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CR: The New Centennial Review 6.3 (2007) 241-290

Die Negerfrage in den Vereinigten Staaten1
(The Negro Question in the United States) (1906)
W. E. B. Du Bois
Translated by Joseph Fracchia

The great economic opportunities that opened up in the new North American republic at the beginning of the nineteenth century, combined with the homogeneity of its population and its institutions, let it appear not impossible that there—on the other side of the ocean—a nation would arise free of the crippling chains of the caste mentality, a nation in which social differences would be determined only by the different abilities and education of individuals. The Americans themselves did not at all doubt this development: they firmly believed that all people are created free and equal and are provided by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and that to these belong "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

In many strata of the young nation, to be sure, these principles were applied with a certain reservatio mentalis. The good old Puritan families in New England had an aristocratic fear of the mob, and for the plantation barons of the South, they alone were the "people." Moreover, in those days of the emergence of the nation, one-fifth of the entire population was [End Page 241] everywhere silently ignored—the 1 million Negroes who were mainly servants and slaves.

In those days of turning inward that followed the French Revolution, the Negro Question too was pondered back and forth in America; the general view was that with the cessation of the African slave trade the Negro population would gradually disappear. Calmed by this assumption and by the rapid progress of Negro emancipation in the North and even in the South, the nation no longer concerned itself with this question, and the development of democratic ideas followed its quiet course over 30 years.

The internal history of the Union from 1800–1830 exhibits a decisive leveling tendency—political life had descended from John Quincy Adams to Andrew Jackson, social life obtained a utilitarian flavor, people were proud of a mean birth and a poor childhood. These tough people were admirable in their struggle with the world and, despite the coarseness and the general lack of cultivation [Bildung]2 of the America of those days, that was nevertheless the time of the building, the strengthening of the nation.

It would have been strange if in the striving toward a new and powerful economic development a new stratum of people had not been suppressed and burdened, thus preparing the way for a new caste difference. In America, too, this happened, and the suppressed class was the Negro slaves. Under the liberal influence of the first years of the nineteenth century, they had slowly begun to rise up out of slavery. Of the million Negroes, 60,000 were free in the year 1800, already 320,000 in 1830. Before the Revolutionary War all states were—legally—slave states, in the year 1830 only the Southern states. Nevertheless only a few concerned themselves with the improvement of the situation of the slaves, while defenders of the system, on the contrary, occasionally stepped forth. The reason for this obviously lay in the growing yield of the cotton plantations. From 1822–31, the harvest was doubled and yielded 1 million bales, 1.5 million in 1838, 2 million in 1840, 3 million in 1850, and 5 million bales in 1860. That meant that an industry of world importance was already by 1830 based on slavery, and the enormous significance of this industry increased by leaps and bounds while political parties dodged this question, and moralists and churches enlisted the arts of casuistry. [End Page 242]

In other words: in the heart of the nation that had laughed about social prejudices and that had set itself the goal of erecting a state with the least conceivable class differences, there existed from the very...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1539-6630
Print ISSN
1532-687x
Pages
pp. 241-290
Launched on MUSE
2007-09-24
Open Access
No
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