In Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All, David Roediger argues that the self-emancipation of the slaves during the American Civil War deeply affected other emancipationist movements, particularly women’s rights and white workers’ movements [End Page 105] with “its powerful ‘moral impetus’ and its practical example” (p. 106). Roediger highlights the broad revolutionary possibility of the moment wherein the development of a “hydra of liberation movements” (p. 14) offered a nineteenth-century precursor to the Rainbow Coalition and all its potential. As he systematically traces the connections between movements, Roediger also carefully unearths the seeds of their destruction that lay in both internal divisions and external pressures. Rather than a traditional narrative of Reconstruction, Seizing Freedom compels readers to consider the eras of emancipation and Reconstruction (referred to in the text as “Jubilee,” as freedpeople conceived of it) as one in which a variety of social movements that existed simultaneously drew inspiration from a notion of liberation enacted and defined by the slaves themselves.
Roediger’s argument rests precisely on the proposition that the emancipation of the slaves was an act of self-emancipation, decisively staking his claim in the contested historiographical debate over the question of who freed the slaves. Taking up W. E. B. Du Bois’s notion of “the general strike of the slaves,” Roediger offers an approach to the postwar era as one that “hearkens less to Marx than to Black Reconstruction as the most fully realized work of Marxist history of the United States” (p. 12). Presenting slaves’ self-liberation in the interpretive framework of a workers’ revolution facilitates a clearer understanding of the potential for an alliance among women’s rights activists, white laborers, African Americans, and (as briefly mentioned in the text) other oppressed peoples such as Native Americans and Chinese immigrant workers.
Using an extensive array of primary and secondary sources and demonstrating an impressive command of the variety of historical approaches to the era, Roediger explores the intersections between emancipation and organizations of oppressed peoples. Initially, Roediger turns to innovations by scholars of disability studies to illustrate the era’s ripeness for revolution in the loosening of the linkage between whiteness and (manly) independence as disabled veterans returned home from the war and as women and African Americans [End Page 106] displayed their “ability” in the war effort. Roediger follows by making the intricate and compelling case for the ways in which the realization of the impossible—the slave’s self-emancipation—fueled and connected the variety of social movements of the time, especially the laborers’ campaigns for an eight-hour working day and women’s rights activists’ campaigns for suffrage. As the author notes, “As slaves acted to change things for themselves, horizons broadened for almost everyone” (p. 106).
Ultimately, racist, sexist, and anti-immigrant attitudes that served to divide the movements undermined the revolutionary potential of the era, or as Roediger so aptly put it, “dimmed” the “glimmers of solidarity” among the three groups (p. 149). Such divisions also made way for white supremacists’ terror campaigns to push back the gains of emancipation. In addition, Roediger makes the case that the “warring ideals” of the Republican Party, those of “abolition-democracy” and “industry for private profit” (pp. 182–83) assured that it would offer neither the necessary support that each individual group needed to achieve its aims—especially in terms of land redistribution for African Americans—nor the support that a group of social movements needed in order to unite.
We often think of the decades following the Civil War in terms of what was gained and then lost, particularly by African Americans. Roediger offers the more hopeful notion of how the slave’s self-emancipation sparked a sense of what was possible. It is exactly this optimism and ingenuity that makes Seizing Freedom such an exciting and instructive read, both in terms of rethinking the past and reimagining the present. [End Page 107]
ELIZABETH REGOSIN is a professor of history at St. Lawrence University. She is...