Leading Edge: Patrick Rael on the Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865

February 4, 2014, 2:44 pm

Today’s Leading Edge takes up the issue of slavery. Patrick Rael, a historian at Bowdoin, tells us that the end of slavery is a bit more complicated than the Civil War, the 14th Amendment, and Daniel Day-Lewis Abraham Lincoln.

Produced after the Civil War, this map effectively depicted the national “house divided” that in 1858 Republican Abraham Lincoln warned could not stand. Courtesy Library of Congress.

When we think of the ending of slavery in the United States, what comes to mind? Perhaps images of victorious Union armies, of Lincoln promulgating the Emancipation Proclamation, or — as depicted in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film — of Congress’ fateful 1865 vote to amend the Constitution to abolish slavery. The desperate violence of the Civil War dominates the story of the end of slavery. But that’s not quite the way it happened.

We seldom remember that the Civil War ended a story that started almost a century earlier. The American Revolution, with its complex commitment to liberty, actually began the process of ending slavery in the country. Independence initiated a wave of state-centered abolitions that at least nominally freed the northern states — starting in 1777, when Vermont quietly wrote slavery out of its state constitution, and continuing into the 1840s, when New Jersey declared its existing slaves “apprentices for life.” (On the eve of the Civil War, the federal census still listed eighteen unfree citizens of African descent as residents of the Garden State.)

The antebellum struggle against Southern slavery is rarely placed against this earlier history of abolition. That’s what I set out to do. I wanted to place these two waves of emancipation together, as parts of a larger process. Even more broadly, I thought to place it amidst the even broader story of legal slavery’s demise throughout the entire western hemisphere.

Because the real story is that between 1760 and 1888, slavery died in the Atlantic world. Wherever it fell, it fell hard, as planters and defenders of the institution used their control of politics and profits to delay or ease mass emancipation. Yet while slavery was never easy to eradicate, it fell quicker and more easily outside the United States. Here, the process proved particularly difficult, and took a surprisingly long time. Great Britain ended slavery in the British West Indies over the course of five years (1833-1838), while the slaves of St. Domingue wrested freedom from the hands of their French overlords in a bloody rebellion that ended slavery in just three years. Even in Cuba and Brazil, which abolished slavery after the United States, the actual process of ending the institution took place with relative speed and ease. No other society in the Atlantic world endured anything like the nine decades that the United States existed as a nation half slave and half free.

Why did it take so long to end slavery in the United States, and what did it mean that the nation existed for eighty-eight years as a “house divided against itself,” as Abraham Lincoln put it? By setting the experience of the United States in a broader Atlantic context, I am interested in the forces that created the United States’ unique experience with slavery and emancipation.

Antislavery Congressmen, such as Reuben Fenton of New York, excoriated slaveholders and their political representatives as an anti-republican “slave power” bent on subverting democracy to protect their despotic institution. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Here’s the story I am telling: the “slave power” of the United States was, despite its geographic concentration in the South, exceptionally empowered within its nation. Whereas Caribbean slave colonies lay within empires controlled from Europe, the plantation complex in the U.S. existed within the boundaries of a nation built on federalism — in which the Founders’ compromise with slavery guaranteed that slaveholders would enjoy political prestige beyond their numbers. Measures written into the Constitution — such as the twenty year protection of the slave trade and the fugitive slave clause — performed this work. Particularly pernicious was the three-fifths clause, which permitted slave states to add sixty percent of their bound populations to their free populations. This gave the Southern states inordinate power in the halls of Congress and Electoral College, lending slaveholders a disproportionate control of government that reached far into national politics, and protected their institution more effectively than could virtually any other “slave power” of the Atlantic.

No individual piece of this story is a revelation. Surprisingly, though, few scholars have sought to understand the long narrative of slavery’s ending in the United States against a context of Atlantic slavery’s demise. Too many books to list here treat the final ending of slavery in the Civil War, but very few connect it to the revolutionary abolitions. Arthur Zilversmit examined the latter in The First Emancipations: The Abolition of Slavery in the North (Chicago, 1967), a work that, sadly, still stands alone. Works such as Leonard Richard’s The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860 (LSU, 2000) and Elizabeth Varon’s Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (UNC, 2008) are excellent books that span the entire period from the Founding to the Civil War, but their concern with politics writ large tends (understandably) to downplay the significance of people of African descent in the story of their own liberation. Eric Foner’s groundbreaking essays in Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and its Legacy (LSU, 1983) set a powerful agenda for placing U.S. emancipation in transnational perspective, but as lectures concerned mainly with the final ending of slavery, they did not essay coverage of the entire story. An important essay by James Oakes — “The Political Significance of Slave Resistance,” History Workshop, 22 (Autumn, 1986) — first suggested the depths to which slavery behavior and the antislavery cause in the United States may have been inextricably bound. Most inspirational has been the work of Ira Berlin, who has done more than perhaps any other to (as I think of it) explore the “edges” of slavery: free blacks in a slave society, the ending of the institution in the Civil War, and its transnational beginnings. (I understand that Professor Berlin is currently working on essays that will also bind together the first and second emancipations.)

In such an atmosphere, how was the Slave Power of the South overcome? Bringing together the first and second emancipations brings to the fore aspects of the antislavery struggle in the United States that rendered it even more profoundly important than we had thought. In particular, it highlights the seminal, underappreciated role that enslaved and free people of African descent played in bringing about slavery’s demise.

Everywhere, of course, slaves resisted their enslavement, at times through collective, violent rebellion. In the United States, though, the presence of a large white settler population challenged slave resistance more than they did elsewhere. But the presence of a large population of unenslaved people of African descent — who, unlike as in many other parts of the Atlantic, closely identified with the enslaved — offset this disadvantage, aiding the cause of freedom immeasurably. Free black activists such as David Walker, Maria Stewart, and Frederick Douglass occupied the liminal ground between slavery and freedom. They suffered the indignities of caste degradation, but also enjoyed the benefits of participating, albeit precariously, in a society that conceded them fragile freedoms of speech and assembly.

This group formed a critical nexus between the enslaved, who had no voice in political tribunals, and a public culture that prized the principle of liberty. Adopting ideas from the age of democratic revolutions, free black activists inspired a mass movement in the free states to abolish slavery by translating the meaning of slave resistance to a white public zealous of its own (though often not blacks’) freedoms. Even when appeals to slaves’ humanity failed, the Slave Power’s abrogation of cherished American liberties set the nation on the path of conflict. This unique melding of slave resistance and abolitionism slowly came to dominate the political system, until the slave interest of the United States South reacted by seceding from the union. And secession created the national bloodbath that ultimately required slavery’s complete destruction. While often abolitions took place amidst wars as the handmaiden of national independence movements, only in the United States did slavery end as a result of a war that began over the institution itself.

Patrick Rael is Associate Professor of History at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He is the author of Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (North Carolina, 2002), co-editor of Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest Literature (Routledge, 2001), and editor of African-American Activism before the Civil War: The Freedom Struggle in the Antebellum North (Routledge, 2008). Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery, 1777-1865 is under submission at the University of Georgia Press, for its series Race and Atlantic World, 1700-1900.

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