One hundred and fifty years ago Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment and paved the way for ratification by the states. With a roll call and signatures roughly 240 years of slavery ended and yet as a nation we do nothing to publicly acknowledge this milestone. It’s striking given our collective embrace of a narrative that places the United States at the forefront of freedom. Even Steven Spielberg’s celebratory narrative about the build-up to this very moment in Lincoln has done little to increase awareness and interest. Why do we look beyond this moment?
I don’t have any firm answers, but the tension I often feel in my own teaching of this important event perhaps offers a few clues. On the one hand there is something quite remarkable about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. You would have been hard pressed to find Americans in 1861 predicting the end of slavery and that same year Congress passed a never-ratified amendment protecting slavery from future amendments. Lincoln backed it. Even in 1862 it is easy to imagine how a military victory might have resulted in a reunited Union with slavery largely intact. From this vantage point the end of slavery in 1865 appears to be nothing less than an achievement.
But it’s the way in which slavery ended and the issues it raised for the entire country that create questions that few of us are equipped to deal with or willing to confront. So, on the one hand I want my students to appreciate the extent to which the end of slavery was unexpected from the vantage point of 1861 and at the same time they need to come to terms with how it ended and the consequences for what will come later in the course.
If we are honest, we have to acknowledge the role of military failure and the interaction of armies and slave populations and not a moment of moral clarity that led to emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment. In other words, it was the grinding nature of the war itself that undermined the institution of slavery. Military failure and the goal of preserving the Union ultimately demanded the assistance of former slaves and free blacks. Ta-Nahesi Coates is fond of pointing out that it took ‘black men shooting white men in the face’ that brought about the end of slavery. It’s an important point and one that Carole Emberton more carefully explores in her most recent book. State sanctioned violence involving African Americans may have helped to save the nation, but it reinforced long-standing fears surrounding the arming of large numbers of black men.
The gradual erosion of slavery by the middle of the war also raised profound questions that challenged a nation’s commitment to white supremacy. I always have my students read and analyze Democrat Samuel Cox’s 1862 speech in Congress in which he worries about the ‘Africanization’ of his home state. [To its credit, Lincoln offers a bit of this language in some of the debate scenes.] The speech beautifully connects my students to the violence of Jim Crow throughout much of the South as well as urban violence during the “Great Migration” and beyond.
Let me be clear that I am not trying to minimize the importance of the end of slavery in this country. Certainly, recent scholarship shows that the Civil War generation, including many men who donned the Union blue believed that bringing an end to slavery constituted an important moral victory even if they could not embrace the possibilities surrounding racial equality. While Americans did not see this distinction as a problem to how they assessed the outcome of the war, we find it difficult to get around. We struggle with acknowledging the end of slavery in light of the many problems that still beset this nation when it comes to racial justice. Any celebration is tainted by a long history of racial violence that stretches to Ferguson, Missouri and beyond. We want to fit this moment into the neat narrative package of “American Exceptionalism,” but it never quite sticks.
Of course, there is room to commemorate and even celebrate the end of slavery in the United States. We can embrace the remembrance of the end of slavery even as we acknowledge the “unfinished work” that must be carried out by each generation. Isn’t that what this country is all about? At least that’s what I try to impart to my students.