The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation by David Brion Davis (Knopf)
The sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation passed with so little notice in 2013 that few Americans had the opportunity to reflect on one of the most consequential chapters in our history. Other than Steven Spielberg’s cinematic ode to the Thirteenth Amendment, there have been few public discussions or commemorations, few efforts to grapple with the legacies of slavery or its abolition. Even the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington last August kept its eyes trained firmly on the unfinished business of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr.’s great oration. But the larger and more complicated history of this long struggle—how we came to that point, how modern America was made by both slavery and emancipation—was largely ignored by the speakers on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
That is why the appearance of David Brion Davis’s new book is important. Over the past half century, Davis has come to be recognized not only as the leading authority on slavery in the Euro-Atlantic world, but also for his profound engagement with slavery’s moral challenges. His sweep of study has been enormous, his command of international literatures unparalleled, his respect for other scholars exemplary, his arguments painstakingly rendered. Davis takes us on eye-opening encounters with regimes of enslavement and, most significantly, attempts to explain how they endured and why they eventually fell. Although The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation is the most recent of Davis’s many books, it is also the third and concluding volume of a remarkable trilogy that he began to contemplate as long ago as the 1950s.
Davis hardly seemed destined to become the preeminent historian of modern slavery. He was trained as a cultural and intellectual historian, and published a first book, Homicide in American Fiction, in 1957, that gave only limited indication of where his scholarship might be headed. But the 1950s also witnessed a groundswell of interest in the comparative history of race and slavery, in good part because the postwar era produced powerful social tremors validating W. E. B. Du Bois’s prediction that “the problem of the twentieth century” would be “the problem of the color line.” Anti-colonial movements erupted in Africa, struggles for black civil and political rights intensified in the United States, and the apartheid regime took brutal shape in South Africa.
Although Davis did not become directly involved in any of these battles, he did have indelible experiences with American racism while serving in the U.S. Army. Later he met Kenneth Stampp, who was about to publish his landmark book, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (1956), which demolished the views of Southern apologists, and came to the rather disturbing recognition that the subjects of slavery and racism had little place in his own undergraduate and graduate courses. Davis resolved not only to rectify those glaring omissions but also to write something of an “anti-slavery counterpart” to Stampp’s remarkable volume.
The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, which Davis published in 1966, went well beyond anything such an analogy might have suggested. While other historians were debating the character of slavery, emancipation, and race in different societies of the Western Hemisphere, Davis confronted what he saw as the profound moral dilemma that enslavement presented to Western thought from the ancient world to the latter part of the eighteenth century. Insisting on the fundamental institutional continuity of chattel slavery from antiquity to modernity, he identified a central contradiction that slavery always embodied: slaves were simultaneously persons and things. “The inherent contradiction of slavery,” he wrote, “lay not in its cruelty or economic exploitation, but in the underlying conception of man as a conveyable possession with no more autonomy of will and consciousness than a domestic animal.”
It was this contradiction that philosophers and theologians had long wrestled with in attempting (mostly) to defend or to question the morality of holding a human being as a slave. Drawing upon a great many sources, Davis explored the ethical bases of enslavement, its foundations in Judeo-Christian thought, its political and cultural justifications, and the moral doubts that it inevitably raised. But as much as anything else, Davis was interested in why, after so many centuries in which slavery and other forms of servitude were accepted as norms, repugnance finally emerged and, for the first time in history, led to the emergence, toward the end of the eighteenth century, of an anti-slavery movement.
Such a dramatic development, in Davis’s view, required a sea change in cultural values and moral perception. The slave had to be seen as a fellow human being no longer subject to animalization, and his or her enslavement had to be regarded as an evil and a sin. “It is hardly conceivable,” he observed, “that antislavery could have become a powerful international force had it not been preceded by a revolutionary shift in attitudes toward sin, human nature, and progress.” Davis therefore devoted the last chapters of The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture to the rise of Enlightenment thought, especially to Arminian sensibilities among Protestants, which emphasized rationalism, personal responsibility, humility, and benevolence. While he described how these currents could run in pro-slavery as well as anti-slavery directions, he also showed how they enabled “a growing number of evangelicals and philosophes,” Quakers prominent among them, “to sense that American slavery might symbolize all the forces that threatened the true destiny of man.” The book’s epilogue, which looked ahead to the nature of anti-slavery itself, was devoted to the “prophecy” of the Quaker itinerant John Woolman, warning a slaveholding people on both sides of the Atlantic of the divine retribution that they courted.
As a cultural and intellectual historian, Davis attributed change chiefly to the advent of new ideas. But the “problem” he examined raised a strictly historical question: why then? What was it about the mid-to-late eighteenth century that permitted intellectuals—along with substantial sections of the public—to challenge received wisdom on so many vital matters, and thus to mobilize against an institution that had such formidable defenders? The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture did not really address this riddle, but it became the analytical centerpiece of Davis’s subsequent volume, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823, which appeared in 1975. If possible, it was even more ambitious and impressive than the first.
Although The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution had a more abbreviated scope than its predecessor, it revealed a transformation in the way that Davis conceptualized his entire project. He still looked principally at those who articulated their understandings of slavery—including Thomas Jefferson, of whom he offered a brilliant treatment—and at the contending discourses over the question of enslavement. Yet Davis also began to explore the constellations of political power in the Euro-Atlantic world and the social classes attempting to preserve their prerogatives or make their way forward.
It is not entirely clear how to account for this analytical transformation. Davis had certainly been reading in the new social history that was concerned with the “intersection,” as Davis put it, “between ideals and social action.” He also read the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who was deeply interested in how elites in bourgeois societies defined the boundaries of accepted cultural and political practices and elicited ideological consent from subordinate social classes—how the cultural “hegemony” of a ruling order came to be established and potentially undermined.
The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution had a new intellectual feel and political orientation. And what it offered was breathtaking in scope and imagination. Davis’s book pulsed with a Gramscian dialectic between the boundaries of power that anti-slavery faced and the new boundaries of social and cultural authority that anti-slavery would help to define. Here he was less interested in “race” than in attitudes toward labor, recognizing that the rise of abolitionism also coincided with the rise of a capitalist social system and a new political order in which the elective franchise would be extended to a growing middle class.
Davis was by no means the first to ponder the connections between capitalism and slavery. But while respectfully acknowledging the important contributions of Eric Williams, Eugene Genovese, and others, Davis sought to move the discussion in a different and more culturally complex direction. He focused on the ideological role played by anti-slavery in a society in which new forms of labor control and discipline were confronting the very people who were finding slavery morally and economically objectionable. With great subtlety, he suggested that anti-slavery sensibilities created something of a dichotomy, simultaneously condemning some forms of coercive power (wielded unilaterally by slaveholders) while reinforcing the legitimacy of others (when, as in the wage relation, voluntarism appeared in evidence). Anti-slavery thus promoted the moral authority and eventual cultural hegemony of a new commercial and industrial class.
The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution showed how the question of slavery’s future was broached, how the slave trade was abolished in Britain and the United States, how emancipation unfolded in parts of the United States while erupting with immense force on the French island of St. Domingue, and how Britain moved toward a general emancipation policy in its colonial possessions. But there was much left to do. The Euro-Atlantic “age of emancipation” encompassed a century from the U.S. and Haitian Revolutions on the one end to the abolition decrees in Cuba and Brazil on the other. In between were emancipations in the British, French, Danish, and Dutch West Indies—and, of course, in the United States during the Civil War. It would clearly require a book as massive, learned, and wide-ranging as each of the volumes that Davis had already produced.
The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation is not that book. Its focus is principally on the Anglo-American world of the first half of the nineteenth century, on British emancipation, and on the development of radical abolitionism in the United States. The Civil War–era emancipations are taken up only in the book’s epilogue, and there is very little on Cuba, Brazil, or the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking experiences more generally.
But we need some perspective. While the new book has been long in the making, Davis also published numbers of important works during these intervening years, some of which take on the Euro-Atlantic emancipation process as a whole. They include, most importantly, Slavery and Human Progress (1984), a remarkably broad but also deeply penetrating work that embraced the Islamic as well as Judeo-Christian world and sought, in his words, to chart “the momentous shift from ‘progressive’ enslavement to ‘progressive’ emancipation” roughly between the middle of the ninth century and the first moments of the twentieth. In all of these studies, Davis continued to explore the issues that had been at the center of his first two volumes, and developed a richer view of the arc of slavery and abolition.
Indeed, to say that The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation is less than we might have expected is not to say that it lacks for insights, new material, and a real sense of fulfilling the trilogy as a whole. Like all of Davis’s previous volumes, this one is organized around the large theme of dehumanization and its historical implications: what it meant for societies to deprive people of their humanity, to subject them to animalization. Here Davis is interested in the repercussions for blacks as well as whites, especially as slavery came under growing political attack, and therefore in how the path out of enslavement could be imagined. He is not reluctant to take up the matter of “internalization” (whether some slaves may have become the brutes and beasts they were said to be, or may have been left mired in self-hatred) and how it undoubtedly burdened those who struggled for liberation. Nor is he reluctant to insist that the central pathology of slavery was a white pathology, “intent on animalization as a form of projection for the benefit of whites of all social classes.” But the result is that The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation moves in distinctive interpretive directions, portraying “colonization” and free blacks as central to the emancipationist project, and arguing that the Anglo-American abolition movements were essential to the “incredible moral achievement” of the age.
Davis begins with the event that truly ushered in the age of emancipation: the slave rebellion on the French-controlled island of St. Domingue, known as the Haitian Revolution, which played out over more than a decade, between 1791 and 1804. Never before in modern history had slaves and their free black allies succeeded in destroying a regime of slavery, and never had slaves and free blacks then created their own state. Yet as Davis astutely points out, the legacy was ambiguous. On the one hand, the Haitian Revolution served as a beacon of possibility for slaves throughout the Americas, a demonstration that slavery could be ended and that people like them could play the leading role in ending it. For the first time, a world without slavery was within the realm of imagination. On the other hand, the violence and brutality of the rebellion-turned-revolution knocked the moral wind out of a developing abolition movement, which would now be accused of inciting murder and mayhem, and leaving the post-emancipation landscape a site of disorder and gross political inversions. Visions of the Haitian Revolution would hang both hopefully and ominously over the age of emancipation.
The moral challenge of abolitionism, of eradicating sin and evil without promoting greater upheaval, appears to have drawn Davis to a serious and a relatively sympathetic look at colonization. This is not easy to do. The colonization movement, embodied by the American Colonization Society (ACS), which was founded in 1816, proposed to exile the freed black population as a way of easing white acceptance of some type of emancipation. Suffused with ideas of black inferiority, brutishness, and cultural backwardness, the ACS was almost universally renounced by African Americans at the time, even those who themselves thought to leave the United States, and is generally excoriated by present-day historians for its gradualism, elitism, and racism.
Davis by no means rejects these charges or attempts to rehabilitate the ACS’s mission. But he does see in colonization a direct encounter with the problem of slavery as the realities of emancipation presented themselves. After all, it was one thing to regard slavery as an evil and to denounce it as a sin, but quite another to explain how the sinners might redeem themselves, how the evil might be exorcised, and how the victims might find their way into the tent. Ironically, it was the deist Jefferson who early articulated the dilemma. He feared that slaveholders such as himself sat atop a volcano that might at any time erupt, and until the Haitian Revolution bore out his prediction, he expressed anti-slavery sentiments and offered up some emancipationist proposals. (All were defeated.) Yet at the same time Jefferson believed that black people were inferior to white people, and that whites and blacks could never live together in peace once the chains of African American slavery were broken. Although he had grave doubts about whether it could be feasible, Jefferson came to believe that abolition would have to be accompanied by some type of black removal.
Most whites who gravitated to colonization shared Jefferson’s racism and saw abolition as a way not only to extirpate evil and backwardness but also to rid the country of black people. This was especially the case as anti-slavery gained traction as a political movement in the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. Early on, however, colonization also appealed to missionary types who saw slavery as a sin and black degradation as a consequence, and who believed that shipping emancipated blacks off to Africa (Liberia in particular) would both dissipate the cloud of evil that hung over the United States and enable blacks to prove themselves in an environment uncontaminated by their enslavement. And nothing would be a better indicator of that progress than their effort to bring Christianity and civilization to the African heathen. Colonization would thereby offer redemption for blacks and whites, slaves and slaveholders.
Rarely has an offer of redemption been rejected as roundly by its presumed beneficiaries as colonization was by the African-descended population in the United States. The gradual emancipation statutes that had been enacted in the northeastern states between 1780 and 1804, together with private manumissions there and as far south as the Chesapeake, created a growing population of blacks who were no longer chattel-bound and were therefore able to construct a public culture. Some were literate and economically comfortable; the great majority were poor, unskilled, and left to their own devices. Although what would later be called “Jim Crow” laws already denied them many civil and political rights, they built churches and other social institutions, developed communication networks, and held meetings to chart their political course. When the issue of colonization came before them, they rejected it almost unanimously.
It wasn’t that people of African descent in the United States could not see how the sin of slavery had marked them as well as their oppressors, or how dim the prospects were for their freedom and empowerment. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, some argued that emigration—usually to Africa—held the only real promise for living their lives as they chose, and they expressed a notion of peoplehood that resembled the popular nationalisms bursting forth in Europe, of which they were aware. But they were very clear to differentiate themselves from the goals and perspectives of the ACS. These they viewed with contempt, as accommodations to slavery and racism.
Davis understands the logic of black emigrationism, though he is discomfited by the proto–black nationalism that it produced, and underestimates its influence on African Americans, especially among the overwhelming number who were poor laboring folk. His chapter that deals with this political and intellectual phenomenon, from Henry Highland Garnet and Martin Delany to Marcus Garvey, is the weakest and least persuasive in his book. But it does demonstrate the range and the power of black political engagement with the problem of slavery, and it sets the foundation for what is one of the strongest of the book’s chapters, that on the black contribution to the critique of colonization and the emergence of radical abolitionism.
Here Davis truly confounds the familiar narrative. We have long seen the white New Englander William Lloyd Garrison as the progenitor of the abolitionist movement, railing against colonization in his newspaper The Liberator, advocating “immediatism” as an alternative, and helping to establish the American Anti-Slavery Society. He and his followers called slavery a sin and slaveholders sinners, and set out to persuade Americans not only of their own sinfulness but also of their moral obligation to embrace immediate emancipation. Very quickly, abolitionist societies were established across the North; abolitionist newspapers, broadsides, and pamphlets were being published; and a veritable army of women and men was spreading the word.
Yet Davis shows that there is much more to the story, and that the most significant portions involve African Americans. Up through the 1820s, Garrison was himself a colonizationist, and he may well have continued to be one had he not been hired by Benjamin Lundy to help edit the Genius of Universal Emancipation, published out of Baltimore in the slave state of Maryland. There Garrison experienced, for the first time, a world organized around slavery; there he worked and boarded with free people of color, who had a far less cautious view of anti-slavery and little but scorn for colonization; there he learned that African Americans subscribed in large numbers to Lundy’s paper; and there he read the writings of black abolitionists, especially David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829).
Walker was part of a deepening black political culture, nourished by free people of color as well as slaves, which mounted an attack on slavery and the ACS through their own newspapers and associations. The Appeal was a particularly powerful expression. In prose filled with classical allusions and historical references, and laced with almost fevered millennial language, Walker insisted on the unique barbarity of American slavery, decried the hypocrisy of slaveholding Christians, chided slaves for their submissiveness, condemned colonization as morally bankrupt, and warned of God’s retributive justice. But he took special aim at Jefferson’s ideas of black inferiority and his support for colonization, predicting that blacks would “contradict” him “by [their] own actions.” By the time Garrison left Baltimore for Boston in 1830, he had abandoned the cause of colonization and was ready to take his emancipationist ideas in more radical directions.
Garrisonian abolitionism, in other words, grew in a soil cultivated by black people, though Garrison never credited blacks for converting him. But as Davis perceptively suggests, Walker—and other black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass (and some white ones too, such as Sarah Grimké)—also recognized that if emancipation were to succeed and bring racial equality along with it, the stigma of black dehumanization would have to be excised. “Free blacks” therefore became the “key to slave emancipation,” the potential embodiments of the progress and social peace that emancipation would bring; and radical abolitionists simultaneously urged black people to uplift themselves and told white people that blacks eagerly embraced the virtues of thrift, industry, and sobriety. To achieve their ends, abolitionists clearly had to challenge the idea that slavery had rendered African Americans so degraded and animal-like that they could never fend for themselves in a world of freedom.
Just as abolitionism was gaining important footing in the United States, it triumphed in Britain. After mobilizing against the slave trade and for the amelioration of the slaves’ condition in their colonial possessions, British abolitionists finally helped to enact legislation in 1833 that provided for gradual (six-year) emancipation together with monetary compensation for the slaveholders (though none for the slaves). It was an emancipation, as Davis notes, that combined abolitionist and proprietor ideologies and created just the sort of turmoil it set out to avoid. Former slaves had to suffer several years of “apprenticeship” as “preparation” for freedom, and former slaveholders now found it difficult to run their plantations as they saw fit. The sugar economy tanked. But British emancipation’s international impact, especially in the United States, was something like the Haitian Revolution’s: it promoted heightened expectations among slaves and free blacks together with great fears among slaveholders and their allies.
Rather than portraying the age of emancipation as an inevitable process once it commenced, Davis suggests that the Haitian Revolution and the British emancipation may have steeled the resistance of American slaveholders, who came to regard abolition as a fatal blow to the world they knew. That resistance, in turn, worsened tensions in national politics over the future of slavery, and led slaveholders to demand greater protection for their property and greater power in the federal government. They had been especially exercised by abolitionists aiding fugitives from slavery and driving off slave-catchers who came to retrieve them. As a consequence, slaveholders pushed a new Fugitive Slave Law through Congress in 1850 that both strengthened their hands and increased the vulnerabilities of all people of African descent, whether or not they were enslaved. Growing numbers of white Northerners—not just abolitionists—saw in this a fundamental attack on religious principles and civil rights.
Although conventional narratives of the struggle over slavery generally depict all the political actors as white, Davis shows that African Americans exacerbated the crisis and made war more likely, especially in attempting to escape their enslavement and in establishing vigilance societies in the North to protect runaways. To be sure, slave fugitives never posed a demographic threat to slaveholders; they averaged only about one or two thousand a year out of a population nearing four million. But they continuously demonstrated what Abraham Lincoln eventually warned, that the country could not survive “half slave and half free”; and they persuaded more and more slaveholders that slavery could never be safe in such a Union. “The fugitive slave issue,” Davis observes, “was absolutely central in bringing on the Civil War.”
At the same time, the heavy hands that slaveholders and their allies wielded in national politics persuaded more and more abolitionists (especially black abolitionists) that neither moral suasion nor electoral means were up to the task of abolishing slavery—as Davis puts it, “that a slave system undergirded by violence required violence to topple it.” Some of them, including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, would actively support John Brown’s plan to raid Harpers Ferry armory and incite a slave rebellion.
Davis leaves the Civil War to a brief but interesting treatment in the epilogue. He first looks at the conflict from the perspective of the British, who had good economic reasons to support the Confederacy, the major supplier of cotton to their textile mills, and who did recognize the Confederates as a belligerent power. At the very least, British leaders assumed that Lincoln would fail to restore the Union, and expected to play a central role in negotiating a very favorable peace. Thus Robert E. Lee’s retreat after the battle of Antietam in September 1862 and Lincoln’s subsequent issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation shocked the British leadership while rousing public support, especially among the working classes, for the Union side.
It was a contingency that, by Davis’s reckoning, marked “the final stage of the Age of Emancipation,” and served as a reminder of alternative possibilities for the United States and the Atlantic world. New World slavery, Davis argues, was neither retrograde nor economically backward, nor was it headed for some type of “natural extinction”: it was profitable, productive, and expanding in Cuba and Brazil as well as the United States. Had the Civil War turned out differently, the Confederacy might have succeeded in establishing “at least a minor slaveholding empire” and slavery would surely have survived for decades to come. Instead, the Civil War–era emancipations liberated the largest number of slaves in the Americas, had a “profound influence” on freeing slaves elsewhere in the hemisphere, and left a powerful political legacy for radical reformers of all stripes and the ongoing fight against slavery in various parts of the world in the twentieth century. American emancipation and especially the Reconstruction Amendments ending slavery and establishing a national citizenship, Davis insists, “represent the climax and turning point of the Age of Emancipation,” an era that witnessed “probably the greatest landmark of willed moral progress in human history.”
Still, how are we to think about the world the Age of Emancipation made? Davis writes that the “outlawing of chattel slavery in the New World, and then globally” stands as a testament to “moral progress that we should never forget.” But he also concedes that “there was an element of ‘failure’ in all the emancipations.” “In no case,” he acknowledges, “did emancipation lead to a prosperous, racially egalitarian society.” He is quite right. Although there was no single route out of slavery, almost everywhere former slaves found themselves as poor and oppressed workers, or as poor and isolated peasant cultivators, whose blackness was regarded as a mark of inferiority even where the official ideology—as in Cuba and Brazil—touted “racial democracy.”
Why was this? How could such a great triumph of “moral progress” end up with results so dismal that some could wonder if there had been any moral progress at all? In The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, Davis offered some important clues. Abolitionism, he argued, had special appeal to members of a developing class of manufacturers and merchants who had simultaneously been touched by evangelicalism and come to depend on a growing class of free laborers for their livelihoods. Increasingly they viewed the “external” authority of slave masters as tyranny and sin, and the “internal” authority of individuals as the true basis of freedom and independence. The sin of slavery, as they saw it, resided in denying slaves the opportunities to establish a direct relationship with God, to form families, and to improve themselves in the ways that they chose, in denying them the personal dignity and integrity to which all humans were entitled. The sin in freedom resided in the rejection of those opportunities on the part of those who could choose.
Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, expressed this distinction with great power during a trip to Britain in 1846, when he dismissed any similarity between slave and wage labor, and thereby withdrew a hand of solidarity from the very working people who were supporting abolitionism. American slavery was unique, he maintained, not because of its greater physical abuse but because of its dehumanizing domination. Douglass understood the forms of personal and political power that would compromise emancipation when it came in the United States, and so he, together with radical members of the Republican Party, pressed for the extension of full civil and political rights to the freedpeople. But more than a few abolitionists, Garrison in particular, thought that their job was done when slavery was abolished, and they could be quick to blame the former slaves for failing to seize the opportunities that freedom appeared to provide.
In an important sense, with the advent of abolitionism, the “problem of slavery” also became the “problem of freedom.” And it was a problem that abolitionism deepened precisely because their cultural predilections often made it very difficult for abolitionists to recognize either the structure of socioeconomic power or the moral legitimacy of different visions of a post-emancipation world. Indeed, by establishing a dichotomy of slavery and freedom, in which one represented sin and evil and the other salvation and progress, abolitionism left a political legacy that can blind us to a raft of compulsions that slave emancipation not only ignored but effectively legitimated. We might attempt to build on Davis’s work and begin to explore less the “problem of freedom” than the “problem of coercion” in the age of emancipation. The Thirteenth Amendment’s prescription that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude ... shall exist within the United States,” we must remember, was qualified by an important clause: “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
The Thirteenth Amendment had another important clause that is often overlooked. It abolished slavery and involuntary servitude not only in “the United States” but also in “any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This raises an assortment of questions that Davis only gestures at but would seem to be crucial to a full understanding of the age of emancipation: the relation between emancipation and empire. Already in the late eighteenth century, the rise of anti-slavery in Britain coincided with a crisis of imperial authority, amplified by the rebellion in the North American colonies. The issues had less to do with the wisdom of empire and more with the principles of its governance, and the anti-slavery-minded came to see abolition as an important component of imperial reform, one that would enhance the moral prestige of Britain’s rulers in a changing world despite the potential economic consequences.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the main imperial project in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century was driven chiefly by slaveholders and their allies in the Democratic Party, some of whom imagined a hemispheric empire organized around slavery. The Civil War defeated that possibility, but the war and emancipation also created a political force with its own imperial dimensions: a new American nation-state. Although slavery had been abolished gradually in the North, all of those emancipations were enacted by state governments; the wartime emancipations were enacted by the federal government in an effort to subdue the Confederate rebellion, secure its sovereignty, and prescribe appropriate forms of social relations and behaviors for those residing within its borders. African American slavery was also abolished among the “Five Civilized Tribes” in Indian Territory, Indian slavery in the New Mexico Territory was ordered “suppressed,” and debt peonage, a widely deployed means of extra-economic coercion in the Southwest, was formally outlawed.
Emancipation by the federal government in the United States opened the way for the development of the trans-Mississippi West and the re-development of the former slave South, but it also gave American policymakers the moral authority to defeat the claims of Native Americans and limit the aspirations of the freedpeople in what were now regarded as the nation’s “colonies.” They could employ the language of abolitionism—civilization, Christianity, uplift—to herd Indians onto reservations and defeat black hopes for land and empowerment. And much in the manner of their European counterparts who were constructing formal empires on the African continent, they could invoke the Thirteenth Amendment and anti-slavery ideology more generally to justify their occupation of overseas territories like the Philippines, where forms of slavery still survived.
The age of emancipation clearly was riven by as many contradictions and moral dilemmas as the far longer ages of slavery. As we continue to wrestle with their meanings, for our ancestors as well as for ourselves, the brilliant and pathbreaking work of David Brion Davis will always serve to guide our way.
Steven Hahn is the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania and the author, most recently, of The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom (Harvard).