Did Lincoln free the slaves, or did the slaves free themselves?
A high school history teacher friend of mine recently asked me this question while explaining the new writing program she’s using in her tenth grade U.S. history class. In the program, students are given a set of historical documents to read, discuss and draw conclusions about in essay form.
The point of the activity is not to reach a pre-determined correct answer but to produce a quality piece of writing with a well-reasoned argument based on historical evidence like historians.
Sounds like a great class. But the question bothered me. I think the Emancipation Proclamation has been long under-rated. Any cursory look at the document will reveal that it frees very few people, but cursory looks reveal very little. Lincoln was fighting to uphold a Union based on a constitution. This meant following the rulings of the Supreme Court which had ruled slaves were property, without rights, in the Dred Scott decision. Roger Taney, the chief justice who wrote that decision still had the power to over-rule Lincoln. The Union Lincoln was fighting to preserve included four boarder states that allowed slavery. Should Lincoln free the slaves, even if he had the authority which the Dred Scott ruling said he did not, he risked losing those four states to the Confederacy thereby losing the war. The Emancipation Proclamation, while it did not end slavery immediately, was an act that crossed the Rubicon. There was no way slavery could last afterwards. Win the war and in a few years slavery would end nationwide. Frederick Douglas said as much himself.
You can see that I’m a Lincoln fanboy.
Even if we set aside the question of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the question of the slaves freeing themselves remains. How can slaves themselves bring about an end to slavery? Don’t the people in power have to agree to give up that power? Doesn’t that make them the only ones who could have ended slavery?
Daniel Rasmussen’s book, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, provides a case study explaining just how the slaves themselves brought about an end to slavery. Decades before the Civil War, long before the Nat Turner slave revolt, several hundred slaves took up arms against their masters, burned down the plantations where they were kept and marched on the city of New Orleans. Although their revolt was eventually put down, it is one among many actions that led to the end of slavery in America.
This revolt is almost completely forgotten today. Those who put down the revolt made sure they got to write the history books. This means there is little documentation for Mr. Rasmussen to draw on for American Uprising, not enough for a book devoted to the revolt. So Mr. Rasmussen fills out his book with background on slavery and slave revolts in America. Unable to describe in detail the lives of the revolt’s leaders, Mr. Rasmussen provides a general overview of the slave trade, the conditions faced by slaves in America, and the successful slave revolt in Haiti which came to represent the greatest fear and hope for Americans in the slave holding southern states.
In the end, American Uprising is a good primer on slavery in America. A highly readable 200 pages, American Uprising provides a solid general background on a shameful chapter on American history. The details and documentation that would have provided the information necessary for a book length account of this slave revolt are lost to history, but Mr. Rasmussen has done a good job rescuing this story and bringing it to our attention.
I think it would make a fine addition to any tenth grade history class. My high school history teacher friend agrees. She’ll plans on using American Uprising with her students next year.
Full Disclosure: I received a advanced review copy of American Uprising from the publishers. It’s been on my TBR shelf for several months.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., several years ago. Since then the tenor of discussion about slavery in America has changed greatly, for the better in my opinion. We’re not looking at “The South” or at slavery in the same way. The “noble lost cause” reading of the Civil War has come into question and been discarded by a growing number of historians. There is even serious talk of reparations, thanks to writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates. Anyone looking for a good overall background on slavery in America, especially people like me who were taught that the Civil War was the result of unfair tariffs, would do well to pick up a copy of American Uprising.