Reviewed: Freedom National: the Destruction of Slavery in the United States by James Oakes

Unchained memory.

It was a political movement that brought about the end of slavery
It was a political movement that brought about the end of slavery, not the march of progress. Photograph: Getty Images

Freedom National: the Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-65
James Oakes
W W Norton, 608pp, £22

For Americans, learning about the civil war is a complicated rite of passage. As children, we’re taught that Lincoln led a brutal but ultimately heroic crusade to free the slaves. Call this the Disney World take. Then, as undergraduates, we’re set straight: not only did Lincoln not free the slaves but the hapless Republicans who pushed for emancipation only did so with their backs against the wall. Abolitionism, we’re told, was a strictly military ploy. The destruction of American slavery was mostly the work of craven northern industrialists and the slaves themselves.

James Oakes’s magisterial new book on the destruction of the North American slave society will thus come as a shock. As Freedom National makes clear, there was no shift from a war to save the union to a war to destroy slavery. It was always a war for union and liberty.

Here, we find a young and very much united Republican Party forging ahead with Jacobin-like ferocity into a war of emancipation from the very start. These politicians were, Oakes argues, “anything but reluctant emancipators”. As early as the summer of 1861, just a few weeks into the war, thousands of “contrabands” were being emancipated. This was codified into law as part of the first Confiscation Act, written by Republicans explicitly as an emancipation act and signed into law by Lincoln early that August.

They were hardly groping in the dark. Freedom National traces the development of anti-slavery constitutionalism through the Liberty, Free Soil and, finally, Republican parties. We see men such as Charles Sumner, William Seward and Salmon Chase – all of whom became major policymakers during the civil war – beginning to lay the legal groundwork for an assault on slavery still decades ahead of them. This was “bourgeois radicalism preparing the ground for bourgeois revolution”.

All Republicans – even a majority of abolitionists – agreed that the constitution did not permit interference with slavery within the states: freedom was to be national, slavery merely sectional. In peacetime, that meant choking off the south with a “cordon of freedom”. However, in the event of a military insurrection, emancipation-by-bayonet would suddenly become constitutional.

Oakes argues convincingly that the de - velopment of anti-slavery policy during the war followed the Republicans’ remarkably prescient legal strategy almost to the letter and that military emancipation was always part of that arsenal. It was the ex-president John Quincy Adams who, in the 1830s, “taught them that even though the federal government could not abolish slavery in a state, it could emancipate the slaves in any state that was in rebellion against the United States”.

Adams spoke from experience: it was he who, decades earlier, had demanded that the British compensate Americans for the slaves they had emancipated in the war of 1812. And it was Adams’s speeches on military emancipation that Senator Sumner began “waving” in “President Lincoln’s face” immediately after news of the attack on Fort Sumter.

Even before the war began, “Virtually all Republicans believed that secession meant war and war meant immediate emancipation.” Republicans were clear from day one that the fight was to save the Union but that the result would be the destruction of slavery.

If the Republicans can be faulted for anything, Oakes argues, it was their naivety as to what it would take to destroy what was likely the largest slave society in human history. And on this, Oakes is at his best. Through the testimony of slaves, soldiers and slave masters, he provides accounts of the on-the-ground realities of emancipation that are at times comical, moving and tragic. Indignant masters in loyal slave states march into Union army camps to reclaim their property, only to be “roughed up”, assaulted with rocks and accused of being a dirty “Negro stealer” by Yankee troops. Slaves repeatedly lit out for Union army lines a few miles up the road, only to be intercepted and subjected to the most barbaric tortures and maimings.

With four million slaves spread across two-thirds of the continent, North America “all but defied military conquest”, writes Oakes. Slaves had to trudge across dozens or hundreds of miles to Union lines and do it somehow without running into Confederate troops, which was almost impossible: “In the most concerted attack on slavery during the most deliberately destructive campaign of the war, Sherman had dislodged only about 2 per cent of the slaves in Georgia and South Carolina.”

Unlike other historians, Oakes is careful not to say definitively “who freed the slaves”, a question that “tempts scholars to specify a single agent in a process that had many agents”. Once federal policy switched to actively enticing slaves to run to their lines and “self-emancipate”, the consequences behind Confederate lines were disastrous.

Yet it was not enough to destroy slavery. The slaves’ “general strike” – when, as W E B Du Bois put it, “The black worker won the war by general strike which transferred his labour from the Confederate planter to the northern invader” – clearly had its geographical limitations. By the end of the war, only 13 per cent of the south’s slaves had been emancipated. To destroy slavery, the Republicans had first to win the war. And even then, abolition was only guaranteed after the 13th amendment to the constitution was ratified.

Why is it that Oakes’s findings should seem so radical? As evident from the dis - cussions surrounding Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic, the tendency on the left to reduce Lincoln and the Republicans to political nothings remains very much in vogue. Oakes’s previous book on the relationship and convergence between Lincoln and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass demonstrated “what can happen in American democracy when progressive reformers and savvy politicians make common cause”.

Today, when shocking economic inequality is just one of capitalism’s many morbid symptoms, Freedom National can give hope. It was not the inevitable march of progress that destroyed American slavery – it was a political movement.

Connor Kilpatrick is managing editor of Jacobin magazine