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Slavery and Emancipation

By: Allen C. Guelzo, Patrick Rael
June 27, 2016

In the Spring 2016 CRB, Allen C. Guelzo reviewed Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865, by Patrick Rael. We’re glad that they have agreed to pursue questions about how emancipation happened in this forum. Patrick Rael, a professor of history at Bowdoin College, has written and edited several books on African-American history. Allen Guelzo, a frequent CRB contributor, is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era, and Director of Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College.


Rael: Thank you for this opportunity to discuss my work. I’m grateful for Prof. Guelzo’s thoughtful review.

He worries that my book is tainted with the “self-emancipation” thesis—a term I studiously avoid because of its long association with James McPherson’s mis-characterization of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project’s work (1995). I do indeed seek to understand the role of resistance among people of African descent, and place black agency in the center of the story where it belongs. I do not, however, share Prof. Guelzo’s conception of agency and resistance, which (it seems) flattens the range of possibilities into only two. In his view, one can either argue for the role black agency in the final emancipation or against it. But to claim that the enslaved played a role in their liberation is hardly to assert that they played the only role.

The question is really about how the slaves and their allies helped effect emancipation. Here, the comparative approach I take lets us explore the different ways resistance could influence abolition. Eighty-Eight Years argues that the experience of final emancipation in the United States was singular in the Atlantic world, for here the “slave power” existed cheek-by-jowl next to a thriving free labor economy, and it possessed more than its fair share of political power. Additionally, that power was shared in a highly democratic political system that sought to bury the slavery issue whenever it threatened to sunder two-party politics. (Yes, Jacksonian democracy actually raised the threshold for ending slavery in the U.S.) As a result, extirpating slavery here could be accomplished through no simple act of Parliament or regal dictate—and certainly not the normal operation of two-party politics. It required the fracturing of the political system, and a resort to extra-political means: war.

In the U.S., a dense layer of participatory politics mediated the gulf between black resistance and final emancipation. These politics submerged the significance of slavery’s moral status and of those who initially argued on behalf of slavery’s demise, highlighting instead the consequences of slavery on free society. As a consequence, and as I detail in the book, this alone was insufficient to end slavery. This required the participation of institutions, powerful people, and those with no sympathy for the enslaved. I whole-heartedly agree when Prof. Guelzo notes that “most white Northerners…were more interested in attacking slavery as a medieval and aristocratic labor system…than they were in liberating black people from bondage.”

And yet, ultimately, one causal fact cannot be evaded. None of this could have been possible without slaves who were willing to register their resistance to slavery. This may be so obvious that it is often ignored. Yet it should not be, for nothing else that was done to end slavery—not arguments over tariffs, not efforts to deny slavery’s expansion into the territories, not the fight against gag orders in Congress or the censorship of southern mails—would have mattered had not the enslaved themselves registered a steady stream of discontent. This was the ammunition abolitionists throughout the Atlantic world used to argue that slavery was not the benign and civilizing influence its defenders proclaimed it to be, but a barbaric affront to developing notions of human liberty and human equality.

I seek to tell the story of how this melding of slave resistance and abolitionist ideology played out in the United States, which was unique for reasons stated above. My middle chapters are concerned precisely with how an otherwise indifferent public, which never accepted the abolitionists’ moral claims, came to be sensitized to the slavery issue. The movement may have begun with those who pled for the basic equality and humanity of the slave, but without an alternative appeal it could never have found the necessary traction in a highly democratic, and in our terms highly racist, political system. That appeal emerged most clearly in the form of the “slave power” argument, which posited slaveholders as a threat to the civil liberties of free white northerners.

Let’s consider Prof. Guelzo’s concern with the fugitive slave issue as a key example. It is true that the numbers of slave runaways to the free states remained fairly small as a percentage of the overall slave population. But the consequences of their flight had an impact on the political system wildly disproportionate to their numbers. Whenever abolitionists sought to harbor slaves, free them from confinement, or invoke the legal system on their behalf, they created legal fits for a democratic society that extended rights to the free. Even small numbers of fugitive slaves could fuel this argument by posing insoluble dilemmas for a free society. In states without slavery, did suspected runaways have the right to due process?

The robust Fugitive Slave Law that slaveholding states extracted from the free states in 1850 evidences the momentous consequences of the issue, despite the small absolute numbers involved. In aggressively asserting federal power in defense of slavery, the Fugitive Slave Law helped convince otherwise indifferent northerners that slavery posed a threat — not to the enslaved, but to the liberties of free white Americans. (Other examples could be found in the Gag Rule controversy in Congress and the censorship of southern mails.) After the federal government forced the rendition of fugitive slave Anthony Burns, one Massachusetts manufacturer reflected thus: “We went to bed one night old fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs & waked up stark mad Abolitionists.” Obviously, none of the questions raised by fugitive slaves could have been possible had not the enslaved actually sought liberty through flight. Such clashes—between the liberties assumed to be inherent in citizenship and the slaveholders’ right to protect their property—were among the political issues that convinced sufficient numbers of northerners to vote for a Republican candidate in 1860, and win a plurality of popular votes (and a majority of electoral vote) in a complicated four-way race. And the war that followed necessitated the gradual but total destruction of slavery.

The pressure that slave behavior placed on Union policy played a clear role in promoting the emancipation policy that transformed Union aims from the reversal of secession to the abolition of slavery. I strenuously disagree with Prof. Guelzo when he asserts that the Emancipation Proclamation came first, with “the flight from slavery following.” Voluminous evidence demonstrates that the runaway slaves presented Union generals and policy-makers with innumerable fits from the earliest stages of the war. Even before hostilities began, enslaved African Americans fled to Union-held Fort Pickens in Florida in hope of securing their freedom. As early as May 1861, Union generals were declaring runaway Confederate slave laborers “contraband of war.” It was this pressure—exerted in multiple theaters over the course of the first year of the war—that led Abraham Lincoln to imagine that African Americans might aid the cause militarily rather than be colonized elsewhere. His transformation is evident in the differences between the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 1862 (which advocated colonization) and the final Proclamation of January 1863 (which provided for freedmen’s enlistment in Union forces).

There is more to discuss here. For example, Prof. Guelzo may fairly respond that I have yet to address his point that the slaves’ actions did not evince much in the way of antislavery ideology—which I am eager to do. And he raises important points about Reconstruction that require rebuttal. I look forward to speaking to these points as this conversation continues.


Guelzo: I am no more fond of the term “self-emancipation” than Professor Rael. It is, for one thing, too vague. For another, it is too redolent of Marxist romanticism about the proletariat’s need to emancipate itself without the aid of other classes or sympathizers. But for good or for ill, the “self-emancipation thesis” has become a factor in interpretations of the Civil War and emancipation. And as much as Professor Rael insists that “to claim that the enslaved played a role in their liberation is hardly to assert that they played the central role”—a statement I could not endorse more strongly—he at once undermines that qualification in the same paragraph when he says that he seeks to “place black agency in the center of the story.”

Perhaps it will help if we specify just what it is we are talking about when we speak of slavery and emancipation. Professor Rael’s Eighty-Eight Years is about slavery, and in any account of slavery, the slave really is the central figure, since without the slave, it would be difficult to have a story about slavery. In fact, to keep the slaves’ story central to slavery is, it seems to me, essential to asserting and defending the humanity of the slave.

But emancipation is a different story, and a more confusing story because of the variableness in our use of the word freedom. A slave may be considered spiritually free when there is a refusal to concede ultimate property: No! no! no! my soul an’t yours, Mas’r! You haven't bought it—you can’t buy it. It’s been bought and paid for by one that is able to keep it—no matter, no matter, you can’t harm me! A slave may also be considered free in a de facto sense if the slave is able to be removed from the immediate locale of oppression. I stole myself. I was a piece of property; I was owned; I was what they call a chattel to all intents and purposes by a fair construction of the law; and yet in the face of that fact I took possession of myself, put a bundle on my shoulders and left. Whether in the swamps or on the streets of Boston, the slave is free when loosed from the constraints that used to bind.

But the slave, even if free in these senses—even if free by self-initiative—is not thereby emancipated. That can only happen if the principal stalk of slavery, namely the possibility of chattel property in human beings, is cut down and dug-up by the root. Emancipation is a legal process, enforceable by the same law which once defined the slave as chattel. To say otherwise is to cloud understanding with words, to accept for fact what is actually metaphor.

I recite all of this, hoping not to try Professor Rael’s patience, but because the “self-emancipation thesis” has flourished largely because of a confusion over what we are talking about when we use terms like freedom and emancipation. So, for the simple sake of clarity, can we not agree this far:

  • Did slaves achieve freedom by resisting and running-away? Yes.
  • Was that freedom a permanent and legally-defensible status? No.
  • Did the Emancipation Proclamation confer such a status? Yes.

Professor Rael believes that emancipation begins with “a steady stream of discontent” manifested by “the enslaved themselves.” That there was such a stream, from Equiano to Josiah Henson, is beyond doubt. But did it make any appreciable difference in the legal status of the enslaved? Dred Scott would not have thought so; and the principal reason why Frederick Douglass lived for so many years in Rochester, near the Canadian border, was not because he enjoyed its winters, but because as a fugitive (and still legally a slave) he wanted access to refuge if the slave-hunters came calling. Again: was the influence of these fugitives “wildly disproportionate to their numbers,” to the point where they “could fuel this argument by posing insoluble dilemmas for a free society”? We know how Abraham Lincoln dealt with this “insoluble dilemma” in the 1850s, because he tells us: “I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet.” No consistently anti-slavery political party was organized until the Liberty Party in 1840 and the Free-Soilers in 1848, and we know how very little impression they made on the voting public (less than one-third of a percent for the Liberty Party, 10% for the Free Soilers, and no electoral votes for either). The Anti-Masonic Party made about as equally-good a showing. At least the Anti-Masons got Vermont’s electoral votes.

Finally: is there really “voluminous evidence” which “demonstrates that the runaway slaves presented Union generals and policy-makers with innumerable fits from the earliest stages of the war.” True, runaway slaves sought refuge even before the outbreak of war at Ft. Pickens; what Professor Rael neglects to add is that the commandant, Lt. Adam Slemmer, just as routinely returned them to their owners. One slave even paddled out to Ft. Sumter; he, too, was returned. The same Benjamin Butler who created the category of “contrabands” to receive runaway slaves at Ft. Monroe also assured slaveowners in occupied Baltimore and New Orleans he would certainly aid “in suppressing, most promptly and effectively, any insurrection” by slaves against their masters. The list of Union commanders who ordered the rendition of runaways to their Confederate masters is long and embarrassing—Halleck, McClellan, Grant, Sherman—as is the behavior of ordinary Union soldiers. Although Sgt. Samuel McIlvaine of the 10th Indiana was fighting to deny “the right of any portion of the people of the United States to sever, or rive in twain, and destroy this government, which stands out to the rest of the world as the polestar, the beacon light of liberty & freedom to the human race,” he did nothing when “three or four slave hunters” entered his regiment’s camp after Ft. Donelson and dragged away two or more blacks who “had mixed with the Negro cooks and waiters and were thus endeavoring to effect their escape to the North.” They “had counted on being protected in the regiment,” but McIlvaine and his compatriots, who were so concerned to be a beacon light of liberty and freedom, allowed them to be disarmed and taken “without molestation on our part.”

Professor Rael objects to my placing the Emancipation Proclamation as the real trigger of black flight. But that was not how the fugitives themselves saw matters. Captain Charles B. Wilder, the superintendent of the contraband camp at Fortress Monroe, noticed runaways from as far as North Carolina crowding into the camp who “knew all about the Proclamation and they started on the belief in it.” When Richard Hill was interviewed by a congressional committee on Reconstruction in 1866, and asked when he became free, Hill replied “When the proclamation was issued,” and it was then that he decided to run away from his master in Richmond. Nor does Professor Rael, any more than I do, possess data sufficient to tell us how many slaves actually took the high road to freedom (Secretary Seward thought it was no more than 200,000, which would place Southern black fugitives at a lower number than Southern white refugees) or how they would have been able to exercise “influence” on the decision-making of white politicians in Washington and the Northern state capitals.

Where the slaves probably exercised their greatest influence for freedom was, ironically, in the South—first, by providing the manual labor that Confederates used to fortify themselves (and thus convincing white Northerners that emancipation would provide an incentive for them to desert), and second, as a simple threat-in-being, since no nightmare haunted Southerners more, or kept more able-bodied Southern whites from the front lines, than the prospect of an uprising by slaves on their own plantations in the bloody manner of Nat Turner. They also served who only stood and waited.


Rael: I appreciate Prof. Guelzo’s careful consideration of my response. I do indeed seek to “place black agency in the center of the story”; it belongs there for reasons expounded in my previous post and in the book itself—namely, that African Americans were the vital, if often neglected, actors in the story.

I take Prof. Guelzo’s point to be that true emancipation required freedom from the legal regimes that imposed slavery. We should then add that the enslaved could free themselves from slavery by removing themselves to places where the law of slavery did not pertain (e.g., Britain after 1772) or where it was in the process of contestation (e.g., the “free states” of the North after 1827). This is crucial in understanding how slavery actually ended, for in the major instances of mass emancipation, the assault came from outside the plantation zone. In the case of the U.S., the exceptionally long frontier between the slave and free states provided endless opportunities to undermine the institution through slave flight. The freedom slaves achieved through flight could indeed become permanent and legally defensible, if fugitives could get to a place (such as Canada or Britain) where their freedom could be defended. Throughout the Atlantic, the death of slavery owed to the ideas, and then practices, developed in regions that had rejected slavery. In this way (among others), slave resistance did indeed make an appreciable difference in the legal status of the enslaved. Indeed, arguably the most important precedent for abolition anywhere—the case of Somerset v. Stewart (1772), which abolished slavery in England—concerned a Boston fugitive from slavery.

While U.S. courts shortly began reversing this judicial trend, the slaves’ stream of discontent consistently place the matter into adjudication. It very much mattered even to those such as Dred Scott, who though he lost his rights to a proslavery Supreme Court could never have had his claims considered had he not been offered legal representation by abolitionists who had been long opponents of bondage—on the premise that slave behavior demonstrated that slavery was an inhumane institution. That it took time for a politics of antislavery to develop should shock no one, but there seems to be little doubt that without the Liberty Party’s efforts in the 1840s, there could have been no later Free Soil and Republican Parties. As for how this operated during the war itself, those seeking confirmation that the enslaved themselves impelled union policy (in measures such as the First and Second Confiscation Acts, or the Militia Act) might find useful the first volume produced by Ira Berlin’s Freedmen and Southern Society Project, The Destruction of Slavery (1985).

I suspect that much of the distance between Prof. Guelzo and me concerns the causal proximity of the slaves themselves to Union policymakers. Those demanding to find the enslaved lobbying in the halls of Congress for an emancipation policy will no doubt feel vindicated in arguing for their minimal or direct role. But those interested in the ultimate sources of that policy will find no small quantity of evidence (some of which I reproduce in the book) to demonstrate how important slave behavior was to the evolution of the policies that Congress and the President ultimately pursued. In a larger sense, the long process of ending slavery followed no direct lines, but happened in fits and starts, through circuitous and sometimes self-contradictory means (such as Judge Taney’s infamous ruling in Dred Scott, which produced a backlash that helped put Lincoln in the White House). At all points, though, the only reason the political system could event contest the humanity of slavery was because the slaves themselves compelled them to. And, over time, they and their free black and white allies became increasingly able to frame the slaves’ thirst for liberty in the idioms of liberal democracy.

Ultimately, as we know, slavery actually ended. But I reject out of hand any assertion that the purpose of the book is to offer a narrative that “feels good.” Instead of telling a story of “racial oneness and united racial heroism,” the comparative thrust of the book should remind readers of how difficult the process was in the United States (at least, relative to the methods that freed most other Atlantic slaves). The political process had to be dragged kicking and screaming toward the war, which only in its second phase became one to end slavery.

And the persistence of racism beyond that moment is evident in my treatment of Reconstruction, which illustrates the ways that the interests of capital both north and south merged to deprive the freedpeople of the liberty that was due them. This chapter explicitly resolves Prof. Guelzo’s question, which concerns “the ease with which the old plantation elite…imposed its new serfdom on [the freedpople] during Reconstruction.” That the victorious liberal capitalists of the Union permitted this owed to two major factors, both embedded in liberalism itself. The first was a notion of limited government that could not assert federal power sufficiently to overcome the pervasive exploitation practiced in the Reconstruction South, or the paramilitary violence that eroded Re-publican political power there. The second was that liberalism itself did not dictate that former slaves would be accepted into the ranks of the capital-owning classes after slavery. Throughout the Atlantic, even the great paragon of free trade liberalism—Great Britain—worked to deny freedpeople equality in the labor market, or even the autonomy from it that they desired as the best alternative. In other words, liberalism itself dictated the exploitative nature of post-emancipation race relations.

This is hardly a feel-good story. In fact it should come as a sobering reminder to those who fancifully assert that free market liberalism necessarily yields the greatest liberty. When it came down to honoring the principle of individual freedom in liberalism or the principle of profit through labor expropriation, the latter won out. We should be equally wary of praising the political representatives of liberal capitalism for achieving the end of slavery. As my book discusses, the very history of capitalism that made men property eventually grew to generate an ideology that dictated that people could not be property. The moral algebra here is fascinating, but for good or ill it has certainly not dictated the story I tell.

I am once again grateful to CRB and to Prof. Guelzo for engaging the ideas in Eighty-Eight Years, and am hopeful that readers will evaluate this fruitful discussion by reading the book itself.


Guelzo: Professor Rael has been wonderfully generous in submitting to what amounts to scholarly double-jeopardy, so I would like to say ab initio that (a) most of my objections to the “self-emancipation thesis” were directed at Professor Berlin’s book rather than at Professor Rael’s much more tempered handling of the issue, and (b) that I do not have, and never have had, any objection to the placing of the slave at the center of the slavery story. What I ask is whether the slave was also “at the center of the story” of emancipation, if only because emancipation is a very different story than slavery, and because the slaves very decidedly did not act at the center of that story.

For one thing, they could not have acted at the center of emancipation, because emancipation was a legal process, and the legal standing of slavery was beyond their power to change except in those rare cases where slaves and masters agreed to permit the slave to purchase freedom. Slaves had no representation in Congress (unless one counts the miserable fiction supplied by the three-fifths clause) or in the state legislatures, and thus had no access to anything that could have changed the legal status of chattel slavery. For another thing, they could not have acquired the central place in emancipation through the influence they might have exerted indirectly through their suffering, through resistance, or through flight because that influence was painfully minor, and moral rather than legal in nature. That “exceptionally long frontier between the slave and free states” certainly leaked fugitives; the question is whether it leaked them in numbers that mattered politically, and the answer to that question is no.

Far from that influence playing a role in emancipation, the legal health of slavery had never been better than it was it the 1850s. The Dred Scott decision had opened the territories to unrestricted slaveholding immigration, and the Lemmon case promised to break down the barriers to slaveholding in the free states, while the Ostend Manifesto made it clear that the policies of the dominant political party favored slavery’s expansion through annexation. No wonder Frederick Douglass, on the eve of the Civil War, was preparing a fact-finding tour to Haiti, even though he had opposed colonization all of his life. “To many it has seemed that the portents of the moral sky were all against us,” Douglass wrote despairingly.

There are, alas! too many proofs that the margin of life and liberty is becoming more narrow every year.... The apprehension is general, that proscription, persecution and hardships are to wax more and more rigorous and more grievous with every year; and for this reason they are now, as never before, looking out into the world for a place of retreat, an asylum from the apprehended storm which is about to beat pitilessly upon them.

Lincoln said much the same thing in 1857. “It is grossly incorrect to say or assume, that the public estimate of the negro is more favorable now than it was at the origin of the government.”

All the powers of earth seem rapidly combining against him. Mammon is after him; ambition follows, and philosophy follows, and the Theology of the day is fast joining the cry. They have him in his prison house; they have searched his person, and left no prying instrument with him. One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him, and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key; the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they scattered to a hundred different and distant places; and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced to make the impossibility of his escape more complete than it is.

There is simply no evidence that the reason “the political system” would do something about slavery “was because the slaves themselves compelled them to.” Professor Rael’s direction to consult the first of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project’s volumes of documents will not produce documents showing how slaves “impelled” such policies as the Confiscation Acts or the Militia Act, but it will certainly show examples of indignant slaveholders demanding, and getting, the rendition of slaves who had fled to Union lines in 1861 and 1862. The words impelled or caused become metaphors, not descriptions of literal actions.

What is worthy of further exploration by Professor Rael, myself, and others is the question he raises about the role of liberal capitalism and race in Reconstruction. I have asked why, if the slaves’ influence was so great as to compel emancipation, it seemed so unable to compel a better result to Reconstruction. It seems to me that the answer is a fairly direct one: white Americans in the 19th century, North and South, simply did not care enough about the fate of black people, and black people were too much of a numerical minority to overcome that indifference (not to say hostility).

It was not liberal capitalism, however, which fastened the bonds of Jim Crow. A genuinely liberal order would, as Professor Rael indicates, have followed the path of limited government, but it would have followed it consistently, on both the state and federal level. The white ‘redemption’ governments, like the Confederate government, were anything but liberal regimes; they proposed to inquire, regulate, and suppress the economic and political activities of black and white to a degree which makes the word liberal fail on the lips. The expectation of Reconstruction at its outset was that liberal capitalism would transform the old Southern order into a reflection of Northern free labor; but the old Southern order proved wickedly resourceful in restoring, if not slavery, then a form of land serfdom which served anything but capitalist ends. It is a category error to assume that “the principle of profit” involves “labor expropriation.” If profit was what guided the imposition of Jim Crow, then the South should have been among the most prosperous of regions. Clearly, it was not, and largely because white Southerners built the post-Civil War world on the principle of racial subordination, not profit. The Jim Crow South paid a price for this, in decades of economic backwardness, but the reason was not capitalism, but the refusal to embrace capitalism.