No single publication was more infamous or influential in the history of nineteenth-century American Egyptomania than Josiah Clark Nott and George Robins Gliddon’s 1854 Types of Mankind. Over 800 pages long, carefully compiled and lavishly illustrated, packed with data and provocative conclusions, Nott and Gliddon’s Types of Mankind was an instant classic, a best-selling scientific textbook that went through over a dozen printings and which stayed in print until the turn of the century. It rocketed Nott and Gliddon to fame, forever associated them with a very particular school of thought, and cemented their place in American scientific history. It is also one of the most racist texts ever written, a classic of American racism as much as American science, and is today considered the highwater mark of American scientific racism.
Josiah Clark Nott was from Mobile, Alabama, a medical doctor and slaveholder who performed experiments on his slaves and had strong beliefs in black inferiority. Gliddon was British, a businessman, politician, and public lecturer who had once been vice-consul to Cairo and who had made a name for himself as a popularizer of the relatively young field of Egyptology. It was Gliddon who was contacted in the 1830s by the Philadelphia physician Samuel George Morton with a request for any specimens of ancient Egyptian skulls; Morton was collecting data on crania for his ongoing research into fixed racial differences, and Gliddon happily obliged. Over the years, the relationship between these three men grew, until they were seen as the center of a loose-knit group of scientists and historians which became known as the American School of Ethnology: a school of scientific thought which understood its threefold mission to be the proving of inherent differences between different racial groups, the ranking of these groups in hierarchical order (from “low” to “high”), and the establishing of these differences as so ancient as to date from human origin itself. In other words, members of the American School of Ethnology believed that different racial groups were in fact separate species, and thus had separate points of origin.
The American School was, as might be imagined, at immediate odds with mainstream Christians. By arguing that whites and blacks had different origins, Nott and Gliddon were contradicting the account of a single human origin found in the Book of Genesis. But not only was this not a problem for the American School, it was seen as a virtue: Nott especially was a fierce opponent of the account of human origin found in the Bible, and believed that what he called “parson-skinning” was a necessary step in the battle between the “fictions” of the Bible and the “truth” of racial science.
Interestingly enough, however, the American School championed many of the classic virtues of western science: objectivity, rigorous logic, and the quest for ultimate truth. Indeed, through these skirmishes with the traditional Christian story of Adam and Eve, Nott and Gliddon, for all their racism, represent an important if often overlooked moment in the history of the clashes between Christian belief and the theory of evolution. It would be some years, of course, before the term “evolution” would be used in America – and in fact Nott thought that, by implying an evolutionary connection between humans and other primates, Darwin had gone too far towards implying a connection between whites and blacks – but an often forgotten footnote to the history of the American School is that, by initially challenging the authority of the Biblical account of human creation, it helped to lay the groundwork for the acceptance of the theory of evolution in America.
Nevertheless, the American School is still very justifiably best known for its claims regarding fixed racial differences and the theory of “multiple origins.” As it is for its mode of argument: as proof both of the fallibility of Biblical chronology and of the ancient separations between the races, the American School focused on ancient Egypt. Evidence from ancient Egypt, it was argued, proved both that humans had predated the date often given to the Garden of Eden, and that, even at this extremely remote date in ancient history, “Negroes” and “Caucasians” had always been separate species – one inferior, one superior. With Types of Mankind, Nott and Gliddon ushered in a new age in American racism.
This selection from the Types is the Introduction. Signed by Nott, it outlines the terms of the argument of the book: that ethnology is the study of the variety of human species, that Egyptology provides the best evidence available for the age and progress of these different species or “types of mankind,” and that the combination of ethnology and Egyptology shows the permanent inferiority of the Negro type.