- Emancipating New York: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom, 1777–1827, and: Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from the Revolution to Nat Turner’s Rebellion
Slavery, freedom, race, and citizenship are the central themes in two recent works focusing on emancipation from the Revolutionary era to the antebellum period. These studies demonstrate that the histories of [End Page 491] the emancipation issue in New York and Virginia were alike in important ways, and together they illuminate the ways that emancipation was linked to a range of ideological positions on slavery and race.
In Emancipating New York: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom, 1777–1827, David N. Gellman mines the New York press and legislative records to focus on the events, ideological debates, and discourse leading to and following the passage of that state’s 1799 gradual abolition law, a history that has eluded close examination. Gellman argues that emancipation in New York cannot be explained by Revolutionary ideology. Emancipation became a real possibility only when politics in the state legislature became amenable to this change. Through his exhaustive, careful work in combing the New York press, as well as legislative sources, Gellman demonstrates that slavery was a pervasive issue in New York that surfaced in discussion of the major national topics of the day. Gellman also draws attention to the critical role of “literary antislavery” in keeping the issue alive, particularly after the failure of gradual emancipation in 1785.
Eva Sheppard Wolf in Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from the Revolution to Nat Turner’s Rebellion challenges in important respects our understanding of emancipation ideology in post-Revolutionary Virginia. She argues that in Virginia “liberty” was a racial concept, and that the pockets of Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, and antislavery radicals notwithstanding, the issue of emancipation became politicized in a way that was not akin to Revolutionary ideals.
State politics are critical in both histories. In New York, the newer northern and western counties where slavery was weak shifted the composition and majority interest of the legislature enough to allow for the passage of the 1799 gradual emancipation law. In a similar situation, Wolf demonstrates that slavery as an issue was coupled with a struggle for power between the newer nonslaveholding counties in western Virginia and the state’s eastern counties where slavery had a strong presence. Slaveholding elites in Virginia prevented the reapportionment and wide access to the suffrage that threatened their political status and interest in maintaining slavery. While Wolf frames this struggle for power as one between elites and more ordinary men, however, the definition of “ordinary” is not entirely clear. Does “ordinary” mean nonslaveholding, or was there a grassroots movement against slavery in Virginia’s western region? In any case, matters of regional political interest and representation in each state were critical in determining the fate of emancipation. [End Page 492]
One of Wolf ’s best contributions lies in her recasting of events that addressed various aspects of slavery. She argues that the prohibition on slave importation, the colonization movement, and manumission reform might look like avenues to abolition, but that the intent in these projects has been misinterpreted. As her work reveals, ending the importation of slaves to Virginia was a measure designed to benefit the state’s eastern slaveholders economically, while the aim of the colonization movement was to create an all-white society, and manumission laws were intended to discourage the very practice that they addressed. Moreover, Virginians disagreed about whether slavery upheld or harmed white liberty. Finally, the idea of emancipation in Virginia always clashed with whites’ fears of a growing free black population, and particularly so after the 1831 Nat Turner rebellion, the event that opened and closed debate in the legislature...