For scholars of the colonial and early national United States, it is difficult if not impossible to retell the story of social egalitarianism and political liberty without recounting the social, political, and legal codes governing the practice of miscegenation. Under both the colonial British regime and the post-Revolutionary political order of the United States, these laws and customs operated hand in hand with the equally determinate laws of slavery and citizenship, helping to decide who was a democratic subject and who was not.
In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Virginia, prohibitions against mixed-race marriages and extramarital unions along with their mixed-race offspring helped to create a new, putatively classless caste system, which equated the dignity of free labor and property holding with a pure British ancestry and the indignity of coercive labor with an African ancestry. In doing so, these laws paved the way for a historic argument for civic equality that rendered the American colonist the genetic bearer of English liberty.1 In the new American republic, miscegenation laws functioned even more transparently as citizenship decrees, stipulating the whiteness of politically enfranchised subjects and, often capriciously, the blackness of the enslaved or disenfranchised. The logical outcome of these laws, the "one drop of blood" provision, was a testament to the determination of the privileged caste to maintain an artificially scarce supply
Political Caricature No. 4: The Miscegenation Ball. From G. W. Bromley's lithograph series of anti-Republican satires (1864). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-14828.
of citizens by keeping their legal, economic, and political assets from their mixed-race descendants.2
Miscegenation laws and regulations played an equally formative role in the civic culture of the antebellum era, when social prejudice against race mixing helped to police civil relations and to foreclose the scope of civic activism. In the northern United States of the 1830s, abolitionists labored under a broad presumption that they were covert "amalgamationists," more intent on destroying the social order of the North than ending the injustice of slavery in the South. In New York City, anti-abolitionist mobs attacked the mixed-race community of Five Points, as if it were a hotbed of abolitionist agitation, and the home of the abolitionist patron Lewis Tappan, who was rumored to be sequestering a black wife.3 In response, white abolitionists fled so swiftly from the amalgamation charge that they formally disclaimed the morality of mixed-race unions, but to no avail. The anti-abolitionist majority of the North seemed to equate race mixing not just with a degrading form of sexual intimacy and social cohabitation but with the precedent of interracial political collaboration that the abolition movement had set. The battleground of the antebellum abolition movement would subsequently be the urban quarters of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, where white abolitionists' political alliances with existing black anti-colonizationist movements were at their most visible—and effective.
Taken together, these episodes from the history of anti-miscegenation in the United States confirm the validity of two cardinal premises of American cultural studies articulated by such critics as Lauren Berlant, Michael Warner, and Bruce Burgett: that the citizenship laws of the American nation-state designate, not abstract subjects, but racially and sexually embodied ones; that the civic practices of American democracy are decided by interlocking formal political rights and privileges with sexual, domestic, and familial arrangements.4 And yet as productive as the analysis of miscegenation has been for the critical vocabulary of American cultural studies, a new field of inquiry opens up for Americanists when we separate the topic of miscegenation from the internal dynamics of citizenship formation and adopt a more hemispheric frame of reference.
Destruction by Fire of Pennsylvania Hall, the New Building of the Abolition Society, on the Night of the 17th May (J. T. Bowen, 1838). Print. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-1951.
The simple premise for this essay is that miscegenation in the United States represents but one chapter in a larger New World history that saw the mixing of European, African, and native American peoples under the...