump Country agency has brought him that far. But he thinks it wrong and dehumanizing to ascribe white voters’ motives to either the driving force of American history, white supremacy, or to the central institution of their communities, which he considers to be conservative Christianity. What they say doesn’t actually matter. They just hurt and lash out.

I shall not sit here and tell you that white people never suffer or rural poverty doesn’t matter. But Wong refutes himself twice over by focusing on poverty as the driving force explanation. Firstly, rural America hasn’t done well, economically, in decades. Nor has it had much cultural focus in the same period of time. If neglect drives rural voters, then we would have seen a Trump-style candidacy decades back. Indeed, we did. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan both ran white grievance campaigns. On the other side, so did Bill Clinton. Whether we look at structural factors all the way back to the Constitution or individual campaigns, nobody gets more attention. Even in the most conservative interpretation, white America has at least the whole of one political party devoted to preserving its prerogatives over the rest of the nation. These people do not lack a voice. Their politics do not constitute a wild divergence from the American norm; they are the norm. The past few decades have simply seen a shift from nigh-absolute control to a more qualified but still nearly overwhelming dominance.

Since Trump came out of normal politics, his voters don’t require a unique explanation. The same things drive them that drove the American right in 1968, 1980, 1996, or 1860. They see the United States as a white man’s country, period. Any diminution of their power counts as the most agonizing species of persecution.

But let’s turn that back around. Wong would have us believe that poverty made Trump. He admits that Trump runs on racism, which he also considers a decidedly negative personality trait. He must think the same of poverty as he casts the rural poor as a people lashing out. They can’t have acted in their actual interests, but rather poverty has driven them to it. Poverty, in other words, makes you immoral and destructive. This loops us right back to the stereotypes that Wong and I grew up believing about black people: they earned their poverty through sloth, through dependence, through crime. White people got poor for reasons beyond their control. Trust us; we have the white skin to know. For Wong to argue this, hasn’t he dehumanized the poor just as he complains that others have?

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney

Bringing this back to history, I consider taking what people say and granting them their agency bottom-line stuff. If you can’t do that, then you fundamentally do not believe your subjects full human beings. They must occupy some inferior order, to which one silently applies Taney’s corollary:

altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect

I cannot think of a more thorough way to dehumanize someone than to ignore both their words and deeds in favor of inventing some deterministic explanation that excuses them from both. To do this, you reduce them to unthinking automatons, for all the protests to the contrary. You declare that they do not know what’s best for themselves, that they cannot know. Wong’s rural poor, intended or not, are infantilized subjects. He wants us to not blame them for what they do, for the powerful hatreds they bear, because they just can’t help themselves. You don’t blame a baby for soiling a diaper, so you should not blame Trump voters for Trump.

Wong’s piece has a larger problem, though. “Poor” doesn’t begin to describe Trump’s supporters:

As compared with most Americans, Trump’s voters are better off. The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.

If those statistics reflect poverty, then I imagine plenty of us would like to sign up for some. Wong says that poor people from his home town support Trump; I believe him. But his poor voters resemble the general constituency no more than the neighbors that media personalities talk to at wealthy resort communities represent ordinary Americans.

The Story of Steve Scalise is the Story of White America

How should we interpret a politician going up and speaking in front of a group? They do it all the time, both to large groups in public and small groups in private. They raise money for their campaigns by selling tickets and plates of often infamously questionable food to supporters, which generally come with a speech attached. Mitt Romney got in some hot water a few years back when one of the servers at such an event recorded what he really thought of the American people. But going on the television or having a fundraiser usually comes at the politician’s initiative. Politicians also make appearances by invitation of others. This often includes private groups.

When a politician accepts one of those invitations it must mean at least one of two things. The politician may seek the group’s support or the group has received the politician’s endorsement. Usually both situations apply to some degree. Groups simply don’t invite speakers antithetical to their own beliefs. It would be perverse, and hazardous to one’s career, for a politician to speak to a group diametrically opposed to his or her ideals as well. The obvious contradiction calls into question just what policies the politician actually prefers, just the same way as catching a vegan tucking into a steak would.

Steve Scalise, presently the third man in the Republican Party’s House leadership, spoke to a conference of white supremacists back in 2002. David Duke, the 1992 GOP candidate for governor of Louisiana, ran the group that organized the event. Had the white Louisianans had it to themselves to decide who won the race, they would have had Duke for a governor. His previous adventures included serving as Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. It beggars belief to imagine that Scalise, himself a Louisiana politician, did not know his name. Likewise Scalise could hardly have missed the message in the name of Duke’s group: European-American Unity and Rights Organization. They made no secret of such things:

The Iowa Cubs, a minor league baseball team, also told the Gambit Weekly that they were concerned about housing their players, which included several African Americans, at that hotel while traveling to Louisiana.

“I’m glad we’re staying away from it,” Pat Listach, then a Cubs coach, said in an interview earlier that month. “I wouldn’t have been comfortable staying there.”

The Duke group drew additional headlines nationally in the weeks before the Louisiana meeting. In mid-May 2002, USA Today reported that the organization was active in South Carolina and had “picketed” there to support the Confederate flag flying on state Capitol grounds.

Scalise pleads incompetence due to having only a single staffer at the time. This seems unlikely when even a baseball team from Iowa, hardly people with their finger on the pulse of Louisiana politics, caught on. If they could read USA Today, so could Scalise. But even if incompetence explains the speech itself, that still leaves us with the problem that between 2002 and now it seems he never revisited events and offered any kind of explanation. Only when caught by outsiders did he come forward and decide that EURO contradicted his deeply-held beliefs. Wouldn’t a person who genuinely felt that way have come forward sooner?

Scalise may simply not have cared one way or the other about the group. He insists that he would speak to anybody who invited him back in the day, whatever their beliefs. That sounds very open-minded of him, at least on the surface. The indifference, however, speaks volumes. If getting in bed with the Klan could get him what he wanted, Scalise would do so. He told us as much. How then does he differ from a rank and file Klansman? The distinction between a willingness to embrace white supremacy for political gain and harboring it in your heart seems rather academic. The votes fall the same way regardless. Scalise chose to go, eyes open, and take the money and court the endorsement of a convention of white supremacists.

We do not do ourselves favors by pretending such distinctions excuse politicians, past or present. Electing a black president didn’t make white supremacy go away. Neither did abolition, letting black athletes play professional sports, or civil rights laws. We tell ourselves stories about how bad things happened long ago and we do better now. They did and sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t and sometimes we continue. Ulrich Bonnell Phillips declared white supremacy the central theme of Southern history, but he didn’t need the last adjective. White supremacy stands among our most ancient and important values, whether we like to admit it or not. I submit we should stop declaring victory and start doing something about it.

Maybe Scalise can help. He could resign his seat. He could resign his leadership position. He could use this chance to take a real look at himself and resolve to do better. He might even do those on his own, without anyone putting the screws to him quietly behind closed doors. I wouldn’t bet on any of that. One does not get far in politics and then easily quit the business. But he could do it.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

So could his fellow white Americans. We don’t have a habit of rushing to do that either. Nor do we, despite what we tell ourselves, contain white supremacy in a tidy little box as a retrograde idea. We assume it. We take it for granted and let it guide our behavior. We see pathologies that afflict black Americans and explain them away as innate to blackness rather than imposed upon black Americans by white Americans. Why didn’t the slave work hard? Rascality. Dysaesthesia Aethopica. Why did they run away? Drapetomania. Nothing but madness could explain their behavior. Certainly nothing whites did could.

Why don’t black Americans today do as well as white Americans? Certainly we whites can’t share any of the blame. We could never have rigged the entire system to take from them the success they could manage just as well as we can and pocket it ourselves. Who would do that, except a bunch of white supremacists?

How about a bunch of white supremacists who pretend otherwise? Henry VIII, he of many divorces, annulments, and beheaded wives, confiscated England’s monasteries and promptly sold most of their lands off to wealthy men. This created a party eager to defend his religious settlement, as an England reconciled to Rome might have to restore that property to its previous owners. They bought in, literally.

Across the ocean, we do things the same way. The white hands that type these posts did not personally take anything from anybody, but received stolen goods all the same. White supremacy requires bad actors. It requires violence. It cannot thrive without one or the other. But it also requires people to buy in. Few of us want to do that in as many words, but we do it often enough all the same. It doesn’t require all of us to proceed with conscious malice; we have built a far more subtle machine than that. It lives on in the things we take for granted. Black people don’t do as well as whites. Things just work out that way. Black people have to fear the police in a way whites do not. So it goes. These things just all happen, or so we tell ourselves. That doing so requires us to assume black people simply deserve bad things in a way whites do not doesn’t come to mind, or at the very least that we have no power to do anything about it even when we have so much power to accomplish other things. We assume white supremacy, carefully hiding it from ourselves even as we do.

That concealment has shaped the politics of the decades since open racial hatred went out of fashion. Lee Atwater said it best in describing Republican strategy back in the 1980s, when the party adopted the banner of white power that the Democrats had reluctantly abandoned:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

As a byproduct, blacks get hurt worse than whites. Things just happen; no reason. People behave randomly, without thought. We’ve abstracted away the motives, removed reality from the equation, and made it easier to buy in. We have carefully colorblinded ourselves and so proclaim that we have white supremacy problem.

That’s mighty white of us.

I would like to resign my whiteness. I did not create it; I did not run for the office of white man. But people give it to me and I don’t know that I can stop it on my own. The privileges transferred out of black lives and into mine move through other minds that I cannot control. Personally rejecting the benefits of whiteness will not stop me from enjoying them because they come in how others treat me better and still others worse. It took a society to create whiteness. It will take another to uncreate it.

We have that power. Griping of the more embittered and consciously malicious of us aside, we still control the levers of power, both political and social. We may have to share sometimes, but I don’t see our black neighbors waging a desperate battle to stop us. It would take more than a day. It would take a fight. We cannot, contra Paine, create the world anew. But no law of nature demands we continue as we have, unchanged and unchanging. We could do better every day and every year and, for once in our history, not leave the job unfinished.

That would not be very white of us; that would be resigning our whiteness in favor of human decency.

On Torture

Gentle Readers, yesterday I had a particularly horrific nightmare. I can still see parts of it. It woke me up and I needed to lay in bed reading for a few hours before I could get back to sleep. The dream involved torture, but I will spare you the details. Only my night’s sleep suffered for them.

I woke up to the nightmare come true, at least in the broad strokes. My sleeping mind did not conjure up anal rape as a means of extracting information. Now I know that people employed by my government had more fertile imaginations than my own. I expected bad, and when you spend enough time around the kind of primary sources I do, your ability to imagine horrors increases. The CIA, and it’s civilian contractors who earned $80 million for their trouble, proved still more capable. We know this after the CIA got through redacting the report and destroying at least some of the evidence. Unlike the events of my dream, these things happened. Real people, at least thirty-nine of them, suffered through it. At least one person died under the agency’s tender ministrations.

I have given some thought, both in reference to the nation’s latest adventures in torture and the prosecution of slavery, to just what torture really does. It can force compliance, just as a gun to the head does. While advocates point to this as the reason to do it, they miss the point. If you want information that you suspect someone has, then it must matter to you that you get accurate information from the person. Lies are worse than no information at all because they will lead at best to no progress and more likely to wasted effort chasing down phantoms.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Slaveholders had the same problem. They, unlike the CIA, could count the bales of cotton to see how effectively they tortured. While they clearly got results, if at horrific cost, the planters had an additional problem. Would their human property really make a good faith effort at doing their best? They knew very well that no such thing would happen. They thus convinced themselves of the natural laziness and duplicitous nature that came with dark skin. All of that tool breaking, slow work, and the like just could not be helped. Samuel Cartwright even invented a pair of mental illnesses to explain slave resistance. You needed torture to get anything out of them.

It also proved handy in discovering slave revolt conspiracies that may or may not have existed, which in turn produced more torture when slaves confessed, which then also fed on itself much as the panic over Nat Turner’s real revolt led to the deaths of far more people than his brief uprising did.

The real difficulty for slaveholders came in the fact, known intimately but rarely acknowledged, that slaves do not care for slavery. Likewise the tortured do not care for torture, let alone for their torturers. Why would they tell the truth and nothing but the truth to such people? The victim and torturer don’t become friends. They don’t go out for drinks afterwards. What torture produces then will, in the main, constitute falsehoods. This has often been the chief purpose. A confession both justifies what the torturer did and provides new victims.

I thus conclude that torture, as a practical matter, has little to do with anything extracted from the victims save for their agonies. The torturer may begin with the idea that his methods work toward a goal, but the brute facts will soon prove otherwise. The Inquisitor, witch hunter, planter, overseer, and all the rest reap their real harvest in screams. People do it because they want to. Through the control of another person they feel empowered. They free themselves from the ordinary constraints of life. They take revenge on whomever they declare a miscreant. They set an example to keep others in line.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

All of us have wanted those things at one time or another, even if we would not torture to get them. If only this person did not stand in the way of our ambitions, if only we could set aside our normal standards of behavior just this once, then wouldn’t it all work out better? You break a few eggs, but that’s just how it goes. If you don’t get what you want, it becomes easier to continue all the same. You still get the pleasure of power, just not quite as imagined. And why not continue? You’ve already done it, so you’re comfortable enough. I have no doubt that most, probably all, of the torturers, then and now, slept well every night.

Why not? We ultimately torture for fun and because we can. If we break a few bodies and destroy a few lives, or a few million, along the way, when has that ever stopped us?

We should prosecute the guilty, or hand them over to a competent international tribunal to do the same, but I expect they’ll die at home in their own beds. Few countries do a good job of policing the misconduct of those on the national payroll, least of all those involved in the broad umbrella of “national defense”. We have, at almost every turn, done as little as we possibly could in the service of human rights. If we get very lucky, we might punish a few people very low down on the totem pole.

We could do better; we might even do right. No laws of physics prevent it. Many people who had to know what went on, as well as those who themselves participated, likely still draw paychecks from the Treasury Department. They have not vanished into the ether. But far more likely we will let them all go and find some feeble pretense to declare ourselves absolved of all they did in our name, if we do not simply decide that they did right to start with.

I know from overhearing the television news that some of us have already decided in favor of the last course. Doing that, and repeating all of this again, remains an option for a future administration:

President Obama signed Executive Order 13491 in January 2009 to prohibit the CIA from holding detainees other than on a “short-term, transitory basis” and to limit interrogation techniques to those included in the Army Field Manual. However, these limitations are not part of U.S. law and could be overturned by a future president with the stroke of a pen.

The committee recommends giving that executive order the force of law through proper legislation. I anticipate the introduction of a well-intentioned bill that goes nowhere.

The Economist’s Proslavery History and Ideology #economistbookreviews

BaptistweetI don’t mean to give the blog over to this particular controversy, Gentle Readers, but once again over the past few days new information has come to light that deserves sharing. This runs very long as I would prefer to deal with it all on one day rather than continue working over the same material for several posts in a row that come in lieu of further posts on Kansas matters.

I mentioned in my second post on the matter that the Economist also panned Greg Grandin’s book on the slave trade in terms very similar to those used to condemn Edward Baptist’s book more recently. The review of Grandin’s work remains on The Economist’s website, unencumbered by any apology or retraction. I drew from this that, at least when it comes to book reviews, The Economist adopts an apologetically white supremacist position. I don’t know how else to explain the recurring complaint that works discussing historical misdeeds perpetrated on blacks by whites, the magazine’s go-to complaint is that we only hear about how white people did horrible things to black people.

Grandin agrees:

Slavery might not be black or white, but bravery and morality apparently are: whites possess those qualities, a possession that merits historical consideration; blacks don’t, at least according to The Economist.

He makes another point worth noting. I had neither the time nor the access to troll through The Economist’s archives looking for reviews similar to that of Grandin’s and Baptist’s books. Grandin found others who had, going all the way back to 1860:

a pattern is detected, one reaching back much further than the review of my book. In the 1860s,The Economist stood nearly alone among liberal opinion in Britain in supporting the Confederacy against the Union, all in the name of access to cheap Southern “Blood Cotton” (ironically, the title of the Baptist review) and fear of higher tariffs if the North triumphed. “The Economist was unusual,” writes an historian of English public opinion at the time; “Other journals still regarded slavery as a greater evil than restrictive trade practices.”

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

This fact, which Grandin cites to Duncan Andrew Campbell’s English Public Opinion and the American Civil War, reaches well beyond my education in such matters. I knew that the Confederacy expected that the British mills’ hunger for cotton would prompt intervention and secure their independence, but I also knew that the British intellectual class had, by 1860, a general abhorrence of slavery. They may not have uniformly agreed that the Union could prevail in the war, but actively helping a nation conceived in slavery and dedicated to the proposition that some men are born slaves and others masters? That went beyond the pale…except in the pages of The Economist, which weighed the sins of increased tariffs against those of slavery and declared the tariffs the greater of the two evils.

To draw a straight line from the work of long-dead editors to their modern descendants asks too much of this data alone. That kind of generalization requires much more than two reviews in the past year and one position taken in 1860. Someone doing that with American politics would come to the conclusion that the party that nominated a black man for the presidency in 2008 must have had a secret white supremacist agenda, which also informed its support, except for the Southern whites, of the Civil Rights Movement. That would stretch counter-intuitive conclusions well over into absurdity.

The men who took the first position died long ago. One can fairly say that, then and now, The Economist took a proslavery, white supremacist stance. In between, other editors could have taken other positions. However, it appears that The Economist’s recent dalliance with white supremacy goes back further than just this year, as Grandin notes:

Since the Baptist review appeared, only to be quickly withdrawn, other historians, such as Mark Healey, have dug up reviews with similar problems. The Economist seems committed to making sure that white people aren’t taken for total villains and darker-skinned folks held accountable for their share of world’s inequities. It also seems dedicated to make sure the economic system created by slavery is denied its parentage, and on insisting that the miseries that continue to be produced by neoliberal capitalism can only be cured by more neoliberal capitalism. A few years ago, for instance, the magazine upbraided the Laurent Dubois, in his book on the history of Haiti, for, you guessed it, dismissing cultural explanations for the country’s poverty and focusing instead on structural issues. Haitians need to be held responsible for “their society’s underdevelopment,” and the best way to end their misery is to stop clinging to substance production and accommodate themselves to “specialised wage labour for a global market.”

This tellingly reverses the magazine’s complaint about Baptist’s work:

Mr Baptist, an historian at Cornell University, is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses “the traditional explanations” for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

The Economist welcomes cultural explanations when they reflect well on or exonerate white people, but rejects them when they do not. Furthermore, reference to “culture” here carries with it an especially damning judgment. One comes off with the impression, certainly intended, that Haitians are just lazy, no good, backwards-looking primitives in need of enlightenment. Thank goodness they have a white person in London (apparently the ones in Paris did not suffice) around to set them straight. Perhaps we should take charge of them and subject them to the discipline they need so they’ll stop being retrograde layabouts. Have I paraphrased The Economist today or a Southern writer defending slavery in the 1850s? I don’t aspire to crudity here, but they have made fundamentally the same argument. Take it from Samuel Cartwright, author of Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race:

Even if they did not prefer slavery, tranquility, and sensual enjoyment, to liberty, yet their organization of mind is such, that if they had their liberty, they have not the industry, the moral virtue, the courage and vigilance to maintain it, but would relapse into barbarism, or into slavery as they have done in Hayti.

The Economist would not openly cite racial inferiority under the color of science as Cartwright did, but the declarations of cultural degeneracy which it prefers run to the same point and leave one questioning how it is that Haitians supposedly came to such a set of bad cultural habits. The magazine’s silence on the matter proves eloquent. It rules out anything whites could have done, after all.

The generous blogfather, who inspired this whole enterprise, forwarded me an article from over at The Jacobin where The Economist receives critical attention from a student of economics. Ellora Derenoncourt studies the subject at Harvard, where she works on her doctorate. As such I take her as a competent authority to comment on the history of her field. She’s also familiar with the book that the magazine cites as the example Baptist ought have followed, Hugh Thomas’ The Slave Trade.

The section in which Thomas dismisses the evidentiary potential of slaves’ accounts concludes as follows: “Like slaves in antiquity, African slaves suffered but the character of their distress may be more easily conveyed by novelists such as Mérimée than chronicled by a historian. Perhaps though, the dignity, patience, and gaiety of the African in the New World is the best of all memorials.”

Everything worked out well, so who cares if a few former slaves with axes to grind talked about their whippings?

This comes down to a nice say of saying that we should dismiss slave narratives. Every source brings with it questions about how much we should take the author’s experience as representative rather than idiosyncratic, but when thousands of slave narratives agree on brutality, few dismiss them save for The Economist and Hugh Thomas.

This explicit paternalism towards slaves and their descendants is actually rare in Thomas’s book: the true stars in his account are the slave traders. They were the original “citizens of the world,” according to Thomas, their lives a rich source of fascination and wonder. He writes of a Florentine slave-trader: “[T]he career of this extraordinary individual is a reminder that Max Weber and R.H. Tawney were mistaken in thinking that international capitalists were the product of Protestant Northern Europe.” He then wistfully notes the lack of any extant portraits of the man.

Thomas’s account is no objective, systematic treatment of slavery (not a single table appears in all eight hundred pages of the book). A few pages of estimated statistics show up in various appendices with their sources unspecified. Rather, it is a lengthy series of impressions of the Atlantic slave trade from the traders’ — or perhaps more precisely, the market’s — point of view.

One could argue that Thomas aspired to write a history of the slave trade and so slave traders naturally draw his eye. So far as that goes, one has no room to object. But it seems he viewed the slaves themselves as something more on the class of objects, interesting only insofar as they facilitated his telling the stories of intrepid capitalists.

Derenoncourt continues

A special emphasis is placed on the ingenuity and salience of slave traders in European commerce, society, and politics at the time. Their extension of capital into international markets is lauded, while the consideration of the institutions that accompany the slave trade into the New World, namely the plantation system, remains an afterthought. That this makes his account “objective” relative to Baptist’s book, which includes thousands of slave testimonies, is symptomatic of a broader trope in economics that reflects not just current bias, but a certain kind of path dependence in the disciplinary consensus on the economics of slavery.

She traces this back to the 1970s, when Time on the Cross argued that we must set aside slave narratives as the data showed general good treatment. The position had numerous issues that immediately raise even my amateur historian’s hackles:

Based on the historical evidence of consumption levels, the authors suggest that slaves appeared to be better off than their free labor counterparts in the South. But the historical evidence the authors rely on is disturbingly sparse. Most of the data in the book come from a single cross section, the 1860 census, and the data on nutrition come from plantations only in the cotton belt.

Average daily food intake of slaves in 1860 is compared with the average daily food intake of the entire population in 1879; information about further controls or specifications are omitted in the body of the text. Data on whipping are taken from a single plantation, and, to generalize their argument about the exaggeration of maltreatment claims, the authors cite scripture (“Whipping of wives, for example, was even sanctified in some versions of the Scripture”). In other words, whipping cannot be so bad if everyone is experiencing it.

I would hope that any paper one tried to publish in a competent historical journal which generalized punishment data from a single plantation to the entire South would be laughed out of peer review. Even aside the blinkered approach to the data, one has the equally blinkered worldview that casts everyone as a perfect profit optimizer. Do you know anybody like that?

But beyond the sparseness of the research used in the book lies an even greater anachronism: the model of slaveowner optimization that underpins the theoretical framework of the book.

There are no considerations of power, or the utility from holding onto it. The narrowness of this theory is what produces a master’s “objectivity” that coincides with the efficient market outcome — slaves are capital assets, so higher productivity comes from investment, not brutality. Because this fits prevailing models, such a conclusion is considered objective, independent of the level of statistical rigor or quality of the evidence provided.

Slaveholders got far more out of owning slaves than just their labor, even if the theft of that labor lay at the heart of the enterprise. The satisfactions of power and status, sexual gratification, fear of revolt, and racial solidarity all form parts of the picture. People in the real world act on those impulses every time. One can cast that as optimization-oriented behavior, but they do not revolve primarily around the efficient acquisition of tangible property.

Derenoncourt identifies this as coming from a particularly ugly part of the field:

This reflects a current in economics that enjoys, for lack of a better word, trolling the basic ethical instincts of the rest of humanity. The series of tweets satirizing the Economist’s review hits closer to home than one might think. Questions in economics research such as, “What are the positive development implications of HIV?” or “What is the optimal level of genetic diversity for growth?” are reflections of this tendency. Combined with what Edward Baptist aptly terms the “free-market fundamentalist” worldview of the magazine, which is in many ways the popular face of the discipline, the field consequently selects for a particular kind of individual.

It would not do to draw from this that the profession has a sickness and one should discount it or publications named after its practitioners. But every field has its share of bad actors, considering all the practitioners share the normal human failings, and fields can develop orthodoxies deeply at odds with the very material they cite. A generation of historians thought slavery just as benevolent, and used many of the same arguments to prove it, as The Economist trotted out last week. Like Hugh Thomas, they ignored slave narratives but found the testimony and viewpoint of slaveholders objective and persuasive.

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.