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A History Blog by W. E. Skidmore II

The Environment of Emancipation

Reviewed Works:

Robert Edgar Conrad, The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery 1850-1888 (Malabar: Kreiger Publishing Company, 2nd Ed., 1993), pp. 254, $36.58

James Oakes, Freedom National, The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company), pp. 595, $21.19

The Environment of Emancipation

 In recent decades, historians of slavery and abolition have wrestled with the question of slave agency.  Did slaves have agency?  If so, how much?  The question of “agency” becomes even more poignant when addressing the role(s) of the enslaved in the emancipation process.  Who freed the slaves?  Did they free themselves?  Was it the government?  Abolitionists?  The Federal Military? Specific Individuals (Abraham Lincoln or Dom Pedro)?  A mixture of all of them?  Walter Johnson provides a refreshing approach to the idea of agency, specifically slave agency.  “One should ask,” Johnson writes, “what sorts of actions were available to enslaved people and in what sorts of circumstances, what sorts of notions of commonality undergirded their solidarity?” (Johnson, “Agency” in The Problem of Freedom in the Age of Emancipation, 28).  He suggests that scholars should explore the transubstantiation of “agency” into its material aspect.  In other words, how did material conditions (landscape, labor, reproduction, economics, etc.) limit or extend one’s agency?

Johnson’s “slave agency” argument can also be applied to other groups, especially those in opposition to slavery.  Put differently, how did the environment shape anti-slavery activities by politicians, lawyers, governments, and abolitionists?  James Oakes’ Freedom National and Robert Conrad’s The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery are two works that engage in a similar framework.  Both historians focus on how the mid-nineteenth-century political and economic environments shaped Brazilian and American anti-slavery efforts, respectively.

Oakes’ study traces the destruction of slavery in the American South, from the antebellum period to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.  While giving attention to multiple groups: white and black abolitionists, slaves, Confederate and Union soldiers, Southern Democrats, and abolitionists—his main focus is on the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln.  “In telling the story of how slavery was destroyed, I pay good deal of attention to the broad antislavery movement, in particular the Republican Party that set out to abolish the institution,” Oakes writes (xv).

Oakes corrects the mischaracterization of Lincoln as a “reluctant emancipator” and the idea that the Republican Party “did not have any serious antislavery intention” (xv). From its inception, the Republicans agreed that slavery must come to an end.  “For months before the 1860 Election,” Oakes argues, “Republicans across the North were giddily predicting the destruction of slavery in the South” (51).  Starting in the 1840s, supporters of anti-slavery saw two routes to emancipation.  One path was created by anti-slavery constitutionalists (a clear nod to William M. Wiecek’s work).  Starting with the Liberty and Free Soil Parities, anti-slavery politicians and lawyers such Salmon P. Chased argued for containment, “the federal government could not abolish slavery in that states, but it could restrict slavery to states where it already existed, and surround those states, and squeeze slavery to death” (256).  Freedom was national, and slavery was sectional (hence the title).

The other possibility was military emancipation.  As John Quincy Adams proclaimed, if the federal government fought in the slaveholding South, they could emancipate slaves “out of military necessity” (39).  Both plans provided opportunities to achieve emancipation, and both paths were often explored simultaneously.  The antebellum political and social environment, however, limited the reach of such actions.  But the environment changed with the Civil War, it “enabled Republicans to go further, to impose new pressures” which “would have been inconceivable in peacetime” (300).

Oakes does an impressive job of parsing out the differences between emancipation and abolition, in the American political context.  With the First and Second Confiscation Acts, emancipation became central to the northern politicians’ war aims.  Emancipation freed slaves from their rebel masters, but these acts did not outlaw the institution.  Following the victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, Republicans started thinking about how to completely remove this labor system following the North’s looming victory.  In comes the Thirteenth Amendment, which Republicans believed was “the best way to destroy slavery completely” (431).

Scholars might criticize Oakes for his argument about the universal acceptance of anti-slavery policies by the Republican Party.  Was abolition an inevitable conclusion once the Republicans assumed power?  If so, why did Lincoln enact the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, not in April 1861?  The answer was circumstances.  Emancipation was a process, not a single moment.  American society changed throughout this period.  From fugitive slaves invading Union camps to the creation of West Virginia, abolitionists were forced to adapt their strategies and push as far as their limits allowed.  This included challenging or not challenging the constitutional validity of slavery.

American supporters of anti-slavery were not the only ones who were forced to continuously adapt, this also happened in Brazil.  Like Oakes, Robert Conrad’s The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery also shows how their environment influenced the agency of Brazilian anti-slavery crusaders.   Conrad’s work offers two major historiographical interventions.  First, he shows that Paulista coffee planters were not supporters of anti-slavery until 1866.  This is critical.  In São Paulo, large coffee planters were one of the first groups to experiment with European colonos (immigrant contract laborers) in the 1850s.  Previous historians have linked this experimentation with their acceptance of anti-slavery, which Conrad shows was not the case (see Robert Toplin’s The Abolition of Slavery in Brazil).

Second and most important, the abolition of Brazilian slavery did not naturally develop from gradual emancipation legislation such as the Rio Branco Law of 1871 and the Saraiva-Cotegipel Law of 1885.  The Rio Branco law did not set a date for emancipation, and allowed for increased the exploitation of children under the age of eight.  The 1885 Saraiva-Cotegipel Act also allowed slaveholders to further exploit elderly enslaved Africans for another three years (as compensation to landowners).  Both laws actually did little to stem the tide of slavery in Brazil, and acted more as a smokescreen. Moreover, these laws were poorly enforced and often ignored in many circumstances.

The main thrust of Conrad’s monograph, therefore, is to explain how and why abolitionism arose in the 1880s.  Like Oakes, the rise of anti-slavery in Brazil was directly linked to materialism (not ideology).  Brazilian slavery end for several reasons: “the international repudiation of slavery which ended the African trade and eliminated the main source of plantation workers; the steady decline of the slave population after 1850 mainly through an excess of deaths over births; the internal slave trade which concentrated slaves and defenders of slavery into the coffee provinces; the abolition of slavery in the United States which helped to inspire policy of gradual emancipation through free birth; a slow but steady erosion of pro-slavery opinion, particularly in cities and in poorer provinces; and finally, the resistance of the slave themselves which reduced the efficiency of the labor system, frightened slaveholders, and culminated in the mass runaway movement of 1887 and 1888” (207).  In other words, a lot happened in a short amount of time, which in turn, pressured the Brazilian government to adopt anti-slavery policies.

Like Oakes, Conrad is very aware of the limitations facing anti-slavery sentiment.   By 1866, for example, the new political cabinet of Zacarais de Gois was actually prepared to abolish slavery in Brazil, but only when “circumstances permitted the government would consider abolition as an object of the greatest importance” (52).  The war with Paraguay prevented this anti-slavery cabinet from taking action until after this military dispute was settled.  It should also be mentioned that prior to 1850, Brazilian society was not conducive for an anti-slavery movement.  Brazil did not have a middle-class, and slave labor dominated the labor markets.  In turn, such an environment prevented an anti-slavery movement from developing.

Historians’ emphasis on agency has provided a strong break in the traditional top-down historiographical approach.  As Walter Johnson notes, however, this emphasis on “agency” has often overshadowed materialistic implications.  After reading both works, I am starting to wrestle with the questions of material versus intellectual motivations and limitations of anti-slavery movements.  Maybe the real question is not who freed the slaves or how much agency they had, but what environmental factors were most conducive for shifting political and public opinions into accepting abolitionism.  This also raises the question of abolitionists’ adaptability (as mentioned earlier), could the effectiveness of anti-slavery movements be measured by their ability to adapt to specific circumstances at specific times?  In other words, is the key for the success of anti-slavery movements versatility?  Does abolition require a specific set of circumstance to succeed, and if so what are those core circumstances?  I understand that such an approach might be too narrow, but at the same time, materialistic factors played a significant role in when and how various anti-slavery crusades developed.  Jim Oakes was correct when he argued that freedom was enough for slaves during this period, because it created an environment that allowed politicians and the public to explore how far that freedom would reach.

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