‘Ebony and Ivy’

EBONY AND IVY. By Craig Steven Wilder. Bloomsbury Press. 352 pages. $30.

The German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin famously asserted, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

Craig Steven Wilder’s study of America’s oldest universities suggests that these elite cultural institutions, which have played such a key role in the establishment of American civilization, were inextricably bound up with the barbaric elements of the conquest on which the national history depends, notably, the “removal” of Indians, and the importation and exploitation of enslaved Africans.

Wilder’s book has rightly attracted a great deal of attention for its exposure of the role these northeastern elite schools played in the history of slavery, the slave trade and anti-black racism. Indeed, he does an exhaustive job of showing how in the Colonial era America’s first colleges, including Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, William & Mary and Penn, depended on the wealth they could raise from the slave-owning, slave-trading, planter-class elite of the British Caribbean.

“The academy never stood apart from American slavery,” Wilder writes. “In fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage.”

But it’s not just colleges’ connections to the enslavement of Africans that Wilder’s book indicts. He’s no less persistent and effective in exposing the hypocrisy of most of these schools vis a vis Native Americans. Wilder asserts that the earliest colleges in Colonial America “were imperial instruments” whose students’ conformity to European ways marked their “cultural submission.”

Within a century, any pretense that the colleges had been set up in the interests of objective intellectual inquiry had been abandoned. Wilder notes, for instance, that under the Rev. John Witherspoon, Princeton’s sixth president from 1768 to 1794 and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, “no Native students graduated ... and indigenous students were soon gone from his campus.”

From this perspective, the American Revolution also takes on a more sobering aspect. Wilder shows the extent to which Washington and his armies used the Revolutionary War not just to defeat the British but also to break the military power of Native Americans.

Philosophically and intellectually speaking, therefore, the American Revolution should not be read simply in terms of European ideas of individual liberty ascribable to John Locke, Thomas Paine, et al., but also in relation to European racial thought.

Wilder cites a 1783 sermon by Yale president Ezra Stiles, for instance, as indicating how readily newly independent (white) Americans saw the destruction of Native Americans as evidence of “God’s benevolence towards white people.”

In the earliest years of the new nation, says Wilder, “The academy refined and legitimated the ideas that supported territorial expansion, a process that transformed the people from revolutionaries to imperialists.”

Specifically, in the post-Revolutionary United States, Wilder shows that American universities played a particularly important role in “the rise of scientific racism,” a rise, he says that “required Americans.” Polygenesis, for instance, the notion that God had created multiple separate species of human beings, not just a single human race, was driven by Colonial science funded by “Atlantic slave traders, planters, and land speculators” who wanted to justify their exploitation of enslaved and exploited peoples as divinely and/or naturally ordained.

In a very telling final chapter entitled “ ‘Could They Be Sent Back to Africa’: Colleges and the Quest for a White Nation,” Wilder shows how colleges actively resisted the emancipatory logic of the Revolutionary era and the Great Awakening.

In the last few years of the 18th century “a lively antislavery discourse flowered on the young nation’s campuses.” In the 19th century, however, no university administration came out in favor of abolitionism. While universities, their faculties, administrators and trustees may have come to depend less on slave-holding, they frowned on abolitionism. Instead, they promoted the idea of colonization, ethnic cleansing by another name, whereby freed slaves would be sent “back to Africa.”

The American Colonization Society (ACS), as Wilder says, was “born on campus” as “a compromise between the evangelical urge to solve the moral problem of slavery and the political and social rejection of a multiracial society.”

As chief exemplar of the hypocrisy of the colonizationists Wilder introduces Sen. Theodore Frelinghuysen, later president of Rutgers and chancellor of New York University, who in the 1830s vigorously denounced the immorality of Georgia’s policies of “Indian removal” yet equally resolutely opposed abolitionism, and even used his long association with the ACS in later political campaigns as “evidence of his goodwill toward Southern slaveholders.”

In short, Wilder’s book squarely hits its target of demonstrating that “American colleges were not innocent or passive beneficiaries of conquest and Colonial slavery” but inextricably linked to those processes.

Ivy League schools may indeed have given us many documents of civilization, but a cold historical eye insists that we go beyond the self-congratulatory, self-exculpatory narratives of contemporary branding and look at the barbarism that is also a part of their legacy.

Reviewer Simon Lewis is professor of African and Third World literature and associate director of the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World program at the College of Charleston.