Book Review: The Long Emancipation

The Long Emancipation: The Demise Of Slavery In The United States, by Ira Berlin

This is a short book, and that is probably for the best, as it gets itself tied into knots regarding what it means concerning emancipation that extending this book any longer would simply have made the self-contradictions more glaring and problematic than they already are, and that is enough. It appears as if there is a substantial amount of confusion to be found in this book, and in the discussion about emancipation in general, as to who deserves credit for the destruction of slavery. In one sense, the emancipation of blacks was a rather rapid process, in that it appeared that slavery was secure within the United States as late as 1860 or so, but the Civil War started by Southern rebellion created the circumstances that allowed for the demise of a system that had been present within the United States for almost two and a half centuries. On the other hand, though, pressures to emancipate began as soon as slavery did, as slaves sought to use the law and their own God-given gifts of intellect and shrewdness to secure freedom for themselves and relatives even in the midst of the start of slavery and its consolidation and expanse within American territories, and the author’s perspective reflects this considerable ambivalence in meaning.

This book is between 150 and 200 small pages that would fit in a large pocket, and its material is divided into three chapters. The author begins with a discussion of emancipation and her contention that blacks themselves deserve a high degree of credit for emancipation, suggesting her belief that the agency of blacks has not been emphasized enough for her tastes, which is a strange belief to have at present. After that there is a section about the near century-long demise of slavery, which the author looks at regarding the decline of slavery in the North and the connection between anti-slavery efforts in the North and the revolutionary ideology of 1776 and before regarding the rights of English citizens, which had the effect of giving blacks and their allies an obvious rhetorical opening (1). The next chapter then discusses the egalitarian call by blacks once they had started to take over the anti-slavery movement in the 19th century (2). After this he last chapter of the book looks at the bloody struggle against slavery as the 19th century progressed towards the Civil War (3), after which an epilogue discusses freedom and what it meant for blacks after the Civil War, after which there are notes, acknowledgements, and an index.

Indeed, the whole book itself and the discussion of emancipation is hurt by the muddled meanings behind such terms as emancipation. If on the one hand we must give credit to Lincoln and to those who, North and South, made the decisions that made the end of slavery increasingly inevitable through the abrasion caused by the Civil War, we must also give more than a little credit to the slaves and free blacks whose behavior forced Union and Confederate governments to face the realities of slavery in their war efforts and that doomed efforts to preserve and expand the peculiar institutions. If the presence of the Union army and the realization by blacks and Union soldiers that they had a common cause in kneecapping the Confederacy and humbling its arrogant elite, it was the very rebelliousness of the South itself that provoked emancipation, and it is a fact that must be admitted that the end of slavery did not mean a post-racist society, given the racism that is in the hearts of black and white to this day, and that makes the discussion of slavery and its ends a subject that still draws contentious discussion. The fact that credit belongs to so many people suggests that the end of slavery is something that should be viewed as a success, because if it was a failure no one would want to take credit for it.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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