Athens, GA, University of Georgia Press, 2015, ISBN: 9780820348391; 400pp.; Price: £28.95
Penn State University
Date accessed: 26 September, 2023
The American Civil War led directly to the passage of the 13th Amendment and the abolition of chattel slavery in the United States. How that happened and why it took so long has been a matter of dispute ever since. In the 1990s, historians of the United States generally agreed that abolition in the United States was indigenous to the United States (except for a few brief references to Haiti, there were no connections to the broader Atlantic world), and that it took place in two distinct, largely unconnected phases. Northern abolition proceeded from the Revolution and was largely complete by 1804. The long road to Southern abolition began with the emergence of the Abolitionists and southern radicalism in the early 1830s, which ever so slowly gave rise to a sectional crisis that culminated in the election of 1860. When I began graduate school in the late 1990s, tight chronological divisions divided American history into a series of narrow periods. Social, political, cultural, and intellectual history occupied a series of separate spheres that rarely overlapped, while studies of slavery and abolition were specialist-driven subfields. In the 1990s, scholarship on the politics of slavery and abolition in the United States clung tightly to these narratives, and the literature had become ingrown, formulaic, and marked by tight chronological and topical divisions
What a difference a decade or two makes. Since the turn of the century, historians have established that one of the most important and novel features of early modern Atlantic world was the state-sponsored creation of a plantation system that used racialized slave labor to produce cash-crops on a massive scale. At the same time that historians were producing reams of scholarship on slavery in the early modern Atlantic world, numerous articles and monographs were dramatically reshaping historians’ understandings of slavery and politics in the United States from independence and the Revolution through the Civil War and Reconstruction. Over the past five years, historians have drawn on this ever-expanding historiography to produce a grand syntheses recounting the United States’ contentious history of race and slavery, democracy and empire. Some of these synthetic accounts are short and suggestive, as is the case with Ira Berlin’s The Long Emancipation. Others are long and nearly definitive, as is the case with Manisha Sinha’s epic The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. Patrick Rael’s Eighty-Eight Years – checking in at nearly 400 pages with endnotes – sits somewhere in the middle in terms of length; it is the equal in terms of its importance and value.(1)
Eighty-Eight Years has much in common with these grand syntheses. Rael emphasizes that slaves and free blacks relentlessly attacked slavery, and abolitionists, slaves, and free blacks occupy a central place in Rael’s account of slavery’s demise. While Rael sidesteps direct engagement with recent historiographical debates about the relationship between slavery and capitalism, he places Atlantic capitalism at the core of his analysis. Finally, Rael takes the long view on slavery and abolition, and treats the United States as a slaveholders’ republic and incipient empire from its inception. So how does Rael contribute to this growing list of works on slavery’s great growth and dramatic demise in the United States? More than these other accounts, Rael situates the abolition of slavery in the United States in a broad Atlantic context, expertly identifying the uniqueness of slavery and abolition in the United States while elucidating the commonalities shared by societies with slaves, slave societies, empires for slavery, and newly independent nation-states across the broader Americas.
Don’t be deceived by the book’s title. ‘Eighty-eight years’ refers to the period between Vermont’s abolition of slavery in 1777 and ratification of the thirteenth Amendment in 1865. In actuality, the book ranges across the entire history of Atlantic slavery. Beginning with a brief examination of the expansion of European empires in the 1500s and the creation of the Atlantic plantation complex in the mid-1600s, the book focuses on the century stretching from the Imperial Crisis and the American Revolution in the 1770s to Reconstruction in the 1870s. It also frequently moves ahead to the late abolition of slavery in Brazil, Puerto Rico, and Cuba in the 1880s. Likewise, while the subtitle references the ‘long death of slavery in the United States’, the work focuses on the northern and southern United States, but ranges widely between London and Paris, Cartagena and Copenhagen, Puerto Rico and Brazil, Cuba and Columbia. In terms of its chronological and geographic scope, Eighty-Eight Years’ rivals are few and distinguished.(2)
Rael organizes his argument around a series of concepts that are introduced and defined in a lengthy introduction that repays multiple readings. Borrowing from world-systems theory, Rael relies heavily on concepts of metropole, core, and periphery. Following Philip Curtin, Rael categorizes European colonies in the Americas as true empires, exploitation colonies, and settler colonies.(3) Finally, Rael identifies three types of abolition that prevailed in the Americas. Revolutionary abolitions took place in the northern United States, Haiti, and the republics of the former Spanish-American Empire, arising from independence movements, wars for independence, and revolutions. Metropolitan abolitions defined abolition in the Caribbean (with the important exception of Haiti), and involved the metropole imposing abolition on the periphery. Finally, in the southern United States, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Brazil, late abolitions followed from a combination of revolutionary movements and external pressure.
The novelty and value of Eighty-Eight Years lies not so much in these concepts as in the telling of the tale. As much as anything, Eighty-Eight Years provides a history of the long, contested struggle for abolition in the broader Americas. It focuses on abolition’s entanglement with colonial independence movements, Enlightenment and revolutionary ideologies, and the ideologies of property, slavery, and freedom that emerged out of the imperial-mercantilist and then industrial systems of capitalism that dominated the Atlantic World. It examines show free blacks created Black Nationalist ideologies, and how different economic systems favored slavery or abolition in different ways. It includes important forays into how abolition transpired in various places – through independence, war, revolution, ideology, violent resistance, and the relative importance of slavery in various empires. It also contains important analyses of how some slaveholders gave in quickly and easily to abolition movements, while others held on for much longer periods of time.
The book begins with a sweeping introduction that synthesizes and adds to a generation’s worth of work on European expansion, empire, and slavery from its origins in the 1500s through its final abolition in the late 1800s. It’s a chapter that stands alone from the rest of the work, and it can be read profitably both before and after a reader moves through the text’s core chapters. I am certain that I will revisit and employ it frequently over the next decade. The introduction elucidates the relationship between the emergence of capitalism, state support for merchant enterprises, and plantation slavery, while analyzing the various connections that tied various colonies to emerging European states. By 1775, European states had established thriving colonies in the Americas that used racialized slave labor and a plantation system to produce cash-crops within a distinct system of trans-Atlantic capitalism. Yet within 50 years, the British, Spanish, and French empires in the Americas had radically changed, and slaveholders everywhere found themselves on the defensive. Within another 60 years, chattel slavery would be abolished entirely from the Americas. It required a century to build those empires, slave societies, and a thriving trans-Atlantic trade in slaves and slave-produced commodities. It would require another century to dismantle that system. The remainder of the book focuses on that dismantling, and certain themes and points are prominent in Rael’s analysis.
In 1775, slavery was ubiquitous, and accepted and expected by most people in the Atlantic world, including slaves themselves. By 1825, slavery was widely seen as peculiar, ‘as an outlier of civilized society, a perhaps necessary but clearly brutal evil, or a violation of the natural order’ (p. 106). What changed over the course of that half-century? The transition from merchant, cash-crop capitalism to industrial capitalism unleashed a series of independence movements and wars that began with the American Revolution. In Rael’s telling, the American Revolution matters because it catalyzed once diffused enlightenment principles into potent and universal revolutionary ideologies. The French Revolution and a series of independence movements spread these universal and revolutionary ideologies widely. Revolutionary ideologies and nearly continuous series of imperial wars and wars for independence proved instrumental in effecting emancipations across the various societies with slaves in the Americas. War, independence, revolution, and ongoing economic changes also created an entirely new ideological regime that put slaveholders everywhere on the defensive.
As Rael argues, revolution and abolition, property and slaveholding, liberty and slavery, are all ideologies and concepts with histories. The first section of the book is devoted to tracing how these concepts and ideologies emerged out of the unique system of merchant capitalism and slavery that emerged in the late 1600s, and the revolutionary crisis that struck this system in beginning in the 1770s. Building on Edmund Morgan’s classic formulation, Rael posits that notions of liberty emerged out of the maelstrom of mercantile imperialism, slavery, and capitalism in the mid-1700s. To justify resistance and then rebellion against the King and Parliament, the colonists transformed liberty from the possession of freeborn Britons and the product of Britain’s unique constitutional monarchy into a universal right bequeathed by natural law. The imperial crisis, independence, war, and revolution catalyzed once diffused Enlightenment principles into a potent revolutionary ideology. It also created a binary construction of slavery and freedom, and led to the universalization of liberty. As Rael notes, ‘The same Atlantic world that had created the brutal and highly capitalistic forms of slavery that existed throughout most of the New World also created the ideological preconditions for the complete abolition of slavery’ (p. 47). But Rael is no determinist, and he rejects Whiggish and ‘contagion of liberty’ interpretations of slavery’s demise. As Rael further notes, ‘the forces that created New World slavery eventually created the possibility of New World Slavery’s demise’ (p. 47). Rael guides readers through the contingencies that slaves, free blacks, and the advocates of abolition confronted as they sought abolition in the many slave societies and societies with slaves in the Americas.
Slavery’s demise in the United States would be a long time in coming. Placing slavery and abolition in the United States in a broader Atlantic context helps explain why. Rael’s analysis of abolition in the broader Atlantic reiterates an important point that is frequently overlooked in the scholarly literature on abolition in the United States. Across the Americas, slavery survived independence and revolution where it was most important; where the planter class exercised a significant amount of political power; and where the planter class exercised political power over centers of finance and capital. Slaveholders succumbed to abolitionism where it was less important; in empires where the planter class lacked political power; and in places where the planter class lacked favored ties to centers of finance and capitalism.
It comes as no surprise, then, that abolition in the southern United States proved to be exceedingly difficult to realize. From the Declaration of Independence onward, slaveholders wielded a tremendous amount of power over national policy. Recognizing from the start that they were on the defensive, they aggressively defended their interests and fought to gain political advantages, solidified in a constitution that gave them an inordinate amount of political power in a nominally democratic, federal system. In other slave societies in the Atlantic world, planter elites found themselves subordinate to imperial authorities and prerogatives. In the United States, slaveholders reigned as the most powerful political class, and they did so within a single nation-state with imperial ambitions. American slaveholders possessed another advantage. More than planter classes elsewhere, they occupied an exalted place in the trans-Atlantic matrix of finance, capital, manufacturing, and transportation.
Slaveholders in the United States would not succumb to slave rebellions, the precedent provided by imperial abolitions elsewhere, elite trans-Atlantic opinion, or European pressure. It is difficult to dispute Annette Gordon-Reed’s conclusion that ‘the problem of American slavery could only have been solved in the way that it ultimately was solved: through bloody conflict and strife’.(4) No group or collection of groups could prevail on slaveholders to abolish slavery peacefully. They were simply too powerful at home, and too well-connected to centers of profit and power, to ever have to give in to such pressure.
How then, did slavery end in the United States? Historians are familiar enough with the emergence of sectionalism in the 1840s, culminating with Republican victories in the elections of 1860. Rael’s background as an expert on free black politics and institutions in the North allows him to offer an especially valuable analysis of the role played by slaves, free blacks, and abolitionists in forcing slavery into politics in the United States. In the 1820s, free black northerners began to develop their own sense of nationalism, joining themselves with people of African descent in the South and in the broader Atlantic world and defining slaves and free blacks as a people with a common history and destiny in the Atlantic world. Northern free blacks and white abolitionists took to defining slave resistance and rebellion in terms of a concerted black effort to eradicate slavery from the United States and the Atlantic world. Collectively, they formed a metropolitan abolitionist movement seeking to impose emancipation on the periphery.
Slaveholders habitually – and perhaps necessarily – overreacted to the slightest challenge to slavery, to their sovereignty over slavery as an institution, and to their claimed mastery over black peoples as individuals and as a group. Anti-slavery militancy and activism came into its own in the late 1820s and increased steadily through the 1840s. The more frequent the challenges – and the challenges became more frequent and protracted through the 1850s – the more overblown the response of slaveholders. Resistance and agitation provoked overreactions from slaveholders, exposing the grave threat they posed to the liberties of free white northerners and to the cherished system of democratic self-government, which itself was founded on the equality promoted by free labor. Slaveholder overreaction invariably generated new opposition to slavery. While a few whites developed genuine sympathy for the plight of enslaved blacks, most whites opposed slavery because it threatened white liberty and democratic self-government. As slaveholders relied on increasingly anti-democratic means of protecting slavery from popular northern majorities, their use of claims that the ‘Slave Power’ would destroy democracy to try and save their perverted system of slavery and aristocracy mobilized northern white voters under the Republican banner.
Slaveholders ultimate overreaction would lead to abolition. Slaves, free blacks, and abolitionists had driven southern whites to the point where they had to secede if Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans won big in the elections of 1860. Recognizing where things stood, slaveholders took a gamble with secession. It was a calculated gamble, a last ditch effort to save their exalted position in a continental union and in a wider Atlantic world that was steadily marginalizing them. Economic, political, and geo-political trends were increasingly placing slaveholders into a position of dependence and subordination, and they knew it. As Rael notes, secession amounted to ‘a preemptive conservative counterrevolution designed to protect the institution at the core of its society’ (p. 244).
But secession changed everything, moving the arguments from black slavery to northern white liberties, union, and democratic self-government. Fed a steady diet of the necessity of racism and union with slaveholders, only a small minority of white northerners were prepared to fight a war to end slavery in early 1861. The vast majority of white northerners, however, stood ready to fight for liberty and democratic self-government in a constitutional union. Slaveholders had spent the past 20 years protecting slavery through grossly anti-democratic means, so northern whites eagerly jumped at the chance – not to liberate blacks – but to defend their liberty, and to vindicate democratic self-government and union. All of this is familiar to Civil War historians, as is the outline of Rael’s explanation of how slaves and free blacks worked to turn a war to restore the Union into a war to abolish slavery. But as Rael points out, abolition and reconstruction in the United States were unique in that abolition and Reconstruction both took place in a ‘highly democratic society, in which the slave periphery was no colonial appendage, but a fully – in deed excessively – empowered interest, enjoying a potent position in a federal system of governance that granted full equality to all its component states’ (pp. 294–5). Insights such as these offer historians a fuller understanding of abolition in the United States and in the broader Americas.
This short summary of Eighty-Eight Years’ main themes cannot do justice to the many valuable and nuanced points made throughout the text. Like any monograph worth reading, this one raises more questions than it can answer, more issues than it can adequately address. Similarly, while it offers a powerful and novel interpretation of an important series of events and developments, it hardly provides the last word on this sprawling topic. While this work is essential reading, so are works such as Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause and Berlin’s The Long Emancipation. Eighty-Eight Years will prove of great value to scholars in the field of slavery and abolition, as well as those looking to catch up on trends in the field. In the text’s conclusion, Rael notes that ‘rewriting the history of slavery’s long death in the United States is still under way’. This book goes far in forging that new history.
- Ira Berlin, The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States (Cambridge, MA, 2015); Minisha Sinha, The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven, CT, 2016).Back to (1)
- David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (New York, NY, 2006), pp. 48–140; Seymour Drescher, Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery (New York, NY, 2009), pp. 3–87; Robin Blackburn, The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights (London, 2011).Back to (2)
- Philip D. Curtin, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History (Cambridge, 1990).Back to (3)
- Annette Gordon-Reed, ‘Thomas Jefferson and St. George Tucker: the making of revolutionary slaveholders’, in Jefferson, Lincoln, and Wilson: The American Dilemma of Race and Democracy (Charlottesville, VA, 2010), pp. 15–33.Back to (4)
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 well-understood 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 anti-slavery position was confined to de-legitimated 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 anti-slavery 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, anti-slavery 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 anti-slavery 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.