Samuel Cartwright: A medical, anthropological, and theological wacko.

Samuel A. Cartwright
Samuel A. Cartwright

DeBow’s Review was a monthly magazine dedicated to “agricultural, commercial, and industrial progress and resource”, which circulated widely in the South. Published from 1846 to 1884, it became one of the major proponents of the idea of slavery as a positive influence on both blacks and whites. The August, 1860 issue included an article entitled “Unity of the Human Race Disproved by the Hebrew Bible”, by Samuel A. Cartwright. Cartwright was a New Orleans physician who was well-known as an expert on the health of “negroes”, and the discoverer of a condition he called “Drapetomania“, a mental illness among slaves that caused them to run away.

The DeBow’s article is long, and I’ve transcribed the entire text from the PDF source if you want to wade through it all. The basic idea is that, by a rather bizarre mistranslation of a couple of words in Genesis, Cartwright claims to “prove” that blacks (and other “inferior” races) were created before, and separately from, Adam and Eve. The latter pair are the ancestors of whites only, while the other races were created to serve them.

Thus, in the 24th verse of the 1st chapter of Genesis “The Lord said, Let the earth bring forth intellectual creatures with immortal souls after their kind; cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind, and it was so.” In our English version, instead of “intellectual creatures with immortal souls,” we have only the words, “living creature,” as representing the Hebrew words, naphesh chaiyah. The last word means “living creature,” and the word naphesh which invests chaiyah, or living creature, with intellectuality and immortality, is not translated at all, either in the Douay Bible or that of King James. But there it stands more durable than brass or granite, inviting us to look at the negro and the Indian, and then to look at that, and we will understand it.

Cartwright’s Hebrew is just wrong here. Chaiyah is used as an adjective here, meaning “living”, and nephesh means “creature” or “living thing” — literally, something with breath, which is the root word. So the phrase means “living creature” or “living living thing”. Yes, it’s redundant, but that’s characteristic of biblical Hebrew. While you could argue that Cartwright didn’t have the benefit of modern textual scholarship, he really just needed to look at Gen 1:21, when God creates the creatures of the water and air:

And God created great whales, and every living creature [nephesh chaiyah] that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind …

It’s exactly the same phrase. Cartwright neglects to discuss the “intellectual creatures with immortal souls” that God created in the water along with whales — mermaids? dolphins? — but instead goes on to expound at great length about how the inferior races were there for white folks to order around, and were put on the Ark two by two, etc. He also discovers who it was that tempted Eve to eat the apple:

Fifty years ago, Dr. Adam Clarke, the learned commentator of the Bible, from deep reading in the Hebrew, Arabic, and Coptic languages, was forced to the conclusion that the creature which beguiled Eve was an animal formed like man, walked erect, and had the gift of speech and reason. He believed it was an orang-outang and not a serpent. If he had lived in Louisiana, instead of England, he would have recognized the negro gardener.

And, from this he gets to the idea that African heathens were “slaves of the serpent”, as are their descendants in Haiti; but there’s an upbeat finish:

Christianity is setting the poor negro free from slavery to that evil spirit, which seizes upon him whenever he gets beyond the hearing of the crack of the white man’s whip.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the racism of the nineteenth century is hard for us to grasp fully today. Certainly the absurd mental gyrations that it takes to come up with a justification for slavery are tough to follow*. I suppose it’s a mistake to judge a person’s ethics by the standards of another time and place. His Biblical claims, though, can be refuted by a look at a nearby verse in the same chapter of the Bible, as I’ve pointed out. As for his ideas about the unhealthful effects of freedom on blacks, there were plenty of counterexamples. All in all, he seems simply to have been blind to evidence that didn’t fit his biases. And that condition isn’t unique to his time or place.

*Update: As Chris Moore points out, slavery itself is taken for granted in the Bible. I should have said here that the particular form of slavery practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries, and its concomitant view of blacks as inferior beings fit only for slavery, was foreign to the Bible as it was to any civilization in the world before the age of European exploration and colonization.

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5 Responses to Samuel Cartwright: A medical, anthropological, and theological wacko.

  1. Chris Moore says:

    The religious justification for slavery is found throughout the Old Testament. It was a common societal institution in the ancient world. Just read all the Hebrew laws in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, etc. that pertain to the treatment of slaves. Abraham begats his first-born son with his wife, Sarah’s, maidservant. The Muslims still trace their line back to Ishmael, son of a slave, and revere Abraham as a prophet. There are no prohibitions in the Old Testament against owning other human beings, in fact it is discussed quite casually as a matter of course. It took the age of enlightenment to make human bondage seem barbaric to reasonable thinking people. The language of the Bible has not changed, merely humanity’s perceptions of what is just and right in their own minds. Perhaps the “abomination” of homosexuality is on the same course. And thank goodness we stopped stoning adulterers. Think of all the whelps and bruises on our poor political leaders.

    • Agathman says:

      Yes, Leviticus 25 has some pretty specific instructions about slaves. For instance, you can’t enslave other Jews; just foreigners. But even then, they didn’t view slavery as the inherent condition of a whole group of people who were somehow unworthy of freedom. Note that King Abimelech was the son of a slave woman (Judges 9:18); Sheshan gave his daughter in marriage to his slave Jarha, and their children were his heirs (1 Chron 2:34–35), and in the parable of the talents (Luke 19:17, also in Matthew) a slave is rewarded for good stewardship by being given command over several cities. So slavery was a condition based on circumstances rather than innate identity in both the Hebrew bible and the New Testament. Certainly the ancient Jews didn’t view the slave as subhuman, the way Cartwright wants us to think.

      But I fully agree that our views of right and wrong change over time. The Bible is a set of documents that reflect the culture and mores of the times and places where they were written.

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