- Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777–1865 by Patrick Rael
A growing number of influential scholars who study American slavery and abolition, including David Brion Davis, Ira Berlin, and Steven Hahn, have recently depicted the period from the 1777 Vermont Constitution through the ratification of the 13th Amendment as a "long emancipation."1 With his insightful and sweeping survey of abolition in America, Patrick Rael has added a worthy addition to what is quickly becoming a swelling chorus of historians. The central question Rael seeks to answer is why slavery endured so long and ended so violently in the United States when compared with other New World slave societies. His answer lies in the emergence of a potent slave power in the American South. The federal nature of the American republic meant that the "plantation complex" of the South maintained an "advantage unreplicated" in the rest of the Atlantic world [End Page 567] (3). Empowered immensely by the Three Fifths Clause, the slave South set the political agenda for the young nation in ways that nurtured and strengthened what by the antebellum era was becoming a peculiar institution. As a result, even as the northern states abolished slavery and developed an increasingly strident antislavery movement, culminating in the election of 1860, abolition could not simply be imposed upon the South. Only a bloody war could accomplish that feat.
As Rael demonstrates, the story was very different throughout much of the rest of the Atlantic world, where slave societies existed outside the bounds of the metropoles that would ultimately move to abolish slavery in their colonial peripheries. Thus, when a popular abolition movement driven by mass participation and capitalist imperatives—what Rael dubs "metropolitan abolitionism"—took hold in Britain, West Indian slaveholders had little recourse for stopping the metropole's decision to end slavery in its Caribbean possessions (20). This same pattern of metropolitan-imposed abolition, minus popular antislavery movements, signaled slavery's demise in the French West Indies (Haiti, of course, a notable outlier) and the Danish colonies. In Brazil and Cuba, the pressures that led to emancipation stemmed in large part from external metropolitan sources. Mainland Spanish Latin America represents an exception that only heightens why abolition remained such a long struggle in the United States. For while, as in the American North, slavery was abolished following colonial rebellions against imperial control. Yet wars for independence in mainland Spanish Latin America did not result in nations that remained half slave and half free like their northern counterpart.
The prime agents in the long emancipation, according to Rael, were African Americans. Here Rael once again effectively uses an Atlantic framework to make his case. In most New World slave societies, complex color hierarchies fractured the identities of those of African descent. But in the United States, the ubiquity of white prejudice "unintentionally promoted a collective identity among the oppressed" that encouraged free and enslaved blacks to work together in ways that would bring on the Civil War (147). In the wake of growing white racism following the first emancipation, free northern blacks created communities of color that protested slavery and racial inequality. When southern slaves fled to the free states, northern blacks such as David Ruggles helped them resist recapture. Once a new generation of immediate abolitionists arose, themselves inspired by free blacks, white activists aided and politicized these [End Page 568] antislavery activities. The import of this protest dynamic is perhaps best illustrated by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which helped popularize northern antislavery and serves as an integral moment in the march toward the dissolution of the Union.
Rael takes readers through a mostly familiar historical landscape with great verve. Yet the very Atlantic framework that provides a signal contribution to the burgeoning literature on the long American emancipation at times leads the author to some debatable conclusions. Rael repeatedly refers to the northern United States as a metropole and the slaveholding South as...