- The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States by Ira Berlin
Perhaps more than any other historian, Ira Berlin is responsible for shaping our vision of Civil War emancipation. As the founding editor of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, he was the driving force behind Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867, a portable archive of federal records documenting the drama of slavery's collapse in wartime. Over the years, the volumes in the series and the book of interpretive essays that accompanies them have served every historian writing on emancipation, and they are in many ways the basis of the field's shared knowledge of the emancipatory process.
Thus, it is a good measure of our current historiographical moment that Berlin's new book abandons the war years as it strives to offer a fresh look at how slavery came to an end in the United States. The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States takes place largely above the Mason-Dixon Line and adopts an expansive chronological framework, starting in the late eighteenth century. With this approach, Berlin joins other prominent scholars, like Steven Hahn and Stephen Kantrowitz, who have also sought to move beyond an exclusive focus on the Civil War as the main act of American emancipation and reposition the 1861–1865 period as one episode, albeit a crucial one, in the black struggle for freedom, equality, and citizenship. This temporal approach is interlaced with a new geographical framing, in which the end of slavery in the United States is part of a transnational story that includes both the abolition of slavery in Britain in 1772 and Brazilian emancipation.
Berlin's slender volume is composed of three essays that originated as the Nathan I. Huggins Lectures at Harvard University. The first essay rejects the common narrative that the antislavery movement in America progressed in "stages," with major breaks along the way (p. 27). Berlin sees the destruction of slavery progressing not sequentially but simultaneously, "as the opponents of slavery warred on all fronts. To a remarkable degree, antislavery sentiment remained constant over the long haul" (p. 27). This long and consistent struggle, Berlin argues, was shaped throughout by four elements: the leadership of slaves and former slaves; black people's aspiration not just for freedom but also for equality and citizenship; a commitment to the principles articulated by the Declaration of Independence and their potential for transforming America into a multicultural democracy; and the central role of violence as a means of fighting the violence of slavery. The second essay narrates the story of America's first emancipations from New England to Pennsylvania. Despite its slow and halting progress, Berlin claims, the gradual demise of slavery in the North was a crucial moment in the history of the nation and the world. Slavery ceased to be a [End Page 186] continental institution, and free labor became the defining feature of life in large swaths of the United States.
The third essay positions the upheaval of Civil War emancipation within a long tradition of militant abolitionism led by black activists, most prominently Denmark Vesey and David Walker. The nineteenth-century battle against slavery was fought in northern cities and border states in the upper South, between black communities and "an unsavory crew of slave catchers, kidnappers, and complicit law officers who found profit and satisfaction in the enslavement of black people" (p. 149). In that sense as Berlin sums up, "[t]he Civil War changed nothing and everything" (p. 158). Wartime emancipation relied on the same means and strove for the same goals as prewar abolitionism, and "their long history can be understood as one piece" (p. 175).
Berlin's new book came out almost simultaneously with two heftier works, Manisha Sinha's The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven, 2016) and Patrick Rael's Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777...