THE RELEASE late last year of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln has revived, albeit in a fairly limited way, a discussion about the relationship between the Civil War and the end of slavery. For all its limitations, Spielberg’s movie at least begins to tackle some important historical questions: Who freed the slaves? What was the relationship between war, politics, and emancipation? What was the character of the Lincoln administration? Considering the woefully low level of public consciousness and debate about the Civil War period, even these relatively basic questions represent an important step in the right direction.
James Oakes’s Freedom National is an insightful and provocative contribution to this discussion. Oakes has long been one of the more interesting historians of slavery and the Civil War. His first two books, The Ruling Race and Slavery and Freedom, made important contributions to our understanding of the connections between slavery, capitalism, and white supremacy, and explored the profound social and political consequences of slave resistance in the Old South. His third book, The Radical and the Republican, used the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to explore the evolution of Republican attitudes toward emancipation during the Civil War.
Published to coincide with the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, Freedom National is certainly Oakes’s most important work to date. Over the course of almost five hundred pages it provides one of the most detailed narratives yet written on the advent of emancipation as a northern war aim between 1861 and 1865. Even more significant, however, is the central thrust of Oakes’s argument about the antislavery politics of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party. Contrary to the common sense of most academic studies (and, it must be said, much of the Left) since the 1960s, Oakes challenges the image of Lincoln as a “reluctant emancipator,” a conservative and racist politician who was primarily concerned with restoring the Union, and who turned to emancipation only when military necessity and slave resistance forced it on him.
According to Oakes, this received wisdom represents a serious misunderstanding of both Republican political philosophy and also the way in which the destruction of slavery became intertwined with the northern goal of restoring the seceded states to the federal union. Lincoln and his party, Oakes maintains, drew much of their attitude toward slavery from the assumptions of political abolitionism, and this would have a major impact on emancipation policy. For one thing, it inclined the Union to move much more quickly and firmly against slavery than is often acknowledged. “Firmly convinced that slavery was the source of the rebellion,” Oakes writes, “Republicans began attacking it almost as soon as the war began.”
Origins of antislavery constitutionalism
In order for Oakes to make his case, he is obliged to trace the development of political abolitionism and the ways in which that movement imagined the eventual destruction of slavery in the United States. Antislavery activists and politicians confronted one central problem: how to achieve the speediest possible end of chattel slavery in a context where, they believed, “the US Constitution recognized and protected slavery in the states where it already existed.”
Beginning in the 1830s, activists began to turn this assumption on its head as a way of developing a political strategy for the antislavery movement. Intellectuals such as the Ohio lawyer Salmon Chase began to argue that, as Oakes puts it, “The Constitution recognized slavery as a state institution, but only as a state institution.” Individual states might recognize slaves as property, but the Constitution did not do so. Indeed, the Constitution was imbued with principles of natural rights, and was obliged to treat African Americans as free persons wherever the federal government, rather than pro-slavery state law, was sovereign. According to antislavery constitutionalism, therefore, freedom was national but slavery was merely local.
Two potential routes to abolition emerged from this understanding of slavery and the Constitution. The first emerged in the political programs of the antislavery Liberty Party and Free Soil Party in the 1840s. Since the Constitution did not recognize any right of property in slaves, slavery could only exist where positive states laws created and protected it. The Federal government, however, had a responsibility to assume and defend the natural right to freedom of all people, including Black people, and the fact that it had not been doing so was due to the rise of an illegitimate “Slave Power.” The Liberty and Free Soil parties felt that, if antislavery men could win election to government, they could abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, prevent its spread into western territories, and end federal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act—in short, they could enact policies designed to ensure the gradual destruction of slavery.
According to Oakes, antislavery thinkers also imagined another possible path to abolition: military emancipation. This idea first entered the antislavery movement through the work of John Quincy Adams, who argued in the 1830s “emancipation of the enemy’s slaves in time of war was widely accepted under the law of nations.” If Congress was for some reason obliged to raise an army to fight in slaveholding regions, Adams argued, that army would enjoy the right to emancipate slaves as a “military necessity.” This actually took place during the Second Seminole War in Florida, when the US Army freed a number of slaves in return for their assistance, and without compensation for their owners.
This “antislavery Constitutionalism,” Oakes believes, shaped expectations as to what the Lincoln administration could and could not achieve when it came to power in early 1861. “Even before the 1860 elections,” Oakes notes, “Republicans across the North were giddily predicting the destruction of slavery in the South.” The new government would certainly ban the spread of slavery into the territories and prevent any new slave state from entering the Union. It might also abolish slavery in Washington D.C. and repeal the Fugitive Slave Act. The secession of eleven southern states, the firing on Fort Sumter, and the consequent outbreak of civil war in the spring of 1861 changed the context for Republican discussions of slavery and emancipation once again.
For Oakes, the exigencies of war provided the opportunity for Republicans to implement a policy of military emancipation. The first step came at Fort Monroe in Virginia. By now, scholars of the Civil War and emancipation are very familiar with the ways in which Major General Benjamin Butler, the senior northern officer at Monroe, helped to shape Union policy toward slavery. When a group of runaway slaves approached his lines, asking for shelter from their pro-Confederate masters, Butler decided it would be better to have the Black men and women work for him than for the enemy, and promptly declared them confiscated as “contraband of war.”
Although this is familiar material, Oakes provides probably the clearest account to date of how Butler’s decisions at Monroe both vindicated and advanced the Republican policy toward slavery. On May 30, 1861, Secretary of War Simon Cameron wrote to Butler to endorse his policy, and thereby set the precedent guiding Union policy for the next year of the war. Northern troops were prohibited from actively interfering with slavery, but they were likewise prohibited from returning any slaves who came within their lines. As Oakes states, “a tacit alliance between escaping slaves and the Union army was being created with the approval of officials in Washington.”
The Republican majority in Congress wasted little time in enshrining in law Cameron’s response to the events at Fortress Monroe. Lincoln had called the House and Senate into emergency session in July of 1861, and one of their first endeavors was to pass what became known as the First Confiscation Act. The fact that Union forces had just suffered an embarrassing defeat at the Battle of Bull Run strengthened the resolve of even moderate Republicans to pass a law striking hard at slavery. The First Confiscation Act therefore freed any slaves whose masters had put them to work in the Confederate cause. According to Oakes, along with Cameron’s response to Butler, this law “initiated emancipation and established the basic Union policy regarding slavery in the seceded states that would remain in place for more than a year.”
The Second Confiscation Act, passed in July of 1862, pushed emancipation still further. As Oakes suggests, it emerged out of the contradictory military and political position of the Union in the first half of 1862. On the one hand, northern forces in the western theater of the war had pushed deep into the Mississippi River Valley, bringing tens of thousands of slaves into their lines. On the other hand, however, Federal troops in Virginia continued to suffer serious reverses. Congress wanted to clarify the status of the North’s new African American allies whilst simultaneously dealing a hard blow to the rebels. The Second Confiscation Act asserted the right of Congress and the President to free any slave of a rebel master who came within Union lines, whether or not the slave had been used in the service of the Confederacy. Even more significantly, the Act gave President Abraham Lincoln the authority to use his war powers to free even those slaves beyond the reach of northern control, and encouraged him to make a proclamation doing just that.
From emancipation to abolition
Oakes’s rediscovery of the importance of the Second Confiscation Act sheds new light on the coming of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. For one thing, Oakes’s research shows that, as early as the summer of 1862, “no Republican denied that emancipation was legally sound, militarily necessary, or morally just.” The northern political leadership already supported the Proclamation six months before Lincoln finally issued it. Moreover, the trajectory of the Act reveals that the origins of the Emancipation Proclamation go back as far as December of 1861, when the first drafts of the bill first entered Congress—not much more than nine months after the outbreak of war. This casts doubt on the claim that Lincoln and the Republicans moved slowly and cautiously toward an all-out attack on slavery.
As is well known, Lincoln and his cabinet discussed the possibility of issuing the Proclamation almost as soon as the president signed the Second Confiscation Act into law, but decided to wait until a Union military victory could make it seem less like an act of desperation. Such a victory came in the form of the bloody Battle of Antietam in September of 1862, whereupon Lincoln issued the “Preliminary” Emancipation Proclamation. Unless the states making up the Confederacy returned to the Union within 100 days, their slaves would be “thenceforward, and forever free.”
For Oakes, the Proclamation contained two novel features. It ended the notion that Union troops in the South could welcome into their lines, and emancipate, the slaves of rebel masters, but could not encourage African Americans to turn fugitive. After January 1863, northern soldiers were expected to actively entice slaves away from their owners. “By inviting slaves to come within Union lines,” Oakes notes, “Lincoln was actually initiating a major shift in federal emancipation policy.” Rather than merely representing a beacon of freedom for Black people bold enough to emancipate themselves, northern armies in the South would now function as a positive force for social revolution.
Even more dramatically, the Proclamation also ordered the beginning of Black enlistment in the Union Army. This had been made possible by the Militia Act passed the previous summer, which “removed the words free and white from the qualifications for enrollment in then militia.” Black regiments began to form in the days immediately following Lincoln’s Proclamation, and almost two hundred thousand African American men would serve in the Union Army and Navy by the end of the war. Interestingly, Oakes shows how the process of Black enlistment became a major factor in the destruction of slavery in the Border States—areas formally exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation. “Beginning in 1863 the War Department pushed military emancipation directly into the Border States by openly encouraging slaves in loyal areas to enlist and promising them freedom in return,” he writes.
By 1863, therefore, emancipation had become central to the North’s military and political strategy. But Oakes draws a clear distinction between emancipation and abolition. The former policy freed the slaves of rebel masters—and, in practice, of many supposedly loyal masters, too—but did not end slavery as a legally sanctioned institution in the southern states. Lincoln and the Republicans only began to consider abolition following the crucial northern victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863. Although these two battles did not end the war, they did seem to indicate the likelihood of an eventual northern triumph. What would happen, Republicans began to ask, if the Union prevailed before slavery had been destroyed completely? Was it conceivable that slavery, and the slaveholding class, would survive the destruction of the Confederacy? What of the danger that African Americans freed as a result of wartime emancipation might be re-enslaved in a postwar South?
In order to answer these questions, Oakes shows, “Republicans settled on a thirteenth amendment as the best way to destroy slavery completely.” For the first time, this involved a qualitative change in the way the mainstream of northern antislavery thought imagined the relationship between slavery and the federal government, and marked a break with what Oakes calls “antislavery constitutionalism.” With the Thirteenth Amendment, Republicans now asserted the right of Congress to abolish slavery in the states where in already existed. Thanks to his incredibly thorough narrative of the development of emancipation, Oakes is able to capture the drama of this shift in a way that few previous historians have managed.
Who freed the slaves?
Oakes has given us a tremendously accessible and exciting account of emancipation, one that will be required reading for activists and scholars interested in the revolutionary changes of the mid-nineteenth century. To my knowledge, no other book provides such a detailed account of the origins and evolution of the Republican Party’s policy toward slavery.
Freedom National is particularly useful and compelling in two regards. First, it cuts against the one-sided view of Abraham Lincoln as a “reluctant emancipator” and brings to the fore his deeply held opposition to slavery. This is a very important contribution at a time when the revolutionary process of the years 1860 to 1865 is still not widely understood. Oakes’s second major success is returning the Republican Party to the center of the story of emancipation in the United States. Despite the huge volume of literature on the Civil War and the end of slavery, historians have neglected the political dimensions of these events and we would benefit from a renewed focus on the emergence, institutional development, and political program of the Republicans. This is particularly important for those of us who are concerned with the building of revolutionary organization today.
It is important to stress that Freedom National takes a relatively narrow view of emancipation as a social and political process. Oakes is very much concerned with the constitutional dimension of slavery’s demise, dwelling at length on how Lincoln and the Republicans understood their ability to interfere with slavery, the policies that resulted from that understanding, and the ways in which said policies were interpreted and enforced by military officers on the ground. The book contains fairly little discussion of African American agency and slave resistance in the coming of emancipation. Freedom National needs to be read alongside material detailing the other aspects of the road to emancipation.
Still, the focus on antislavery constitutionalism presents Oakes with some problems. Having stressed the continuity of antislavery politics in the program of the Republican Party, the author faces the challenge of explaining how and why that policy actually shifted during the Civil War. Although Oakes himself highlights the danger of teleology, Freedom National consistently wrestles with the question of whether the end of slavery was a foregone conclusion once the Republicans assumed the powers of a wartime government. Put another way: we must ask if Oakes helps us to understand why Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the fall of 1862 rather than the spring of 1861.
The fact is, of course, that the Republicans were not fully the masters of the situation during the years of the Civil War. Once the military struggle began, and once the first fugitive slaves arrived at Union lines, the process of emancipation assumed a logic that transcended the intentions even of those at the highest level of government. I think Lincoln understood this when he said, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” Frederick Douglass, too, had argued that “the inexorable logic of events” would force Republicans into an antislavery military policy.
Lincoln and Douglass were both wrestling with the problem of conscious human agency in a revolutionary situation. Certainly Oakes is right to reemphasize the importance of the leading role played by the Lincoln and the Republican government. But the Civil War was ultimately a revolution—a great struggle between contending social classes. It was a moment at which, to quote Leon Trotsky, the masses—particular the masses of Black slaves—forcibly “entered into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.” We cannot ask, “who freed the slaves?” without taking account of this fact.
In this sense, the destruction of slavery vindicated not only the antislavery constitutionalism of the Republican mainstream, but also a countertradition within the abolitionist movement, exemplified in activists such as David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown, who had called for—and even attempted—the violent, revolutionary overthrow of chattel slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment was as much the result of their tireless work as it was the result of the process Oakes describes in Freedom National.