Constitution of the Indian Mind

American History, Volume I: Aboriginal America (New York: Sheldon, 1860)

Most nineteenth-century Egyptologists were also race scientists, The study of the history of ancient Egypt was often seen as a way of explaining not only the history of “civilization,” but of the different cultures which related to that history. With the rise of race science, both professional and amateur intellectuals had ways of making large-scale generalizations about large-scale groups of people, and with the rise of the belief in a set number of “permanent races” – white, black, red, yellow, brown – a race scientist who studied native Africans could also be seen as an expert in native Americans. This was owing in large part to the lack of clear divisions between the fields of early archaeology and early anthropology, but it was also the case that the study of different human “races” was often seen as a way to overcome the artificial boundaries created by such fields.

Amateur historian and popular writer Jacob Abbott was no different. The author of a popular 1850 biography of Cleopatra, Abbott was also a very prolific author of other popular histories; originally from Maine, Abbott is perhaps best known for his influential role in the development of children’s fiction – his “Rollo Books” are considered an important moment in the history of juvenile literature – but not incidentally, he was also an amateur race theorist. In particular, Abbott was a proponent of the theory of “separate origins:” he and others believed that the different races of people designated by nineteenth-century race scientists (white, black, yellow, and so on) did not have one single common ancestor (as, for example, was believed by most mainstream Christians), but instead arose at different areas around the world at different times (“negroes” in Africa, “Caucasians” in Europe, “Mongols” in Asia, and so on). This theory was an important weapon in scientific arguments with believers in the Biblical story of a single creation, but, in most cases, it was also used as a way of establishing a clear hierarchy of races: separate racial origins meant separate human species, and thus different racial qualities inherent to each species – and these different inherent qualities could then be ranked according to a single standard. At the top of this standard, needless to say, were Caucasians.

Abbott’s Aboriginal America was Volume One of his multivolume American History, and the excerpts presented here contain the clearest expression of Abbott’s racial views regarding both the “Aboriginal Americans” and their place in the world’s races. Abbott was by no means unique in his views – and in fact, twenty-first readers may see ideas which are still around in some form today – but Aboriginal America is nevertheless an important example of the racial views in circulation in the nineteenth century.

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