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Science, Sexuality, and Race in the United States and Australia, 1780-1940

Science, Sexuality, and Race in the United States and Australia, 1780-1940

by Gregory D. Smithers

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Science, Sexuality, and Race in the United States and Australia, 1780–1940, Revised Edition is a sociohistorical tour de force that examines the entwined formation of racial theory and sexual constructs within settler colonialism in the United States and Australia from the Age of Revolution to the Great Depression. Gregory D. Smithers historicizes the dissemination and application of scientific and social-scientific ideas within the process of nation building in two countries with large Indigenous populations and shows how intellectual constructs of race and sexuality were mobilized to subdue Aboriginal peoples.

Building on the comparative settler-colonial and imperial histories that appeared after the book’s original publication, this completely revised edition includes two new chapters. In this singular contribution to the study of transnational and comparative settler colonialism, Smithers expands on recent scholarship to illuminate both the subject of the scientific study of race and sexuality and the national and interrelated histories of the United States and Australia.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496200983
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 07/01/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 516
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Gregory D. Smithers is an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of several books, including The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement, and Identity, and is the coeditor of Native Diasporas: Indigenous Identities and Settler Colonialism in the Americas (Nebraska, 2014). 

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Science, Sexuality, and Race in the United States and Australia, 1780-1940

By Gregory D. Smithers


Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4962-0098-3


On the Importance of Good Breeding

In eighteenth-century England, a debate began among the nation's learned elite. This debate would ultimately have far-reaching consequences for the types of settler societies that emerged in the United States and Australia. However, in the eighteenth century the focus of this debate was on the nature of human character, intellect, and social status in England. In a biting satire of this debate, Daniel Defoe's The Compleat English Gentleman (1729) lampooned the increasingly popular idea that genetic ancestry determined one's character and social status. In a conversation that Defoe claimed to have witnessed between the Earl of Oxford and "a certain modern Nobleman," the earl exclaimed, "I am Aubrey de Vere Earl of Oxford; my Grandfather was Earl of Oxford, my Great-grandfather was Francis de Vere, Lieutenant-general to Queen Elizabeth." In response, Defoe's "modern Nobleman" announced, "I am William Lord _____ my Father was Lord Mayor of London and my Grandfather was the Lord knows who." Defoe's wit was designed to register his disdain for a growing chorus of eighteenth-century elites who, in Defoe's mind, insisted that within a gentlemen's lineage was contained "some Globules in the Blood, some sublime Particles in the Animal Secretion" that produced civility and virtue. Search beyond three generations of any family, Defoe contended, and one's lineage, like that of the Nobleman, dissolved into the "Mist and Cloud" of the forgotten past. According to Defoe, a true gentleman, a man of good breeding, was a man devoted not to ancient bloodlines but to the cultivation of "Honour, Virtue, Sense, Integrity, Honesty, and Religion."

Defoe's 1729 satire captured the contentiousness of debate about the meaning of "blood" — something that consumed the attention of scholars and the Catholic Church as they debated whether it took three or four generations to purge an inferior "race" of its polluted blood — and characteristics of a gentleman of good breeding. In Defoe's rendering of this debate, the Earl of Oxford embodied the arrogance of English aristocrats, a class whose members were convinced that civility and morality were genetically acquired. The "noble gentleman," on the other hand, registered Defoe's disdain for the idea of a genetic aristocracy. In fact, Defoe's satire aimed to convince his readers that good breeding and its qualities of intellect, character, and ease of manners were acquired only after a lifetime of diligent cultivation. As the eighteenth century witnessed the tumult of the Age of Revolutions and neared the nineteenth, the debate over the relationship between biological inheritance — or "blood" — and the role of education in shaping human development intensified.

Historians have observed that the English debate over the meaning of good breeding gripped intellectual discourse in eighteenth-century Britain. Scholars such as Paul Carter, George Brauer, and Julie Flavell have noted that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English philosophers framed good breeding in cosmopolitan terms. This cosmopolitanism emphasized the universal nature of the values ascribed to a gentleman of good breeding. According to Brauer, eighteenth-century intellectuals instructed young men to travel abroad and mix with "good company." Brauer argues that travel was seen as a way to cultivate the principles of good breeding, helping a budding gentleman to hone the universal characteristics of virtue and ease.

As overseas travel was considered important to the cultivation of good breeding, it was unsurprising that the tenets of good breeding traveled with European migrants as they settled in North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. With the historiographic analysis of good breeding focused primarily on Britain, the historical significance of this concept in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America has not been fully developed. American historians have generally limited their analysis of identity formation to how elite Americans sought models of ideal behavior from England. Historians label this process "Anglicization," a phenomenon that involved colonial Americans reading, observing, and attempting to apply lessons in English and Scottish virtue, style, and religious practice to America.

However, the ideals of good breeding that Americans studied acquired a distinctly American interpretation over the course of the eighteenth century. By the 1790s American lawmakers, building on colonial precedents, attempted to associate good breeding with free white citizens. For example, the 1790 naturalization law, which remained the law of the land until 1952, prescribed "whiteness" as the prerequisite for citizenship. The naturalization law also had implications for the reproduction of the nation, with the children of naturalized citizens under the age of twenty-one being eligible for citizenship if they were also resident in the United States.

Building on these laws, early nineteenth-century lawmakers sought to reaffirm the colonial prohibition on such practices as interracial marriage. The legal and social taboos placed on interracial sex and marriage, and their "spurious issue," meant that the qualities associated with well-bred citizens in the early republic remained reserved strictly for white citizens. To produce mixed-race children, either in casual sexual affairs or interracial marriages, was to blur the line between citizen and noncitizen and to compromise the white supremacist foundations of the United States. Despite this, prominent Americans like Thomas Jefferson went against popular racial prejudices and speculated that interracial marriage had the potential to produce a unified and homogenous body politic by eliminating ill-bred elements of American society.

America's revolutionary elite, for all their political rhetoric about independence, continued to look to Britain for guidance in forming the ideal social order. After exploring eighteenth-century arguments about good breeding in Britain, this chapter will analyze how the ideals of good breeding were applied in the early American republic. The racial speculation of American leaders — most notably Thomas Jefferson — aimed to prescribe the parameters of good breeding and mold American whiteness to abstract Enlightenment ideals of inner virtue and aesthetic beauty. Specifically, Jefferson speculated that interracial marriage whitened "colored" races, something that Jefferson viewed as a positive development. After analyzing Jefferson's speculations about good breeding among white Americans, Native Americans, and African Americans the chapter compares how Jefferson's cosmopolitan contemporaries in British colonial Australia addressed the issue of good breeding among white convicts, free colonists, and Aboriginal peoples. In this broader settler colonial context, Jefferson's speculation about race mixing as a productive factor in the cultivation of good breeding appears less unusual. Jefferson's musings on the benefits of interracial marriage were therefore part of a transnational discussion about the cultivation of good breeding and human perfectibility. In this context, whiteness came to be seen as a malleable biological and cultural category. For men who shared Jefferson's convictions, whiteness had the potential to transform the biological makeup and cultural practices of nonwhite races. Thus human hybridity was not celebrated but seen as a marker of racial uncertainty and social disorder. In the United States and British colonial Australia, the importance of the "globules of blood" that Defoe satirized became part of an earnest debate about the cultural and biological composition of a well-bred body politic.

The Scottish Enlightenment Idea of Good Breeding in a Comparative Context

John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), was a critically important text for developing understandings of good breeding in England. Some Thoughts Concerning Education was published in the years after the Glorious Revolution (1688–89), the passage of the Toleration Act (1689) under King William III's reign, and the Reformation of Manners, in which reform society's allegations of rampant sexual immorality — such as prostitution and sodomy — led government officials to work more diligently to police public morality. In this context, Locke argued that good breeding constituted a series of qualities that had the potential to produce a gentleman. A gentleman of good breeding was humble and honest, he exhibited ease in his carriage, and he projected a "well fashioned" image in his dress, speech, and behavior. According to Locke, the qualities of a well-bred gentleman required constant cultivation through formal education, travel, and avoiding the "tincture" of ill company. Locke insisted that good breeding was not simply a ceremonial performance; instead, ease of carriage and speech and refinement of manners and dress should be external displays of an internal civility. Locke therefore added his voice to debate about public and private morality by arguing that education was critical to the cultivation of good breeding. He argued that transforming a child into a well-bred gentleman occurred in distinct stages. Locke instructed that from early infancy the practices of good breeding should be stressed on the young mind of the budding gentleman by instilling awe and respect for authority figures. He contended that the first stage of a child's education was critical to the cultivation of virtue. A virtuous gentleman should ultimately possess mastery over his passions; he was neither a slave to his temper nor a captive of his baser lusts. Indeed, a truly virtuous gentleman was a disciplined individual who was a "useful" member of society.

In the second stage of human development, a young gentleman continued his education by observing the social etiquette and manners of others. Such knowledge was attained by traveling to foreign countries. By traveling abroad, an aspiring gentleman became a truly cosmopolitan individual capable of adapting to foreign cultures and customs with ease. Thus, through travel and observation, a gentleman honed his rationality and wisdom. As Locke defined it, a gentleman of wisdom manages "his business ablely, and with fore-sight in this World. This is the product of good natural Temper, application of Mind, and Experience together." Such qualities made the cosmopolitan gentleman "valued and beloved by others, acceptable and tolerable to himself." In short, a polished and mature gentleman was a man of good breeding who was a useful member of global society.

Locke's theory of good breeding was not intended to take the children of lowly farmhands or mechanics and transform them into an elite class of gentlemen. Instead, Locke's man of good breeding performed the tasks assigned to his rank with the "freedom and gracefulness, which pleases," thereby ensuring that good order was maintained in society at large. Following Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Hume, Kames, Reid, Stewart, and a host of other well-known and not-so-well-known philosophers contributed to the debate over the Reformation of Manners and good breeding in Britain. These scholars elaborated on theories of good breeding by combining empiricism with Scottish Common Sense philosophy to argue that a stable and modern body politic was possible if individuals cultivated the principles of good breeding best suited to their station in society.

Adam Smith, best known for his economic theories, argued that human happiness resulted when men cultivated the principles of good breeding. Smith asserted that the actions of virtuous and generous men, when benevolently bestowed on society, produced a "beauty superior to all others, so the want of it, and much more the contrary inclination, communicates a peculiar deformity of whatever evidences such a disposition." Smith concluded, "Pernicious actions are often punished for no other reason than because they shew a want of sufficient attention to the happiness of our neighbour." Underlying Scottish Common Sense philosophy was the reformist impulse to remake society for the happiness of all. For example, Henry Home, Lord Kames, a popular Enlightenment thinker among Americans such as Thomas Jefferson, insisted that "moral sense [is] ... rooted in the nature of man." With education, Kames posited, man "improves [moral sense] gradually, like other powers and faculties." Kames believed that the man of moral sense should apply his knowledge to the scientific betterment of humankind and society. He argued that "man is a beautiful machine, composed of various principles of motion, which may be conceived as so many springs or weights, counteracting or balancing one another. When these are accurately adjusted, the movement of life is beautiful, because regular and uniform. But if some springs or weights be withdrawn, those which remain, acting now without opposition from their antagonists, will disorder the balance, and derange the whole machine."

The Common Sense thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment built on the empiricism of the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. Scottish Common Sense philosophers drew on observations of human societies to formulate their theories of human improvement and social order, coining the phrase the "science of man." Rejecting Rousseau's assertion that civilization corrupts people, Scottish Enlightenment thinkers echoed Locke in their belief that through experience, observation, and calculation the "science of man" proved that all "ranks" or "orders" of men in society had their usefulness. If people performed to the best of their ability within their rank, social stability ensued and society prospered. In eighteenth-century Britain, social rank and order was the foundation for a well-bred human society — a "beautiful machine."

Thomas Reid, a popular Common Sense philosopher among literate colonists in mainland North America and Australia, developed educational theories for the cultivation of good breeding. As with most Common Sense philosophers, Reid's analyses were based on his observations of Britain and Europe, never explicitly addressing the social context of North America or New South Wales. In North America's expanding heterogeneous social milieu of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, unfamiliar landscapes, ethnically and racially diverse populations, and rapidly changing economic and political structures, Reid's Common Sense philosophy proved particularly appealing to America's elites. America's literate audiences saw Reid's theories as a neat fit with Locke's idea about good breeding, providing a language with which to forge a stable body politic of well-defined ranks and order. For example, Americans learned from Reid that a "man of sense is a man of judgment. Good sense is good judgment. ... Common sense is that degree of judgment which is common to men with whom we can converse and transact business."

The historian Gordon Wood has argued that America's revolutionary leaders saw virtue, or the "willingness of the individual to sacrifice his private interests for the good of the community," as essential to the stability of the early American republic. Men such as Washington, Adams, Madison, and Jefferson, all students of the Scottish Enlightenment, applied Thomas Reid's Common Sense philosophies in the context of unprecedented social and political change in North America. The writings of Common Sense philosophers provided the founders of the United States with the confidence to transform the British colonies, re-creating American society as a living example of an independent, sober, and practical society structured around the principles of good judgment and good breeding. However, as the evidence from the following two sections suggests, reports of Native American assaults on frontier farms and towns undermined this confidence. Indeed, the fear of Native American men kidnapping, keeping captive, and sexually exploiting white women and children tortured the imagination of white Americans. Even more troubling, however, was the presence of African Americans, who most white Americans agreed required the strict discipline of slavery, lest they develop ideas about calling for their own independence and attempt to integrate into white society. The America of the Revolutionary Era and early republic was, therefore, characterized by specifically American racial anxieties. In particular, white Americans feared unrestrained interracial sex — an anxiety that framed a myriad of social, cultural, and political concerns — and the mixed-race progeny of these illicit unions. Mixed-race people had the potential to dissolve the markers of rank and order in white society. The fears of sexual depravity and sodomy that drove the Reformation of Manners among British reformers was, in North America, interpreted through the increasingly focused lens of race. As Winthrop Jordan has observed, sexual intermixture between white and African American people had the potential to produce a "darkened nation," which white Americans saw as "incontrovertible evidence that sheer animal sex was governing the American destiny and the great experiment in the wilderness had failed to maintain the social and personal restraints which were the hallmarks and the very stuff of civilization."


Excerpted from Science, Sexuality, and Race in the United States and Australia, 1780-1940 by Gregory D. Smithers. Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
A Note about Terminology,
Part I,
1. On the Importance of Good Breeding,
2. Debating Race andthe Meaning of Whiteness,
3. Eliminating the "Dubious Hyphen between Savagery and Civilization",
4. Racial Discourse in the United States and Australia,
Part II,
5. Missionaries, Settlers, Cherokees, and African Americans, 1780s–1850s,
6. Missionaries, Settlers, and Australian Aborigines, 1780s–1850s,
7. The Evolution of an American Race, 1860s–1890s,
8. The Evolution of White Australia, 1860–1890,
Part III,
9. The "Science" of Human Breeding,
10. "Breeding out the Colour",

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