Last updated on August 16th, 2017
As discussed by the scholar Ira Berlin in his monograph The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States, the struggle for freedom is, at its core, about agency: Who accomplished it? How was it accomplished? Why? He provides an instructive framework to support his argument that black men and women were the primary agents that abolished slavery, and to guide readers through the tortured labyrinth of the long struggle for universal freedom. Abolition was not a linear process; it was bumpy, halting, and violent, but it was, according to Berlin, a dynamic unfolding in an eighty-nine-year arc that stretched from the outset of the American Revolution in 1775 to the ratification of the 13th amendment in 1865. Berlin does not choose the above dates arbitrarily; they enclose the framework by which the history of abolition in the United States might be constructed.
Berlin’s carefully conceived framework identifies four defining markers of the history of abolition that are always present, dynamic, and illustrative, whether the period under discussion is the American Revolution, the Northern struggle for emancipation, or the Civil War years between 1861 and 1865. The demise of slavery in the United States was not an occasion, an event, or a “great man” proclamation as depicted in Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, but rather, as Berlin argues, “a complex history with multiple players and narratives.” Lincoln might be a great movie, but it is lousy history. To answer the question, “Who freed the slaves” necessitates an investigation into a multifaceted process, replete with nuance and contradiction involving millions of men and women who, at the end of the Civil War, were no longer property belonging to a master.
It is no wonder that Berlin introduces the four processes that constitute the framework early in the book. Not only do they buttress the historical argument that slavery was a long process involving black people at the center—not a uniform historical interpretation—but they show how “the means that were employed to attack slavery did not develop sequentially, but functioned simultaneously . . . .” These processes are not academic abstractions, and it is best to dutifully consider them before readers enter the first of three dense chapters: “The Near-Century-Long Demise of Slavery”; “Sounding the Egalitarian Clarion”; and “The Bloody Struggle Endures.”
What are these four distinctive processes that are always present in the demise of slavery?
- The primacy of black people, both free and slave. Given their experience as chattel, black people resisted their bondage, placing them “at the center of the movement for universal freedom.” Their opposition, Berlin argues, “was irrefutable proof that abolition was possible.” Freedom was a reality for those who were enslaved: they were the countervailing force against slaveholders who fought long and hard to control their human property and deny them their humanity.
- If black people were not going to be slaves, what exactly would they be? Their push toward emancipation opened up the deeper questions of their status as free men and women. If they were free, they would be as equal as any other citizen who belonged to a republic that declared in its founding document that “all men are created equal.” Such commitment to universal freedom led in one direction—the abolition of slavery.
- Black people in the United States were committed to the ideals written in the Declaration of Independence, as well as in “biblical precepts of evangelical Christianity.” The contradiction that the nation that had enslaved them was also the nation that was building a society based on equality was not lost on the free and enslaved. Black people became the most loyal defenders of the ideal that all persons—not just white people—should be equal.
- The meaning of freedom derives more from the history of slavery than it does from the history of freedom. As such, it involves “the undoing of slavery,” a process that, according to Berlin, “required every bit as much brutality as the making of slavery.” Violence was not an option; it was inherent and ubiquitous.
The Long Emancipation is about the near-century-long struggle between slave owners and free black and enslaved people clashing for the advantage: slave owners to maintain ownership of property-in-man, and black men and women to reclaim their humanity, dignity, and equality under the law. Berlin’s monograph examines the push and pull for and against slavery, and it focuses on the forces simultaneously acting at any given period under review, as if these forces were acting on a split screen. Weaving the four processes listed above into this history, Berlin describes and analyzes a complex and transformational movement of liberation.
The founding principle in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” had a particular resonance among people at the margins of society in the American Revolutionary period, none more so than free black people and those still enslaved. They also believed in the religious precepts that all were equal in the eyes of God, and these secular and religious ideals became the unifying principles upon which black men and women fought their way to freedom in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries.
Several New England states—Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts— were among the first to incorporate the egalitarian principles of the Declaration of Independence in their state constitutions: “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties,” read the Massachusetts Constitution enacted in 1780. Given that these states and other Northern States, including Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey, had, by the early 1800s, established in their founding constitutions the rights to freedom and equality for all people, black men and women could access a practical legal body of knowledge to win their freedom. By the end of the eighteenth century, few slaves remained in northern New England.
In the Middle-Atlantic region, Pennsylvanians built upon the work of Quaker abolitionists and the free black population. In 1780 they were among the first states to end what they called “a most odious ‘violation of the rights of mankind,’” writing in their constitution, “‘All men were born equally free and independent.’” Unfortunately, Pennsylvania also introduced the stricture called the post-nati law. In the version that was finally adopted, the new law gave children born after March 1, 1780, their freedom, but only after twenty-eight years of their own indenture to their mother’s owner. The post-nati laws were complicated and survived several different formulations, but this didn’t stop black men and women from getting their freedom, even if they had to buy it themselves.
In other areas of the North, the pushback against abolition arrived in the form of the states’ constitutions emphasizing “the right to acquire, hold, and protect property as an essential attribute of liberty.” In 1789, this right was enshrined in the United States constitution, which acted as a bulwark against the abolitionists’ claim to equal rights, and “added—even more strongly—‘the guarantees of the sanctity of property, extending the slaveholders’ reach into the free states, and limiting the legal and eventually the political grounds on which slavery could be contested.” Because property-in-man was no different from other property, slaveholders could argue they had the right to own slaves. This right, as well as others given to slaveholders in the federal constitution, including disproportional representation in the House of Representatives, passage of the first Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, and the importation of slaves from Africa into the second decade of the nineteenth century, derailed the cause of abolition, especially in the states “south of Massachusetts where the sanctity of property rights and the essential role of slave labor shaped the debate over abolition.” Property versus equality was, essentially, an argument between materialism and idealism—between wealth and principle.
There was no shortage of idealism among the most active of Americans opposed to slavery—white abolitionists. Here was a significant population that impacted in many significant ways the movement for the end of slavery in the United States. Their commitment and extraordinary courage cannot be overestimated; without them, Berlin suggests, slavery may not have ended until long after 1865. However, white abolitionists were gradualists counseling patience and forbearance, and black men and women, wanting to speed things up, took matters into their own hands. Previously, in the eighteenth century, they had freed themselves as runaways and by other means, but by the middle of the nineteenth century “they traveled by foot, coach, rail, and boat,” and some even used the postal service, mailing themselves in boxes. They were aided by friends and relatives in the North, believing “they could free themselves and create a slaveless world.” When they saw that their allies in the abolitionist movement were retreating from the fight, black people rallied to the cause and became the leaders of the struggle. Berlin is clear on this point: “Of necessity, leadership of the struggle for universal liberty fell to African Americans, slave and free, who were steadily acquiring knowledge of their rights and how to defend them in a post-emancipation era.”
The primacy of black men and women in the cause of freedom became more apparent toward the end of the eighteenth century and into the early decades of the nineteenth century. Alarmed by this new activism and by the insurrection in 1791 in the island of Saint Domingue, white resistance increased, as black men and women became bolder and more militant. Abolition was too slow for black society, and they were not going to wait on white abolitionists to help them secure their freedom. They formed their own organizations, churches, fraternal lodges, schools, and burial societies, all of which provided the institutional backbone upon which they built their movement for liberation.
Simultaneously with the black community’s organizing against slavery, slavery’s defenders found an ally in Thomas Jefferson, the author not only of the Declaration of Independence but also of Notes on the State of Virginia (1794). In Notes on the State of Virgina, Jefferson contradicts the founding document that established the republic as a nation of free persons based on the equality of all people. In just a few pages, Jefferson secured the trope that it would be impossible for blacks and whites to co-exist in a country that had emancipated them, as they “are inferior to the whites in the endowment of body and mind.” Even though Jefferson’s racist writing encompassed only a few pages of a much longer text, it was a dream come true for slavery’s cause: manumissions declined, fewer slaves were freed, and courts defended slaveholders’ rights. The pushback against abolition was at its strongest between 1800 and 1820, when the number of slaves grew from 900,000 to more than 1.5 million.
Notes on the State of Virginia also provided the tortured rationale for the colonization movement, whereby blacks would be sent to Africa, thus “removing the ugly stain of blackness and slavery” from within the United States. Black men and women fought the colonization movement and relied ever more strongly on their own institutions and organizations. They saw colonization as a “dangerous subterfuge” that only “strengthened slavery, exiled free blacks, and squandered antislavery energies.” By the 1820s, Berlin writes, “The movement for universal freedom had returned to its post-Revolutionary origins. The most reliable supporters—and sometimes the only supporters—were black people, whose commitment to equality proved the surest weapon against slavery.” They celebrated their American nationality and rejected being removed from their land. Black men and women had become the agency through which slavery would cease to exist in the United States.
In the Southern United States, however, the regional powers of slaveholders endured. The federal government performed a service for slaveholders: Federal marshals and other officials “recaptured fugitive slaves, ignored the proscription on the transatlantic slave trade, and facilitated the westward expansion of slavery.” Slaveholders and others opposed to abolition rationalized the basis for slavery as organizing production and ordering society—and for some it made them very rich.
Not only did the federal government reinforce the stain of slavery and perpetuate its existence, Congress also didn’t help matters. When Missouri submitted a petition to Congress in 1819 to be admitted to the Union as a slave state, it caused considerable consternation in Congress and over two sessions of debate. This fiery debate, aptly called the Missouri Debates, set “the antislavery movement on a new path.” The argument between the two sides came down to the North’s appealing to the nation’s first principles, and the South arguing against any “natural rights of these people.” The “debate shifted from the question of slavery to the rights of black citizens and even the possibility of black citizenship,” and thus it struck “at the heart of the commitment to equality.” According to Berlin, “The Missouri Debates touched on every aspect of the question of slavery and race, revealing the full range of white sentiment on both matters.” The Missouri Debates ended the egalitarian idealism of the Revolution. Berlin concludes: “Slavery and white supremacy again carried the day.”
As the Missouri Debates were raging in Congress, slaveholders expanded slave labor westward; abolitionists retreated; and the antislavery movement was no longer on the nation’s agenda. With this retreat, the fight for abolition returned to black institutions and organizations that had been established when proscriptions on their freedom and movement were enforced through discriminatory regulations, exclusionary policies in white institutions, and denial of legal rights to free blacks. Within their own organizations, however, they had built a separate society in which they could marry, educate their children, pray as they wish, and bury their dead.”
One of the most powerful of these black organizations was the “Committee of Correspondence,” which built a national network of civil associations, through which black men and women could amplify their voices for abolition and racial equality in sermons, speeches, petitions, letters, pamphlets and newspapers. “These men and women,” Berlin writes, “became the voice of black people, free and slave, and the civil society they created became the leading edge of the struggle against slavery and for racial equality.” In so doing, they restored the secular and religious injunctions of the founding document of the United States to its rightful place—at the center of the debate for universal freedom.
The struggle for freedom and abolition was never peaceful, as it was always ripe for confrontations between slaves and their masters. Throughout the years before the Civil War, kidnappings, pogroms, and insurrections culminated in open warfare. When black men and women wrested the leadership of the antislavery movement from white abolitionists, it became more militant, as it relied less on the abolitionists’ mediation and more on their own grassroots organizations. With this change in leadership, the “movement to abolish slavery was joined to the movement for racial equality. The movement for universal liberty now had a new shape.”
One of the most prominent of this new generation of black antislavery leaders was the activist David Walker, born free in North Carolina and the author of the widely read Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. Walker dispensed with the gradualist approach of the white abolitionists and called for massive slave resistance, violence if necessary. He denounced white leaders and their hypocritical interpretations of the founding documents; excoriated Jefferson for his theories about the inferiority of black people and his colonization plan; and vehemently opposed “white Americans for their presumption of white supremacy.” For Walker, peace would only arrive when white people gave up slavery and accepted the founding doctrine of the country.
Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World was not only required reading for a rising generation of black abolitionists, but it also inspired the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison who had joined forces with the new generation of black leaders in the Northern communities and along the Atlantic Coast. Editor of the influential abolitionist journal The Liberator, Garrison aligned its content with “the animating ideas that had long informed abolitionist thought in the black community,” and he vociferously warned of “apocalyptic violence” unless white Americans accepted an egalitarian world.
As the black antislavery movement heated up during the first half of the nineteenth century in the North, black men and women were victims of arson, mobs, street gangs, pogroms, beatings, and kidnappings—a literal “reign of terror.” In response to this violence, David Ruggles, a black abolitionist, founded in New York City the Committee of Vigilance to rescue fugitive slaves. Committees of vigilance spread quickly in cities and along the borders with slave states. Safe houses and the Underground Railroad worked with these committees to assist in any way they could to free black people from slavery.
Just as confrontations in the North were violent and bloody, those in the South were no less brutal. Black men “confronted masters, patrols, slave catchers with guns, knives, and axes. The bloody battles that followed left a trail of wounded and dead, not all of them black.” Between 1830 and 1860 along the rural borderlands, the confrontations were even worse than in the North and South, but the slave traders also faced resistance by black people who battled their former masters.
With the passage of an updated Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, violence increased between opponents of slavery and supporters. Now slaveholders could act with impunity, as the act confirmed their right to property-in-man and they could reclaim whatever they had lost. No black neighborhood was safe and no action was taken without confrontation. Berlin states: The Fugitive Slave Act increased “the lethality, intensity, and visibility” of the confrontations, “making it clear that black people would settle for nothing less than freedom and that freedom could be obtained only by violence.”
Such was the environment in the United States when, in 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney decided the Dred Scott v Sanford case, making “organized, state-supported conflict” legal. At the same time that Dred Scott opened the entire country to slavery, it also rejected any involvement black men and women had found in the political life of America. In writing that “‘black people had no rights a white man is bound to respect,” Berlin declares: “‘Embracing white supremacy, Taney’s decision left the long-stated claim of black people in a shambles and their assertion of leadership a fiasco.” Black people denounced Taney’s verdict as a “foul and infamous lie,” and they reasserted their right for a “full place in the American community.” But the Dred Scott ruling was a preamble to what was about to come next. Violence was no stranger to the near-century-long struggle for freedom, and a much larger conflagration was near.
The Civil War was the final bloody act that freed the slaves. Fought with weapons of modern warfare, more American lives were lost in this war than in all the nation’s conflicts. Tens of thousands of black soldiers and civilians died. In 1862, for the first time, the federal government issued two Confiscation Acts and a Militia Act that prohibited Union soldiers from returning slaves to their owners in the South, guaranteeing that black men and women would be forever free of their servitude. These actions “formed the bedrock upon which slaves would stand firm and emancipation would eventually be built,” Berlin writes. Risking everything for freedom, and understanding that the war was being fought in the name of abolition, slaves united in crossing into Union lines, assisting in any way they could in the fight for freedom. Hundreds of thousands of men and women would work for the Union cause, while “many white Northern Americans—soldiers and civilians—came to the “view that the security of the Union depended on the destruction of slavery.” This was the responsibility of the black community: They placed their bodies on the line and made the connection that this war and freedom were inevitably connected.
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave the Emancipation Proclamation Address, freeing slaves who had lived their lives as the property of slaveholders, and at the same time inviting them to enter the Union Army. With black men in blue uniforms as soldiers in the United States Colored Troops, they were no longer slaves. They were federal troops fighting a war alongside white soldiers, no longer willing to wait for the rights that came with their freedom. They envisioned, along with the basic right of equality, that all of the rights of citizenship would follow. “This prospect was too optimistic; their rights as citizens did not follow emancipation. They would have to fight for them.
The violence in the 1860s was immeasurably greater than the violence preceding the war. Berlin concludes The Long Emancipation: “The character of the wartime abolition differed little from that of the more than half-century of the struggle for universal freedom that had preceded it; only the scope and size were new.” The four processes that acted as a framework for the discussion of the demise of slavery in the United States necessarily involved the discussion of historical periods that functioned simultaneously between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Most important, however, was the process Berlin called the primacy of black men and women who took the lead in demanding their freedom. Not only were they willing to die for it during the Civil War, they were also willing to confront slaveholders and others over the long century that preceded the war. In this way, black men and women were the primary agents who defeated slavery in the United States. They were its core agency.
Equality for people of African ancestry, should they also become citizens, had enormous implications for American society, particularly if the consequence would be an integrated society, united as one. How was it, then, that American society became a racialized society, just as black men and women rallied for equality and freedom and the abolition of slavery?
Racial ideology is a means to explain the social realities of people as they live their daily lives in a specific historical context. During the period after the American Revolution, white society needed to make sense of what was written in their founding document, while contemporaneously black men and women were enslaved. Supporters of slavery made sense of the contradiction through a variety of tropes, starting with the pro-slavery argument, that of “the figure of the happy slave, whose incapacity and dependency not only reflected his or her innate inferiority but also justified the role of the white master.” This trope accrued enormous power, and it energized a racial ideology that became the norm among many white people.
Black men and women were described as “extremely dependent, extremely ignorant, extremely indigent, and fiercely barbarous.” Their dialect and intellect were amusements; they were called “no men.” They were defined as a “class of being not merely inferior to, but absolutely a different species from the whites . . . intended, by nature, only for the degradation and sufferings of slavery.” The general attitude among the opponents of abolition led to “proscriptive legislation that denied black men and women equality and the rights of citizenship. This legislation reinforced the view that “the experience of living as a slave handicapped black people permanently,” making them unfit to become responsible citizens.
Not only did the opponents of slavery perpetuate these vicious tropes, but white abolitionists also fed into the racial ideology that black people were inferior to white people. Abolitionists, some of whom also owned slaves, believed that slaves would require long years of education and “moral uplift” because they needed extra time to prepare for freedom. This trope didn’t help the cause of universal freedom in the United States. Could black men and women “cope with the rigors of freedom?” the abolitionists asked.
Opponents of abolition must also have resonated with the racial ideology in Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. Alluding to the possibility that black people might be a distinct race, or if they were made distinct by time and circumstance, Jefferson claimed they were still “inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” Moreover, he wrote: “The unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty . . . is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.” Neither could they co-exist in freedom with whites, primarily because nature had made them distinctly different. He concluded that black men and women must be physically removed from the country because they were “‘inassimilable aliens in white America.’” A supporter of colonization, Jefferson laid “the groundwork for the construction of a white republic.”
Given his prestige and status as a founding father, exemplary leader, and author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson startles in his racism in Notes on the State of Virginia, in particular when he distinguishes between those who are white and those who possess “‘the unfortunate difference of color.’” According to Berlin, Jefferson “exerted a powerful and immediate effect on the fledgling United States, whose new constitution cemented the rights of slaveholders, provided a path for slavery’s expansion, and established the basis upon which slaveholders would dominate the American government for nearly seventy years.”
Just as confrontations between black people, free and enslaved, and white people increased during this period, a new generation of black leaders, like David Walker, capitalized on what many black men and women knew through personal experience: The Declaration of Independence was not written for them. In his widely read Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World published in 1829, Walker “denounced the indignities that free blacks faced, and pointed to the contradictions between the treatment blacks endured and the professed ideals of the American people and their leaders.” Black people were committed to the principle of the founding doctrine: “All men are created equal” and were willing to fight for it.
The racial ideology that blacks were inferior to whites rooted itself in American culture in the nineteenth century, as white society began to distinguish not only between slave and free but also between white and black. Which came first is perhaps a chicken and egg riddle, but “for most Americans,” Berlin writes, “the degradation and marginality of black people only confirmed Jefferson’s ‘suspicions’ that black people were inferior in both mind and body.” Slavery and blackness were inseparable in the minds and hearts of white society.
Although a racial ideology did not exist in the United States before the late eighteenth century, it became a powerful and vicious weapon exploited by the opponents of abolition during the nineteenth century. In order to resolve the contradiction between slavery and equality as stated in the Declaration of Independence, they defined black people as an inferior and handicapped race. Black men and women would have none of this nonsense. Their struggle for freedom wasn’t about their color. It was about the abolition of slavery.
An ideology of racial inferiority,” Fields argued, only became necessary following “the incorporation of Africans and their descendants into a polity and society in which they lacked rights that others not only took for granted, but claimed as a matter of self-evident natural law.”
“Racial ideology supplied the means of explaining slavery to people whose terrain was a republic founded on radical doctrines of liberty and natural rights; and, more important, a republic in which those doctrines seemed to represent accurately the world in which all but a minority lived. Only when the denial of liberty became an anomaly apparent even to the least observant and reflective members of Euro-American society did ideology systematically explain the anomaly…. Race explained why some people could rightly be denied what others took for granted: namely, liberty, supposedly a self-evident gift of nature’s God.” Therefore, race offered a means of justifying the enslavement of those of African descent along principles consistent with bourgeois rationality.