Transcript: 46. Melvin Rogers on Early 19th Century Political Thought

Melvin Rogers joins us to discuss David Walker, Maria Stewart, and Hosea Easton.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We're going to be talking about several figures from the early or at least the first half of the 19th century, starting with David Walker, who's someone you've thought about a lot. And we're going to focus on a work of his, which he published in 1829, called Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. So maybe you can just remind the listeners who Walker was, even though we've already covered him, and then say something about the significance of the title of this work.

Melvin Rogers: Sure, no problem. And again, thank you for having me on. So David Walker was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1796. His father was enslaved, his mother was free, and so his status followed that of his mother as it was customary. And during his life, Walker traveled throughout the South and witnessed firsthand the horror of slavery in the United States. And then around 1825, he moved to Boston with the aim of addressing racial domination. He became a very respected member of the small Boston African American community during that time. And he published this pamphlet in 1829, an incendiary pamphlet, which was called An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America. That was the full title.

Peter Adamson: And why do you think that he called it that? I mean, is that a sort of a gesture of universalism or why call it Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World?

Melvin Rogers: Yeah, so I think there's a couple of things going on with that title that's actually quite interesting. So the first thing to note is that he's using the word “citizen” at a time where it was actually very difficult to imagine, let alone see, Black people in the United States as citizens. It seems to me Walker means to suggest that the citizenship of colored people is not dependent on formal constitutional recognition, which is how we normally think about citizenship, that there's some polity that affirms your standing, accords you with rights and privileges. The second point about that title is that if citizenship is not dependent on constitutional recognition, then what is it dependent on? And I think the answer comes from another word in that title, and that's the word “appeal.” So typically when we're appealing to someone, we are turning to a higher authority to issue a judgment regarding some grievance that we're experiencing. And so Walker essentially is suggesting that Black people are their own authority. And by virtue of that authority, they are citizens. I think finally this idea of citizenship, colored citizens of the world, suggests that insofar as it's not dependent on constitutional recognition, and insofar as one's citizenly standing comes about because you have the authority to judge the conditions you find yourself in, Walker thinks that it is possible for him to speak of colored citizens of the world.

Peter Adamson: Okay. That's really interesting. It’s almost like being a citizen is some kind of naturally given status rather than the status that's artificially conferred upon you by the state under which you live.

Melvin Rogers: Yeah. Right. I mean, when we think about, let's use the legal idea of the judge, and we make an appeal to a judge, essentially what the judge does, he or she will hand down a judgment. And so if you sort of extend this to ordinary everyday persons, Walker is essentially saying to the extent that Black people have the ability, the capacity to judge, they are by that fact an authority and that that is the ground of their citizenly standing. And that's a capacity that we all have. And thus it's possible to speak of colored citizens of the world.

Peter Adamson: Yeah. I just said that the status of the citizens is given by nature, but maybe it would be right to say that it's given by God, because, actually in your work on Walker, you mentioned at one point that he writes with a prophetic voice, and there is a kind of religious tone at least to the way that he writes. Do you consider it to be a religious text? Do you consider that idea about citizenship to be a religious concept?

Melvin Rogers: When I say that Walker speaks in prophetic voice, essentially what I mean is that he speaks in the voice of agitation and alarm. And that the prophetic voice is always the voice that is seeking to force us back on the righteous path that God has laid for us. That's sort of how the language of the prophetic is typically used. So I would say that the text is religious, but in a particular way. And that is to say, Walker sees God as a central partner in the freedom of human beings, but only insofar as God has endowed us with a capacity for freedom that we must decide to realize. So God is very much central to Walker's conception of freedom. He's very much central to how he thinks about humanity, precisely because God is responsible for planting the capacity for freedom's realization in us and making the thirst for freedom central to who we are. But this specific rendering, I think, of God means that our nature as free creatures is not really self-executing. Black folks, human beings, have to do something. They have to engage in a kind of performance to fully actualize their freedom.

Peter Adamson: Right. So this brings up another thing that you've talked about in your work on Walker, which is that he has what you call a normative view of humanity. In other words, that humanity is a kind of a target that you're trying to reach or a goal you're trying to reach. So just as you might be more or less free, you might be more or less human. And those two things come together. And one thing that I thought was really interesting that you mentioned about his views is that for him, the slave master, the tyrant who's oppressing the slave, is also failing to live up to the standard of full humanity. So just as the slave is having their full humanity withheld from them, the slave master is also failing, in that case, voluntarily to live a fully human life.

Melvin Rogers: I think all of that is correct. Walker's view is normative insofar as it is grounded in a view of how God created us and what entailments, by the fact of that creation, should follow. So in particular, Walker argues that God, as I said before, planted in us, and this is his words, a spirit and feeling of freedom. And Walker thinks that this is really the sort of hallmark of our humanity. And so if you remove the description of us as free from your account of humanity, now, look, you may well have servile creatures, but on Walker's view, you won't have what we properly recognize as human beings. And this description of our freedom also turns out, I think, on Walker's view, to be the basis of our equality, that we are free by virtue of being created by God, which is also the source of what makes us equal. Now, if that's the background view that you're working with, and if you're armed with this view, Walker thinks the tyrant stands in violation, not only because he or she denies in others what they rightfully recognize in themselves, but also because they presume a superiority denied to them by virtue of how they are created. So the tyrant, in the practice of tyrannizing over other people, essentially fails to live what we might call a kind of anti-slavery life, on Walker's view, which is otherwise the hallmark of being a free human being. So that takes care of the tyrant, on his view. But the enslaved person, he thinks, is also failing to live an anti-slavery life because the enslaved person fails to honor really what freedom demands under conditions of domination, namely that you take responsibility for your life and you fight to resist those that would deny your freedom.

Peter Adamson: Right. And this all is not just a straightforward appeal to God's law, like you're violating some kind of strictures that have been laid down in the Old or the New Testament, and it really goes through this substantive idea of what it is to be human. And the thought here is that what it is to be human is to be free and not to take freedom away from other people.

Melvin Rogers: Yeah, I think that's right. The other thing about Walker's argument is that it is really dependent on us embracing this particular picture of the world. He says at one point in his pamphlet that, look, he's laid out his argument, and if you're unmoved by it, he will have nonetheless done his duty to God and to himself and to his people. He's very clear about that. So what Walker is really trying to get his audience to do is to sort of adopt a certain kind of view of themselves. And once this view is taken on, this is the normative picture, then there are a series of entailments that follow from them by virtue of this picture. This is really why Walker is so insistent that Black Americans not accept the picture of themselves that is currently in circulation, namely that they're only meant for slavery, that they're only meant to be dominated.

Peter Adamson: Another thing that's striking about what you've just been describing is that it actually sounds a lot like the republican ideals that animate a lot of other early American political thoughts. So if you think about someone like Thomas Jefferson, someone who Walker spends a lot of time criticizing, you also have this link between republicanism, living a fully human life, freedom, and so on. So I mean, would it be right to say that Walker is just kind of transposing this tradition of American republican political theory to think about slavery?

Melvin Rogers: Yeah, I think that would be right with one caveat, that the transposition actually involves a transformation of the meaning of republicanism. So if we back up for a moment, if we think about the tradition of republicanism, it's a rich and long tradition and it has Greek and Roman roots. But at bottom, I think there are two primary features of this tradition that's worth mentioning before saying a word about Jefferson and Walker. So the first element of this tradition places an emphasis on the importance of character and civic virtue. Questions such as who are we as a political community, who ought we to be as a political community are thought to be questions with which a republican polity must grapple. And the reason is because the vitality and the ability and really the longevity of the polity is thought to depend on proper behavior of citizens, the proper orientation of the citizenry. And that orientation, and your audience may recognize this, must be able to place the needs of the community over one's own private needs and to see really in the elevation and security of the common good, one's own flourishing. And so character becomes quite important, and it becomes the foundation from which good laws and good institutions follow. I think the second strand of this is just simply a story of republicanism's notion of freedom. On a republican understanding of freedom, you're free just to the extent, you're not at the arbitrary mercy of another. And for republicans, this is you're not a slave, you're not by that fact being dominated. And so what I think is important about this second strand of republicanism is that the way you secure freedom is by having a kind of constitutional order that can constrain those that would engage in arbitrary power, and by making sure that that institutional structure has spaces for people to contest when they think people are in positions to use power illegitimately. So those two strands, I think, are the two strands that someone like Jefferson and Walker interact with. And you can bring those two strands together in the following way, that the kind of characterological feature of the first, this emphasis on character, is important for stabilizing the institutional meaning of freedom that is found in this second feature. Now this is a kind of long and extended answer, but it seems to me that Walker engages this in two ways. So Jefferson, for example, is committed to both of these strands, we see it in the Declaration, but Walker actually has to engage these two strands in a very specific way. So since you have slavery and exclusion in the United States in the 1820s, Walker can't appeal to the common good, because Black folks are excluded from it. So if Walker is emphasizing character and civic virtue, it's not because he's trying to stabilize the existing polity, because the existing polity stands against Black people, rather he's using character, or emphasizing character and civic virtue, because he's saying that Black folks must stand with each other and work on behalf of each other, sort of in a relationship of solidarity. So if the first strand was normally used to sustain and affirm a polity, in Walker's hands, it now becomes the basis for solidarity, racial solidarity. I think the second strand is engaged by Walker because you quickly come to realize that the problem that Black people are confronting is not just simply about reconfiguring political institutions. That was the problem that the American colonists confronted. This is why they had to revolt, and this is why they had to reconfigure a sort of constitutional order on a basis that could realize freedom that they only had insecurely under the British crown, or at least this is what they thought. In the context of Black folks, they were never thought fit for freedom at all. That feature, this idea that they was never thought fit for freedom, was a feature of American culture. So if you're going to secure freedom, if you're going to protect Black folks from domination, then it can't just simply be because you reconfigured the institution. It has to be because you actually transformed a culture in which Black people were thought only ever fit to be slaves. So that's a long extended answer, but I think that this is the way Walker interacts with the tradition of republicanism and transforms it.

Peter Adamson: Okay. That's really interesting. We could spend the whole time just unpicking everything you just said, I think, and maybe we can also see why people in the 1820s found this so incendiary as well. But rather than doing that, I did want to get on to talking about another couple of figures we've looked at in the recent episodes, namely Maria Stewart and Hosea Easton. So first of all, what do they have to do with David Walker, if anything? Are there intellectual ties between these three figures?

Melvin Rogers: So both Stewart and Easton knew David Walker. Stewart is quite explicit about her admiration for Walker's Appeal and the work that he did on behalf of Black people. Easton is not so much explicit about his connection to Walker, but there's no way to read Easton's 1837 Treatise and not see the sort of imprint of David Walker's earlier Appeal.

Peter Adamson: Okay. So now taking Stewart first, Maria Stewart, she obviously is a Black woman, unlike David Walker; do you see her as drawing attention to the plight of Black women and their need to achieve freedom in a way that Walker didn't? I mean, could we say that in a sense she's extending the case he made, but then pointing out that we also need to think specifically about Black women and not just Black people in general?

Melvin Rogers: I think it's right in a very specific sense that involves both, again, a kind of extension and revision. So Walker says in his Appeal that every man, woman, and child must read his pamphlet or have it read to them. But it isn't clear what precisely Walker means, particularly as this relates to the status of Black women, and it isn't clear because he more consistently than not refers to Black men. And so I think Stewart extends the sort of analysis that is started by Walker. So she rejects the notion, as she says in 1832 address, that women must be, and these are her words, willing to spend their lives and bury their talents in performing mean servile labor. And here she is talking about domestic labor. She is not objecting, for instance, to the labor that women do, even if often confined to the household. Rather, her criticism is directed to the fact that the labor, women, in particular Black women, is subjected to the arbitrary rule of men, not just simply their Black male counterparts, but of course their white male counterparts as well. And so Black women live, Stewart argues, at the will of their male counterparts, and as a result, their own actions must always carry the silent permission of those on whose will they depend. So this means that Black women are unfree, that they're dominated. And here I think we see her interest in the problem of domination, but she extends it to patriarchy in ways that is just simply not in view for Walker. And I think Stewart also understands, she gestures to this – this argument will get taken up further down the historical line –  but Stewart recognizes that Black women suffer a particular kind of harm, precisely because of their reproductive capacities that are obviously quite distinct from their Black male counterparts in this regard. And this will actually be taken up and pursued more aggressively by African American women thinkers down the historical line.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, that's interesting, right? Because you might think it's pretty simple that, whereas Black men are oppressed by white people, especially white men, perhaps, Black women are subject to two kinds of oppression. So firstly, because they're Black, and secondly, because they're women. But something like this vulnerability to manipulation of their reproductive capacity is actually a specific kind of oppression that actually doesn't apply to men at all. So it's not just like, well, they get it twice, whereas Black men get it once.

Melvin Rogers: No, I think that's absolutely right. And of course, figures like Harriet Jacobs, and later Black feminists will press this point most intensely. And I think rightfully so, because it begins to reveal another aspect to the workings of domination that are quite particularized, but nonetheless in need of redress.

Peter Adamson: So turning now to Hosea Easton, he might be a figure who gives us a richer theoretical apparatus for thinking about the kind of oppression that affects Black people in general because of their race. And in fact, one scholar has called him the first African American to articulate a systematic theory of race. So do you think that that's right? What is his approach to understanding racial classification, racial stigma?

Melvin Rogers: So the scholar in particular is Bruce Dain, and he does this in, I think, in his wonderful text, A Hideous Monster in the Mind, which is an intellectual history of race in the context of the United States. And Easton, I think it's right. We get a systematic, and I think worked-out, idea of racial prejudice that is presupposed by Walker's account, but not philosophically pursued. And I think you see the difference between the two. Walker's text is a pamphlet, and Easton refers to his text as a treatise. And that actually helps us understand the more systematic nature of the second of the two texts. And so in relation to other African American thinkers during the time, the word “prejudice” was regularly being used to describe what Black people were experiencing. But I think it really is in Easton where we come to understand that the sort of negative connotations associated with Black Americans, Black people, really suffuse the culture of American life and really shape the sort of social and psychological horizon in which both Black and white Americans grow and learn. And these negative connotations, although often tracked by the difference of skin color, are not dependent on skin color. And this is something that Easton insists upon in his Treatise. And nor are these negative connotations dependent on legal distinctions, such as the slave and the free. So it is not the case that “free” Black northerners, putting scare quotes around free, it's not the case that they are free from the problems associated with prejudice. So Easton is very insistent on getting his audience to understand these negative connotations, that they can follow what, and he puts it this way, he says they can follow its victims in every avenue of life. And that these negative connotations can even live on long after the institution of slavery has disappeared. And really what Easton is suggesting to us is that the idea of Blackness – what we can literally see and what we imagine to be in one's blood – is really a marker in this period of disgrace and dishonor. And it's a mark of disgrace and dishonor, but nonetheless, and significantly shapes the kind of social and epistemic context that those in the 19th century readily relied on to make judgments about Black people. And of course, one should be able to hear this quite clearly and powerfully precisely because it's something that's still with us today. But Easton was saying this in 1837.

Peter Adamson: Yes, it's really amazing. In fact, just all three of them, the kind of foresight or the prescience with which they express these ideas. Okay, that would be a good note to end on. But actually, there's one other thing I wanted to ask you, which ties these figures back to an earlier topic we discussed, and in particular, David Walker, because he was a subscription agent for the first Black newspaper in America, Freedom's Journal. And we've noted on the podcast before that one of the editors of that journal, John Russwurm, went from opposing to supporting the cause of colonization, in other words, like emigration to Liberia. And in fact, he left for Liberia in the same year that Walker published the Appeal, namely 1829. So this is actually exactly the time that the colonization controversies, which we've talked about in earlier episodes, were going on. I'm curious why Walker, Stewart, and Easton were so opposed to this project, given that they obviously had this very deep and insightful analysis of American racism, so they clearly knew what they were up against. Why didn't they say, yeah, let's go to Liberia like John Russwurm did?

Melvin Rogers: I think the answer here is quite simple. A good deal of energy had already been spent on bringing the American polity to where it was in the 1820s and 30s. And to that extent, it was home. And it was more of a home to Black people than returning or going back to some African country or even founding a new one. I think another reason, and Walker is quite explicit about this in his pamphlet, he believed that the American Colonization Society was really interested in removing those Black folks who were agitating, so that they could be left in the South with the slave labor that they had. I mean, this is the argument he lays out in the Appeal. So this was not a genuine commitment to the freedom of Black people.

Peter Adamson: Yeah. And of course, a lot of the people who criticized the colonization movement, they said precisely that, that this is just a way of removing the free Blacks who are causing trouble and leaving the enslaved Blacks to keep doing the work on the plantations.

Melvin Rogers: And I think Easton is often seen among this group as the most pessimistic. I think a number of folks who have written on Easton see him in precisely this way. Part of what Easton wants us to understand is that because racial prejudice runs all the way down into the domain of culture itself, it often appears to be our first nature, rather than it appearing as it ought to appear as our constructed second nature. And so part of the way to think about what Easton is doing, even as he's telling us how deep racial prejudice runs, is to reveal to us the constructed nature of it. And I would venture to say that he thinks, by virtue of coming to understand the constructed nature of it, it actually provides us with the resources to understand that perhaps we can construct something otherwise. Of course, it will require us to do it at the very deepest level of culture itself. But I think that Easton is someone who thinks that it may yet be possible.  Most certainly it isn't certain, but it may yet be possible.


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