Who Really Freed the Slaves?

In his scathing rebuff of the film Lincoln (which I also hated, for some similar but less precise reasons) Aaron Bady argues it was the blacks themselves to a far greater extent than the film acknowledges:

In short, if you widen your field of view, you will discover that W.E.B. Du Bois argued a century ago—and as the historical scholarship has increasingly come to agree—that slavery was already all but dead by the time Lincoln got around to declaring himself an abolitionist, far less because the North gave slaves their legal freedom than because they had already effectively taken it, because it had become the new status quo that would have required force to dislodge. At the end of the Civil War, with the South defeated, the choice for the north was not to end slavery or leave it; the choice was to ratify the fact that it was already dead or to re-impose it by military force.

In short, the idea that the white north “gave” freedom to the slaves draws from and reinforces an attractively simple and flattering myth, one which formed around the old historiography of the period like a noose cutting off oxygen to the brain: the myth that black slaves were rendered passive by their condition, and that—absent an outside force interrupting their state of un-freedom—they would simply have continued, as slaves, indefinitely. It’s only in this narrative that freedom can be a thing which is given to them: because they are essentially passive and inert, they require someone else—say, a great emancipator—to step in and raise them up.

W.E.B. Du Bois was already chipping away at this myth in 1909, but when scholars in the post-Civil Rights era started taking him and his 1935 Black Reconstruction seriously, the historiographic mainstream turned this myth on its head. Slaves were not and could not be “given” their freedom because they had always had it: it had required a great deal of violent force and political work to keep them enslaved, and when that force was removed—as the South collapsed politically and militarily—they began to act like the human beings they always already were, organizing, moving, and seizing their destinies in their own hands. At this point, the game was up; just as the institution of slavery had always depended on substantial governmental enforcement and support, it would have taken a substantial amount of violent force to re-impose it, a concerted project to re-establish slavery that no one in the north had any particular stomach for. At the end of the Civil War, to put it simply, the North had a simple choice: re-imposing slavery by force or accept the new reality. They chose the latter.

If you read these books, however, you’d gain a sense of perspective that the film works to make impossible. Spielberg and Kushner are interested in a kind of scrupulous (almost farcical) accuracy about things that do not matter, while working very hard to place everything else that was going on in the period—and everything else Lincoln was responding to—off camera. “The nation’s capital was transformed by the migration of fugitive slaves from the South during the war, but you’d never know it from this film,” as Kate Masur points out, and Lincoln’s own servants were leaders and organizers in this community, something of which Lincoln simply could not have been unaware. But the film makes a point of not showing any of this: while the vast majority of the movie takes place in cramped and smoky rooms, even the exterior shots (usually of conversations in moving wagons) show us very little of what was going on in the streets and neighborhoods of Washington (much less what was going on in the South). Which is to say: they give us the illusion of perspective without giving us its substance. They show you the elephant’s tail quite accurately, and then they declare, on that basis, that the entire beast is a snake.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://consideredexclamations.wordpress.com Andrew Tripp

    Whitewashing history is nothing new. Particularly regarding the Civil Rights movement, the wider understanding taught in high schools is vastly different from the reality, especially Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, which were pretty inflammatory at times. Also, most high schoolers have no clue who Angela Davis or Stokely Carmichael are.

    I’ve actually been trying to write a post for a while on why proper teaching of history is important. Maybe this is the catalyst for that.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    Slaves were not and could not be “given” their freedom because they had always had it: it had required a great deal of violent force and political work to keep them enslaved, and when that force was removed—as the South collapsed politically and militarily—they began to act like the human beings they always already were, organizing, moving, and seizing their destinies in their own hands.

    My minor quibble is that, if the pro-slavery Democrats hadn’t walked out of their party 1960, they would have held the political clout to use violent force to maintain and possibly expand slavery. The political will to use violent force for oppressive ends has been a recurring problem in U.S. history.

    Biopics in general usually involve wholesale myth-making about history. Good history and good science both generally don’t make good narrative.

  • William

    There is a dead link about the scholars that agree that slavery was all but dead.

  • Paul Falcone

    From this essay you would be surprised that the south put up a fuss over “freeing” the slaves, since they were practically free anyway. Black rebellions did almost end slavery several times but economic dependence on slavery maintained it.
    It could easily be argued that after the war, the majority of blacks in the south were still slaves in everything but name. bare survival wages, segregation, and lynching at will.
    I haven’t seen Lincoln, but I know you can only explain so much in a feature film. There are many untold stories about the African American experience still waiting to be told, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Steven Spielberg will tell some of them.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      I think the key to the argument being made is not that slavery couldn’t have continued. The argument is that to reimpose it the reUnited States would have to provide the resources to help actively reenslave many Southern blacks. It would have meant more than just passive permission of the status quo but a reassertion and reinforcement of a crumbling order–one that the North didn’t have the will to commit so heavily to recreating.

  • Vorjack

    I haven’t seen Lincoln, but I know you can only explain so much in a feature film.

    It would have taken only a few scenes to establish the agency of the freed slaves, and given the fetish for accuracy it seems like they should have been included. For example, Washington DC was thronged with escaped slaved. That could easily have been depicted and explained in a few lines without disrupting the narrative flow. It would have been historically accurate and mostly prevented all this criticism.

    Instead, Spielberg continues the trend of making white figures the focus of stories about blacks, and robs the escaped slaves of their agency.

  • Phil

    An easy claim to make, but what have you got to support it? A single dead link. Sounds like wishful thinking, and resembles blog posts I’ve read claiming that biologists now reject evolution, or that global warming has been disproved. Show me search terms used to locate articles on the subjects, and a listing of citations, and counts of those for and against the proposition.

    • vorjack

      The link is broken, not dead. Look at the address.

      It leads to the Black Reconstruction wikipedia page, and it appears to have been accidentally merged with a link to Eric Foner’s article, The New View of Reconstruction(PDF). Foner is a professor of American History at Columbia University, so he’s clearly qualified to comment.

      For the larger discussion, go see Kevin Levin’s round-up at the blog Civil War Memory or the round table at The Atlantic. Many of the contributors, like Kate Masur at Northwestern or James Grossman , the director of the AHA, can be considered acknowledged experts in the field.