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THE nation is suddenly called to preside at the birth of a race. Such a crisis—‘a nation born in a day’—devolves upon rulers and people grave responsibilities” (BEL, 1862: 1). These dramatic lines, proclaiming another “primal scene” in American history, opened the petition submitted by the Boston Emancipation League to Congress in late 1862. The league proposed the creation of an emancipation bureau to accumulate information about and devise policies for the newly freed slaves, many of whom had already congregated behind Union lines. In March 1863, following the Emancipation Proclamation, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton appointed Robert Dale Owen, Samuel Gridley Howe, and James McKaye to serve as the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission (AFIC) to investigate “the condition of the [emancipated] colored population . . . and to report what measures will best contribute to their protection and improvement . . . and, also how they can be most carefully employed . . . for the suppression of the rebellion” (U.S. War Department, Series III, Vol. III: 73-74). By this phase of the war the government was facing a true emergency —the pressing need to manage the mushrooming refugee camps, to find work for former slaves, and to guarantee their wellbeing . Even though the end of the war was not yet in sight, a SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 1 (Spring 2003) The Predicament of Racial Knowledge: Government Studies of the Freedmen during the U.S. Civil War OZ FRANKEL debate was already brewing on the nature of future racial arrangements . The Emancipation Proclamation (and later the Thirteenth Amendment) sealed the fate of slavery, but not that of the former slave. While bondage as a social institution was doomed, the status of the freedmen in the South (and free blacks everywhere ) remained unclear. Should they be made equal members of society? Could they become full citizens? The modalities of public debate were reshaped to address these and other social issues that emanated from the war experience. Government, previously silent on the question of slavery, targeted the South with new fact-finding tools. Indeed, the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission has been long recognized as the author of “a blueprint for radical reconstruction” (Sproat, 1957; McPherson, 1964: 178-191). The commission’s political influence was admittedly modest, but its reports were the first to articulate principles and propose programs that foreshadowed most of the innovations of later years, including the creation of a Freedmen’s Bureau, the granting of full citizenship to African-Americans, an irrevocable prohibition of slavery, and the enlistment of 300,000 black soldiers . Through these and similar measures the AFIC devised a plan for the full social and political integration of African-American slaves and descendents of slaves—the quintessential pariah group in American history. It is the birth of a race and of a nation, both as a question of knowledge and a subject of a state-sponsored full-scale investigation , that this article focuses on. The commission’s work was symptomatic (and symbolic) of a particular historical moment when slaves moved away from their masters’ gaze to become instead a domain of knowledge and activity for the state as well as a host of reform organizations. In addition to policy recommendations , the three commissioners provided a synoptic view of the past, present, and future of blacks in America, thus triggering a long and ambiguous history of federal attempts to address the question of race. The circumstances of the Civil War (and later Reconstruction) generated a substantial economy of information 46 SOCIAL RESEARCH on the South and the freedmen that was distinct from previous abolitionist efforts to garner facts about the slave and the plantation . Most important, at this juncture Northern attention was turning its main focus from the master’s whip and the slave’s lacerated back to the “Negro-subject” himself: his aptitude, character , and ability to participate in the market and the polity. The following discussion explores the commission’s “fieldwork” in search of black subjectivity, its selection of evidence, the subsequent reports, and their conceptual underpinnings. The relationship between social knowledge and government is also examined. The AFIC appointment appears to epitomize the proclivity of the modern state to enlist knowledge or science to define...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 45-81
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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