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XIII T H E N E G R O B O U N D B Y T H E C H A I N O F B E I N G NATURAL PHILOSOPHERS IN THE YOUNG REPUBLIC WERE LESS willing than previously to act as humble collectors for the learned naturalists of Europe, less willing, that is, to accept colonial status in the empire of science. Newly won political independence did nothing to undermine the old tradition of trans-Atlantic scientific cooperation, but cooperation, Americans had come to feel, implied equality among participants. In the face of this change, however, the structure of their conceptual world remained fundamentally the same. The fusion of traditional Christianity and Newtonian mechanics had helped generate a world view which was remarkable for its cohesiveness, energy, and passion for system, qualities not unconnected with such well-known facets of the Enlightenment as the deliberate reconstruction of governments and the maturation of a money economy. If anything, the old structure seemed firmer than ever, though in retrospect we can detect some of the cracks which belied a growing fossilization. Indeed the eighteenth-century penchant for order actually grew stronger in many quarters after the Revolution. One notable apparent discordancy in nature concerned man himself and therefore elicited especially strenuous efforts at resolution. Mankind existed in an untidy variety of shapes and colors, and it was essential that this natural disarray should submit to some universal, ordering principle of nature. Americans, especially, had reason to sense a discordant note when they contemplated the status of Africans in their new empire of liberty. Here lay the makings of an interesting dilemma: what would happen if the passion for system in nature should conflict with the yearning for a harmoniously ordered society? That any scientific answer concerning the variability of man [48«] The Negro Bound by the Chain of Being would have ramifications for a vital social issue did not alter the necessity of finding some explanation. Most philosophers hoped that their findings would comport with the dictates of benevolence, but the misery of the slave could never be allowed to dictate to God's creation. It would be pleasant if the world were both happy and tidy, but there was no question as to which was the preferable condition if the two should happen to conflict. Fortunately for their peace of mind, many men who were engaged in the fight against the slave trade and slavery were convinced that no conflict was possible; men like Benjamin Rush were deeply convinced that slavery violated the prescriptions of Nature. Probably many antislavery advocates were impelled unknowingly toward a vision of order in creation by their empathy with their fellow creatures, but these men thought they reasoned in the opposite direction, from order to benevolence. 1. LINNAEAN CATEGORIES AND THE CHAIN OF BEING All these themes—the self-searching and assertivenessof a new nation, the desire for order, and the continued presence of slavery in post-Revolutionary America—ran contrapuntally through the attempts of Americans to assess the nature of the Negro and his rightful place in a natural order which derived from divine decree. These attempts were framed, necessarily, in old terms, ones which had become international coin during the first, less revolutionary half of the century. By the final quarter of the eighteenth century the concept of the Great Chain of Being had become highly popular and widely popularized. It still found expression at various levels of mental construction; traces of the concept cropped up in formulations ranging from Charles Bonnet's elaboration of the Chain (handsomely adorned with pictorial representation), through the singsong popularization of Alexander Pope, to innumerable offhand references to the "scale of beings" or "rank in Creation." For Americans the most widely known statement was Pope's; his Essay on Man became a runaway best seller and was printed in America no fewer than sixty-eight times between 1747 and iSog.1 Aspiring American poets were not to be outdone in admiration for the Creator's plan. i. Agnes Marie Sibley, Alexander Pope's Prestige in America, ij25-1835 (N.Y., 1949)» 23. [48s] W H I T E O V E R B L A C K From animalcula, progress to man, Explore each link of nature's wond'rous chain: Say, can'st thou mark a nothing throughout space, Or one minutia miss'd from race to race? Then, if thou can'st not, study not in vain, To alter nature, or unlink...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781469600765
Related ISBN
9780807834022
MARC Record
OCLC
861793501
Pages
696
Launched on MUSE
2016-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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