- Slavery, Emancipation, & Freedom: Comparative Perspectives
Slavery, Emancipation, & Freedom is a small book filled with big ideas. In less than one hundred pages of text, Stanley L. Engerman seeks nothing less than to analyze the history of slavery and emancipation. He succeeds admirably. Slavery, Emancipation, & Freedom is filled with provocative questions and important insights put forward in disarmingly understated prose. The book is hard to summarize in a few sentences, in part because of Engerman's subtlety and in part because the book does not have an overarching thesis. Rather, Engerman demonstrates the complexity of slavery and emancipation, deftly reminding readers that the voluminous literature on slavery has left fundamental questions unanswered.
Take, for instance, how Engerman handles the "insider-outsider" dichotomy that scholars frequently use to understand why some peoples are enslaved and others are not. In its most simplistic formulation, the insider-outsider dichotomy supposes that societies must define slaves as "outsiders" because of racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious, or cultural differences. After about 1400, Europeans considered other Europeans as insiders, so Italians did not enslave Germans and the French did not enslave the British. Europeans, however, killed each with great regularity, so that 13 million died in wars between European nations between 1500 and 1900. As Engerman notes, the insider-outsider dichotomy has produced "some unexpected moral stances and puzzling questions . . . wartime murder, rape, pillage, and starvation of other Europeans was seen as acceptable; it was only their enslavement that was not" (pp. 25–26).
As he surveys the history of slavery in the New World, Engerman focuses special attention on the antebellum South. As one might expect from one of [End Page 222] the coauthors of Time on the Cross, Engerman stresses the economic viability of U.S. slavery. Even if slavery deterred the growth of cities and industries—Engerman seems ambivalent on that issue—the institution was hardly in a state of economic crisis when the Civil War occurred. Abraham Lincoln, a great critic of slavery and the southern economy, believed that even if the North stopped the expansion of slavery, the institution would have persisted for at least a century. Here Engerman could have extended his analysis. If U.S. slavery was such a great economic success (at least from the standpoint of whites) and even critics agreed it survived at least another century, then why did the southern states gamble on secession? That gamble, after all, led to the uncompensated emancipation, which diverged dramatically from gradual, compensated emancipation schemes generally implemented throughout the New World.
Energman recognizes that the end of slavery did not necessarily bring "freedom," if only because "freedom" is hard to define, especially when applied to labor markets and access to public services. Yet in other ways Engerman reaffirms the importance of the slavery versus freedom dichotomy. Metaphors such as "wage slavery," he argues, obscure how emancipation brought genuine economic progress, especially in the United States. Ex-slaves tended to work fewer hours at a less intense pace. Literacy increased significantly, and modest economic success allowed some blacks to acquire property. Engerman approvingly quotes Frederick Douglass, who proudly highlighted the "mental, moral, and material improvement" of African Americans even though "no people were ever emancipated under conditions more unfavorable to good results" (72).