Liberalism in the Americas: Plenary Lecture by Nicholas Guyatt

Rounding off Day 1 of the conference was an expansive and fascinating talk by Nicholas Guyatt, Lecturer in Modern History at the University of York. As the author of Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607-1877 (2007) and an in-progress book on ideas about racial equality and programmes of racial separation in the nineteenth century, Guyatt addressed a range of themes that the Liberalism in the Americas project has been investigating. Although primarily a historian of the US, Guyatt also works on the Atlantic world and is embarking on research that is taking him to archives in Chile and elsewhere in Latin America, and his plenary lecture fully embraced the transnational and comparative ethos of the Liberalism project.

His lecture began with a fascinating exploration of a plan devised by Bernardo O’Higgins, a major figure in the Chilean independence process, to establish a homeland in the west coast of America to which all indigenous peoples could be relocated. There, they would be guided in the process of setting up government institutions and systems of economic development along a more “civilised” model (to use the common nineteenth century trope of positioning western civilisation against indigenous barbarism). In 1838, this plan was apparently sent to the American president, Martin van Buren, who was at that time enforcing Andrew Jackson’s policy of Indian Removal, enlisting the military to assist in the forced relocation of southeastern indigenous peoples, including the Cherokee and Choctaw. Guyatt used the O’Higgins’ plan as a means of highlighting that the disastrous, devastating policy that brought about this Trail of Tears was not the only form of Indian Removal that had been considered in the Americas, and that, in fact, a range of proposals had been made, which were shaped by liberalism as part of a long-term intellectual and political debate that also included ideas and plans for black “colonisation” projects in various parts of the Americas. [1]

In fact, one of the alternative models for Indian removal, proposed by Isaac McCoy, explicitly referred to the process as a “colonisation”, where Indians and the western wilderness would effectively work to “civilise” one another in a new Indian State. All these debates were fuelled by the assumption that indigenous societies would be better off if they acquired core tenets of white American civilisation, such as private property and Christianity. The prevailing wisdom during much of the colonial period was that the best way to achieve this “improvement” of the Indians was for them to live in proximity to white society. However, by the early nineteenth century, there was a growing acknowledgement that the process of civilisation-by-proximity wasn’t working in the desired fashion, and it was concluded that this was because Indians were mainly in contact with the wrong kind of white people – rapacious liquor traders, for instance. The alternative plans, therefore, proposed that in order to become more civilised, various indigenous groups ought to be relocated to beyond the frontier, where, segregated from the corrupting influence of white society, and under the tutelage of an enlightened delegation, Indian society could develop in the desired direction.

Guyatt outlined several features that aligned these proposals with eighteenth and nineteenth century liberalism: the overall motivation was philanthropic; the debate was informed by enlightenment philosophies, aiming to formulate ideas through reasoned, rational, non-prejudiced thinking; and the underlying principle was that governments could and should effect social reform and improvement. A key difference between the proposals put forth by McCoy and similar figures, like Jedidiah Morse and Thomas McKenney, and the Indian Removal enacted by Jackson and Van Buren, was that the latter used military force to implement the relocation, whereas McCoy’s “colonisation” plan was to be encouraged through incentives and rewards. Even more significantly, the Jackson and Van Buren plan was applied to indigenous peoples of the southeast, who were seen as already having been “civilised” through missionary contact and trade, whereas the McCoy plans were directed towards indigenous peoples of the north and west. Guyatt suggested, therefore, that these key differences reflected a significant change in thinking about Indian Removal, away from the more liberal principles informing proposals made by McCoy, Morse, and McKenney.

A second intriguing line of analysis came from Guyatt’s examination of schemes for the removal of black people in the early American republic. Like McCoy’s proposal for Indian removal, these were generally described as “colonisation” projects and were also similar to the Indian removal proposals in that they were rationalised in terms of black people having been degraded by their contact with poor whites, and hostile, racist whites in the northern cities. Historians of the black Atlantic have studied in some depth the establishment of Liberia on the west coast of Africa in 1820, under the auspices of the American Colonisation Society. But, as Guyatt explained, much less is known about a whole host of colonisation projects that focused on the Caribbean and Latin America as destinations where freed former slaves might prosper. The Gulf of Mexico was a particular hotspot for colonisation proposals emanating from free blacks and whites in the United States, which seem to be based on the notion that the Latin American nations were “coloured” countries and would therefore be less racist that the US, and would offer more opportunities for social mobility for black people. Guyatt gave us a few fascinating snippets of the exchanges conducted between Montgomery Blair, an abolitionist member of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, and Matías Romero Avendaño, a leading Mexican diplomat, about various black colonisation projects, in which the economic, imperial, and political dynamics of these proposals were also indicated.

The impressive scope of Guyatt’s talk left us all wanting more, revealing the stimulating nature of such transnational and comparative research: the questions went on for some time, continuing into the evening as we had some well-earned drinks and dinner. My experience of two-day conferences is that they can sometimes flag after the first day, as people get a little tired, but the plenary session did a lot to keep our enthusiasm and interest sky-high for Day 2. We’ll all be looking forward to his book on this subject when it emerges!

Stay tuned for details of the papers and plenary session on Day 2…


[1] I will repeat Guyatt’s disclaimer here for the sake of clarity: in no way was Guyatt suggesting that the alternative plans for Indian removal (ie those plans for Indian removal shaped by liberalism) were more acceptable or less racist than the Jacksonian-Van Buren Indian Removal Policy. They simply had a different rationale, and were still premised on the racist idea that indigenous peoples needed to be “civilised”.

This entry was posted in Events, Key Liberal Thinkers, Project Update, Research Themes by Deborah Toner. Bookmark the permalink.

About Deborah Toner

Deborah worked at the Institute for the Study of the Americas as a postdoctoral research fellow in Latin American history from 2011-12, on the project ‘Liberalism in the Americas’, which is creating a digital library of resources for the study of liberalism in Peru and Argentina in the long nineteenth century. Now a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Leicester, Deborah continues to work with ISA in overseeing the Liberalism in the Americas project as it comes to fruition. She completed her PhD on alcohol and nation-building in nineteenth-century Mexico at the University of Warwick, where she also completed her MA and BA in history.

1 thought on “Liberalism in the Americas: Plenary Lecture by Nicholas Guyatt

  1. Pingback: Thomas L. McKenney and the Indians | Glover Park History

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.