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Reviews in American History 30.1 (2002) 58-65

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Partisan Politics And The End Of Slavery

Herman Belz

Michael Vorenberg. Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xviii + 305 pp. Illustrations, appendix, bibliography, and index. $29.95.

For more than three decades a substantial body of historical writing has illuminated the nature, scope, and purpose of national civil rights policy in the Civil War era. Influenced by the modern civil rights movement, this scholarship rests on the assumption that historical study can make an essential contribution to the elimination of racial inequality and discrimination from American society. In the civil rights revisionist interpretation the abolition of slavery and enactment of civil rights guarantees for African Americans, although recognized as having a partisan dimension, have generally been viewed as embodying a higher and more enlightened type of public policy than that which results from the interest group conflicts that are usually seen as the norm in American politics.

Michael Vorenberg's study of the framing and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment acknowledges, and to some extent depends upon, the contribution of civil rights revisionist scholarship. Yet the era of the civil rights revolution is over, and Vorenberg has little interest in the relationship between historical research and the solution of contemporary civil rights issues. To be sure, at the end of his study he observes that "as modern society becomes increasingly complex, unanticipated forms of oppression will surface, and the struggle for personal liberty will take on unexpected dimensions." When this happens it will require "a reconsideration of the Thirteenth Amendment's meaning" (p. 250). Yet the logical inference of this book, consistent with the methodology on which it rests, is that nothing which the authors of the amendment thought or intended will affect future struggles against oppression. As a matter of practical reason this is probably not true. However this is not the place to take up a philosophical question that, while implicit in his writing, is not directly addressed in the author's research design. Suffice it to say that Vorenberg is content--emphatically so--to distance himself from scholars who have sought to recover the true or original meaning of the Thirteenth Amendment. [End Page 58]

Intending his book not as a brief for or against any specific reading of the amendment, Vorenberg writes as a philosophical historicist. His aim is "to place the amendment in its proper historical context by recreating the climate in which the measure was drafted, debated and adopted" (p. 2). Although examining the congressional debates on the subject in great detail, Vorenberg regards the activity of elite deliberative bodies as "simply one part, albeit the most visible part, of a social and political process of [higher] law making" (p. 3). His research design emphasizes what can be referred to as popular or cultural constitutionalism. From this perspective he views the making of the antislavery amendment as "the fluid interaction between politics, law, and society in the Civil War era" (p. 3).

In the broadest sense Vorenberg argues that the Thirteenth Amendment "was, above all, a product of historical contingency" (p. 3). In offering this thesis the author appears to have in mind something other than that the obvious consideration that the South might have won the war, in which case slavery would not have been abolished. His point, rather, is to criticize scholars who have treated the antislavery amendment "as a predictable epilogue to the Emancipation Proclamation or as an obligatory prologue to the Fourteenth Amendment" (p. 2). Vorenberg is interested in politics, not the philosophy of history. In emphasizing the contingent nature of the antislavery amendment he seeks to convey the idea that the amendment was not a deliberately conceived project with an agreed upon purpose. To ask what its framers and ratifiers thought they were adopting is to indulge in teleological thinking. Such thinking is unhistorical, Vorenberg says, for it makes the framers "seem more focused on the amendment than they actually were" (p. 249). Far from inevitable or necessary, passage...


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