Popularizing Proslavery: John Van Evrie and the Mass Marketing of Proslavery Ideology

Popularizing Proslavery: John Van Evrie and the Mass Marketing of Proslavery Ideology

Let’s start with a quiz.

1: What are zygomatic arches?

2: Who, exactly, was Amunoph IV?

3: What are the key similarities and differences between the Esquimaux Dog (C. familiaris, Desm.) and the Hare-Indian Dog (C. familiaris lagopus)?

These questions are drawn from references made in one of nineteenth-century America’s most infamous books: Josiah Nott and George Gliddon’s Types of Mankind (1854). Regularly cited as a crucial contribution to American proslavery ideology, Types of Mankind promoted the doctrine of polygenism, which held that people of different races are descended from separately created original pairs, and thus belong to different species.[1] Although rightly remembered as an insidious blend of pseudoscience and proslavery propaganda, Types of Mankind is dense and often dull. It sprawls across some seven hundred pages. It brims with specialized scientific and archaeological jargon. It cost five dollars at a time when laborers might earn one dollar per day. Perhaps Nott and Gliddon’s book was more important as an intellectual milestone than as a direct influencer of popular culture and mass politics. If so, we have much to learn about precisely how the era’s increasingly rigid racist doctrines spread from academic halls and affluent parlors into humbler homes.

Figure 107 from Josiah C. Nott and George R. Gliddon, Types of Mankind: or, Ethnological Researches… (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1854), 171. Much of the book’s argument rested on selective analysis of Egyptological sources, including images of human figures rendered in ancient carvings and paintings such as these.

To trace this process, we need to shift our focus away from the inventors of these perfidious doctrines and toward the popular writers and publishers who promulgated them. Among the latter, arguably none was more widely influential than John H. Van Evrie. Born in Canada, educated as a physician, and active for a quarter century in America’s publishing capital, New York City, Van Evrie turned scientific racism and proslavery politics into a highly marketable product that he peddled to white Americans of all regions and classes. As the author of two books and a pile of pamphlets, the editor of a widely read newspaper, and the publisher of dozens of racist treatises, Van Evrie repackaged scientific racism for popular consumption.

Title page of J.H. Van Evrie, Negroes and Negro “Slavery;” The First, an Inferior Race—The Latter, Its Normal Condition. Introductory Number: Causes of Popular Delusion on the Subject (New York: Day Book Office, 1853). Van Evrie’s innovations lay not in his ideas, but in how he marketed and distributed them, including by packaging them in cheap pamphlets such as this, his first.

Van Evrie’s first publication, a pamphlet entitled Negroes and Negro “Slavery, reveals his approach to the work of the propagandist. Published in 1853 and reprinted widely for the next several years, Negroes and Negro “Slavery” offered few new ideas to the country’s escalating debate over slavery. Its two-part thesis is simple: first, polygenism proved that nature intended whites to be masters and African Americans to be slaves. “The negro,” insisted Van Evrie, was “a DIFFERENT AND INFERIOR SPECIES OF MAN,” created by God for servitude. Second, he warned that abolitionism was a British plot concocted to divide and destroy the United States.[2]

By 1853, these ideas were old hat. Van Evrie’s arguments about polygenism copied the work of previous authors like Samuel George Morton and Josiah Nott, who had been pontificating about separate creations for more than a decade. His Anglophobic anti-abolitionism echoed politicians like John C. Calhoun. His references to contented slaves and beneficent masters rehashed standard tropes of proslavery literature. Yet Van Evrie’s significance was not as an original thinker, but as a marketer and popularizer. Like the rest of his work, his first pamphlet mattered less for what he said, than for how he said it—and to whom.

Van Evrie used several strategies to amplify his hateful message. Note, for instance, how he burnished his credentials. The “M.D.” placed conspicuously after his name asserted intellectual authority. This was reinforced by the endorsements printed on the pamphlet’s inside covers: enthusiastic blurbs from slave-state politicians provided a southern stamp of approval, while one from a New York senator added regional balance and another from proslavery physician Samuel Cartwright affirmed Van Evrie’s scientific rigor. Together, these marketing techniques promised that Van Evrie would provide a scholarly and objective appraisal of a controversial topic.[3]

Van Evrie also aimed his words at an audience far broader than the comparatively affluent customers who provided much of the market for books. He carefully limited his page count, condensing his message into a widely marketable pamphlet. Heeding the advice of friends who cautioned against immediately publishing a book-length polygenist text, Van Evrie issued his work in monthly installments, a strategy ironically reminiscent of the recent serial publication of the antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Thus, he offered Negroes and Negro “Slavery” as a concise, accessible introduction to a larger projected work that was eventually completed in 1861. He also used simple, jargon-free prose. Although not written in the crude, demagogic style of his later newspaper editorials, the pamphlet did not require the scientific vocabulary and prior knowledge demanded by Nott and Gliddon’s work. Finally, Van Evrie offered the pamphlet at the rock-bottom price of twenty-five cents—and in some cases apparently gave it away. According to one account, Van Evrie’s supporters raised a subscription fund to finance the pamphlet’s free distribution.[4] Van Evrie discounted his publications for the rest of his career, marketing his newspaper as the “World’s Cheapest” and selling his polygenist book for just one dollar.[5]

W. G. Jackman, Portrait of John H. Van Evrie, c. 1860-1869. Emblazoned with Van Evrie’s signature and the slogan “The White Republic against the World,” this lithograph was distributed as part of a marketing campaign for Van Evrie’s numerous publications. William G. Jackman was a prolific engraver who produced lithographic portraits of many prominent Civil War-era figures, including Nathan B. Forrest, Fernando Wood, Stephen A. Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Amid the mountains of cheap texts that circulated in the mid-1850s, Van Evrie’s managed to stand out, attracting the attention—and provoking the controversy—on which his career would thrive. Sympathizers quickly identified him as a rising star. Samuel Morse, famous for his pioneering work in telegraphy but also a strident proslavery ideologue, exulted that Van Evrie’s arguments were “founded on God’s truth” and ordered copies of the pamphlet directly from the publisher.[6] Critics, meanwhile, provided additional publicity for Van Evrie’s ideas, even as they debunked them. Frederick Douglass devoted several columns to refuting Van Evrie’s “shallow” reasoning and mocking his “pompous” style.[7] Yet he and other abolitionists worried that Van Evrie was winning converts, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. One correspondent reported that even in the abolitionist hotbed of western New York, Van Evrie’s pamphlet had “circulated considerably” and persuaded some readers to “believe its sophistries.”[8] Negroes and Negro “Slavery” laid the foundation for a career that lasted until 1879.

Historians of proslavery and racist ideologies have paid comparatively little attention to Van Evrie because of his lack of originality. But racism has a political history, a communications history, and a business history as well as an intellectual history, and in these realms, Van Evrie’s labors are instructive: he took the nefarious doctrine of polygenism and sold it to a wide audience, exposing thousands of lay readers to popularized versions of sometimes rather arcane theories. His career is a reminder that new communications technologies are only as enlightening as the content they carry and the people who use them.

 

Quiz Answers:

1: Formed by parts of the zygomatic bone (commonly called the cheekbone) and the temporal bone, the zygomatic arch connects the cheekbone to the upper jawbone and is an important base for muscles used in chewing.

2: Eventually called Akhenaten, Amunoph (or Amenhotep, in the more common modern spelling) IV was an Egyptian pharaoh, the tenth ruler of the eighteenth dynasty. He is best known for introducing Atenism, the worship of Aten, the disc of the sun.

3: According to the naturalists cited in Nott and Gliddon’s Types of Mankind (p. 383), the Esquimaux Dog closely resembles the gray wolf in both color and size, while the Hare-Indian dog more closely resembles the prairie wolf, or coyote. The two animals are closely related but the coyote is smaller, has taller and more pointed ears, and has a narrower snout.

 

[1] Josiah C. Nott and George R. Gliddon, Types of Mankind: or, Ethnological Researches… (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1854).

[2] J.H. Van Evrie, Negroes and Negro “Slavery;” The First, an Inferior Race—The Latter, Its Normal Condition. Introductory Number: Causes of Popular Delusion on the Subject (New York: Day Book Office, 1853), 2.

[3] Van Evrie, Negroes and Negro “Slavery, title page and inside front and back covers.

[4] “Pillicoddle,” “Correspondence of the Boston Post,” Boston Post, December 20, 1853.

[5] See the large advertisement for the book in American Publishers’ Circular and Literary Gazette 7, no. 5 (February 2, 1861), 54.

[6] Samuel F.B. Morse to N.R. Stimson, October 6, 1855, in Rushmore G. Horton Papers, New York Public Library.

[7] “Is the Negro a White Man?—Dr. Van Evrie and the New York Day-Book,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, September 14, 1855.

[8] “W,” “Notes by the Way,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, April 28, 1854.

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Associate Professor of History at University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Routledge, 2016) and Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge, 2014), which received the 2015 James A. Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association. His most recent book is entitled Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy (North Carolina, 2020).

One Reply to “Popularizing Proslavery: John Van Evrie and the Mass Marketing of Proslavery Ideology”

  1. Most Americans at the time recognized that the truth about the conditions of slavery was not in the extremes of Van Evrie on the one end and the radical abolitionists on the other end, but was somewhere in the middle. Most slaves were not subjected to cruelty. Based on the slaves’ own accounts, the majority of slaves were never whipped. Of course, no slave should have ever been whipped or otherwise mistreated, but some were. Even if only 5% of slaves were subjected to cruelty, 5% of 3.5 million is 175,000 human beings, and that is one reason that slavery was immoral and intolerable. Why do most modern historians seem incapable of painting an accurate, balanced picture of American slavery? Probably because they fear that if they do so, they will be falsely accused of being pro-slavery.

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