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introduc tion Was U.S. Emancipation Exceptional? Yet we also need to be mindful of the capacity of the United States to construct a triumphalist narrative of its own history and absorb the world’s history into that narrative. To phrase the problem more bluntly, [comparative] approaches might constitute simply another form of U.S. intellectual hegemony. —julie greene The most severe limitation of comparative literature has been its national and nationalist bent. . . . As such, there is a tendency among comparativists to compare large social structures, ideologies, or organizations to explain the nature of the American variant. The desire is to use some other nation’s history to help explain ‘American slavery,’ ‘American race relations,’ ‘American working-class formation or class consciousness,’ and so on. That there might be connections between these two American forms and those others being compared is either ignored or not taken sufficiently into account; nor is the fact that there might be differences within the United States that defy the label ‘American’ and lead one to reconsider its usage. —robert gregg Comparisons, no matter how well conceived, can hide connections. —matthew pratt guterl i. founding fathers On July 4, 1876, hundreds of thousands of Americans gathered throughout thirty-nine states to commemorate the centennial of the founding of the U.S. republic. They listened to orations, speeches, songs, and poems. These public presentations covered numerous themes: the current economic crisis facing the nation, America’s providential roots, the inevitability of national progress, and the importance of reunion after a fractious civil war. The recent abolition of slavery in 1865 was also mentioned and widely praised. In Philadelphia, prominent New York state lawyer William M. Evarts proclaimed the centennial “crowns with new glory the immortal truths of the Declaration of Independence by the emancipation of a race.” “Thanks be to God, who overrules 2 freedom’s seekers everything for good,” former Massachusetts Senator Robert C. Winthrop told a large gathering in Boston, “that great event, the greatest of our American age . . . has been accomplished; and by his blessing, we present our country to the world this day without a slave, white or black, upon its soil.” According to the Baptist Reverend Thomas Armitage, abolition was not only the greatest American event, but it was also unique compared to the practices of other nations . Unlike the abolition of slavery by Great Britain, explained the Reverend, emancipation in the United States had been a principled act: “She [Britain] adopted it merely as a policy and paid for it as a bargain, failing largely to bring down the doctrine of freedom to the question of man’s rights as the root of his humanity.” In case his audience in New York City missed the point, he reminded them “the American Republic has done more for liberty and against bondage than all other people have done before.”1 These ideas of God’s republic, national progress, and exceptional emancipation —together with an evocation of the unique frontier spirit of the American people—meshed during the era of the professionalization of U.S. history in the late nineteenth century. The subsequent emergence of a historiography of American uniqueness has been well explained and critiqued by Ian Tyrell, Robert Gregg, and others and requires little elaboration here.2 What is important to note is that it was in response to the chauvinistic, parochial, and unique aspects of this historiography there emerged the first generation of comparative U.S. emancipation scholars. Comer Vann Woodward, one of the pioneers of modern southern historical studies teaching at Yale University, sought to compare the role of the American Civil War in ending slavery with other abolition processes in the nineteenth-century Americas.3 Eric Foner, one of the major historians of nineteenth-century American political history at Columbia University, compared the extension of political rights to former slaves in the United States with ex-slaves in other post-emancipation societies .4 George Frederickson, an influential scholar of comparative history at Stanford University, compared race relations in the postbellum American South, post-abolition Jamaica, and fin de siècle South Africa.5 As we shall see, although their comparative approaches have broadened our understanding of nineteenth-century U.S. history, they have also resulted not only in privileging U.S. emancipation, but further buttressing the argument for the uniqueness of America’s past compared to other national experiences. A geo-spatial framework, expanded to situate the U.S. South in the Atlantic world, ended up...


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