Eric Foner writes:
Eric Foner on revisiting histories of the Underground Railroad:
“That view largely held among scholars until 1961, when the historian Larry Gara published “The Liberty Line,” a slashing revisionist study that dismissed the Underground Railroad as a myth and argued that most fugitive slaves escaped at their own initiative, with little help from organized abolitionists. Scholarship on the topic all but dried up, as historians more generally emphasized the agency of African-Americans in claiming their own freedom.
But over the past 15 years, aided by newly digitized records of obscure abolitionist newspapers and local archives, scholars have constructed a new picture of the Underground Railroad as a collection of loosely interlocking local networks of activists, both black and white, that waxed and waned over time but nevertheless helped a significant number reach freedom.
There have been studies of the Underground Railroad in Washington, southern Pennsylvania and New Bedford, Mass., among other locations, as well as biographies of black abolitionists like David Ruggles, a member of New York City’s biracial Committee of Vigilance for the Protection of People of Color, founded in 1835.
In “Gateway to Freedom,” Mr. Foner ties much of that work together, while uncovering the history of the eastern corridor’s key gateway, New York City….”
The Emancipation Proclamation is perhaps the most misunderstood of the documents that have shaped American history. Contrary to legend, Lincoln did not free the nearly four million slaves with a stroke of his pen. It had no bearing on slaves in the four border states, since they were not in rebellion. It also exempted certain parts of the Confederacy occupied by the Union. All told, it left perhaps 750,000 slaves in bondage. But the remaining 3.1 million, it declared, “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
The proclamation did not end slavery in the United States on the day it was issued. Indeed, it could not even be enforced in most of the areas where it applied, which were under Confederate control. But it ensured the eventual death of slavery — assuming the Union won the war. Were the Confederacy to emerge victorious, slavery, in one form or another, would undoubtedly have lasted a long time.
A military order, whose constitutional legitimacy rested on the president’s war powers, the proclamation often disappoints those who read it. It is dull and legalistic; it contains no soaring language enunciating the rights of man. Only at the last minute, at the urging of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, an abolitionist, did Lincoln add a conclusion declaring the proclamation an “act of justice.”
Nonetheless, the proclamation marked a dramatic transformation in the nature of the Civil War and in Lincoln’s own approach to the problem of slavery. No longer did he seek the consent of slave holders. The proclamation was immediate, not gradual, contained no mention of compensation for owners, and made no reference to colonization.
Read the entire essay: The Emancipation of Abe Lincoln – NYTimes.com
The (brand new!) Junto Blog has a round up of posts related to Lincoln, the Civil War, and the Emancipation Proclamation: Then, Thenceforward, and Forever Free « The Junto.
excerpt from Op-Ed by Henry Louis Gates (read rest at NYT):
“The African role in the slave trade was fully understood and openly acknowledged by many African-Americans even before the Civil War. For Frederick Douglass, it was an argument against repatriation schemes for the freed slaves. “The savage chiefs of the western coasts of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily accept our moral and economical ideas than the slave traders of Maryland and Virginia,” he warned. “We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave trade than to stay here to work against it.”
To be sure, the African role in the slave trade was greatly reduced after 1807, when abolitionists, first in Britain and then, a year later, in the United States, succeeded in banning the importation of slaves. Meanwhile, slaves continued to be bought and sold within the United States, and slavery as an institution would not be abolished until 1865. But the culpability of American plantation owners neither erases nor supplants that of the African slavers. In recent years, some African leaders have become more comfortable discussing this complicated past than African-Americans tend to be.”
Excerpts from responses (Letters to the Editor, NYT):
“It was Americans, not Africans, who created in the South the largest, most powerful slave system the modern world has known, a system whose profits accrued not only to slaveholders but also to factory owners and merchants in the North. Africans had nothing to do with the slave trade within the United States, in which an estimated two million men, women and children were sold between 1820 and 1860….”
Eric Foner, Columbia University
It is true, as Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. says, that many African monarchs were complicit in the heinous Atlantic slave trade. But the demand for reparations has less to do with the mechanism that delivered the African captives than what happened to them during the hundreds of years of working without compensation.
Herb Boyd, CUNY
As Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. points out, the role of Africans themselves in slave trading is one that is sometimes ignored by advocates of reparations. I fear, however, that in looking at the role of Africans in creating or sustaining the slave trade, we will make the same mistake that we make in trying to assess blame for international drug trafficking — focusing too much on the supply side of trafficking.
Lolita Inniss, Cleveland Marshall College of Law
“Gabor Boritt and Scott Hancock, editors of Slavery, Resistance, Freedom, have combined under one cover six fine essays that illustrate ways in which African Americans shaped the course of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The slim volume is a fine capstone to a generation of scholarship in which historians have come to understand black Americans as central actors in the sectional conflict. Indeed, the contributors so effectively elaborate the extent of African American agency on the plantation, at war, and in politics that they highlight the interpretive limits of the current scholarly consensus. As Hancock writes in the introduction, the collection highlights “the rich diversity of African Americans’ experiences with and responses to freedom and slavery in the Civil War era.” He also makes clear, however, that the collection attends primarily to those “black people, both slave and free,” who “resisted all kinds of exploitation and degradation” (p. xviii). There is no room within the rich diversity of experience, in other words, for black Americans who decided against active resistance….”
Read the rest via H-Net Reviews.