Emancipation in NYC: 1790-1840
The 1799 “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” set up a long process of emancipation in New York City. It did not address legal and civil rights, instead enforcing white paternalism and black dependency as non-citizens. In 1817, the state passed a law that granted freedom for all slaves in 1827. In the meantime, the 1821 constitution disenfranchised the majority of black men while granting universal suffrage to white men. As Leslie Harris writes, “New York State had granted black people freedom, but not equality.”
At the same time, medical professionals sought to assert white superiority through scientific means. Two debates dominated the discourse of race science at P&S, New York City, and nationally in this period. The first was how races ought to be categorized, drawing on imperial knowledge of non-white populations. The second point of contention was whether humans originated from one or many species. The evidence collected to answer these two questions centered on anatomical differences between humans. In identifying and analyzing these perceived differences, medical professionals fit evidence to their firm conclusion that people of European descent were intellectually superior to non-white races.
This document is from lecture notes belonging to John Taulman. Professor of Anatomy, Surgery, and Physiology J.A. Smith taught the lecture, titled “On the differences observable in the human race, and their causes” on Monday, December 14, 1812. Smith emphasized the contrast between the European and African races, as "opposite extremes of the scale.”
The focus of the lecture was on anatomical differences between the European and African: namely facial and cranial structure. Smith taught that the line drawn from the forehead to the upper jaw—known as “facial angle”—was a function of intelligence. Another indicator of intelligence was the “capacity of the cranium."
Smith said that man is “no doubt” descended from a common race because that is what the scripture “teaches us to believe.” Smith took issue with the theorists that said all the differences between races could be attributed to climate. He emphasized fundamental differences in the “bony system” that could not be "accounted for by the influence of climate alone."