Friday, December 22, 2006

Friday Dead Racist Blogging: Insane Edition

I had been planning on doing a post on a different topic entirely, but I came across this in my book today and couldn't resist writing about it.

In 1840, the sixth census of the United States included for the first time information about the "insane and idiots" of the country. After perusing the data, a remarkable trend was found:
[W]hile there was no appreciable difference between the incidence of insanity among the whites of the North and those of the South, the incidence among Negroes of the Free States was 1 in 162.4, whereas in the South it was only 1 in 1,558. In the North the ratio of insanity between Negroes and whites was 6 to 1. In the South it was 3 to 5.1

Nor was this all. The census showed that in the free state of Maine every fourteenth Negro was afflicted with mental disease or defect, in Michigan every twenty-seventh, in New Hampshire every twenty-eighth, in Massachusetts every forty-third. In contrast, in the deepest South, where slavery was most firmly entrenched, the rate of mental handicap among Negroes ranged from one to 2,117 in Georgia to only one in 4,310 in Louisiana. Finally, New Jersey, with the lowest Negro insanity rate among the free states of the North, had twice the rate of its neighbor Delaware, just below the Mason and Dixon line, which had the poorest showing of all the slave states!2

You can imagine what people did with this knowledge. John Calhoun, then ex-vice president and Senator, triumphantly declared:
Here is the proof of the necessity of slavery. The African is incapable of self-care and sinks into lunacy under the burden of freedom. It is a mercy to him to give him the guardianship and protection from mental death.3

The census and other authentic documents, show that in all instances in which the states have changed the former relation between the two races the condition of the African, instead of being improved has become worse.4

And Edward Jarvis, who debunked the erroneous findings of the census, wrote in summary that
[t]hroughout the civilized world, the statement has gone forth that, according to the experience of the United States . . . slavery is more than ten-fold more favorable to mental health than freedom . . . The slaves are consoled with the assurance that although another man's will governs them, yet their minds are not bound with insane delusions, nor crushed in idiocy, as are those of their brethren who govern themselves . . .5

This is really just a variation of a common theme--blacks weren't ready for freedom, they were suited to slavery, they were happy as slaves, it was best for them to be kept as slaves. And people attempted to show that they were better off as slaves by showing that they were more prone to disease or criminality as free men. But I think this is the first time I'd heard of people putting forth that freedom would make them more prone to insanity.

1. William Stanton, The Leopard's Spots: Scientific Attitudes Toward Race in America, 1815-59, p. 58
2. Albert Deutsch, "The First U.S. Census of the Insane (1840) and Its Use as Pro-Slavery Propaganda", in Bulletin of the History of Medicine 15 (1944), p. 472
3. Ibid., p. 473
4. Ibid., pp. 477-78
5. Ibid., pp. 474-75

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