August 28, 2013


The Great Emancipation : A review of Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, by James Oakes (Michael Burlingame, August 27, 2013, Claremont Review of Books)

In this strikingly original book, James Oakes offers a fresh, convincing reinterpretation of the emancipation policies and practices of Abraham Lincoln and his party. Traditionally, the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation on New Years Day 1863 is viewed as a momentous turning point in the Civil War, when the conflict became an antislavery crusade as well as a war to preserve the Union. But Oakes contends persuasively that "[o]nly in historical mythology did the purpose of the war shift on January 1, 1863, from the restoration of the Union to the abolition of slavery." The truth is that the proclamation represented the culmination of many earlier measures that had already liberated tens of thousands of slaves.

Oakes, who is Distinguished Professor of History at the City University of New York, examines "the critical role that political abolitionism played in the formation of Republican antislavery policies and the coming of the Civil War." He insists that the Republicans, including Lincoln, "were anything but reluctant emancipators." In fact, they were determined to abolish slavery all along; they made their intentions clear before the war; and they took several steps during the conflict to achieve their goal. Slavery was not inadvertently destroyed by the war; on the contrary, it was abolished with great difficulty by Republicans deeply committed to black freedom.

Focusing on "the origins and implementation of abolition rather than the aftermath of slavery," Oakes challenges recent attempts to breathe new life into long-discredited interpretations presented by the school of Civil War Revisionists in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. Those Revisionists pooh-poohed the notion that the war was caused by slavery and that it was fought by men who cared deeply about destroying the peculiar institution. Rather, they contended, a "blundering generation" of political leaders foolishly argued over a non-issue (the extension of slavery into the western territories) and precipitated a needless war fought for the morally suspect goal of preserving national unity. The Revisionists' hero was Lincoln's nemesis, Stephen A. Douglas, whose "popular sovereignty" doctrine, they allege, would have solved the sectional dispute amicably if it had not been for reckless Southern fire-eaters and Northern antislavery fanatics.

Oakes shows conclusively how Lincoln and the Republican Party understood that the war was caused by slavery and that the conflict would determine its fate. Early on, the president and Congress perceived the centrality of slavery and acted against it, despite the Democrats' constitutional objections. Republicans countered that slaves were not property under the Constitution, which refers to them as "persons held to service" not as chattels, and which guarantees that "no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law." (Emphasis added.) According to Republicans, slavery was a local institution, not a national one, and enjoyed protection only under municipal law. They based those conclusions on the records of the 1787 Constitutional Convention; precedents established during the "First Emancipation" of the late 18th and early 19th centuries; several state court cases; and political movements like the Liberty and the Free Soil parties of the 1840s. Oakes traces the way that these ideas, originally articulated by a few radical pamphleteers, eventually went mainstream, and were picked up and elaborated upon by political abolitionists like John Quincy Adams, Salmon P. Chase, Joshua R. Giddings, and Charles Sumner. (The book's title comes from Sumner's 1852 Senate speech, "Freedom National; Slavery Sectional.")

By 1860, most Republicans had adopted these views and were committed to putting slavery on the road to "ultimate extinction" (in Lincoln's phrase). Southern secessionists were right, therefore, to fear that sooner or later (probably sooner) the Republicans would abolish slavery, despite their protestations that they had no intention of interfering with it in states where it existed.

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Posted by at August 28, 2013 4:50 AM

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