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The Complicated Histories of Emancipation: State of the Field at 150

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 41, Number 4, December 2013
pp. 665-671 | 10.1353/rah.2013.0111

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The sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, issued in the midst of the Civil War in 1863, has proven to be a veritable boon to emancipation studies. Several recently published books, including those considered in this essay, have added depth and dimension to the story of the coming of emancipation. The question remains whether they add anything to the history that has now become familiar to scholars of the period. The broad outlines of a new and dynamic understanding of emancipation were first sketched by historians involved in the Freedmen’s and Southern Society project, the collation and publication of documents from the National Archives in a multivolume set nearly a quarter of a century ago and still ongoing. They first delineated emancipation as a process that involved many historical actors. Often caricatured as positing a “self-emancipation” thesis, the Freedom series carefully illustrated the unfolding of emancipation at various levels, the movement of slaves toward the Union Army, the actions of soldiers and generals in the field, congressional acts and resolutions, decisions made by the Lincoln administration, black military service, and the attempt of former slaves to define their own freedom. This pioneering work underlies all three books.

James Oakes’ Freedom National builds on that project and even adopts the subtitle of the first volume, The Destruction of Slavery. But Oakes adds to that story considerably and shifts the focus from the slaves themselves to Republicans in Congress. The book’s central contribution lies in giving the antislavery convictions of the Republican Party a starring role in the history of emancipation. Oakes traces the Republicans’ two-pronged emancipation strategy based on antislavery constitutional theory and military emancipation to the period before the Civil War. He correctly draws attention to the abolitionist origins of antislavery constitutionalism but flattens the rich abolitionist debate over the U.S. Constitution. Oakes dismisses the Garrisonian view of the Constitution as proslavery and the contention of political abolitionists such as William Goodell, Gerrit Smith, and Frederick Douglass that the Constitution gave the federal government the power to abolish slavery in the states. He is mainly interested in recovering that trajectory of abolitionist constitutional thinking that became political orthodoxy among Free Soilers—the notion that the federal government could constitutionally limit the spread of slavery in areas under its jurisdiction, including the District of Columbia, the federal territories, and the high seas, but not in the Southern states where it was constitutionally protected. In the 1830s, however, when abolitionists such as Theodore Weld pioneered this strategy, they never substituted it for their demand for the immediate, uncompensated abolition of slavery, as antislavery politicians would in later decades. Oakes also does not dwell on the constitutional debate within the abolitionist Liberty Party that led to its split and incorporation in larger Free Soil political coalitions in subsequent decades.

While Oakes is clearly on solid ground in emphasizing the antislavery nature of the Republican Party—an argument made previously by historians Eric Foner, Richard Sewall, and Frederick Blue—he goes further in arguing that the containment of slavery, creating a “cordon of freedom” to hem in the slave states, was really an emancipationist project. In order to make his case, he emphasizes the words and actions of the most abolitionist-minded Republicans: Charles Sumner’s “Freedom National” speech and the views of Salmon Chase, who had a long history of developing antislavery constitutional theory as “the attorney general of fugitive slaves” and as a leading politician in the Liberty, Free Soil, and Republican parties. Ignoring the divisions between the various wings of the Republican Party or reading the party as radicalism-writ-large enables Oakes to view it as not merely non-extensionist but emancipationist. It is not clear whether Free Soilism that visualized the “ultimate extinction” of slavery in the distant future—a hundred years for Lincoln—constituted a viable emancipation strategy. Abolitionists did not think so, even though most viewed Republicans as political allies.

By collapsing the differences between abolitionism and antislavery ideas, Oakes does his own arguments a disservice by overstating them. According to him, emancipation was always on the Republican agenda and, at the very start of the war, Republicans started devising ways to attack...

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