In “The Long Emancipation,” the distinguished University of Maryland historian Ira Berlin provides an important reinterpretation of “the transformation of millions of men and women from property to person.” Berlin’s “Slaves Without Masters” and “Many Thousands Gone” remain essential works on free blacks in the Old South and the first two centuries of slavery in North America, respectively.
Most writers explain slavery’s abolition as commencing with the “immediatist” abolitionists in the 1830s and culminating with President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.
Within that chronological range historians often debate who – the blacks themselves or Lincoln and his army – actually freed the South’s 4 million slaves.
Berlin challenges both interpretations, arguing “that freedom’s arrival was the product not of a moment or a man, but of a process in which many participated ... a near-century-long process.”
“The demise of slavery was not so much a proclamation as a movement; not so much an occasion as a complex history with multiple players and narratives.” Far from a short linear path, “emancipation’s road was long and bumpy.”
His identification of emancipation’s “long” history positions Berlin with other historians who extend the chronological boundaries (and complexity) of their subjects. His approach broadens emancipation, “restoring a sense of contingency” to a tangled social and political movement, “and undermining the aura of invincibility that attaches itself to a winning cause.” In charting abolition’s history from the late 18th century until the 1860s, Berlin identifies several distinctive elements that ran through all phases of the movement.
Across time and space, black people, free and slave, led the abolitionist crusade. Not only did they clamor for freedom, but African-Americans demanded unconditional freedom and citizenship, consistently basing their case for racial equality on the Declaration of Independence and biblical injunctions. And violence was ubiquitous between blacks determined to be free and whites equally committed to retaining their uncompensated labor. By 1861 blacks concluded “that freedom was not to be given; it had to be taken.”
Berlin’s most original contribution lies in underscoring the pervasiveness of violence throughout emancipation’s long history. “Slavery everywhere had begun in violence, rested on violence, and nearly always ended in violence,” he explains. Emancipation constituted a bloody struggle at every turn.
Berlin details “the ceaseless carnage that manifested itself in every confrontation between master and slave.” North and South, the blacks’ quest for freedom “was one of violent, bloody conflict that left a trail of destroyed property, broken bones, traumatized men and women, and innumerable lifeless bodies. It was manifested in direct confrontations, kidnappings, pogroms, riots, insurrections and finally open warfare.”
In 1822, for example, a black Marylander ambushed a slave trader en route south with the man’s family. He “lodged the content of a musket” in the slave dealer’s side. Seven years later David Walker, a free-born North Carolinian, published “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World,” a manifesto calling black people to arms if necessary. Walker implored blacks to confront their oppressors and, if confrontations turned violent, they should “kill or be killed.”
In September 1851 blacks in Christiana, Penn., fought off a slaveholder and federal marshals in search of four fugitive slaves. In the North blacks transformed vigilance committees into armed militias, including the Hannibal Guards of Brooklyn and Boston’s Liberty Guard.
Racial “cross-currents,” Berlin writes, often “made for a war-zone.”
In the end, continuity, not discontinuity, defined American emancipation. “The characteristics of antebellum and wartime emancipation were much the same,” Berlin insists. “They differed according to time and place, as any historical phenomena do, but their long history can be understood as one piece.”
John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at UNC Charlotte. His latest book is “Soldiering for Freedom” (with Bob Luke).
The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States
Harvard University Press, 227 pages