American Slavery (Turning Points), edited by William Dudley
One thing that this book gets right is understanding that the context of slavery is larger than that of the United States alone. It is a pet peeve of mine as a student of slavery in the context of world history that America tends to be the only thing that many writers care about, and at least this book is honest enough to specify that it is talking about American slavery with the likely awareness that there are other kinds of slavery that audiences are perhaps not as interested about. The book manages to provide a look at American slavery from the point of view of a wide variety of generally respected historians. The student of the Civil War will likely be familiar with the authors whose works are excerpted here, but this book is aimed at those who are interested in the subject of slavery but are not necessarily aware of the historiography on the subject and who would be willing to be introduced to it. As a result, this book is certainly on the academic side when it comes to introducing students to material relating to slavery, as well as what academics say about it.
This book is a bit more than 200 pages long and is divided into five chapters. The first chapter has three essays that discusses the origins of slavery in America, which includes material on the Atlantic slave trade as well as the different nature of the establishment of slavery in the North and South (1). The editor then includes material on slavery in the American Revolution that discusses the demise of slavery in the North during this period, and the failure of gradual emancipation in the South (2). There are then six texts dealing with the division that slavery caused in the antebellum period, including the Missouri Compromise, John C. Calhoun and the Southern defense of slavery, the provocation of the South by the abolitionist movement, the social tensions within plantation society, the dispute over the Fugitive Slave Act, and the sectional tensions of the 1850’s (3). After that the editor discusses the Civil War and the end of American slavery, including slaves seeking freedom in the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the response of slaves to emancipation, and Reconstruction (4). The final part of the book then contains two essays that debate whether or not war was able to end slavery in America or not (5).
In reading the discussion of academic historians about slavery, one tends to find that there is the same disagreement that one finds in reading the primary documentation at the time, with historians presenting various perspectives that are merely jargon-filled versions of the arguments of the time. As a reader I have my own personal biases and perspectives in the matter and I consider the primary sources to be far more interesting than the secondary sources here. To be sure, some of these historians are very good, but at least a few of them are hacks seeking to promote a bogus agenda in willful ignorance of the past and with a desire to deceive others about the past. If this book is worthwhile as a way of encouraging others to get to know slavery in the United States, it is also worthwhile for us to go beyond this book to see what the people at the time thought about it, what the laws about it were, and how it was controversial and why it has been fought over for more than two hundred years. This book is merely the entrance into a debate and far from the final word on it, and hopefully its makers expected this to be the case.