What Political Act Freed the Slaves?

Check out Mode for Caleb for a thorough analysis of the meaning of political action as it relates to the abolitionist movement. The question of how historians should understand the necessary and sufficient conditions of political behavior has tended to focus on those “who were willing to roll up their sleeves and engage in formal “politics,” whether by organizing antislavery parties, running candidates for local and national office, and forging cross-party coalitions” as opposed to those who like Garrison himself who refused to take part in the process or were disfranchised for one reason or another. I agree with Caleb that our definition of “political” must be extended along the lines of Steven Hahn’s analysis in his most recent award-winning book, A Nation Under Our Feet. From McDaniel’s post:

One of Hahn’s central–and most provocative–points is that enslaved and recently emancipated people in the South “constituted themselves as political actors” and created a “distinctive African-American politics,” and that they did so long before being declared legally free or obtaining the right to vote (p. 1). To call people who lacked legal citizenship “political” actors, Hahn argues, requires “a broad understanding of politics and the political … that encompasses collective struggles for what might be termed socially meaningful power” (p. 3). This broad understanding does not exclude the traditional definition of the political arena as having to do with the electoral arena; Hahn’s book follows his “political actors” from slavery through emancipation and into partisan politics during Reconstruction, so he does not mean to diminish the importance of electoral politics by arguing for the existence of what he calls “slave politics” (p. 3). But Hahn does argue that viewing “slaves, who had no standing in the official arenas of civil and political society, as nonpolitical, prepolitical, or protopolitical” prevents historians from understanding the kinds of political choices that freedpeople made once they were enfranchised and endowed with citizenship rights. The transition from slavery to freedom did not transform formerly apolitical slaves into political agents, but rather transposed struggles over power from one political arena into another.

Such an analysis works well in the classroom in reference to the question of who freed the slaves. Most of my students when asked answer the question by pointing to Lincoln, but when asked to explain why he decided to free the slaves when he in fact did so they fall flat. Their image and explanation is of a president who somehow arrives at the conclusion in a vacuum. The act of issuing the proclamation itself becomes a sufficient explanation to the question of who freed the slaves. Hahn’s analysis forces us to step back to look for the external reasons that steered Lincoln in a certain direction. This year my students analyzed a range of source to better understand Lincoln’s decision. One of the first sources we looked at was a famous photograph of fugitive slaves followed by the beginning of the movie Glory which includes a scene showing the passing of escaped slaves along with the voice of Robert G. Shaw reading a letter home. I asked them to think about how fugitive slaves might impact the war effort for both sides. How might their presence in Union camps present both problems and opportunities for local commanders and eventually the Lincoln administration. More importantly, we tried to understand the motivations and intentions of the slaves themselves-as difficult as that is given the lack of traditional documentation. Still, it is not difficult to interpret their motivation and to do so by utilizing political terms. The very act of escape toward Union lines can be interpreted as political behavior. Hahn’s analysis reminds us of our bias towards written sources and the need to acknowledge behavior as an indication of political action. African Americans like Hiram Revels and others did not become political actors during Reconstruction, but moved into different political arenas. The goal is not to ignore Lincoln’s role in bringing about emancipation, but to acknowledge those, including those on the grass roots level, who engaged in political behavior that shaped the president’s policy of preserving the Union.

Introducing students to such an analysis also has a more immediate benefit. Since we tend to interpret political behavior as simply exercising the vote students often feel cut off from any opportunity to voice their concerns about national and world affairs. I’ve seen this intensify over the past few years. Understanding that political action that goes beyond simply casting a vote has the potential to bring about fundamental change can be empowering for those not yet of the voting age.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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