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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.


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More on Cartoons and our visit with Louis Masur

Our day began with a seminar from political cartoonist expert Richard West explaining lithography and other 19th century cartoon work.  West is the owner of Periodyssey, a western Massachusetts-based business dealing in older American periodicals.

Lithographic cartoons appeared in the 1820s, eventually replacing the more expensive copper plate engravings.  The cost and time of production was so much cheaper that talented artists in larger numbers began to come to the career.  The field was dominated by H. R. Robinson, John Childs, O. H. Bailey, and of course Currier and Ives.  The Civil War period saw about 200 lithographs produced, with about half coming from the workshops of Currier and Ives.  West discussed several additional sources of political cartoons, including Punch and Fun.  Vanity Fair was the only comic weekly published at the beginning of the war and political cartoons were generally published on the backs of illustrated news editions.  Additional sources included six New York based humor magazines with an additional two starting up printing during the war years.

West gave us a chronological overview of the cartoons, starting with the election of 1860.  These cartoons run the gambit of portraying the candidate in ways that modern political junkies are no doubt familiar to fairly blatant racist cartoons like “Heir to the Throne.”  This cartoon, highlighting what West called “the pizza and beer” of the day, was a humorous look at Abe Lincoln devouring opponents.  The timidity of James Buchanan’s leadership is clearly on display in “South Carolina’s Ultimatum,” but so too is the foolish nature of South Carolina’s decision to secede!  When Abe Lincoln came into Washington, DC there were concerns about assassination attempts – this image poked fun at Lincoln’s caution.  Once Lincoln was in office, his main commander was initially seen as strong enough to hold Jefferson Davis at bay.  Finally, there was some sympathy towards the South as they are viewed in this piece as foolhardy – there’s nothing angry in the cartoon, but rather a note that indicates leadership must be a bit stronger to keep the southern states in the union.

In discussing ribald imagery, West used several examples that were of varying degrees of “offensiveness” to both the nineteenth century and modern day viewer.  This piece from the 1852 presidential election is both visually funny and pushes the bounds of good taste with a double entendre.  Another example, also featuring Winfield Scott poked fun at Scott’s age, strategy for defeating the south, and held a clear double meaning about opinions on Jefferson Davis and the respect with which he should be regarded.

The idea of using images of the devil appealed to cartoonists as well as we can see in several instances.  “The Southern Confederacy, a fact acknowledged by a mighty prince and faithful ally” uses a frightening figure of the devil and demons alongside known imagery of southern leaders, supporters, and markers of warfare.  In “The latest from America or the New York eye duster to be taken every day” which appeared in Punch, the portrayal of Lincoln holds a vaguely demonic look as his unruly hair is brought up to resemble horns.  Adelbart Volck, a rare known artist who was sympathetic to the South, drew this piece critiquing Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  In it, he suggests that Lincoln was in league with the devil – in the background pictures of John Brown and the slave rebellion in Santa Domingo hang on the walls.  West explained to us that in reality, Volck’s work was not seen by more than a couple hundred people during the war years.  When his work was reprinted in the 1880s it became much more widely known.  In “Masks and Faces,”  Abraham Lincoln stands accused of being the devil in reality – again the cartoon was a response to the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Emancipation Proclamation -itself could be found to be treated in both a serious manner and a humorous way.   All in all, as West pointed out, there were, no doubt, mixed feelings about the fate of slaves and African Americans in general.

There were a core number of artists who worked on these pieces.  Most of these men worked within a block or two of each other and knew each other, drank together, etc.  The entire publishing industry was running here in New York City, and that is hard on some levels for us to conceive.  William Newman is often asserted as the most important because he was before the public eye the most, though his story was not well known in the aftermath of the war until West did some research.  Frank Bellew was the second most famous and was a great character.  He tended to sign his works with a triangle and apparently he did not feel a lot of passion for his subjects.  Frank Beard , perhaps more famous to us after the war, was a young guy at the beginning of the conflict.

Louis Masur
Pr. Masur reminded us that of course images matter but that the historians in the room need to remember that we cannot become obsessed with using images to only illustrate rather than interpret.  In his talk with us, Masur focused on on images of the runaway in print as well as portrayals of the negro population in the Reconstruction era.

He began with three examples of the runaway taking us from the colonial era with the convention of the profile view and running figure to the early nineteenth century.  A third example played off of these original designs and was the cover to sheet music for “The Fugitve’s Song.”  This choice showed more than just a human profile, but rather a specific person, in this case Frederick Douglass.  All images discussed had these similar ideas of movement, running, carrying clothing, and a somewhat rural scene.  This remained true after using more human features.

While some images of fugitive slaves have these similar ideas even after using more human features, they may contain deeper levels of meaning as well.  In some cases, the impact of the fugitive slave law on multiple classes brought home the point that slaves were not only human beings of varying backgrounds, but that in some instances they were wrongly pursued in relation to prosecution of the law.  When examining the image of emancipation too, historians find that there are both humanistic images and stereotypes of the supplicants, the minstrel type, etc.

The Eastman Johnson painting “Ride to Liberty” is marked on canvas that he was witness to the event near Centreville, 1862.  Masur speculated as to whether we were still nervous about images narrating reality?  Were the figures in Johnson’s piece truly becoming free?  In Kaufman’s “On to Liberty,” the figures are coming out of darkness into the light – the label at the Met describes it as a “rocky road” to freedom.  There remains a question as to who these people are and that to which they are headed?  The artist was supportive of black rights but were the figures, as speculated re: Johnson, actually going to be free and what would freedom look like?  A different type of runaway narrative offered by Thomas Moran gives the viewer a deeper, darker, more uncertain portrayal of what it meant to flee slavery.

Masur spent time on the famous Gordon photos – we looked at two different exposures of Gordon’s scarred back, clarifying along with Masur that the third image was a ‘doctored’ version of one of the first two.  Gordon’s story not only is part of a longer history of ‘before and after images’ but highlights such severe suffering that his plight and the pictures tell a story both didactic and reflective in nature.  William Carlton’s “Watch Meeting” was briefly discussed as another image of freedom as well as Susan Schulten on maps and visualizing slavery.

We closed with several images that focused on the emancipation theme – the mystery and hope of it all perhaps captured by H. W. Herrick and Thomas Nast.   Finally, we noted images of emancipation that evoked some degree of controversy such as Pezzicar’s sculpture at the Centennial in 1876 or “Freedom to the Slaves”.  Both images evoked controversy for different reasons (style, the message, in the case of the latter, authorship) and yet both purported to celebrate this massive transition in American history.  What remained unspoken in much of the art examined and in our conversation is what will happen next for the freed slaves.

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