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"Drapetomania": Rebellion, Defiance and Free Black Insanity in the Antebellum United States


This dissertation investigates how Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright used science to manufacture consent among slave laborers in the antebellum South. I hope to contribute to debates on black health by addressing the issue of mental health and the role of race in the history of psychiatry. Cartwright's early essays and anonymous publications, heretofore addressed, provide unique insight into what led the physician to articulate blacks' acts of defiance and rebellion as instances of mental instability. Instead of viewing black people's vigilance for freedom as earnest, Cartwright was well known for having delineated a variety of mental disorders to which he claimed all Africans were prone, including shirking work related responsibilities (Dysaesthesia Aethiopica), and the practice of running away to freedom (Drapetomania). This dissertation demonstrates how Cartwright mobilized statistics and diagnostic categories in hopes to convince others to limit black mobility and to eliminate power-sharing.

Whether in the form of whites negotiating with slaves, providing incentives for them to work harder, or by rejecting the "Free Negro" category altogether, Cartwright saw his duty as twofold: to correct what he argued was the misguided notion that some blacks held the capacity to endure freedom whereas others did not, and to put forth a therapeutic regimen by which to curb blacks' enthusiasm for freedom -- he repudiated gradual and immediate abolition altogether and advocated instead that whites worldwide reduce all blacks to slavery. Following the lead of the Founding generation Cartwright reasoned that there were structurally-based, mental and physiological differences between blacks and whites which led blacks to be governed differently and through coercion. So, in addition to being innovate in his diagnostic claims, on par with Jefferson's accomplishment in Notes on the State of Virginia, Cartwright consolidated existing scientific opinion and then gave it powerful and influential articulation. He motivated a trans-Atlantic debate about "Free Negro Insanity" which reflected widespread 19th century scientific thinking about race, slave management and stimulating correct conduct in laborers. An inquiry into "Free Negro Insanity" enables a conversation about how trans-Atlantic science and medicine served the requirements of slavery as an institution; how science is used to determine what constituted a slave's status, what was meant by a slave "running away" and why slaves' "mental competence" was necessarily an issue. By examining the genealogy of Cartwright's concepts, one can see better his process of concept-creation and inquire into how `objects' in science get created or set aside for study.

Cartwright wrote extensively on the need for Southerners to pursue independent medical education as a way to explore diseases particular to the Southern climate and "its Negroes." But despite the fact that Cartwright's early work (published before his tenure as "Professor of Negro Diseases" at the University of Louisiana) established his career and achieved him status, scholars address it rarely. I argue that charting how he achieves, loses and then regains his status provides a unique window into the thinking of the emerging plantation aristocracy on how to regulate "Free Negro" activity in the Mississippi and Louisiana territories as well as in the English, Spanish and French West Indies. This inquiry into conduct disorder and defiance diagnoses helps readers to see both medicine's curative and productive values. The implications of such a focus stretch from the applied science of 19th century "Negro Management" handbooks and "Plantation Manuals" to the 20th century presence of medical diagnoses like "Attention Deficit Disorder" (A.D.D.), "Hyperactivity Disorder" (A.D.H.D.), and "Oppositional Defiance Disorders" (O.D.D.) which are aimed at curbing the behavior of disobedient, defiant and rebellious youth through pharmaceutical treatments.

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