Thursday, April 11, 2013

What We're Reading: New History

Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865
by James Oakes

Freedom National is an important and original work of historical scholarship that looks at the complex history of how the system of slavery, embedded in the U.S. Constitution, was physically and legally destroyed by the federal government in the United States during the Civil War. The timing of its publication is fortuitous: A recent major motion picture, Lincoln, focused rather narrowly on the portentous battle over the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The 13th Amendment was only the culmination of what had been a difficult and often chaotic series of federal assaults on the institution of slavery that preceded the effort to seek and pass an amendment that would end slavery everywhere in the United States. Movie goers who enjoyed Lincoln, and want to develop a broader understanding of how the national government came to the decision that an amendment to the Constitution was critical to the destruction of slavery, will find this prelude of interest.

Freedom National is not what is commonly called narrative history, the retelling of historical events with novelistic devices. There is not much focus on character or drama here, but this is not a dull book. The reader will come away from Freedom National understanding that history is not just about personalities but also about the history of ideas--in this instance, the long intellectual and legal history of evolving interpretations of what the U.S. Constitution had to say about slavery and how those interpretations were structured in such a way as to form the basis of an anti-slavery politics. They were ideas that found a home in the growing Republican Party. Oakes explains that the national consensus, based on the U.S. Constitution, was that the federal government did not have the power to interfere with or abolish slavery in the states where it existed. But abolitionists, and those opposed to the extension of slavery, argued that slavery was in fact local, created by individual states, and that the Constitution otherwise assumed that freedom was national, that outside of the places that established slavery by law, all men were free. To those who made this argument, it followed that the federal government was not obliged to enforce fugitive slave laws. It was up to the individual states to enforce such laws. It meant that the federal government had the authority to decide if there would be slavery in the territories, and slavery foes also argued that the Constitution had deliberately eschewed the recognition of any “property in man.” The word "slavery" was not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, which referred only to "persons" held to labor or service within a state. The anti-slavery coalition that advanced these arguments believed that by restraining the federal government from in any way enforcing or abetting slavery where it existed, keeping slavery out of the territories, and working to abolish slavery voluntarily in the border states, they could build a "cordon of freedom around the states where slavery existed and put slavery on a course of ultimate extinction." They admitted that they did not have the Constitutional authority to interfere with slavery where it existed, but the eventual demise of slavery would not depend on having that authority.

Secession, and war when it came, changed radically the framework of anti-slavery politics. There was the feeling in the Republican Party from early in the war that although the purpose of the war was the restoration of the Union, the cause of the war was slavery, and the slave system might, and very possibly should be one of the incidental casualties of the conflict. Military confiscation of slaves began early in the war. The rules of war rather than the U.S. Constitution came to prevail in the seceded states, the territory of the enemy, and the accepted international rules of war allowed for the confiscation of assets and property of belligerents that could be used in prosecuting a war. Slaves that escaped to Union lines were employed by Union commanders in the war effort and under the auspices of the national government were treated as free men. Oakes traces how the military emancipation of slaves was used as a “weapon” throughout the war, one that expanded in scope and ambition as the conflict went on. The Emancipation Proclamation, whose 150th anniversary we celebrate this year, was not a suddenly new idea of the Republican Party or a point to which Lincoln had been reluctantly driven but was rather the culmination of a progressive policy of military emancipation modulated perhaps only by concerns over the politically sensitive and chaotic situation in the border states, the slave-owning states that had remained loyal to the union. Oakes's history of emancipation makes it clear that the Emancipation Proclamation was not a measure taken to resuscitate and solidify any waning dedication to the war effort in the North, but rather grew out of military necessity and out of the practical and substantive issues raised by slaves coming under Union control as Union troops made further incursions into Southern slave states.

Lincoln and his party remained remarkably focused and unified over the progress and purposes of emancipation, and were determined that slaves--once freed--would not be returned to bondage in the future. Military emancipation had created a dynamic whose only imaginable end was the abolition of slavery nationally. Yet as the war drew to a close, only about 15 percent of slaves had been emancipated by Union troops. The rest of the slave population resided outside of Union lines, where the freedom granted them in the Emancipation Proclamation was not a matter that could be practically enforced. An end of hostilities would result in the end of military emancipation. It was not clear that the federal government could force states to abolish slavery as a condition of rejoining the Union, and even if it did, the U.S. Constitution seemed to protect the right of states in the Union to reestablish slavery within their states. And then too, the difficult matter remained of how slavery would be abolished in the loyal border states, who proved remarkably resistant during the war to federal efforts to encourage the abolition of slavery in their states. The practical and legal destruction of slavery was proving to be difficult, and ultimately it became apparent that the end of slavery would require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The attempt to pass such an amendment became a difficult struggle in its own right, but as Oakes demonstrates, it should be understood only as the culmination of what had been a war-long effort to undermine and destroy the institution of slavery.

What makes Oakes's historical account of the destruction of slavery particularly interesting is that it presents a picture of the dynamic elements that interact in major social and political change: the developing history of moral and legal arguments for change, the establishment of partisan political constituencies and power, the difficulty of confronting long established law and institutions, the quick action and sudden change that become possible in crisis situations, and the challenges to consolidating change. The signature events, the benchmarks of these changes, are but the most visible manifestation of a complex mechanism that was slowly assembled by many hands, engaged and put in motion, and driven sometimes by deliberation and sometimes by unfolding events. You cannot read Freedom National without thinking about recent social change in America or change in the making, without understanding that our system of government was built to be essentially cautious and conservative, that in our politics what may sometimes seem like revolution is always a long time coming.



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