- I Freed Myself: African American Self-Emancipation in the Civil War Era by David Williams
David Williams has given us a thorough and provocative statement of the “self-emancipation thesis” and in the process has painted a vivid picture of slave flight, slave resistance, and slave collaboration with the Union armies. Together they form a composite picture of an oppressive institution being dramatically shaken to pieces from within. Self-emancipation, as a thesis, has a long history, stretching back to W. E. B. Du Bois and Herbert Aptheker in the 1930s and popularized more recently by Vincent Harding and Barbara J. Fields. It has the additional attraction of promoting black agency, as Williams’s accounts of Duncan Winslow, Harriet Tubman, Robert Smalls, John S. Rock, and many others tellingly demonstrate. [End Page 166]
In particular, Williams is determined to throw off the inhibitions attached to black agency by the image of Abraham Lincoln as “the Great Emancipator.” It was not Lincoln, in Williams’s reckoning, who conferred emancipation, but self-emancipated slaves who forced Lincoln to formulate policies that reflected the self-emancipated reality. Slaves “were not waiting for Lincoln. They would start the war themselves” rather than “simply waiting for either the Lord or the Yankees to give them freedom,” until “by 1863, there was a full-blown inner civil war going on within the South” (56, 19, 86). Lincoln, by contrast, believed that slavery was wrong, but he was waging his war for the Union, and with no interest in black civil rights. The Emancipation Proclamation, Williams insists, was never more than a partial emancipation scheme, and it was never embraced by Lincoln with more than half a heart, as a sop to the Radicals of his own party and a device to fend off European intervention. Colonization and deportation, Williams insists, remained Lincoln’s policies to the end.
Impassioned as Williams’s argument is, there remain several important questions that I Freed Myself does not fully answer. The first and largest problem is numbers. For self-emancipated slaves to have “pushed the nation toward legal emancipation,” they would have had to constitute at least a critical political mass; yet at no point does Williams specify how many slaves actually defected to the North or present data about the deleterious effects on the Confederate economy of those defections or slave resistance (75). Probably our best estimate of the numbers of such freedom seekers during the war years would emerge from the camp registers maintained by the “contraband” camps, as ordered by the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission (AFIC) in 1863. And even if we grant William Henry Seward’s off hand estimate at Hampton Roads in 1865 that 200,000 slaves had found refuge with the Union armies, we are still talking about less than 5 percent of the total enslaved population of the Confederate states.1 And as Williams concedes, the presence of the contrabands on northern soil actually generated serious racist reaction in the North, so in that respect, any pressure the contrabands were exerting was just as liable to move in the opposite direction from emancipation. Moreover, none of these fugitives were in a position to vote, so it is not clear from Williams’s account what political leverage they could have exercised anyway.
But there is also a legal problem lurking behind Williams’s assertion that fugitive slaves were “in effect, freeing themselves,” a problem contained in the two words “in effect” (93). A fugitive slave might achieve de facto freedom by escaping from a master, just as Frederick Douglass did; [End Page 167] but that escape did not confer de jure freedom. Fugitives can be arrested, extradited, and reimprisoned at will, and they cannot own property and enjoy civil standing in their own names. If the Civil War had ended in some form of negotiated settlement, it is difficult to believe that southern negotiators would not have demanded rendition of their fugitives and equally difficult to believe that...