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Southern Historical Association

Between Black and White: Attitudes Toward Southern Mulattoes, 1830-1861

Author(s): Robert Brent Toplin
Source: The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 45, No. 2 (May, 1979), pp. 185-200
Published by: Southern Historical Association
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Between Black and White:
Attitudes Toward Southern
Mulattoes, 1830-1861


and political tracts-contain abundant references to "Negroes"
and "mulattoes."' By the standards of antebellum America, the
distinction was not accidental or minor. Contemporary attitudes
about the difference between Negro and mulatto related to funda-
mental racial ideas. For many years Americans from both the
North and South openly expressed a marked bias favoring the
mulatto over the Negro. The variations in white attitudes toward
mulattoes in the antebellum period need closer investigation than
they have received, especially in connection with conflicting opin-
ions about miscegenation, sexual oppression, and racial identifica-
tion. In many respects disputes about the mulatto's position in
southern society related to fundamental points in the debates
about slavery and abolition.
Historians of slavery recognize that antebellum Americans of-
ten showed special interest in mulattoes, but their estimates of the
extent and importance of this interest vary greatly. In a careful
study of white attitudes from 1550 to 1812 Winthrop D. Jordan
I The termsused to distinguishcolor groupingsin the antebellumperiodvaried.Some
individualsdistinguishedbetween"Negroes"and "mulattoes";othersspokeof "blacks"
and "mulattoes."Somewriterscapitalizedthe wordsblack,Negro,andwhite,whileothers
did not. For purposesof consistencymy referencesin this essay will use the most familiar
present-dayforms: "Negro" and "mulatto." I use these words to distinguishbetween
dark-complexioned individualsof predominantlyAfricanancestry(Negroes)and medium-
and light-complexionedindividualsof mixed white and black ancestry(mulattoes).It is
importantto rememberthat nineteenth-century figuresusuallydistinguishedbetweenthe
two groupson the basis of personalperceptionratherthan from a preciseknowledgeof
ancestry.Judgmentscouldvarygreatly.For example,some describeda personof medium
complexionas mulatto, while others consideredthe persona Negro. We should also re-
memberthat antebellumterminologywas complicatedfurtherby the tendencyof many
writersto use Negroor blackas a generictermto describeall individualswith identifiable
MR. TOPLINis associate professor of history at the University of North
Carolina at Wilmington. He expresses his gratitude for financial assis-
tance from the National Endowment for the Humanities through the
Summer Seminar for College Teachers at Emory University in the sum-
mer of 1977.


Vol. XLV, No. 2, May 1979

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notes that the term mulatto was used far less frequentlyin the
early development of North America than in the Spanish and
French settlementsand even the English colonies of the Carib-
bean. Jordan concludes that "mulattoes [in North America] do
not seem to have been accorded higher status than Negroes in
actual practice."2
Focusing on the nineteenth century in Roll, Jordan, Roll,
Eugene D. Genovese suggests that the South's mulattoes were
more numerousthan officially reportedin the censusreturns,and
he shows that some mulatto house servants, urban slaves, and
freedmen exhibited snobbery toward the darker Negroes. But
Genovesesees the South's two-part,white-blackracialsystemas a
formidable obstacle to the mulattoes' class aspirations. Whites
usually considered a mulatto to be "just another nigger" and,
consequently, "drove the mulattoes into the arms of the blacks,
no matterhow hardsome triedto build a make-believethirdworld
for themselves."3RobertWilliamFogel and StanleyL. Engerman
are less criticalof the censusreportsin Timeon the Cross. Observ-
ing that mulattoes representedonly 7.7 percent of the slaves in
1850and 10.4 percentin 1860, they attributeearlierestimatesof a
largemulattopopulationto impressionabletravelersin the South.
These visitors spent most of their time in the cities, where mulat-
toes were concentrated,Fogel and Engermanmaintain, and the
travelersdid not get adequatefirsthandknowledgeof conditions
in the countryside,whereNegroesmade up 95 percentof the slave
population. Fogel and Engermanalso give little attention to re-
ports of preferentialtreatmentfor mulattoes.4
CarlN. Degler'sexcellentcomparativestudy, NeitherBlack nor
White, is particularlyrelevantto an examinationof attitudesto-
ward the mulatto. Degler observesthat in Brazil mulattoeswere
importantboth in terms of numbersand social privilegesbut that
this patterndid not develop in the United States. Deglercarefully
identifies judicial rulings of the slavery period that show some
Americanswanted to give mulattoes favored treatmentover Ne-
groes, but he finds these cases very irregularand not representa-
tive of the prevailingview. Discussingthe implicationsfor modern
times, he says, "There are only two qualitiesin the United States
racialpattern:black and white. A personis one or the other;there
is no intermediateposition."5
2 Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel

Hill, 1968), 167-78; quotation on p. 169.

3Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York, 1974), 327-28,
414, 429-31; quotations on pp. 429, 431.
4Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery
(Boston and Toronto, 1974), 130-39.
5 Degler, Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United

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Whetherthe mulattoes' place was consideredsignificantlydis-

tinct in antebellumAmerica depends partly on the way contem-
porarieslabeled them in the populationdata. Authoritiesdid list
mulattoesseparatelyfrom Negroesin the censusreportson slaves
and free blacks. Nevertheless,it is not possibleto providea confi-
dent estimate of the size of the mulatto population during this
period becauseestimateswere highly subjective.Censusmarshals
did not receive adequate instructionsfor careful judgment, and
they did not have common criteria for distinguishingNegroes
from mulattoes.6The 1860 census reportedthat mulattoesrepre-
sented 10.4 percentof the slave populationand 36.2 percentof the
free black population (31.0 percent in the northernstates, 40.8
percentin the southern),but these figureshad a great marginof
error.7During the antebellumperiod abolitionistsand slavocrats
arguedabout the "true" numberof mulattoes,since a largepopu-
lation of "mixed-bloods" could be interpretedas evidence of
widespreadmiscegenationunder slavery. In the 1850s Senator
Thomas LanierClingmanof North Carolinawrote to the census
board, askingthat it help to resolvethe disputeby recordingmore
accurateinformation. The author of an article in De Bow's Re-
view, describingClingman'sletter, wrote that the 1850 "census
was notoriously faulty in this respect [and, consequently] . . .
nothing like a true knowledgeof the state of the black race in the
United States has been arrivedat."8
Travelers'accounts from the period make the mulatto popula-
tion appearmore substantialin certainregionsof the countrythan
the censusfiguressuggest.Alexis de Tocquevilleobservedafter his
visit in 1831 and 1832that, "In some partsof America,the Euro-
pean and the negro races are so crossed by one anotherthat it is
rare to meet with a man who is entirelyblack, or entirelywhite
.'."9 Harriet Martineau, the English visitor who also traveled
throughthe United States in the 1830s, expressedgreatinterestin
signs of miscegenationin the South, includingthe presenceof very
light-skinned mulattoes among the leading families of Louisi-
ana.10YankeetravelerFrederickLaw Olmsteddisplayedcuriosity,
too. Surprisedto find so "many fine-looking mulattoes, and
States (New York, London, and Toronto, 1971), 102 (quotation), 107, 182-83, 231,
6 Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New

York, 1974), 178-79.

U.S. Bureau of the Census, Population of the United States in 1860 ... (Washington,
D. C., 1864), xii.
8 [Henry F. James], Abolitionism Unveiled! Hypocrisy Unmasked! and Knavery
Scourged! . .. (New York, 1850), 28; De Bow's Review, VIII (March 1850), 587-88.
9 Tocqueville, Democracy in America (2 vols., New York and London, 1837), I, 379.
10 Martineau, Society in America (2 vols., New York and London, 1837), I, 384, 393; II,

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nearly white colored persons . . . ," he wrote, "The majority of

those with whom I have come personally in contact with are
These accounts, while revealingthat mulattoesoccupiedpromi-
nent positions in the South, do not necessarilyindicatethat misce-
genation was prevalent throughout the area. Fogel and-Enger-
man's warning about unrepresentativegroupings in the cities is
pertinent. Many travelersdeveloped their impressionsfrom so-
journs in such favorite tourist spots in the South as Charleston
and New Orleans.These cities containeda far greaterproportion
of mulatto slaves and freedmen than most plantation districts.
Tocquevilletriedto put this matterinto perspectiveby notingthat
the number of Americansof mixed ancestrywas greaterthan a
visitor might first expect but that it was much smallerthan the
proportion of mulattoes in other regions of the Western Hemi-
The mulattoes' significance in antebellum life relates not to
their numbersbut to the special attention society gave to them.
The presenceof mulattoesremindedall partiesin the debatesover
slaverythat miscegenationwas a realityin southernlife and that
most white-blacksexual unions developedout of master-slavere-
lationships. Disputes about the numberof mulattoesthus related
to largerquestionsabout the oppressivenessof slavery.Attitudes
towardmulattoesalso reflectedsome of the subtleracialbiasesof
the times. Many southern whites preferredmulattoes to darker
Negroes and provided them with better opportunitiesin slavery
and in freedom. By the late antebellumperiod society's promu-
latto bias appearedto be a tactical advantagefor abolitionistsin
their campaigns against slavery, a situation that forced the de-
fendersof slaveryto reconsidertheir tendencyto distinguishmu-
lattoes from Negroes.
The issue of white-blacksexual relationsunder slaverybecame
highly volatile in the antebellumyears, and mulattoeswere at the
centerof the controversy.The mulattoes'very existenceservedto
highlightthe realityof miscegenation.Abolitionistsconsideredthe
South's mulatto populationliving proof of one of the fundamen-
" Olhnsted, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, with Remarks on Their Economy
(New York, 1863), 18; Olmsted, A Journey in the Back Country (New York, 1863), 385.
Mary Boykin Chesnut's observations on mulattoes in the South have become a familiar
historical reference. The South Carolinian wrote in her diary: "Like the patriarchs of old,
our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines; and the mulattoes one
sees in every family partly resemble the white children. Any lady is ready to tell you who is
the father of all the mulatto children in everybody's household but their own. Those, she
seems to think, drop from the clouds." Chesnut, A Diary from Dixie, edited by Ben Ames
Williams (Boston, 1949), 21-22.
12 Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross, 132; Tocqueville, Democracy in America, I,


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tal "moral" issues of slavery: the sexual promiscuityof white

males and the sexual oppression of black women. Furthermore,
the abolitionists asserted, the behavior that produced mulattoes
tore at the marriagebond of both groups.The temptationsreport-
edly led whites to neglect and dishonor their wives while seeking
relationships in the slave quarters.13 These intrusions in turn
underminedthe institutionof marriageamong the slaves. Aboli-
tionists predictedthat the rampantlicentiousnessin southernso-
ciety, evidencedby mulatto offspring, would pass with the end of
Accusationsof sexual promiscuitydrew strong public reaction
in mid-nineteeth-century America,and antislaveryleadersdid not
miss the opportunityto make political capital out of the issue.
They particularly enjoyed commenting on a southerner's un-
guardedconfession that "the best blood of Virginiaflows in the
veins of the slaves." Charles Sumner used the quotation in a
blisteringspeech against the South, and CharlesGrandisonPar-
sons noted that the miscegenationimplied in the statementwas
''not less true of the other slave States.'14 David Lee Child also
referredto the statement,complainingthat slaveholderscould not
give up their "habits of roving desire." That miscegenation"pre-
vails to a most shamefulextent, is provedfrom the rapidincrease
of mulattoes," Child asserted.'5
Abolitionists consideredthis evidenceof the slaveholders'pro-
miscuitya potent answerto chargesthat emancipationcould lead
to widespreadsexual contact and "amalgamation"of the races.
"Southern amalgamation"under slavery was already a reality,
they said, becauseslaverywas primarilyresponsiblefor expanding
the mulatto population in America.16 "If gentlemenwish to see
wherethis evil prevails,"said AbramPryne, "let them look at the
variegatedcolors in the South."'7 William Lloyd Garrisonalso
exploited the irony. When a slaveholderasked him the familiar
question, " 'How shouldyou like to have a black man marryyour
13 La Roy Sunderland, Anti-Slavery Manual, Containing a Collection of Facts and Argu-

ments on American Slavery (3d ed., New York, 1839), 29-30.

Sumner, The Barbarism of Slavery: Speech of Hon. Charles Sumner, on the Bill for
the Admission of Kansas as a Free State. . . (Washington, D. C., 1860), 27; Parsons,
Inside View of Slavery: A Tour Among the Planters (2 vols., Savannah, Ga., 1974), I, 84.
15 Child, The Despotism of Freedom; or, The Tyranny and Cruelty of American Re-

publican Slave-Masters . .. (Boston, 1833), 54-55; quotation on p. 55.

16 Philo Tower, Slavery Unmasked: Being a Truthful Narrative of a Three Years' Resi-

dence and Journeying in Eleven Southern States. . . (Rochester, 1856), 322-23 (quota-
tions); John Lawrence, The Slave Question (4th ed., Dayton, Ohio, 1857), 212-13; Horace
Greeley, ed., The Writings of Cassius Marcellus Clay: Including Speeches and Addresses
(New York, 1848), 181.
17 William G. Brownlow, Ought American Slavery to be Perpetuated?A Debate Between

Rev. W. G. Brownlow and Rev. A. Pryne Held at Philadelphia, September, 1858 (Philadel-
phia, 1858), 222.

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daughter?'Garrisonrepliedthat 'Slaveholdersgenerallyshouldbe
the last persons to affect fastidiousnesson that point, for they
seem to be enamouredof amalgamation.'"18
Abolitionists eagerlypublicizedreportsabout slave concubines
in the South. They cited familiarstories concerninglight-skinned
mistresseswho servedas regularpartnersto southernwhites, and
they showed particularinterestin the quadroonballs of New Or-
leans, where gentlemenarrangedliaisons with beautiful women.
Abolitionists likened the mistressesto expensiveprostitutes, but
there was an importantdifferencein the slaves' case: these "pros-
titutes" were involuntaryparamours.They were not free to give
up their profession. Abolitionist propagandacontainedmany re-
ports on the rearing of young mulatto girls for forced sale as
concubines. They reminded readers that the pretty ones com-
manded high prices on the slave market for sordid reasons.'9As
an anonymouswriterrecalled,in an auctionof "niggerwenches"
slave traders unabashedlypresented the victims as "warranted
virgins," excellentas potentialconcubines,and valuablefor "the
manufactureof light colored slaves."20
These commentarieson licentiousnessunder slavery also ap-
pearedin popularliterature.Antislaverynovels developeda subtle
form of racial appeal. They encouragedreadersto identify with
slave heroinesby describingthem as whitelikein appearanceand
manners. As Jules Zanger has shown, the "Tragic Octoroon"
often figured as a central characterin antislaveryfiction. The
octoroon (seven-eighthswhiteby ancestry)appearedas a beautiful
young womanwith only the slightestevidenceof Negro forebears.
In the familiar plot she grew up in her white father's household
and received a good education, but her father's death led to a
chain of tragedies:sale into slaveryand victimizationat the hands
of a cruel and lustful slave traderor overseer. Readerswere out-
ragedby the sexual abusescommittedagainstthese fictionalocto-
roons, identifying emotionally with the nearly white characters
who suffered the double crimes of slaveryand rape.2'
Proslaverywritersrespondedto attacksagainstthe "morals of
slavery" with confusion and uncertainty.They could not decide
whetherto denouncethe accusationsof promiscuityor to rational-
18 Ronald G. Walters, The Antislavery Appeal: American Abolitionism After 1830

(Baltimore and London, 1976), 73.

19 Tower, Slavery Unmasked, 307, 316-24; Sunderland, Anti-Slavery Manual, 29-30;
Child, The Despotism of Freedom, 55; Martineau, Society in America, II, 114-18. Ronald
G. Walters offers an excellent discussion of this subject in The Antislavery Appeal, 72-76.
20 [George Bourne] Slavery Illustrated in Its Effect upon Woman and Domestic So-
ciety ... (Boston, 1837), 48-50, 62 (quotations), 101.
21 Zanger, "The 'Tragic Octoroon' in Pre-Civil War Fiction," American Quarterly,

XVIII (Spring 1966), 63-70.

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ize the situation. On the one hand, some dismissedthe chargesas

unfairand inaccurate.Mulattoesmade up only a smallproportion
of the Negro population, they said. It was their presencein cities
and towns that led Yankee and foreign visitors to exaggerate
grosslythe extent of miscegenation.Southernsociety did not eas-
ily tolerateliaisons with slave women, they said, and a gentleman
known for such escapadescould lose face in his community.22On
the other hand, many defendersof slaverycould not easily deny
the prevalenceof white-blacksexual contacts or the relaxedatti-
tudes many southern males showed toward them. Proslavery
writerstried to answerpoignantcommentsabout immoralitywith
more than just evasion or denial;sometimesthey soughtto excuse
the behavior.
Some proslaveryfigures especially South Carolinians,openly
defendedthe relationshipswith slave women. JamesHenry Ham-
mond beratedthe "learned old maids like Miss Martineau"who
failed to understandthe nature of human passions, and he de-
nounced the moralistic attacks "by Clergymenand Virgins."23
Chancellor William Harper explained that master-slaveliaisons
usually involved either hot-blooded white youths, whose small
resistance to temptation was understandable, or respectable
gentlemenwho had only casual, not habitual, encounters.It ap-
pearedmuch better for these men to have their flings with a slave
woman than to suffer the degradationassociatedwith meeting a
white prostitute. "The colored prostitute is, in fact, a far less
contaminatedand depravedbeing," said Harper.24Just as these
relationshipsseemed to protect the honor of white males, they
could also be viewed as a means to protect the virtue of white
females. The writersassertedthat the availabilityof slave women
for illicit affairs made rendezvouswith white womenless common
in the South than elsewhere. William Gilmore Simms, who de-
fended the sexual liaisons in strong terms, observed that "The
negro and the colored woman in the South, supply the place,
which at the north is usually filled with factory and serving
Some defendersof slaveryexcused white-blacksexual contacts
22 "Governor Hammond's Letters on Slavery-No.2," De Bow's Review, VII (Decem-
ber 1849), 494.
23 John Campbell, Negro-Mania: Being an Examination of the Falsely Assumed Equality

of the Various Races of Men ... (Philadelphia, 1851), 471-72.

24 The Pro-Slavery Argument; As Maintained by the Most Distinguished Writers of the

Southern States . .. (Charleston, 1852), 44; Harper, "Slavery in the Light of Social Eth-
ics" in Cotton is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments ... (Augusta, Ga., 1860), 582-83; see
also William Gilmore Simms's arguments in The Pro-Slavery Argument, 228-30, and in his
anonymous, Slavery in America, Being a Brief Review of Miss Martineau on That Subject
(Richmond, 1838), 40.
25 [Simms], Slavery in America, 38-40; quotation on p. 40.

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by-praising the mulatto offspring of these relationships. They

described the partly white children as a better breed than the
mother. Mulattoeswere a "superiorrace" that was "elevatedby
the mixtureof blood," said Thomas ReadeRootes Cobb of Geor-
gia. He blamed miscegenationon the "natural lewdness" of the
Negro but found the problemmitigatedbecause"Her sin does not
entail misfortunebut good fortune on her children." Race mix-
ture seemedto have its benefits.26A Virginianbelieved,for exam-
ple, that Negroes were more intelligentin Louisiana,in part "be-
cause the amalgamationof the races was much greater"there.27
William Gilmore Simms appraised the problem in particularly
bold language. He considered amalgamation to be perhaps a
hopeful prospectthat could ultimatelyhelp the Southto overcome
the problemsof race prejudice. "The result of illicit intercourse
betweenthe differingraces, is the productionof a fine specimenof
physical manhood, and of a better mental organization, in the
mulatto; and, in the progressof a few generations,that, which
might otherwiseforeverprove a separatingwall betweenthe white
and black-the color of the latter,-will be effectively removed.
When the eye ceases to be offended, the mind of the white will no
longer be jealous ...."28
The comments of Cobb, Simms, and others reveal a popular
promulattobias that affected the whites' day-to-dayrelationships
with mulattoes. Many whites consideredmulattoesto be superior
to the darkerNegroes and gave them favoredtreatment.The rec-
ord of specialtreatmentis well documented.Proprietorsgenerally
preferredmulattoes as house servantsand plantation tradesmen
and gave them more opportunitiesto acquireskills for these occu-
pations than they gave the other slaves. More often than dark-
skinnedbondsmen, mulattoeswere providedsome education, en-
joyed good food, clothing, and shelter, and had opportunitiesto
move about both inside and outside the plantation.29Sometimes
they had as much authorityas plantationmanagers.For example,
Olmstedwas deeply impressedwith the responsibilitiesof a mu-
latto watchmanon a large rice plantation.The watchmanworked
as steward over several slave mechanics and carriedkeys to the
storehousesstrappedto his waist. He rationed out provisionsto
the white overseeras well as to the slaves. To all appearanceshis
authorityon the plantationwas superiorto that of the overseer.
Cobb, An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America
(Philadelphia and Richmond, 1858), ccxii, ccxix-ccxx; first and third quotations on p.
ccxx, second on p. ccxix.
27 Olmsted, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, 108.

28 [Simms], Slavery in America, 40.

E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro in the United States (New York, 1949), 274; Berlin,
Slaves Without Masters, 151; Parsons, Inside View of Slavery, I, 42-43.
Olmsted, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, 421, 426-29.

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Mulattoeswerevery conspicuousbeneficiariesof manumission.

Mastersoften grantedsuch freedomin order to emancipatetheir
own children.3'South Carolinanovelist William Gilmore Simms
believedthat "the greaternumberof the southernmulattoeshave
been made free in consequence of their relationship to their
owners.''32 Some masters lavished preferentialtreatment upon
their slave childrenbut preferreda minimum of publicity when
providingfreedompapers,eitherfearingcommunitygossip about
theirparentalrelationshipsor interferencefrom the statelaws that
prohibitedmanumission.FrederickDouglass recalledthe case of
WilliamWilks, whose white father allowed him such freedomof
movementthat he hardlyseemeda slave. When Wilks becamean
adult, he outbid all purchasersand bought his own freedom, ap-
parentlywith the help of his father.33Othermastersacknowledged
theirrelationshipmore openly. A Virginiaplanter,RalphQuarles,
madegreatefforts to ensurethe futurecomfortof his progeny.He
freed his four mulatto slave childrenand provided for his sons'
educationin Ohio. When one of his daughtersmarrieda slave, he
purchasedthe son-in-law's freedom and gave the newlyweds a
plantationand slaves. Quarlesdied in 1834and left his propertyto
his mulatto sons.34
Many pamperedmulattoesreactedto white attitudesby consid-
eringthemselvessuperiorto the other slaves. Servantsin the "Big
House," who became familiarwith the languageand mannersof
the plantationowners, often looked condescendinglyon the field
hands.35These favored mulattoes "constitutethe aristocracyand
chivalry of the slave population of the South," said Reverend
John Dixon Long.36Tocquevillecommentedon mulatto attitudes
with a note of disgust. They became haughty and maintained
distance from their black brothers, he noted, and when racial
conflicts arose the mulattoes"generallyside with the whites, just
as the lackeys of the great, in Europe assume the contemptuous
airs of nobility to the lower orders."37Color prejudice carried
over to the free mulatto population as well. Light-skinnedfreed-
men formed such exclusiveclubs as the BrownFellowshipSociety
in Charlestonand proscribedsocial intercourseand marriagewith
James H. Johnston, Race Relations in Virginia & Miscegenation in the South,
1776-1860 (Amherst, 1970), 231-36; Berlin, Slaves Without Masters, 3, 6, 151, 180; Par-
sons, Inside View of Slavery, I, 82-84.
32 [Simms], Slavery in America, 51.

33 Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (New York,
1941), 71-72. Douglass reports that he learned afterward that the help had really come
from Wilks's friends in Baltimore and Annapolis.
34 Silvia Hoffert, "This 'One Great Evil'," American History Illustrated, XII (May

1977), 38.
35 Frazier, The Negro in the United States, 274-76; Johnston, Race Relations, 293.

36 Long, Pictures of Slavery in Church and State ... (Auburn, 1859), 22-23.
37 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, I, 379.

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dark-skinnedblacks. FreeNegroesin Charlestonrespondedto the

color snobberyby organizingthe Societyof FreeDarkMen.38The
pride of mulattoes affected their relationshipswith lower-class
whites, too. Whether slave or free, mulattoes showed contempt
for the poor uneducatedwhites.
Mulatto snobberywas, to a considerabledegree,a reflectionof
white attitudes. Whites frequentlymade invidious comparisons
betweenNegroesand mulattoesand claimedthat the admixtureof
whiteblood gave mulattoesspecialqualities.The "pureAfrican,"
as representedby the field hands, was incapableof refinementand
advance,said an anonymouswriter.Masterschose mulattoesfor
householdduties becausethe "mixed race" was more susceptible
to improvementand could handle tasks requiringhighercapabil-
ities.39Edwin Clifford Holland of South Carolina applied the
comparison to free blacks as well. He described dark-skinned
blacks as " 'an idle, lazy, insolent set of vagabonds,who lived by
theft or gambling' . . . , [but] free mulattoes . . . [by contrast,
were] 'industrious, sober, hard-workingmechanics, who have
large families and considerableproperty.' "40 Dr. T. D. English
also deprecatedthe capabilitiesof dark-skinnedblacks but cited
the progressof mulattoesas leadersin Liberiancommunitiesand
occupationalclimbersin the United States. He believedmulattoes
possessedmore "intellectualforce" than Negroes and attributed
the "smartness"to Caucasianadmixture.41
While praise for mulattoes helped slaveholdersto excuse and
rationalizemiscegenationin the South, they discoveredthat the
northerners'predilectionsfor mulattoestended to complicatethe
task of defending slavery. Abolitionistsexploited popularnorth-
ern impressionsof mulatto superiorityto make a powerful emo-
tional appeal on behalf of the slaves. By describingthe slaves as
whitelikein appearanceand personality,they more easily stirred
white audiences to relate to the victims' condition and respond
with a sense of emotional outrage.
Antislaverydocumentscontain abundantreferencesto the sup-
posed physical attractivenessand high intelligenceof mulattoes.
Appealing portraits of "handsome little mulatto boys" and
"beautiful quadroon" girls appearedfrequentlyin travelers'ac-
counts. FrederickLaw Olmsted, for example, commentedon the
charm, intelligence, ingenuity, and beauty of the mulattoes he
38 Clement Eaton, The Mind of the Old South ([Baton Rouge], 1967), 172; Berlin, Slaves

Without Masters, 57-58.

39 "Black and Mulatto Population of the South," De Bow's Review, VIII (June 1850),
588; [James], Abolitionism Unveiled, 28.
40 Berlin, Slaves Without Masters, 198.

41 L.S.M., "Negro-Mania," De Bow's Review, XII (May 1852), 519-20.

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encountered,and the ReverendPhilo Tower spoke glowingly of

mulatto girls "of all complexions, from the light flaxen hair and
brightblue eye, and the sandy and freckledcountenance,and the
keen, black, piercing eye, and clear, beautiful white skin, with
rosy cheeks, making the very perfection of loveliness and
beauty."42Some observers, such as Charles G. Parsons, asso-
ciated their impressionswith a theory of race. Mulattoes were
"the best specimensof manhood to be found in the South," he
said. "The African mothershave given them a good physicalsys-
tem, and the Anglo-Saxonfathersa good mentalconstitution." If
mulattoescould be given one of the Carolinasto manage,thought
Parsons, within a short time they could show the slaves how to
take care of themselves.43
Morethan any otherwriter,HarrietBeecherStowe succeededin
exploiting promulatto bias as a device for leveling a powerful
indictmentagainst slavery. Her immenselypopular novel, Uncle
Tom's Cabin, featuredmulattoes as the appealingprotagonists.
Most of Stowe's heroesand heroineswerenearlywhitein appear-
ance, and she assignedthemthe greatestimagination,intelligence,
and rebelliousnesstoward slavery.Eliza, the characterwho dared
to run towards freedom across the Ohio Riverice, was described
as a quadroonwoman of "finely moulded shape." Her son, the
light-skinned Jim Crow, appeared "remarkablybeautiful and
engaging." Eliza's husband was "a bright and talented young
mulatto" named GeorgeHarris,whose intelligenceshowedin the
inventionof a machineto clean hemp. Harrisburnedwith desire
to escapeto Canada.Stowedescribedhis fatheras the scion of one
of Kentucky'sproudest families. Related comments about mu-
latto characters appeared throughout the book-references to
"bright-eyedmulatto" boys and light-skinnedslavewomenwhose
"particular gift" was to display "beauty of a most dazzling
Fascination with the theme of mulatto rebelliousness,which
characterizedStowe's novel, greatly interestedboth abolitionists
and slaveholders. Various antislaverynovelists portrayeddark-
skinned blacks like Uncle Tom as patient, loyal, obedient, and
Olmsted, A Journey Through Texas; or, A Saddle- Trip on the Southwestern Frontier
(New York, London, and Edinburg, 1857), 57; Olmsted, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave
States, 18219, 92; Tower, Slavery Unmasked, 325.
43 Parsons, Inside View of Slavery, I, 42-43 (quotation), 82-84.
44 Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, or, Life Among the Lowly, edited by Kenneth S. Lynn

(Cambridge, Mass., 1962), quotations in order are on pp. 8, 7, 15, 271, 15, 15. Slave
narratives gave similar stress to the attractiveness of near-white slaves. See for example
William W. Brown, The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave (Reading, Mass.,
1969), 11, 63; Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, or, The Escape of William and
Ellen Craft from Slavery, in Arna Bontemps, ed., Great Slave Narratives (Boston, 1969),

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docile but showed mulattoes as impatient and angry and some-

times proneto revoltin their seethingdesireto breakthe chainsof
slavery.45"If ever the San Domingo hour comes," Stowe warned
throughAugustineSt. Clare, "Anglo Saxonblood will lead on the
day. Sons of white fathers, with all our haughtyfeelings burning
in their veins, will not always be bought and sold and traded."46
Stowe put her finger on a subject that had given slaveholders
nightmaresfor many years. They had worriedabout the dangerof
allowingpreferredtreatmentto buoy the self-confidenceof mulat-
toes excessively.47Pamperingcould make them appearto be the
elite of the slave communityand encouragethem to assumelead-
ership in the event of a servile insurrection.Growing concerns
about policing the free-blackpopulation partly reflectedthis be-
lief. It appearedthat the freedmen,with many mulattoes among
them, could prove a particularlymischievousgroup.48
Yet slave proprietors also realized that mulatto confidence
could work to their benefit. Elitist-mindedmulattoes,who looked
condescendinglyon the black masses in slaveryand believedthey
enjoyed a special relationshipwith the white master class, could
prove invaluablein a time of crisis. They might serve as valuable
informantsagainstplots for rebellion.Some slaveholdersbelieved
that the failureof the DenmarkVesey conspiracyof 1822 showed
the truthof this expectation,becausemulatto servantsreportedto
their masters the plans for revolt before they could be put into
Generally,slaveholderopinion remaineddividedabout the mu-
lattoes' potential role in a crisis. Some viewed their feelings of
superiorityand independenceas a dangeroussign; othersbelieved
the senseof superioritywouldmakethem loyal and trustedfriends
of the white man.
As the political controversyover abolitionismbecame increas-
ingly volatile in the 1840s and 1850s defendersof slavery found
that their ambivalentattitudestoward the mulatto put them in a
dilemma.Like many northerners,they exhibitedthe popularprej-
udicesof theirday and judgedmulattoesto be superiorto Negroes
though inferior to whites. They preferred to keep the light-
45George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind. The Debate on Afro-
American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (New York and other cities, 1971), 115-18.
46 Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, 274.

47 Berlin, Slaves Without Masters, 196; Long, Pictures of Slavery in Church and State,

24; Johnston, Race Relations, 185. For related discussions concerning the whites' lack of
trust in mulattoes and "town niggers" see George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All!, or Slaves
Without Masters, edited by C. Vann Woodward (Cambridge, Mass., 1960), 200; Edward
A. Pollard, Black Diamonds Gathered in the Darkey Homes of the South (New York,
1859), 57-61.
48 Johnston, Race Relations, 298.

49 Ibid., 300-301.

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complexionedslaves in skilled or servantpositions, and not a few

considered mulatto women attractivesexual partners. In short,
they could not easily overcome their promulattobias. But these
prejudicesthreatenedto underminetheir racialdefenseof slavery.
To accept the notion that degrees of white admixturerelated to
degrees of superioritysuggested that light mulattoes, especially
quadroonsand octoroons, were almost as eligible for freedomas
whites. The tolerancefor mulattoesleft slaveholderswith a weak
defense against certainabolitionist attacks. It gave them little to
say to abolitionists who fired up emotions by focusing on the
plight of the almost white slaves. The promulatto,proslaveryad-
vocates badly needed a theory to help them squirm out of the
intellectualtrap into which they had fallen.
In responseto this problem, Dr. Josiah ClarkNott, prominent
medical doctor from Mobile, Alabama, offered a partial answer
that attractedconsiderableinterestin the slave South: the theory
of hybridity.In 1842Nott came acrossan anonymousletterto the
Boston Medical and Surgical Journal that suggested a way of
condemning "amalgamation" but did not conflict totally with
popularpreferencesfavoringthe mulatto. The lettermade mulat-
toes appear to be a weak freak of nature without denying their
supposed mental qualities. Basing his interpretation on the
writer'sanalysisof census data, Nott arguedthat mulattoeswere
the shortest-livedgroup of humans. They were less capable of
enduringfatigue, exposure,and hardshipthan Negroesor whites,
he reported, and their children died at an early age. Mulatto
women were especiallydelicate, highly susceptibleto disease and
poor breedersand nurses. Moreover, Nott acceptedthe writer's
assumptionthat the mortality rate for free mulattoes was much
higher than for slaves generally. Through various essays in the
1840sand 1850s,Nott developedand expandedthis interpretation
to argue that scientific evidence proved mulattoes were particu-
larly fragile.50
Theories about mulatto sterilityespeciallyinterestedNott. By
consideringblacksand whitesdistinctspecieshe could describethe
mulattoesas a "hybrid," as an "unnaturaloffspring, doomed by
natureto work out its own destruction."Betweenthe second and
fifth generationsmulattoes would allegedly become sterile (over
the yearshe variedthe numberof generationsestimatedfor extinc-
50Nott, "Statistics of Southern Slave Population," De Bow's Review, IV (November
1847), 277-85; Nott, "Nature and Destiny of the Negro," ibid., X (March 1851), 330-31.
Nott offered a longer discussion of these and related ideas in Types of Mankind: or,
Ethnological Researches, Based upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and
Crania of Races, and upon Their Natural, Geographical, Philological and Biblical His-
tory ... (Philadelphia, 1854).

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tion). This condition could be likened to a horse and an ass pro-

ducing sterile mule offspring, Nott explained. There were some
exceptions,of course. Recognizingthat his ruleof infertilitycould
not apply inflexibly to humans, since some mulatto families had
continuedbreedingfor many generationsin coastal cities such as
New Orleans and Mobile, Nott theorized that some stocks were
more prolific than northernmulattoes.5'
While Nott made mulattoes look degeneratewhen arguinghis
pseudoscientifictheories about group differences, he could also
make mulattoes look very attractive as individuals. Like many
other white commentatorsof his age, Nott consideredmulattoes
mentallyand aestheticallysuperiorto dark-skinnedNegroes.They
were "well formed, more robust and hardy, and their features
often regularand handsome,"'he noted. Claiming"There is no
doubt that the intellectualgradeof the negro racesmay be greatly
improved by crossing them with the whites . . . ," Nott assumed
that "mulattoes . . . [were] intermediate in intelligence between
the blacks and whites." Nott's condemnationof mulattoesrested
mainlyon a pessimisticpredictionabout their futureratherthan a
rigid judgment about their mental or aestheticinferiorityin the
present. 2

It is importantto note that some defendersof slaveryrejected

Nott's argument because they believed his theories about the
multipleoriginsof black and white racesrepresentedan attackon
orthodoxreligion.Nott's views on two distinctspeciesappearedto
blaspheme the scriptural account of creation and weaken the
Biblical defense of slavery. But many southernersdid not share
this attitude. Skirtingthe potential conflicts with religiousortho-
doxy, they treated Nott's interpretationas a helpful aid from
"science" in the complex debate over the mulatto's condition.5
Not surprisingly,the "scientific" assaulton mulattoesled some
commentatorsto deny preferencesfor the mulattoaltogether.The
argumentsof John H. Van Evrie reflectedthe growingtrend to-
ward rigidityon racial issues that would become more prominent
in the postwaryears. Van Evrie, a medical doctor, a northerner,
and a defenderof slavery,deniedmiddlegroundto mulattoesand
stresseda white-blackperspectiveon race relations.
Van Evrieconsideredwhite attitudestowardmulattoesa crucial
issue in the entire antislavery debate. ". . . mulattoism is a subject
51For a discussion of the place of Nott's arguments in scientific debates of the period see
Fredrickson, The Black Image, 76-81; Thomas F. Gossett, Race: The History of an Idea in
America (Dallas, 1963), 58-61; William R. Stanton, The Leopard's Spots: Scientific Atti-
tudes Toward Race in America, 1815-59 (Chicago, 1969), 66-76 (quotations on pp. 66, 68).
52 Nott, "Nature and Destiny of the Negro," 330-31 (first two quotations); Nott, "Sta-

tistics of Southern Slave Population," 284-85 (third quotation).

53 Stanton, The Leopard's Spots, 176-79, 189-94.

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of stupendousimportancein itself," he said, "and as the public

are generally,and the 'anti-slavery'writersespecially,profoundly
ignorantof it, and of all the laws that governit, it is proposedto
present the elementaryprinciples or basis on which the whole
subject rests." Van Evrie arguedthat abolitionistshad stretched
their reportsof extensiveamalgamationin the South far beyond
reality. Mixed bloods were not to be significant in the South's
future, he insisted;rather,they would die out. "Mulattoismis an
abnormalism-a disease . . . ," he said, and the scientific rules of
hybridityleft them "mercifullydoomedto final extinction."Abo-
litionists also had commentedfar too much about mulatto supe-
riority,thoughtVan Evrie. The novels about beautiful"mongrel"
womenand reportson intelligentmulattoeditorscould not reverse
fundamentaltruths. "Some mules are doubtlesssuperiorto some
horses, but no mule was ever equal to the average horse; and
doubtlesssome mulattoeshave been superiorto some white men,
but no mulatto ever did nor ever can reach the intellectualstan-
dard of the Caucasian," Van Evrie argued. Disputing popular
promulatto stereotypes, he describedmulatto males as typically
lazy or criminal and mulatto women as typically lewd and im-
The views of Josiah Clark Nott, J. H. Van Evrie, and other
theoristswho connectedhybridityand sterilityattractedmanyde-
baters.55The subject excited interestbecauseproslaverytheorists
saw it as a useful "scientific" fact to counterthe attacksof aboli-
tionists. For some, theoriesabout hybridityprovideda way to pity
mulattoeswithoutnegatingpopularopinionsabout theirsuperior-
ity over Negroes. For others, the theories servedto deny prefer-
ences for mulattoesaltogether.The conceptof hybridityalso sup-
ported the effort to strengthenwhite resistanceto amalgamation.
Defenders of slaveryconsideredthe question of mulattoismcru-
cial to the debate about emancipation,for if light-skinnedmulat-
toes were to be judged almost white biologically and culturally,
then the case for their near readinessfor freedom could easily be
advanced. Once quadroons and octoroons were deemed eligible
and mentallyqualified for liberty, the case for other, darkermu-
lattoes might also be presented. Before long, this flexibility on
54 Van Evrie, Negroes and Negro "Slavery": The First an Inferior Race: The Second Its

Natural Condition (New York, 1861), v-vii, 17-38, 125-67; first quotation p. 146, second
on p. 161, third on p. 167; fourth on p. 163.
55 Ibid., 17-33, 144-45, 161-63. For other examples of interest in the debate over hybrid-
ity see James A. Stewart, Powers of the Government of the United States ... (Washing-
ton, D. C., 1856), 15; De Bow's Review, X (March 1851), 364. Frederick Law Olmsted
showed his curiosity about the issue by asking residents in the lower South about the
longevity of mulatto families in the area. The residents' comments did not appear to
support the sterility theory. See Olmsted, Journey in the Back Country, 90-92.

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racial matters could open a floodgate of appeals on behalf of

various mixed-bloods. The American system of racial slavery
could not tolerate such a sliding scale of color prejudice.It called
for a more rigid, white-blackpatternof social arrangements.By
1861 the dichotomy describedby Carl N. Degler had become far
more characteristicof Americanracial identificationthan in ear-
lier times.
The pressuresof the Civil War, Reconstruction,and the era of
segregationeffectively pushed the word mulatto furthertowards
the margins of the national vocabulary. In the spring of 1861
Alexander Hamilton Stephens gave his famous "cornerstone"
speech, arguingthat southernsocietyrestedon the central"truth"
of inequalityof the races. Stephensallowedno middlegroundfor
mulattoesin drawingthe line. The formal patternheld. Over the
next century racial division indeed seemed the central theme of
southernhistory, and formal race doctrinedid not providea spe-
cial place for mixed-bloods.56The slightestknownNegro ancestry
usuallydefined a person as a black, and "passing" came to mean
completeidentificationas a white person. But the behavioralpat-
terns associatedwith promulattobias persistedin day-to-daylife.
Subtly, informally, casually, the favoritismtoward light-skinned
Negroes continued into modern times. From preferentialhiring
practices to the appearance of light-complexionedindividuals
among the black political and economic leadership,the evidence
of persistentadvantagesfor mulattoes remained.57The complex
patterns of color prejudice that developed during the years of
slaverywould not easily pass away.
Henry Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens in Public and Private ... (Philadelphia and
other cities, 1866), 721-23.
57 I review some of the twentieth-century problems as well as the implications for com-

parative study in Robert B. Toplin, "Reinterpreting Comparative Race Relations: The

United States and Brazil," Journal of Black Studies, II (December 1971), 135-55.

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