The Mystery of Negrophilism (New York Times, 1862)

One of the things that I’ve always had a hard time doing, is answering the question, “what were they thinking?” As in: what made millions of whites, in a country dedicated to freedom, hold millions of blacks in bondage? What were they thinking when they did this? Slavery was an institution that was sometimes called a “necessary evil” – why would people commit to an institution that was “evil,” and what made the institution so “necessary?”

The following is an editorial from the New York Times, dated June 1862, right in the middle of the Civil War. It seems that the paper’s editors were trying to figure it all out themselves. Their comments, though, don’t get into such troubling questions as the morality of slavery. Rather, they ask a simpler question about the state of their times: how did we get to the point where the negro and his fate has become the main topic of discussion lately? How did we come to this place where the fate of the negro matters… to so many people – worldwide?

One thing is clear from this: the American Civil War caught the attention of the world. And whether most Americans thought it, or believed it, the world understood that the War had a lot to do with race and slavery.

And the editors at the New York Times seemed to grasp that as well. They just couldn’t get their arms fully around the issue, not yet. They were basically a few steps away from asking the mid 19th century mega-question: what shall we do with the negro? But in 1862, they were still trying to figure it out. I wonder if any of them would have guessed what the answers would be after another three years of horrible war.

Meanwhile: I wonder if slaves themselves understood and appreciated that they were the center of such attention? Probably not; they surely had a lot more things to worry about.

The Mystery of Negrophilism
New York Times
Published: June 14, 1862

Of all topics now engaging the thoughts of gods and men, the American negro is unquestionably the chief. From the lowest place in the scale of human existence, he has reached the highest; and even yet the interest in him seems unabated. To what new honors he is reserved — to what remarkable career he is predestined — it would be a rash prophet that would attempt to foretell. But the evidences are abundant that he is the central figure of the nations — the unit of existence around which “the rest of mankind” parade themselves as mere cyphers.

It would be hard to tell whence this extraordinary interest in the negro has come. It does not arise from his beauty, for no writer on aesthetics has ever pretended to find either beauty or grace in the shambling African. It cannot be because of his illustrious or romantic history, as a race or as a nation; for classic literature is extremely barren of the records of orators, statesmen, philosophers or warriors of negro origin. It cannot be because of any physical affinity between the white race and the black, for the black has always been declared unsavory, and naturally beset by laziness and vermin. And lastly, it cannot be because of the sympathy of the whites with a weak, down-trodden and enslaved race; for the negro of Africa (from which the American negro was taken,) is weaker to-day, and more oppressed, and nearer a barbarian and cannibal, than his American cousin has ever been. And yet no Anglican Duchess, nor American Greeley, is ever heard wailing over the sorrows of the sons of Ashantee.

The passion for the American negro must be considered, therefore, entirely abnormal — a phenomenon, which was defined once by a Western pioneer as “something that never had happened before, and never would happen again.” The African in America is an exotic — he is a hot-house plant, and, like all exotics, he is valued just in proportion to the care required in his cultivation — the intrinsic value of the plant never being considered at all.

The American Government about a year ago sent an amateur attache of the Patent-office to Europe to buy seeds, with a view to improve the American botany. He saw a stylish, if not gaudy, annual blooming profusely along the highways abroad, and he caused the ripened seeds to be gathered carefully and shipped in a box to Washington, to be distributed by thoughtful Congressmen among their constituents throughout the Union. A shrewd farmer paid a visit to the Department, caught a sight of the treasure, and pronounced it the seeds of one of the most pestiferous kinds of thistle that ever beset the labors of husbandman!

The American negro is an exotic, and our people nurse him in their hot-house as though Africa was not teeming with millions like him — like him, truly, but with a thousand attractive variations; negroes that hunt negroes, that buy negroes, that sell negroes, that kill negroes, and that eat negroes; negroes that go naked through life, and negroes that clothe their shame with beads on their necks and rings on their fingers. Three hundred years ago we got our Africans from that unfortunate continent which, Mr. SEWARD once very aptly said, “Nature had fortified against civilization.” We took them naked into our land, and lo! they have come in the end to clothe the whole world.

MALTHUS wrote a book on political economy which was calculated to discourage marriage, on the ground that the human family was increasing faster than the production of food necessary for their subsistence. If celibacy did not stop the breed, he was afraid that famine would. The odious philosopher died amid the execrations of the female world.

But there is something, after all, in the theory. Population will increase in any country almost in the exact ratio of the increase of clothing and food, cheaply available to the masses. There is no ability to calculate how much the naked African that was brought to America has contributed to the white population of the world by furnishing them cheap cotton for shirts and gowns. All civilized nations feel the importance of our African, and all have become profoundly interested in his future. He has not only multiplied and replenished himself, but he has caused the civilized world to prosper and multiply. A genuine black diamond he is, and every country is holding out its arms to receive him. WENDELL PHILLIPS bids him flee from the South and head for the North Star. Hayti sends Commissioners here, and begs him fly to that sea-girt isle and get a free home. Liberia calls aloud that Africa has become proud of her American lineage, now that they walk erect, and wear broadcloth, and begs them to return to a doting mother, and flourish in the reformed Court of Dahomey. Even Denmark, far up in northern latitudes, has heard of our tropical contraband, and directs her representative at Washington to say to Mr. LINCOLN that she will be glad of all the specimens we can spare, to plant in her West India possessions.

With such a rush for our American negro, who can deny that he is the world’s pet and favorite? Is it surprising that our Southern States wish to keep what other countries deem so valuable, and are trying so hard to get? Has not the South taught the world the value of African labor, and is not mankind better off to-day than if this discovery had never been made?

These speculations, however, are profitless. What is it about our American negro that recommends him to the absorbing and passionate attention of the world? Why are many thousands fanatics about him, and more thousands fools about him? Is it possible that black is the primeval and regal color of the race — that Adam was a black man, as well as Cain and Abel; and that Cain turned white, only when caught in crime and driven out to be a vagabond on the earth? This we know is the faith of the dusky gospellers of the South, and, doubtless, they are rejoicing to see the day returning when Heaven’s favor will triumph over the white man’s crime, and the black man will again gather fruits in tropical Edens, untroubled by visions of shovel or hoe.


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