A View of Emancipation From South of the Border

Emancipation MapOver the past few weeks my survey courses have been examining the political debates over the expansion of slavery in the United States as well as the experience of the slaves themselves. As part of the introduction to my Civil War unit today I tried to emphasize just how unexpected the end of slavery was in this country. Few Americans could have anticipated its abrupt end in 1860 given the continued rise in the value of slaves, the amount of wealth slave labor generated, and the extent to which it had become infused in American society.

I also shared with my students that some historians, including William Freehling, have speculated that without a war slavery could have continued into the twentieth century. This last point took them for a loop. They were unable to imagine the United States in the twentieth century with slaves. One student suggested that the system of slave labor always appeared incompatible with a modern economy. A few other students simply had trouble with the idea of the leader of the free world still holding onto slavery.

At that moment I decided to photocopy a short excerpt from Ed Baptist’s new book, which I will share tomorrow, but in the meantime I asked students to consider the image below. I wanted them to understand that even in 1865 (the year slavery ended) the United States was far from the leader of the free world. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I found this image, but it certainly left an impression on my students.

We will continue the discussion tomorrow.

31 comments… add one
  • Mike Shekleton Jan 14, 2015 @ 7:25

    As a proxy for the death of slavery, one can trace the trajectory of sharecropping, whose death was brought upon by the mechanization of farming in the early mid-1900s in the U.S. It provides the argument that the demand for labor for farming would still remain high and economical. Another thing to think about as well is that the demand of Southern cotton would have been higher in the “post-Civil War” era in the absence of the Civil War. The Confederate decision to try to flex King Cotton’s muscle with the cotton embargo motivated the textile industry to diversify its sources of cotton. Without the motivation, Southern cotton would have had greater monopolistic power to impact prices and continue to make slave-produced cotton economical.

  • London John Jan 8, 2015 @ 9:24

    Are you sure the treatment of Latin America is realistic? The United States was always a real nation, and when the US legislature abolished slavery it ceased to exist throughout the territory of the US. Was this true of the Latin American republics, or did the big landowners see no need to take any notice of what a bunch of liberals in the capital legislated?
    Also, in Mexico for example, the main form of unfree labour was not chattel slavery but peonage. This certainly wasn’t abolished in 1829. More generally, Latin American landowners used Native Americans for forced labour well into the 20th century, if it does not in fact continue in some parts today.
    I think the term “Leader of the free world” is confusing. In the mid-19th century the United States had an elevated idea of itself as the capital of freedom, but never aspired to lead any other countries; its guiding principle was surely what would later be called isolationism.
    SFAIK, the motives for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire did not include being able to mock the pretensions of the United States, but it seems to have been a much-enjoyed by-product.

  • Andrew Raker Jan 7, 2015 @ 6:34

    I think the map’s a really profound way of seeing how the US was not a leader in emancipation, but that also slavery did continue longer than 1865 (though, of course, not in many places). The color coding also hints at how abolition was often a decision taken across the Atlantic, with governments that had fewer slaveholders in power than there were in DC (although I’m not sure why Cuba and Puerto Rico aren’t show as decisions taken by Madrid). Thank for sharing it!

    • John Betts Jan 7, 2015 @ 7:01

      And if memory serves, about 2/3’s of those Africans shipped over during the Atlantic Slave Trade were sent to Latin America (Carib. islands and Brazil especially). That’s something I’ve noticed many people either forget or are unaware of.

      Brazil doesn’t surprise me on this map, but Cuba and Puerto Rico did. Come to think of it, Venezuela and a couple of others were rather late in the 1850s. Mexico and Central America at least acted soon after independence.

      • James Harrigan Jan 7, 2015 @ 7:13

        …if memory serves, about 2/3’s of those Africans shipped over during the Atlantic Slave Trade were sent to Latin America (Carib. islands and Brazil especially).
        John, according to the David Brion Davis book I mentioned above, more than 90% of African captives during the history of the transatlantic slave trade went to places other than North America – mainly Brazil, but also the sugar growing islands of the Caribbean.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 7, 2015 @ 7:23

          A helpful visual.

          • John Betts Jan 7, 2015 @ 9:11

            Excellent, thanks! Brazil on the map looks like it’s about to get clobbered with a tsunami. I like how it includes North Africa and the Middle East too. That’s another aspect of the slave trade that’s frequently ignored or overlooked.

          • Jerry McKenzie Jan 8, 2015 @ 7:06

            An interesting link in the text below the visual:

        • John Betts Jan 7, 2015 @ 9:09

          Well that is a bit higher than I recall. Quite a bit. Thanks for the book link, I’ll bookmark that one.

      • London John Jan 9, 2015 @ 6:14

        Presumably the reason for the much higher number of slaves transported to South America and the Caribbean than to North America was that the slave population of North America was self-sustaining and naturally increasing whereas those of the other destinations weren’t. Perhaps this is because sugar was more of a killer crop than cotton and tobacco,

  • Jimmy Dick Jan 7, 2015 @ 6:09

    How do you balance the concepts of liberty with slavery? That is an old question and one which the Founders never answered. The slave owners of the Old South did answer the question by developing a region that was anything but free. Freedom of speech was outlawed in practice by the censoring of the mail, destruction of presses, and intimidation of speakers. The need to preserve slavery was paramount over any other consideration. It resulted in the creation of a regressive society that was literally falling behind the rest of the nation.

    This is where the neos lose it. They promote a version of the South that did not exist.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 7, 2015 @ 6:37

      All good points, but it seems to me that we need some balance with the fact that the entire country benefited from slave labor, not to mention the fact that the rights of free blacks in the North were curtailed in numerous ways.

  • Pat Young Jan 7, 2015 @ 4:31

    In many countries of Latin America slavery ended through war, although not wars fought specifically around slavery. Typically the revolutionists would include the ending of slavery in their platform or proposed constitution both in conformity to progressive ideas of the time and as a way to recruit slaves to their forces.

  • Shane Jan 7, 2015 @ 1:46

    “I tried to emphasize just how unexpected the end of slavery was in this country.”

    I agree that slavery was not crumbling in the south, but support for slavery was disappearing and in many places gone in the north by 1860, I think, although I agree that in 1860 most people in the US thought emancipation would take more than 5 years.. I think the map you show expresses how expected the end of slavery should have been. Slavery was over most places throughout the world, the United States was/were one of the last places it was outlawed.

    I know this is slightly off topic, but that map makes me curious if there are any comparative studies of emancipation between the US and other countries in North America – especially places where slavery did not end as a result of a slave revolt (such as Haiti). Did slavery end through war? through compensated emancipation? Was the new law immediate or did it only apply to young slaves at first? Did former slave holders not have enough power to keep the slave laws, or did they have a change of heart?

    • James Harrigan Jan 7, 2015 @ 7:09

      …are [there] any comparative studies of emancipation between the US and other countries?
      Shane, there is a gigantic literature on slavery and emancipation in the Western hemisphere. I just finished reading a wonderful (if depressing) book, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World by David Brion Davis, a leading scholar of slavery. In brief, slavery was abolished in the British Empire by Act of Parliament in 1833 [slaveholders were compensated], in Mexico by the Mexican Revolution, and in Brazil very gradually through compensated emancipation. I forget the details about emancipation in the Spanish colonies of Cuba, etc.

      • Kevin Levin Jan 7, 2015 @ 7:10

        Peter Kolchin’s study is a must read.

        • Hugh Lawson Jan 7, 2015 @ 8:14

          And here is a link to a work by David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation:


          • Kevin Levin Jan 7, 2015 @ 8:26

            Here is another reference. I found Edward Rugemer’s Problem of Emancipation to be incredibly helpful when working on my Crater book. Among other things, the book explores how emancipation throughout the western hemisphere threatened slaveowners’ own sense of security.

            • James Harrigan Jan 7, 2015 @ 10:24

              Kevin, this is something Brion Davis talks about at length, too. American slaveholders were terrified by the Haitian revolution, and one of the main reasons they tried so hard to censor abolitionist sentiment was the fear that such talk would give their own slaves ideas.

            • Simon Lewis Jan 7, 2015 @ 15:56

              Ed Rugemer’s essay in David Gleeson’s and my collection of essays The Civil War as Global Conflict attempts to address exactly this question. Check it out: https://www.sc.edu/uscpress/books/2014/7325.html.

      • Jerry McKenzie Jan 8, 2015 @ 6:54

        The Texas Revolution had a lot to do with slavery too — the American settlers wanted to keep the “institution” and change the Mexican Constitution to allow it.

    • James Harrigan Jan 7, 2015 @ 7:33

      and emancipation in the French colonies was a result of the Revolution of 1848 in France, which led to the establishment of the Second Republic and abolition of slavery by an act of the National Assembly in Paris. Slavery had actually been abolished by the First Republic in 1794, only to be re-established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.

      • Kevin Levin Jan 7, 2015 @ 7:34

        I should have pointed this out in the post itself, but Don Doyle’s new book on the Civil War era from an international perspective is incredibly helpful.

        • Mark Jan 24, 2015 @ 14:15

          A recent look at this is The Long, Lingering Shadow by Robert Cottrol a comparative look at slavery in the US and Latin America both during the time of legal slavery and on how former slaves have been integrated into society since then. Interesting thesis about why legal slavery and then Jim Crow persisted for so long in the US and how once the legal system changed in the 1950s and 60s integration became much more quicker in the US than in Latin America.

  • Neil Hamilton Jan 6, 2015 @ 22:29


    I read this book and enjoyed it very much. Going to have to go back and read it again.


    Interesting map and topic. Looking forward to the rest of your postings on the matter.

    Neil Hamilton

  • Bob Huddleston Jan 6, 2015 @ 18:56

    My favorite “what if” book on the Civil War is Ward Moore’s _Bring the Jubilee_, originally published in 1953, and considered a SciFi classic. Pringle, _Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels_ ranks it as #11. However, the Lost Cause and other devotees of the Lee cult ignore it.

    In Hodge Backmaker’s alternative world, 20th-century New York is a city of cobblestones, gas lamps and 10-story skyscrapers. In his world, the Confederate South won its independence and North America is divided with slavery and serfdom still facts of life. Its portrayal of the implications to African-Americans of a Confederate victory is not what neo-Confederates want to hear!

    After winning the Civil War at Gettysburg by the brilliant occupation of Little Round Top – Grant and Vicksburg are ignored – the Rebels go on to conquer Cuba and Mexico, moving their capital to a more central location in Leesburg, formerly Mexico City. In the novel Hodge travels to a Gettysburg think tank built by the retired Confederate colonel who captured LRT. There he falls in love with the daughter of the colonel (the novel takes place in the 1920s) and finds that the think tank is involved in constructing a time machine which he uses to go to Gettysburg on July 1, 1863 – with predictably disastrous results.

  • Hugh Lawson Jan 6, 2015 @ 17:41

    re: without a war slavery would have continued until the 20th century.

    Why speculate about such a counterfactual? What is proved, or suggested, by the observation, “Without the Civil War slavery might have continued”? Who knows? Maybe other John Browns would have managed to ignite a slave revolt. Maybe the northernmost slave states would have abolished voluntarily and joined the free states. Maybe the old free states would have decided to let blacks work where they could do the work, and dwell where they could pay the rent. Anything is possible in counterfactual speculation. The best purpose of counterfactual speculation is to stimulate thought about why the counterfactual path was *not* taken.

    So, why didn’t the free state leaders pursue a different policy: let the Gulf States (the pre-Fort-Sumter little CSA) go, and nudge the northernmost slave states to emancipate, and become in effect northern states?

    Some years ago, I read John Cairns, The Slave Power, written during the CW. This was (approximately) his strategic recommendation for the US: keep the upper slave states, and let the lower ones remain independent, to deal with later.

    Here is a link to Cairns’s book.

    Why wasn’t that strategy followed?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 6, 2015 @ 18:20

      Thanks for the comment. I introduced it as a way to counter the popular assumption that slavery was dying out by the eve of the Civil War. All of the evidence suggests otherwise. It was thriving and adjusting to many aspects of a modern economy.

      • Hugh Lawson Jan 7, 2015 @ 5:54

        That is an excellent point, Kevin. Those who think slavery doomed by economic trends should be challenged, and you are right to do it. I’ve not taught this material for decades, and approach the subject as a bystander who follows some of the trends in academic history. You see the contours of popular convictions today, because you see students every day; those contacts I’m not getting.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Jan 6, 2015 @ 17:08

    Slavery ends in Brazil in 1888. Does this explain why some former Confederates relocated to Brazil after the war, so they could be part of a continuing slave society?

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