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  • Comparative Perspectives on Emancipation in the U.S. South:Reconstruction, Radicalism, and Russia
  • Peter Kolchin (bio)

In this article I address three interrelated subjects: emancipation, the history of the U.S. South (and to a lesser extent Russia) in the era of emancipation, and comparative history.1 I begin by placing American emancipation in a general context and then narrow the focus by comparing the two largest of the many nineteenth-century emancipations from forced labor, that of the slaves in the southern United States and the serfs in Russia, before returning at the end to consider southern emancipation in temporal as well as geographic context.2 By focusing on the South in broader perspective, I hope to highlight what can be gained by using comparative analysis to consider questions that are usually addressed in individual locations and to explore how the way a subject is framed can shape our understanding of that subject.3 As this focus suggests, my use of the concept "comparison" is what might be called "soft" or "loose-constructionist," and includes a variety of components designed to accentuate context. This approach is based on the belief that traditional historical judgments are often implicitly comparative, and that providing explicit context, even when focusing on developments in individual locations, can help us make sense of these judgments and of the issues behind them, and thereby improve our understanding of the past.4

The essential starting point when placing southern emancipation in general comparative perspective is the unusual way that it arrived—through civil war. Indeed, in some ways, what is most distinctive about both the American Civil War and emancipation is their intersection: they occurred together and profoundly shaped each other. If the most momentous consequence of the Civil War was the abolition of slavery, a key feature of that abolition—one with essential implications for what was to follow—lay in its particular wartime origins, which allowed for an unusually radical break with the past. This radicalism has been partially obscured by an ongoing if often fruitless debate over the radicalism of Reconstruction: because a [End Page 203] central part of Reconstruction consisted of setting the terms of emancipation, a brief reconsideration of what is involved in characterizing the significance of Reconstruction—in particular through disentangling two different meanings of its radicalism—can help set the stage for evaluating emancipation itself.

Some four decades ago, Bernard A. Weisberger described Reconstruction historiography as a "dark and bloody ground." In many ways, it still is. Although the issues at the forefront of historical debate have shifted—to take one example, scholars no longer spend nearly so much time as they used to trying to define the various factions of congressional Republicans—consensus on the "big" historical questions remains as elusive as ever. Some scholars see Reconstruction as leading to a fundamental transformation of southern—and indeed American—society; in Eric Foner's words, "the term 'revolution' has reappeared in the most recent literature as a way of describing the Civil War and Reconstruction." Others, however, continue to be more impressed by continuity than by transformation, and even Foner qualified the assertion of revolutionary change by terming Reconstruction "America's Unfinished Revolution." The very meaning of the term "Reconstruction" seems uncertain and variable: sometimes it appears as a period (usually, but not always, 1865-1877), sometimes as a process of rebuilding (with multiple versions of what was being rebuilt), and sometimes as a movement (although there is little agreement on its prime movers and their goals). No wonder people find Reconstruction so confusing. It is noteworthy that even as they eagerly assimilate the latest research on slavery, talking comfortably about such concepts as slave agency and the internal economy, students and the general public often continue to express stereotypical, outdated views of Reconstruction not far removed from those of William A. Dunning.5

I believe that a comparative approach can help us make sense of some of these interpretive problems. Virtually all historical statements of significance are implicitly comparative. The assertion that "Reconstruction was harsh," for example, implies that it was harsh compared to some assumed standard—either what was desired (which varied, of course, with who did the...


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