Emancipation, Slavery, Abolition, Thirteenth Amendment
Students searching the stacks of their local library for an explanation of the long and winding effort to rid slavery from the soil of the United States often discover that a profusion of books have been devoted to this complicated subject. Bookshelves sag from an impressive harvest of scholarship, but a quick scan of titles often leaves prospective readers overwhelmed and unnerved. Allen Carden seeks to make this formidable subject a little less daunting by synthesizing much of the extant literature in Freedom’s Delay: America’s Struggle for Emancipation, 1776-1865.
The Emancipation Proclamation and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment delivered a deathblow to American slavery, but in this study Carden casts his attention on the meandering path that led to the finish line. As the author richly catalogs in this narrative, many hazards, obstructions, and detours cluttered the road to emancipation. Carden illustrates how for the bulk of the period between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the outbreak of the Civil War, politicians soft-pedaled most emancipation initiatives because they could [End Page 197] potentially imperil the Union. Statesmen who so often waxed eloquent about the blessings of liberty ironically found that extracting slavery, the very antithesis of liberty, from the United States endangered the political harmony of the republic. The sectional compromises built into the Constitution and the difficulties of eliminating slavery in the states above the Mason-Dixon Line, Carden observes, foreshadowed southerners’ fierce resistance to emancipation in the four decades following the Missouri Compromise, when the peculiar institution became more deeply embedded in the South’s economy, society, and culture. Thus, politicians time and again postponed the slavery question until secession and war left no alternative to confrontation. Carden argues that resistance to emancipation during this extended period demonstrates how white Americans in both the antebellum North and South subscribed to a racial outlook that subordinated blacks to an inferior status in a nation ostensibly devoted to equality.
Carden reconstructs this bumpy journey for his reader, highlighting aspects of the quest to end slavery that a general audience might find surprising. The author sets out to destroy five myths about slavery, emancipation, and abolition: the belief that the institution of slavery was inconsequential to northerners; the notion that slavery’s demise came about easily in the North; the misconception that blacks left the work of abolition to whites; the delusion that the South seceded in defense of states’ rights rather than slavery; and the idea that the North immediately accepted emancipation as the primary objective in the Civil War. Specialists of the period will find that the scholarly community has already discarded these myths and will discover no innovative new interpretations of the struggle to eradicate slavery. A trailblazing analysis of emancipation, however, is not the professed goal of this book. Rather, Carden provides an accessible, one-volume account of this complex historical problem grounded in his impressive grasp of the voluminous array of secondary literature related to slavery and emancipation.
Although Carden offers an extensive account of America’s plodding course toward emancipation, Freedom’s Delay suffers from a few drawbacks. At times the narrative deviates from the author’s stated purpose and the discussion of the struggle to end slavery is eclipsed by a familiar retelling of the events that brought about the Civil War. The quest to end slavery and the coming of the Civil War are without a doubt intricately entwined, and Carden goes to great lengths to demonstrate how the political mainstream prioritized compromise over African American [End Page 198] freedom, which makes it necessary for him to chronicle the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, and so forth. Unfortunately, Carden’s account of conventional political maneuvering sometimes overshadows the efforts of antislavery agitators, the very men and women who worked so assiduously to make slavery’s termination an unavoidable political issue by the onset of the Civil War. A single chapter is devoted to...