Life and work of James McCune Smith (1813-1865)
Cools, Amy M.
James McCune Smith (1813-1865) was the first African American physician to practice in the United States with a medical degree. He was among the most educated African Americans of his day, having earned three degrees at the University of Glasgow. McCune Smith was also the first African American to have work published in European and US medical journals; an early and central leader in the Colored Convention Movement; author of a series of experimental essays foundational to African American literature; and among the most prolific authors in the antebellum African American press. His immense influence is revealed in myriad primary and secondary sources relating to the African American struggle for freedom before and during the US Civil War and to the African American literary tradition. Yet while he is so often cited by contemporaries and later scholars as a leader and major influence in African American intellectual, cultural, and civil rights history, McCune Smith has yet to be the subject of a full-length dedicated biography. This thesis is written with the view that McCune Smith is among the most significant figures in American history to lack a full biography. It seeks, among other things, to remedy this lack, filling in gaps in existing literature on McCune Smith’s origins and on major events and themes in his life. It will do so in a series of six chapters. Chapter One explores McCune Smith’s origins and life in New York City and argues that this context is vital for understanding McCune Smith’s lifetime of achievement and activism. Chapter Two argues that McCune Smith was the first full-fledged African American polymath as well as the preeminent African American intellectual of the 19th century. Chapter Three argues that the significance of McCune Smith’s pioneering medical career may lie more in the holistic nature of the practice he established than in the fact that he broke multiple racial barriers that African Americans faced in that field. Chapter Four argues that that McCune Smith played a more central and enduring role in the history of the African American press than is generally recognized in the relevant literature; that the subtle, complex, and often controversial ideas he expressed in his articles may have caused him to be marginalized by scholars; and that these ideas represent significant contributions to many arenas of thought. Chapter Five argues that McCune Smith’s broad conception of slavery drove his lifelong opposition to it in all its forms, from what he described as the caste system which oppressed African Americans in the North to the legalised system of chattel slavery in the South. Chapter Six traces the origins and development of McCune Smith as a scientific thinker and author. It argues that his thinking in these fields was centered on one foundational theory: that humankind consisted of a single race, classifiable into groups or ‘races’ only according to mutable characteristics caused by local circumstances. It also argues that among McCune Smith’s most significant contributions to what he called the ‘dawning science of race-history’ was his development of the theory that African Americans had arisen as an indigenous American people.