Elodie Grossi - The Colors of Madness: the 1840 Census Controversy Over Free Black Insanes and How it Shaped Racial Science

Thu, 04/28/2016 - 12:00 to 13:30
3314 Life Science Building - UCLA

To the keen observer of American political and medical history, the 1840s were the theater of an interesting debate concerning the sanity of free Negroes residing in the Northern States. As soon as the Census results started to circulate, Northern and Southern physicians alike noticed the stark contrast between the number of black “insanes” and “idiots” listed in the Northern States, and the number of those listed in the South. In the free States, the Census recorded that one free black person in every 143 black inhabitants was insane, while in the slave states, the ratio dropped down to only one in every 1605 black slaves. Physicians almost immediately emitted the hypothesis that Northern free Blacks rapidly became insane as they were not able ‘naturally’ to handle their status as freedmen. The scientific controversy took another turn as pro-slavery apologists eagerly seized upon the physicians’ arguments as scientific confirmation of the black man’s natural propensity to enslavement. Although this 1840s debate has already been discussed in book chapters and articles, little light has been cast on how it shaped medical science for decades after and how the claims of black insanity re-emerged in the post-bellum era. Relying on multiple original sources, such as unpublished manuscripts written by Southern physicians and annual reports of insane asylums, this paper will analyze the political economy of black insanity, showing in particular how Southern physicians used their scientific legitimacy and authority, as public figures, to condemn the Civil rights gained by newly freed black citizens during Reconstruction in the South.