Ira Berlin, Barbara Fields, Steven Miller, Joseph Reidy, and Leslie Rowland, Slaves No More: Three Essays on Emancipation and the Civil War. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Each of the authors collaborated on these essays, which makes for a different kind of approach than any of the other texts I have read thus far. Collectively, the essays ask important questions about how slaves gained their freedom and what freedom as a concept, ideal, etc. meant. The authors strive to place slaves in the forefront as active participants in gaining freedom, not recipients. The argument is presented that emancipation as an idea and event altered life in the United States for everyone.
In the introduction, the authors suggest that there is no other “event in American history [that] matches the drama of emancipation” (ix). I am not certain I completely agree. Was the moment in time one of extreme drama? Yes, and emancipation certainly created an opportunity for a deep change in American society. That being said, there are many events of high drama in American history for consideration, some of which could also be described as having far reaching impacts (eg, debates on and approval of the Constitution). Particularly in light of the author’s contention that by emancipating slaves, the United States was taking part in a global transformation, I believe the example of the Constitution is an important one in light the years of transmitting the form and ideals of the republic around the world. Rather than belabor this minor critique, I’d like to discuss elements of the impetus behind these essays and some of the main arguments presented in each.
The essays emerged as part of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, a research endeavor whose aim it was to write a documentary history of slavery to freedom. As the internet has expanded and changed over the past 21 years, the project has “kept up,” affording those interested an opportunity to examine many of the documents that the researchers began to unearth from the National Archives in 1976 (xi). The authors believed that by collecting the documents and making them accessible, (initially in print, now partially available digitally as well), readers could better understand the history of emancipation from the perspective of the slave, former slaveholder, and outsiders (xiii).
The first essay explores the destruction of slavery, richly addressing the actions taken by slaves, abolitionists, politicians, and generals. At the foremost, as would be expected given the intent of the authors, is to emphasize the agency of those enslaved: “the war provided the occasion for slaves to seize freedom” (5) is an important theme. In teaching emancipation, I believe this point is one of the most important on which to focus student understanding. Students cannot operate under the false presumption that slaves had no hand in their own liberation. One of the most interesting aspects of the first essay is its emphasis on how the various aspects and cultures within slavery caused it to be a brittle institution (11). Another important focus in this section explains the role of the military in the lives of former slaves.
The second essay discusses the growth of free labor during the war years. The term free labor remains one of the more confusing ones to explain to students as they often do not grasp the fact that free, in this case, refers to ones ability to choose a profession and employer. Freedom could emerge from owning “productive property” as well as controlling the source and fruits of ones labor. But what of the life that freedom could create? At least 250,000 free people of African descent were free yet at the same time, unfree in America. What was independence then for these individuals? Yes, some white Americans were comfortable with both abolition and the possibility of equality. Some decided to work among the free blacks and former slaves to change the world that the slave system had created (89 -98). The authors effectively describe the work undertaken by free people and the debates among those seeking to help them change their lives. This section also strives to explain how contraband laborers, colonization supporters, and the Emancipation Proclamation itself all contributed to differences in how free labor evolved during the war years. Finally the essay asks difficult questions about the commitment of Northerners to the idea of freed slaves acquiring control over the “property” of their labor – could these individuals set their work day, own land, decide what crops to plant? Despite some successes, the emancipation of slaves was limited in many ways. The majority of laborers found themselves working for wage labor rather than as independent land owners (182).
The final essay focuses on the relationship between military experiences and the freedom for the majority of American slaves. The army, especially after 1862, had become a force of liberation. It was, of course, not only white soldiers that were involved here as free blacks and ex-slaves took a military role (189-190). This section discusses in detail the challenges facing both the black soldiers themselves and their supporters in the military ranks and civilian population. Like the previous two essays, this piece is based on documents pulled from the National Archives research that has been undertaken over the past thirty-seven years. Protests over free blacks retaining officers’ ranks or equal pay between white and black troops dominate the discussion in this final section. An additional important theme is how and why military service transformed the lives of free black Americans (both immediately and into the future).
While the collection is an important introduction into concepts and salient themes connected to emancipation, the authors might have done more to fulfill the promise of the event as the most dramatic in American history. Drama – good drama certainly – requires characters. These characters need to resonate with people, a fact that is true whether discussing novels, non-fiction monographs, or television, film, and theater. While people do appear on these pages, they read a bit flat. This is especially the case in the final chapter where readers might benefit from, as my graduate school advisor always put it, hearing the voices of actual people.