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An Introduction to Polygeny in America and the Shaping of American Identity

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Colonial America, settled by Western Europeans, initially displayed social and cultural characteristics similar to the group by which it was founded. As America grew, population density increased, government was established, and a notion of civilization was embedded into the American mindset. The previous influences, in combination with other factors, such as Americas distance from Europe, helped the United States wage and win the Revolutionary war.

The US, gaining its Independence, inevitably was to evolve its own unique cultural traits. Early America portrayed the wild frontier as part of their national identity, while common colonial American ideology stigmatized the associated Native American culture as less civilized, as savage, and as subordinate to modem eighteenth and nineteenth century societies. Factors such as Western European influence, racist ideology, subjective sciences, and speculative theories all contributed to a prejudiced judgment passed on Native Americans.

Throughout the eighteenth century, Europeans, and arguably colonial Americans too, were seen as the most prone to the principles of popular government, freedom, and liberty (Horsman, pg.18). A creationist view, popularized throughout Europe and the United States, suggested that people were the products of their environment and thus differences in people could be explained by differences in their environments (Horsman, pg. 43).

European thinkers, Pinkerton, White, Foster, Buffon, and Voltaire, while having varied views on the origin of man and the existence of biological determinism, held the white race superior in some sense to all others. Similarly Jefferson, Washington, and later Lincoln publicly held the Caucasian race superior. The former two studied the freedoms and liberties which the Anglo-Saxon race had pursued since their Teutonic origins, and believed them to be the most fit to govern (Horsman, pg.18). This prejudice, whether based on environmental factors or biological determinism, was ingrained in Americas beginning and would later be justified in various ways.

As Jefferson believed blacks inferior to whites he did not claim to know whether it was from environmental circumstance or biological determinism (Gould, pg.64). European eighteenth century naturalists, such as Buffon and Blumenbach, claimed the argument that inferior races had undergone environmental degeneration (Gould, pgs.69-71). Buffon went so far as to claim that in particular Americas environment was inhospitable and caused degeneration. Jefferson (pg.93) quotes Buffon as writing:

Although the savage of the new world is about the same height as man in our world, this does not suffice for him to constitute an exception to the general fact that all living nature has become smaller on that continent. The savage is feeble, and has small organs of generation; he has neither hair nor beard, and no ardor whatsoever for his female

Such statements inevitably provoked a response from Americans, who in retaliation critiqued Buffons work as speculative and subjective science. This stance, against America as an inapt environment, coincided with the image of America as a wild and rugged frontier fit for cultivating life. Such critiques of new world environmental factors help catalyze a national identity for America as a frontiers land.

Unsubstantiated theories, such as Buffons, required Americans to defend their country land, and somewhat side with Native Americans. Jefferson clearly illuminates the prejudiced ideology of his day, while defending the Native American in Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson writes, the Native American is neither more defective in ardor, nor more impotent with his female, than the white reduced to the same diet and exercise (pgs.94-95). Jefferson, in essence, is arguing that any deficiency in the Native American is a result, not of Americas environment, but is imposed by the Native American life style. Other hints of an American racist ideology towards Native Americans can be found when considering an essay Benjamin Franklin wrote.

In Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America, Franklin, compares colonial American civility to Native American civility. Franklin uses simple commonsense arguments to successfully show Native American civility that often surpasses that displayed by colonial America. Franklin, tactfully, leaves no room for any unconscious prejudices that he may have acquired due to his time. However, the simple fact that Franklin felt obliged to write an essay remarking on the subjectivity in which we judge civility in American culture says, in itself, that his writing was to turn the heads of a generally prejudiced American audience.

Clearer examples of a racist American ideology are present throughout Coopers The Last of the Mohicans. Cooper continually refers to Native Americans as noble or wild savages, but always savages. He portrays his savages as physically fit, brave in the face of death, containing a noble stoicism, and sometimes as ferocious barbarians who placed no value on human life and would even drink the blood of their enemy (pg.199). Cooper gives intelligence to the role of Cora, a female from a civilized upbringing, who is not the bravest in fatal situations, but displays the most rational thinking which successfully saves the lives of several protagonist savages who foolishly and bravely offer their lives in what would have been a noble, but vain effort (pg.199).

Cooper consistently describes his savages as having heightened senses with perfectly proportioned physical attributes. This in combination with the characterization throughout the book, Cooper subtly infers a belief in developed or inherited biological differences between his savages and civilized people. This is illuminated by the character of David, a musician stuck sorely out of place in the wilderness with minimal survival skills compared to the savages. As none of these characters ever actually existed, they are manifestations from a prejudiced mind in the early nineteenth century, a mind that nonetheless helped engender American national characteristics.

The concept of inherited biological differences was used as a way of separating races, by the claim that certain races were composed of inferior physical and mental attributes. Nineteenth century American scientists used less than ethical scientific techniques to confirm racial hunches. One such craniometrist, Samuel Morton, attempted to measure the intelligence of different races by the mean size of their cranium.

In this experiment, race was defined by skin tone and random groupings. Morton, one of Americas most distinguished scientists, used his own personal collection of over six hundred human skulls to perform the experiment. Unfortunate for Morton, Gould showed his work to be less than scientifically sound in The Mismeasure of Man. His theory that Indians, Blacks, and others were biologically inferior to Whites based on skull size, holds no weight today, but in his own time, contributed towards the racist mindset which help justify Native Americans as less than human beings.

Polygeny, a theory corresponding with biological determinism, also used to classify and rank humans, was becoming increasingly popular in the nineteenth century. Louis Agassiz, a Swiss naturalist, or theorist, of the former time was viewed as a significant contributor to American thinking when he came to Philadelphia in the 1840s. Agassiz was an extreme splitter due to his taxonomic classifications (Gould, pg.74). Consistent with his taxonomic distinctions, Agassiz was scared of amalgamation by intermarriage, and repulsed by the site of blacks, two things he probably found more common in America than in Switzerland.

Agassiz was also a wonderful teacher at Harvard, until his students rebelled (Gould, pg.82). As Agassiz never attempted empirical measurements to prove his beliefs of Native Americans and other minorities as inclined more for work than thought, he taught his partial theories at one of Americas most prestigious learning institutions, seriously contributing to a racist ideology extending well beyond his time.

Wilderness played a two faced role in the development of American identity. America sold the concept of a rugged frontier and savage wilderness to both themselves and Europeans as American genre in books like The Last of the Mohicans. Concurrently, Americans condemned North American Natives for being savage, untamed, uncivilized, and living a different way of life. America had racism so deeply embedded into their ideology that scientific frauds and educational theorists attempted to justify Anglo-Saxon as the supernatural race in what they claimed was the pursuit of good government and freedom.

Despite, the overpowering general beliefs of colonial America, some did see the hypocritical role America was assuming. Franklin saw it in the subjective definition of civil, Gould observed in nineteenth century Polygeny and Craniology, and Irving elucidated to the noble traits of the Native American using a dialect, which despite being taken with a traditional ideology of the time, displayed an objective truth. Thankfully these writings still prevail today.

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