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

Unchained memory.

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

Connor Kilpatrick is managing editor of Jacobin magazine.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis