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Response to Review of Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865

I am indebted to John Craig Hammond and Reviews in History for their generous review of my book, and for the opportunity to contribute to the discussion. I largely concur with Professor Hammond’s comprehensive evaluation, so I hope to frame my comments to both reinforce key points he makes as well as speak to some doubts that other scholars have raised about the book.  
 
Professor Hammond has correctly divined my goal of working in the tradition of grand synthesis. The academy tends to reward close study of the past, and this has brought about incredible advances in numerous fields related to my book: the causes and consequences of the American Revolution, race relations in the early republic, the development of the Old South, the antislavery movement, the sectional controversy, the Civil War, and Reconstruction — not to mention various subfields related to slavery and race in Atlantic history. My position in a liberal arts college has afforded me the opportunity and responsibility of covering all of these, and my own intellectual proclivities incline me to larger questions. It seemed important, then, to explore how all these new pieces might fit together into a single story. Of course, my central problem requires appreciating that slavery did not simply end in 1865, but re-occurred at several times and in several places, inside and outside the United States. Emancipations, then, frame the study. Why did they ever occur, and why did they occur how they did, when and where they did — particularly within the United States? 
 
I concur with Professor Hammond’s distillation of my central argument. Slavery developed distinctly according to different environments and patterns of settlement, but always to supply expanding consumer markets in the Old World with the produce of the New. The very growth of colonial societies combined with Enlightenment ideology to pose independence challenges from maturing economies. The half-century of Atlantic warfare that resulted from the interweaving impulses of European revolution and colonial independence movement ultimately doomed slavery — as an institution becoming outmoded economically, politically, and ideologically. Everywhere it happened, emancipation enacted this conflict. My book concerns the particular way this occurred in the United States — in a northern wave following the Revolutionary war, as well as the more familiar ending of slavery that resulted from the Civil War. 
 
I appreciate that Professor Hammond also highlights the interpretive work the book accomplishes. There are few aspects of United States history more wellunderstood than the sectional controversy that led to the American Civil War. But the fracturing of history in recent decades has made it difficult to align this scholarship with other subfields. How do we get to the Civil War from an early national politics in which the antislavery position was confined to delegitimated Federalism? What was the role of the radical abolitionist movement, which remained widely reviled on the eve of the war itself? What of the free black communities that spawned such a rich body of protest thought? If the antislavery movement had little to do with the Civil War and its consequences, then where did emancipation come from? And if antislavery did have much to do with it, how has this been missed? 
 
In answering this question, I hoped to connect the two waves of US emancipation. The key, I argue, drawing on my earlier research, was the link between African-descended people slave and free. As happened elsewhere in the Atlantic, slave resistance combined with antislavery in the colonial metropoles to doom the institution. Though denied access to the public realm, the enslaved nonetheless caught wind of efforts to ameliorate their condition; their acts of labour resistance accelerated the process by giving rhetorical ammunition to their metropolitan allies. In the United States, however, antislavery confronted not simply an entrenched colonial elite, but powerful slave states of the South, who had been given extra representation in a federal form of government. Here, it took an even more spectacular merging of antislavery ideology and slave resistance.  
 
Closely aligned with the enslaved to their South, free African Americans in the North forged a potent body of protest thought that inspired white abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison. Though they shared a fraught relationship, white abolitionists and black abolitionists together helped overcome the higher threshold required for the abolition of slavery in the United States. But the task was not easy, for a highly democratic political system actually worked against the transparency of slavery on the national agenda. They succeeded not by evangelizing the political system, but by contributing to its fracture. Their incessant attacks on slavery’s morality led politically powerful slaveholders to defend their institutions by means that threatened the liberties of an otherwise indifferent free white public.  
 
As Professor Hammond points out, this is not just a story of clashing values, but of the economic systems that bred them. I do not directly engage recent work by those such as Sven Beckert, Walter Johnson, and Edward Baptist, because I take it as axiomatic that slavery and capitalism were deeply intertwined, with the former contributing mightily to the development of the latter. The very colonization of the New World constituted an early chapter in the story of capitalism, in which humans themselves could be reduced to commodities. As I explore at length in the book, though, the fight over slavery was largely a fight particular to a certain stage of capitalism’s growth — over whether or not humans themselves could be held as property. The liberal capitalism of the post-revolutionary age argued that they should not — partly from a sense of common humanity, but also as a means of taming the power of slaveholders in the national economy and polity, and as an emblem of their commitment to a different form of production.  
 
In terms of the political process that ended slavery, actual differences between the northern and southern economies gave way to the rhetorical gulf that erupted between the two, and which deeply shaped the political fights that led to the Civil War and emancipation. Reconstruction betrayed the consanguinity between slavery and the nominally free labour regime that followed it. As the liberal state foundered in its enforcement of constitutional protections of freedom, the liberal economy gave way to labour practices that prioritized the profits of landholders and creditors over the economic liberty and civic equality of the freed people. That similar things occurred throughout the post-emancipation Atlantic demonstrates the failure of the liberal imagination throughout the New World at the critical moment. 
 
None of this is to argue that slavery’s end was any more inevitable in one place than another. I have been charged in other venues [Civil War Book Review [Spring 2016]) with embracing modernization theory and arguing for a fairly straight path toward the Civil War from the antislavery crusade. But I present nothing about the process as predetermined. The entire thrust of the book is to understand the role of contingency in large historical processes. The route to emancipation in the United States differed enormously from other models. At every point, economic structure melded with formal politics and human behaviour on a range of levels (from slave rebels to Presidents) to produce the outcomes it did — most often through messy, unpredictable conflict. Seeking to understand how emancipation came about over the span of a century would seem impossible without focusing on certain continuities. 
 
Ultimately, it may come down to a matter of scale. History as a discipline rightly concerns itself with the particular, and delights in contesting fine-resolution issues. In addition, though, the profession also owes something to a broader public, which benefits from long narrative arcs and clear, powerful interpretations. That is what I sought to offer in Eighty-Eight Years. I am grateful to Professor Hammond, and others, for appreciating this.