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  • The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States by Ira Berlin
  • Brian Purnell
The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States. Ira Berlin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-6742-8608-5, 240 pp., cloth, $22.95.

In early 1993, as the National Archives commemorated the 130th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation with a public display of the original document, the American Historical Association held a panel at its annual meeting under the heading “Black, White, and Lincoln,” which featured Princeton University professor James McPherson, who read a paper titled, “Who Freed the Slaves?” The question provoked debate between political historians, who argued that Abraham Lincoln played the most important role in the freedom saga for slaves in America, and social historians, who argued that slaves were primarily responsible for gaining their own freedom. McPherson was in Lincoln’s camp. “The traditional answer to the question ‘Who freed the slaves?’ is the right answer,” wrote McPherson in the pages of the journal Reconstruction. “By pronouncing slavery a moral evil that must come to an end, by winning the Presidency in 1860, by refusing to compromise on the issue of slavery’s expansion, by knitting together a Unionist coalition, by prosecuting the Civil War to unconditional victory as Commander-in-Chief of an army of liberation, Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves” (Reconstruction 2, no 3 [1994]: 40). [End Page 451]

Ira Berlin disagreed. “Lincoln was part of history, not above it,” he argued, in the same issue of the journal. “Whatever he believed about slavery in 1861 Lincoln did not see the war as an instrument of emancipation. The slaves did. Lincoln’s commitment to emancipation changed with time because it had to. The slaves’ commitment to universal freedom did not waver because it could not” (“Emancipation and Its Meaning in American Life,” Reconstruction 2, no 3 [1994]: 44). Berlin, a historian of the U.S. South, who wrote a field-defining book on free blacks during the antebellum period, did not claim that slaves freed themselves or that Lincoln played no role in emancipation. In his analysis, however, slaves and free blacks were the primary advocates for ending slavery. The president, white abolitionists, antislavery Republicans, and northern Union soldiers played important, but secondary parts in this history. More than twenty years later, the historiography sides with Berlin. Even Eric Foner’s prize-winning book on Lincoln, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, presents the sixteenth president as a man who opposed slavery for decades but became a tentative emancipator slowly, pragmatically, because of the Civil War. “Lincoln was strongly antislavery,” Foner writes, “but he was not an abolitionist or a Radical Republican and never claimed to be one” (xviii).

With the question of who freed the slaves seemingly settled, historians turned their attention to a more interesting, complicated historical inquiry: why did it take so long for slavery in the United States to end? In The Long Emancipation, a published version of the three lectures Berlin delivered for Harvard University’s Nathan I. Huggins Lectures, the history of slave emancipation in the United States unfolds as a hard and torturous process that began during the Revolutionary War and ends with the Civil War.

Antebellum and wartime emancipation differed in their times and circumstances, but Berlin argues that we should understand the long historical process of emancipation as one piece and as possessing the same four main characteristics. First, black people, both free and enslaved, were the most important advocates of emancipation. Second, emancipation processes raised an important question for individual states and, eventually, the nation: what does U.S. citizenship mean for everyone? Third, black emancipationists, and some (but not all) of their abolitionist allies, consistently answered the question with reference to the Declaration of Independence and the Christian Bible: all U.S. citizens, regardless of race, were entitled to full equality and to freedom. Last, Berlin shows how emancipation was always a violent process. The Civil War was obviously the bloodiest confrontation the nation experienced over slavery. But even during the decades that led up to the war, slave catchers, slave owners, judges, free blacks, abolitionists...


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