At a Glance: Amateur naturalist, Lutheran pastor
Bird names: 2
Region: North America
Content note: This profile includes discussion of slavery and quotes from the subject that include racist depictions.
Bachman’s Sparrow (Peucaea aestivalis)
Bachman’s Warbler (Vermivora bachmanii; likely extinct)
At first read, the life of the Reverend John Bachman (1790-1874) seems quite admirable. An ordained minister who spent 56 years serving his flock at St. John’s Lutheran in Charleston, South Carolina, he had a passion for science and natural history. He was regarded by some in the South as radical for ministering to enslaved people, and for his argument that all humans were the same, unified species, rather than separate. He was elected as an Associate Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1845, and corresponded with many of the other leading naturalists and scientists of his day.
But this seemingly progressive outlook is only surface level. The reverend may have been a proponent of the unity of humanity in a single species; he was certainly, however, not a proponent of equality among it. A slave-owner himself, he saw no issue with holding fellow humans in bondage, even as he acknowledged their humanity. He vigorously denied that a belief in the oneness of humanity necessitated becoming an abolitionist, and sought to provide both scientific and religious reasoning for slavery within his framework:
“We are induced yet to offer a few remarks on the bearing of the doctrine of the Unity of the Human Race on the domestic institutions and vital interest of the South…those who have supported the doctrine of Unity, have sometimes been stigmatized as Abolitionists and enemies of the South…[t]he following are our views: That all the races of men, including the negro, are of one species and of one origin. That the negro is a striking and now permanent variety, like the numerous permanent varieties in domesticated animals. That varieties having become permanent, possess an organization that prevents them from returning to the original species, although other varieties may spring up among them. Thus the many breeds of domesticated animals that have arisen, some only within a few years, would never return to the form of the wild species, without an intermixture. That the negro will remain as he is, unless his form is changed by an amalgamation, which latter is revolting to us. That his intellect, although underrated, is greatly inferior to that of the Caucasian, and that he is, therefore, as far as our experience goes, incapable of self-government. That he is thrown to our protection. That our defense of slavery is contained within the Holy Scriptures. That the Scriptures teach the rights and duties of masters to rule their servants with justice and kindness, and enjoin the obedience of servants.”The Reverend John Bachman, quoted in The New Englander
Bachman presents us with an uncomfortable window into the rationalizations of a racist that is at odds with how many of us wish to think the defenders of slavery supported their views. We are often taught, either explicitly or implicitly, that those who enthusiastically participated in the institution of slavery did so out of a sheer unthinking hatred of Black people. But many of the most vocal– and successful– proponents of racism have sought to make appeals similar to Bachman’s. These people are not soulless monsters without human emotion: they are something far more frightening. They are people who, in some deep reach of their soul, felt the seed of discomfort at what they did. They knew, if only unconsciously, that they were doing something wrong– and so, if they were to live with themselves, they had a choice. They could acknowledge the wrong and repudiate the beliefs they had been taught; or they could rationalize them, to tell themselves and others that that wrong was in fact right. Bachman was one of many who chose the latter.
Bachman’s defense of slavery offers a further level of discomfort for those of us who study evolution. He wrote extensively on his views of humanity as a single species, linking in ideas of what a species is and how they might develop. We know that Darwin read and was influenced by Bachman’s ideas, especially as Darwin himself explored the origin of humanity in later writings. We may not wish to remember today that this toxic vein of scientific racism was a key part of what would become the fields of evolution and genetics, but it is all the more important to acknowledge and challenge for that.
Of all the passages of vile racism that we have uncovered in this project, Bachman’s is one that is among the most haunting. He took what could have been the beginnings of a moral revelation– “we’re all united in our humanity!”– and instead of following them to a conclusion of equality, used them to further defend the right of one human to own another. He was neither the first nor last to make such an argument: after all, it survives in some form to this day. Bachman serves as a warning that, whether someone believes themselves good or not, they can still give life to evils that long outlive them.
Bachman, J. 1888. John Bachman, the pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Charleston: Life and letters. ed. by C.L. Bachman. Walker, Evans, and Cogswell. [link]
Bacon, Leonard W. 1897. A History of American Christianity. The Christian Literature Co. p 278.
Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1772,” accessed on 12 July 2020, https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/DCP-LETT-1772.xml
Maltby, A.H. 1854. The New Englander, Vol. XII. pp. 642-643.