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Response to Review no. 751

I would like to thank Susan-Mary Grant for her insightful review of my Problem of Emancipation. I had always hoped to reach an audience beyond the United States and it is gratifying to have the first scholarly review coming from the UK. As Professor Mary-Grant’s comments are for the most part a positive assessment of my work, I will limit my response to two subjects she engages that warrant further discussion: the position of black voices in this history, and my neglect of internal forces in the coming of the Civil War.

Grant writes that the African-American perspective is ‘implicit’ throughout the book, yet for the most part, it is ‘a story of how and why white men fell out’. This is an accurate representation, but if the book were rewritten in accordance with the implied critique, I think it would misrepresent the coming of the American Civil War. Southern secession and the war that followed developed out of the political struggle over the future of black slavery, and my book explores those roots of the conflict that had been formed by the Caribbean history of emancipation. Those who controlled the levers of power in this political struggle were white men, most of whom favored (or were at best ambivalent about) the perpetuation of black slavery. This was true throughout the antebellum decades, and until the election of 1860 most non-elite voters (again, all of them white men) shared this position. I have argued that the pro-slavery understanding of Caribbean emancipations played a major role in this political stance. In tragic contrast, African-Americans during this era had very little political power. Denied access to the vote or any position of formal political power, African Americans nevertheless contributed to the coming of the war through two connected endeavors in the shaping of public opinion: their work in the abolitionist movement and their invention of the First of August celebrations. Abolitionism and the First of August, I have argued, played important roles in the formation of the antislavery constituency that was so important to the Republican Party victory in the election of 1860. That outcome brought secession, and ultimately, secession brought the War.  

Secondly, Professor Grant has noted that I have neglected internal factors and indeed I have. Problem of Emancipation is a monograph that contributes a transatlantic dimension to our understanding of the coming of the Civil War. The book does not pretend to relate this history in thorough detail. In light of 158 years of antebellum historiography almost entirely concerned with the changes over time within the United States, I decided that an emphasis on external factors was entirely justified.

For readers interested in the full narrative of the coming of the American Civil War I recommend the very different but complementary accounts written by John Ashworth and William Freehling: John Ashworth, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic (2 vols., Cambridge, 1995–2007); William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion, (2 vols., New York, 1990–2006).