- Working Toward a Synthetic Account of How Slavery Ended in the United States
We can view the coincident publication of these two volumes, as well as recent books with a similar scope, as a logical outgrowth of the newer scholarship on American debates over slavery.1 A generation ago, scholars understood the fight against slavery to have occurred in discrete, almost disconnected segments: first in the American Revolutionary era and then again in the period from 1830 to 1860. A collection of books published in the last fifteen years has connected the Revolutionary to the antebellum era by pointing out the persistence and importance of arguments over slavery in the early national United States.2 In addition, a growing body of scholarship, including Rael’s and Berlin’s own, places African Americans centrally in the story of the battle against slavery. These two books synthesize and build upon this recent historiography. The similarity in their subtitles aptly reflects what else the books share. For both authors, the story is a national one, and the period between the Revolution and Civil War is comprehended as a single unit. Also in both books, slavery suffers a “demise” or a “death” in the Civil War.
Because death is, after all, a natural process, the inevitable end of all things, the authors have set up a teleological frame that they, as good historians, must then resist. They must also explain why—if it was bound to happen—abolition took so long. How did the monster of slavery survive, even thrive, for such an extended period of time in a nation dedicated to liberty?
Berlin and Rael solve the narrative challenges in distinct ways. Berlin works to avoid teleology through the use of dramatic devices that create narrative tension, which makes the story’s ending feel less inevitable. Rael does some of the same, but his primary strategy is to compare the U.S. experience to the [End Page 241] experience of other countries in the Atlantic world in order to explain the comparative length of the abolition process in the United States. As Berlin notes, when he discovered that Rael, his former student, was working on a project similar to his own, they exchanged manuscripts and found “that two books that started from the same premise would be very different” (Berlin, p. 214).
Another important difference lies simply in word count. Berlin’s is one of those small, elegant volumes that arises from a series of lectures—in this case, the Nathan I. Huggins Lectures at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Befitting its origins, the book aims not for “a full history of abolition in the United States, but offers a framework by which that history might be constructed” (p. 11). Perhaps in order to say much in few words, Berlin’s language is sweeping, often metaphorical. “Emancipation’s road was long and bumpy” (p. 23). “Assaults” on slavery caused “tremors” felt first on slavery’s periphery (p. 61). In Spanish America, “slavery fell” in the early nineteenth century (p. 106). And by the mid-nineteenth century in the United States, so many people ran away from slavery that “the slave South was leaking like a sieve,” an image at odds with what others have described as a powerful, expanding slave economy (p. 14).
Berlin makes four interrelated points. One is that “the long emancipation centered on the resolute commitment of a few men and women—most of them black slaves, along with former slaves and the descendants of slaves” (p. 28). Second, the issue of emancipation always raised the issue of the post-emancipation status of African Americans, who—and this is the third point—consistently expressed their “commitment to the fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence via the...