Emancipation. by Gregory P. Downs, Ph.D
Emancipation, the idea that lies like a pearl at the center of our understanding of the Civil War, seems simple: it means freedom, the end of slavery. That’s how Booker T. Washington saw it. “Finally,” he wrote in his landmark autobiography, “Up From Slavery,” “the war closed, and the day of freedom came. … Freedom was in the air and had been for months.”
For a century and a half, historians, like Washington, have explained the emancipation of 4 million slaves by contrasting their slavery with their newfound freedom. The nation’s achievement, won with the blood of hundreds of thousands of men, was essentially a negative quality, an absence of an evil. For Washington, as for almost everyone who has wrestled with the story of the end of slavery, the idea of freedom did double historical duty: the word was simultaneously slavery’s antonym and one of the keywords of the nation’s history, embedded in its Bill of Rights. In becoming free, slaves seemed to not only make themselves more American, but the rest of the nation, too. Slavery had ended, and the paradox at the heart of American democracy had been resolved.
But contrast Washington’s celebration of freedom with an account by Harriet Jacobs, a formerly enslaved woman turned reformer and author. She confronted the many meanings of freedom when she encountered dozens of liberated slaves in Duff Green’s Row in Washington in 1862. “Many were sick with measles, diptheria [sic], scarlet and typhoid fever,” she wrote. “Some had a few filthy rags to lie on; others had nothing but the bare floor for a couch.” As Jacobs attempted to comfort them, they looked up at her with “those tearful eyes” that asked, “Is this freedom?”
In recent years Jacobs’s question has been echoed by a growing number of historians. Was freedom, narrowly construed, enough? Was freedom simply a license, the right to make choices, however constrained, as white planters claimed? Or did freedom extend to the ballot box, to education, to equality of opportunity? And who defined freedom, and what did it mean to 19th-century African-Americans, both under slavery and after the war?
In raising such questions, historians have begun to place other concepts, like power and belonging, at the center of the story of emancipation. (Scholars of slavery and emancipation are gathered this weekend at Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition for a conference titled “Beyond Freedom,” to explore these questions.) Instead of defining every aspect of post-emancipation life as a new form of freedom, scholars have started to look more carefully at the importance of belonging to an empowered government or community in defining the outcome of emancipation. Rather than simply celebrating individual freedom, these works examine the enormous gap between rights on paper and the capacity to enforce those rights. In doing so, they have cast light on the key role of power and inclusion in shaping the post-Civil War world that emancipation made.
What is at stake in these works is not only how we understand the Civil War and the end of slavery, but how we understand freedom itself. Reinforced by a hot war against fascism, a cold war against communism, and a 40-year critique of government from both the left and the right, freedom has come to seem the core American value. But at what cost? By underrating the importance of well-functioning bureaucracies for maintaining civil society, or by reinforcing views of government as freedom’s enemy, has the freedom narrative obscured important aspects of what emancipation did and did not accomplish, even as it cast light on others?
Among the first contemporary scholars to raise these questions is Eric Foner. In “Reconstruction,” the most careful elaboration of the freedom narrative, he brilliantly defined the contest over emancipation and Reconstruction as a fight between competing versions of freedom. Others, including Thavolia Glymph in “Out of the House of Bondage” and Susan O’Donovan in “Becoming Free in the Cotton South,” emphasize the constraints on labor contained within freedom. In Steven Hahn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Nation Under Our Feet,” democratic power, rather than freedom, assumes center stage.
Even newer work has taken these points even further. Much of it, including Kate Masur’s “An Example for All the Land,” explores that troubled relationship between ex-slaves and the federal government. James Oakes likewise places the development of federal policy at the center of the story, demonstrating its role in the slow process of freedom. Other scholars study the conditions of freedom in the anarchic society that the federal government left behind in the postwar South. As ex-planters and ex-Confederates regained power, they stepped into the void and created campaigns of political, labor, and sexual terror — vividly rendered in Hannah Rosen’s “Terror in the Heart of Freedom” — to force freedpeople into submission.
In turn, many freedpeople began to use their newly minted status as citizens to voice to the government in federal hearings the violent ways that freedwomen were sexually abused. Others, including Dylan Penningroth in “The Claims of Kinfolk,” emphasize freedpeople’s reliance upon communal and kingroup claims of power, rather than individual freedom. Many scholars examine emancipation in a global context, placing the United States alongside the rise and fall of slavery in Latin America, the Caribbean and even Egypt.
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Asking hard questions about freedom helps scholars envision emancipation as a process rather than a shotgun moment of liberation. If understood as a practice, not a stroke of a pen, emancipation becomes a longer story, one that emphasizes the gulf between the federal government’s plans and life on the ground in the postwar South. While it is possible to define those moments through the absence of freedom, it may well be that what ex-slaves suffered from was not a lack of freedom, but a lack of power and belonging.
For example, in March 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War, a North Carolina ex-slave named Peter Price walked into the local office of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency established to regulate the transition from slavery to freedom by enforcing labor contracts, adjudicating disputes, encouraging education and, at times, distributing rations. Price’s complaint was a common one. His landlord refused to turn over his share of the previous year’s crop. Price found a receptive ear in Hugo Hillebrandt, a Hungarian revolutionary who had fought with Garibaldi in Italy before joining the Union cause as a federal agent. After listening to Price’s story, Hillebrandt wrote an order demanding that the landlord turn over Price’s share of the crop.
But when Price carried the order back to the farm, his landlord tore it into pieces, threw it on the ground, and declared that “you might send ten thousand Yankees there and he did not intend to be governed by no such laws.” As a judge of practical power, the landlord was right. Hillebrandt could not enforce his orders outside of his office. In desperation, Price asked for help up the bureaucratic ladder, but without success. Some people — like Hillebrandt – would help him but could not; others perhaps could have but didn’t.
While freedom and its limitations tell us something about cases like Peter Price’s, it may not tell us enough. In ways that cannot fully be contained by ideas of negative or positive freedom, ex-slaves like Price asked for and needed not just freedom but force. Self-sufficiency, much less equality, would depend on his inclusion in a group of people the government could commit to successfully assisting. As Price’s case demonstrates, frameworks of defensible legal freedoms had limited meaning absent the ability to make themselves felt.
Americans have always found legal freedom alluring, remembering the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and not the tanks required to make it felt. So, too, with emancipation. As scholars wrestle with the centrality of freedom in defining emancipation, they open up new windows into the world the Civil War made and also wrestle with timeless (and timely) questions about the relationship between the individual, society and the government.
Gregory P. Downs is an associate professor at the City College of New York and the author of “Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908.” He is also the author of the short-story collection “Spit Baths.”
James Downs is an assistant professor of history at Connecticut College and author of the forthcoming “Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction.”
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