A Hideous Monster of the Mind by Bruce Dain
Published: February 21st 2003 by Harvard University Press
Format/Source: Purchased hardcover
Genre: Nonfiction History
The intellectual history of race, one of the most pernicious and enduring ideas in American history, has remained segregated into studies of black or white traditions. Bruce Dain breaks this separatist pattern with an integrated account of the emergence of modern racial consciousness in the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War. A Hideous Monster of the Mind reveals that ideas on race crossed racial boundaries in a process that produced not only well-known theories of biological racism but also countertheories that were early expressions of cultural relativism, cultural pluralism, and latter-day Afrocentrism.
From 1800 to 1830 in particular, race took on a new reality as Americans, black and white, reacted to postrevolutionary disillusionment, the events of the Haitian Revolution, the rise of cotton culture, and the entrenchment of slavery. Dain examines not only major white figures like Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Stanhope Smith, but also the first self-consciously “black” African-American writers. These various thinkers transformed late-eighteenth-century European environmentalist “natural history” into race theories that combined culture and biology and set the terms for later controversies over slavery and abolition. In those debates, the ethnology of Samuel George Morton and Josiah Nott intertwined conceptually with important writing by black authors who have been largely forgotten, like Hosea Easton and James McCune Smith. Scientific racism and the idea of races as cultural constructions were thus interrelated aspects of the same effort to explain human differences.
In retrieving neglected African-American thinkers, reestablishing the European intellectual background to American racial theory, and demonstrating the deep confusion “race” caused for thinkers black and white, A Hideous Monster of the Mind offers an engaging and enlightening new perspective on modern American racial thought.
Race is a monster. That is, according to Bruce Dain in his book A Hideous Monster of the Mind. Dain argued about the complexities behind the idea of race and the development of race theory following the American Revolution through the first half of the nineteenth century. Prior to the American Revolution, according to Dain, defining race had not been imagined or theorized. It was not until after the Revolution and Thomas Jefferson’s profound words “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence that race theory emerged as blacks and whites started to see themselves more by the color of their skins. At this time, the idea of equalizing the races and granting blacks their freedom started to enter debates. (viii-ix) Dain hoped to explain this new concept of race theory by following its development starting with Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. (1-6) From there, he progressed through the different theories concerning whites, blacks, and the concept of race. Dain did a brilliant job capturing the complexities behind the numerous debates that emerged in addition to how long these debates took place for following the American Revolution. Race theories intertwined, contradicted each other, and become a source of controversy. It was a complex time in the heart of race and slavery debates for Americans, and Dain exhibited this well.
With a dissertation director like James McPherson at Princeton University, one can go into this book with hopes of excellence and new insights to the field of race studies and post-Revolutionary American attitudes leading up to the Civil War. Dain lived up to this expectation as his thesis was intriguing, complex, and well supported. He followed the ideas behind race theory as they argued along the lines of biblical history, the natural sciences, environmental history, biblical science, and more. His approach to the discussions of the Egyptians and Ethiopians and the debates over their skin colors was fascinating and carried on well throughout the book to demonstrate how theory had progressed. Dain began with Thomas Jefferson and in the end exhibited how far race theory had come by tying Frederick Douglas, James McCune Smith and other later African Americans back to Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” statement. It was in the end Dain expressed their view obtaining this promise of equality through the embracement of blackness by whites. (255)
One area that could have used some additional insight to tie together the tension on the homeland over the races was a deeper look at the slave rebellions that took place in addition to Saint Domingue, such as Nat Turner’s and Gabriel’s. He mentioned Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia on occasion, but it could have used more attention to the event itself and to how the rebellion may have had an effect on race theories since the rebellion took place on the homeland and brought black revolt to Americans. To support this fear of black rebellion, another example of a threat on the homeland was Gabriel’s rebellion, which was stopped but still invoked fear in people. Adding details on other local rebellions to compliment the fears that came along with the rebellion in Saint Domingue which had contributions to race theories would have been a helpful addition to Dain’s look at slave revolt fears.
Overall… complex and intriguing book. I read this book in my Early Republic history class, and recommend it for anyone studying this period as well as the decades leading through the Civil War.