"Freedom's arrival was not the work of a moment; it was a process, rather than an occasion." That is the organizing thesis of The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States by Ira Berlin, the premier historian of American slavery world. Seldom has anyone captured the essence of so vital and complex a phenomenon in such a cohesive manner. In 211 riveting pages, he "connects the arrival of freedom with the post-emancipation standing of former slaves, hence the debate over citizenship and its attributes, among them race, as well as with the confrontation over property-in-man that made some people rich. At every turn, the coincidence between blackness and slavery, was reconstituted in the creation of a new relationship. Emancipation, in short, was a critical moment in the history of racialization---and it, too, was a long process."
Some historians have interpreted emancipation as a continuous linear progression toward freedom, while others have presented slavery and anti-slavery as parallel trajectories in which "emancipation's road was long and bumpy," its outcome uncertain. In Berlin's calculus, "it can best be revealed by examining the elements--four in number--that shaped the long struggle for universal freedom. Although played out against the ever-changing circumstances of American life, these four omnipresent constituents of emancipation's long history provide the essentials for understanding the arrival of universal freedom." First and foremost was "the resolute commitment of a few men and women--most of them black slaves, along with former slaves and the descendants of slaves--to end slavery and create a slaveless world." Second was "the issue of black people in freedom, and therefore the question of citizenship and its attributes. If black people were not to be slaves, what exactly would they be?" Third, "the challenge to racial slavery necessarily evoked the question of racial freedom, and so the matter of race and the relationship between whites and blacks emerged simultaneously with any discussion of emancipation." Finally, "and most inescapably, emancipation was a violent process, for undoing the violence of enslavement required just as much brutality as the creation of chattel bondage, if not more."
Although insisting upon "the primacy of black people" in the fight, Berlin argues that his focus "in no way denies the principled commitment, extraordinary courage, and deep sacrifice of others....in which can rightly be seen as the first interracial social movement." But neither does that reality "minimize the fact that the vast majority of black and white Americans lived in different worlds, which themselves had developed from slavery and from the allied structures of white supremacy." White abolitionists focused "on the societal damage slavery wrought as it perverted the work ethic, corrupted Christianity, distorted democracy, and twisted the most basic human relations," while blacks emphasized "the slaves' suffering, the physical and psychological abuse they endured, and the multiple ways slavery denied men and women a normal life. most especially a familial life." Nor does he deny that "most slaves grudgingly accepted--and sometimes welcomed--improvements in their lives in lieu of the risks entailed in reaching for complete freedom." Even so, most demonstrated "their unalloyed opposition to chattel slavery at the first opportunity." Freed slaves also did their utmost in behavior, dress, and speech to assure whites that they stood apart from slaves, but when the crisis came, "no other Americans pressed harder than free blacks for the opportunity to fight the slaveholding enemy, despite risks of enslavement and execution." Most realized that free blacks could never hope to be seen as equals so long as the masses were still enslaved.
In Berlin's rendering, the "long emancipation" began during the chaos of the American Revolutionary War, when thousands of slaves were able to "free" themselves, at least temporarily.
Their bold actions were so disruptive that most of the newly emerging states were forced to deal with the future of slavery as they drafted their founding constitutions. In every state north of the Carolinas, their deliberations culminated in a glacially slow process known as "post-nati-emancipation," whereby the children born to enslaved women would be free after a specified date." <post nati is Latin for "born after"> The process varied from state to state, but it was generally so "glacial" that slaves were still residing in Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia on the eve of the Civil War. Nowhere, however, were they accepted as "equals."
More than any other people, slaves and free blacks internalized and personalized the words "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Those ideals were especially adopted by those at the bottom of society, none more enthusiastically than the nearly one million enslaved Africans and African-Americans, and the small, but growing, free black population. For some, it only reinforced the assurances of spiritual equality offered by religious radicals, who found a spark of divinity in every soul, and by evangelical Christians who preached that all are equal in God's eyes. For many, perhaps most, who knew something of the world and had observed their "masters" without the trappings of superiority, Jefferson/s notion was only common sense. It provided an antidote to the allegations of inferiority that weighed heavily upon them.
Berlin is quick to point out that others shared this egalitarian persuasion: Whether their beliefs emerged from the natural rights philosophy of the Enlightenment, from the theology of radical Protestant sectarians or from the emerging sensitivity to the commonalities of human nature, the confluence of egalitarian ideas and revolutionary experiences produced a heady mixture that the American people adopted as their first principle. As the Declaration became the touchstone of American nationality, men and women --especially those confined to the margins of American society such as religious dissenters, laboring people, women of all ranks, and, of course, enslaved and free people of color--employed Jefferson's self-evident truth to fulfill the nation's promise. While the power of the egalitarian ideal waxed and waned over the next century--indeed over the entire course of American history--it had a particularly powerful resonance among black Americans.
But post-nati emancipation generated a counter-revolution. It was manifested most glaringly in the federal Constitution of 1787: the three/fifths clause, the continued importation of slaves until 1807, and the agreement to return "fugitives from justice" to their states of origin. The eventual prohibition of importation in 1807 guaranteed that slavery would henceforth be perpetuated almost solely by "natural increase"---a situation that most enslavers enthusiastically embraced. Whites in the "free states" obligingly acquiesced in the admission of several new slave states, but their growing resentment boiled over when Missouri--the first territory to emerge out of the Louisiana Purchase and the first west of the Mississippi River--applied for admission to the Union as a slave state. The vitriolic disputes that ensued---which came to be known as the Missouri Debates--"lasted through two congressional sessions and shook the Republic to its very essence, eventually setting the antislavery movement on a new path." The furor "touched on every aspect of the question of slavery and race revealing the full range of white sentiment on both sides." In the end, though, "the divisions within the Northern ranks contrasted sharply with the unity of Southern representatives--slavery and white supremacy carried the day." The resulting Missouri Compromise drew an imaginary line through the entire Louisiana Territory, allowing slavery to expand south of 36 degrees, 30 minutes of north latitude. The antislavery movement" once again faded from national politics and returned to the African churches, mutual aid societies. and civic associations that had emerged with the post-revolutionary growth of black freedom."
As blacks took control of the antislavery movement, it assumed a new form: "less deferential, less gradualist, and more direct, more strident, more confrontational--in a word more militant." Everywhere, "the movement to abolish slavery was joined to the movement for racial equality." Nowhere were the differences between black and white opponents of slavery more starkly revealed than in the question of colonization, which was institutionalized in the American Colonization Society in 1816. As early as the 1820s, its founders, who included mostly Jeffersonians, alienated black people. They disparaged them and "wanted only to purge the nation of free blacks." At the same time, Denmark Vesey and David Walker "came to epitomize, though hardly typify, the new style of antislavery activism." The former was a slave who had purchased his own freedom. He was accused of organizing a wide-ranging conspiracy to overthrow slavery in Charleston, and was tried, convicted, and executed as an insurrectionist. His notoriety, however, "made him an exemplar of antislavery activism," especially among a younger generation who were facing removal to the territories acquired by the annexation of Texas and victory in the Mexican War.
Walker was a free black born in North Carolina, who was probably inspired by Vesey's martyrdom and migrated to Boston. There he published his Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, which energized "the largely self-taught intellectual class, where notions of evangelical Protestantism mixed with ideals of classical republicanism." Although he chided blacks for their timidity, he reserved his most vitriolic criticism for whites--especially Jefferson--for their presumption of white supremacy.
The Appeal "captured the rage of an enslaved people and became an underground classic within the black community." While white opponents of slavery "dithered over colonization, the new generation of African-Americans--urged on by Walker--denounced colonization and demanded a direct confrontation with the slaveholding enemy." They also motivated a new generation of white abolitionists, led by William Lloyd Garrison, who espoused racial equality and called for an immediate end to slavery. White abolitionists were mobbed, beaten, and, at least in one case, murdered. Garrison was nearly lynched on the streets of Boston. Kidnapping "became a growth industry," that "sent black men and women, often free or having been promised freedom, to a lifetime of labor on the plantations of the Deep South." With increasing frequency, free blacks directly confronted aspiring kidnappers and the authorities who aided them." The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter," asserted Frederick Douglass, "is to make a half dozen or more dead kidnappers ".
While the great majority of northern whites obviously did not share the militancy of the abolitionists, they grew increasingly hostile toward the expansion of slavery. Even though those in the free states rejoiced in the addition of California and Oregon, they refused to regard the annexation of Texas and the Mexican Cession as an adequate quid pro quo. Their major objection to the Compromise of 1850 quickly became the Fugitive Slave Act, which mandated the return of runaway slaves, and commissioned U.S. marshals to pursue and capture them in the free states, subject only to permission from the courts. That was the spark that ignited the explosion of kidnapping, false imprisonment, pitched street battles, court histrionics, and widespread mayhem that ensued, both in cities and on the frontier. "Distinguishing many of these occasions,"was the presence of black men in arms, as the vigilance committees transformed themselves into militias." The "attempted and successful renditions of fugitive slaves became signature events of the decade as much as did the border wars in Kansas, the caning of Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the Senate floor, and John Brown's raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry." The Dred Scott decision opened the entire country--including the North and its territories--to slavery and barred people of African descent from membership in the larger community...threatened the rights of white people, degrading their labor by identifying it with that of black people and equality as the central tenet of American nationality."
According to Berlin, "the Civil War changed nothing and everything. Black men and women, slave and free, remained in the vanguard of the movement for universal freedom, demanding immediate emancipation." Freedom came for most slaves "through the force of arms. The mobilization of warring armies that transformed the war for union into a war for freedom ratcheted up the level of violence," as slavery came apart in pieces." Within a month, Congress prohibited Union soldiers from returning fugitive slaves to their masters, and Lincoln freed slaves in the District of Columbia. From the beginning of the war, "the strongest advocates of universal freedom were the slaves themselves." They "risked all for freedom," and "forced federal soldiers to recognize their importance to the Union's cause." Free blacks and white abolitionists dismissed the official Republican doctrine that slavery should be respected and given constitutional protection where it existed. Only the slaves "had both the commitment and the opportunity to initiate a direct assault on slavery." Hundreds of thousands "would work for the Union, and more than 135,000 slave men would become Union soldiers." The actions of slaves made it "possible and necessary for citizens, legislators, military officers, and the president to take action on the matter of emancipation." Nothing more clearly marked the transformation of the war for union into a war for freedom than "the appearance of black men in blue uniforms." That was so even though "the federal government violated virtually every such promise, and in so doing raised critical questions about the meaning of "real freedom." It was a stark reminder "that racial prejudice pervaded Northern as well as Southern society."
How, exactly, did the eventual triumph of The Long Emancipation help generate the pervasive racism that has poisoned our society and culture ever since? The answer, Berlin demonstrates conclusively, is that African-Americans--slave and free--struggled to obtain both "freedom" and "equality," while even the most sincere and dedicated white abolitionist advocated for "freedom"---in and of itself--as the ultimate prize. Regardless of location or status, blacks and whites "lived in different worlds." Material differences in wealth that spawned differences in education and aspirations "elevated whites, imbuing them with a sense that they were the black's defenders, protectors, and benefactors, but not as colleagues and comrades. Such condescension manifested itself in the lament that all-too-many white opponents of slavery "love the colored man at a distance." Their differences made it difficult for even black and white abolitionists "to see one another as equals." Whites "were remaking the world anew," and "repairing the damage created by the old world." They took part in the emancipation movement "as a matter of duty--but they were no more likely to believe that Negroes were naturally equal to whites than they were that chalk was cheese." It was part of the slave's "ongoing struggle for full equality that may have begun as an attempt to improve conditions of everyday life but that always aimed for recognition of their dignity and the respect granted a free people." Their long struggle for freedom also "rested on the expectation and demand for equality, meaning access to the tools of citizenship: at a minimum, the right to vote and the ability to earn a living through one's labor."
During the past 150 years, there have only been two relatively brief periods during which the majority of white people have actively supported African-American efforts to achieve true "equality." The first was the era of Congressional or "Radical" Reconstruction" which lasted--at most--from 1867 to 1877. The second was during the 1950s and 1960s, when the "Civil Rights Movement" was at its zenith. The former produced the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and several Civil Rights Acts. African-American males became an important voting force; Sixteen blacks served in Congress, more than 600 in various state legislatures, and hundreds more as sheriffs , justices of the peace, and other local officers. Reconstruction governments established the region's first public school systems and hospitals, made taxation more equitable, and outlawed racial discrimination in public transportation and accommodations. The latter period produced the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and "officially" desegregated nearly every aspect of public life--from the military to education, from housing to transportation, and from restaurants to movie theaters.
Naturally, all of these measures provoked a firestorm of reaction among southern whites, ranging from intimidation to beatings, lynching, electoral fraud, and even wholesale assaults on black communities. That was to be expected, and African-Americans of both eras displayed almost unbelievable courage, fortitude, and resilience. Southern states erected a "Jim Crow" system of legal segregation in all aspects of life that persisted into the 1960s. Even more devastating. however, was abandonment by most northern whites, who were either distracted by other interests or motivated by a desire for white reunification. They even asserted their own brand of de facto segregation, which had much the same result as the de jure version. While white southerners told blacks to "come as close as you want, but don't try to go any higher; northern whites admonished them to "go as high as you want, but don't come any closer." Although continuing to pay at least lip service to the gains of the 1960s, many whites act as if "equality" has been fully achieved, once and for all. They even show a disturbing tendency to acquiesce in "roll backs" of the gains in education, housing, and voting rights supposedly "set in stone" during the Civil Rights Era. All of which begs the question: Have most whites ever accepted the kind and degree of "equality"that blacks have been pursuing over the past three and more centuries. Will we ever?