Healing, Heritage and History:
"Slavery in American Life: Past, Present, and Future"
Ira Berlin's most recent work, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, is already considered a classic work on American slavery. It was awarded the Bancroft Prize in 1999 as the best book in American history by Columbia University. In his book, Professor Berlin focuses on the first 200 years of slavery and finds that the interactions between the master and the slave were not as simple as often believed. Actually, the two shared a complex relationship in which the slave had considerable power: In addition to this work, Professor Berlin founded and served as the principal editor of the multi-volume Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, and he has authored and edited a number of other works on slavery and freedom.
Introduced by Frank Faragasso,
The ratification of the thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in December of 1865 abolished slavery in the United States, formally, officially, and legally. Speaking soon after, a black preacher in the District of Columbia pronounced slavery to be "dead, dead, dead!" And it was. In the years that followed, southern planters and their allies proved extraordinarily resourceful in inventing new forms of labor extraction and racial oppression. But, try as they might, they could not reinstate chattel bondage. Yet, almost a century-and-a-half later, the question of slavery again roils the waters of American life. Indeed, the last years of the twentieth and the first year of the twenty-first century have witnessed an extraordinary popular engagement with the question of slavery. Slavery now has a greater presence in American life than anytime since December 1865.
This new interest in slavery has manifested itself in the enormous success on the big screen of the movies like Glory, Amistad, Shadrach and Oprah Winfrey's Beloved. They are followed on the small screen by the four-part IV series African in America, which traced the history of slavery in the United States from its very beginnings through emancipation. More recently, Henry Louis Gates took a sojourn to Africa where he confronted the painful matter of African complicity in the trans-Atlantic trade. These television docudramas parallel any number of radio broadcasts, including Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation, an audio-book collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and the University of Maryland.
These programs, in turn, come hard on the heels of John Michael Vlach's Back of the Big House, an exhibit at the Library of Congress. Presently, not too far from where we sit in Ford's Theater, workers are putting the finishing touches on the monument to black Civil War soldiers and sailors.
The memorial lists the names of some 200,000 African Americans, most of them former slaves. A monument to the Amistad stands in front of city hall in New Haven, and the Amistad itself has been reconstructed at Mystic Seaport. The UNESCO Slave Trade project is installing a string of similar shrines from Africa to the Antilles, which will be connected to larger sites of remembrance. In the United States, one such site, the multi-million dollar National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, is in the planning stages in Cincinnati. There are others and this, I should add, is just the beginning. In the last year of the twentieth century, according to the Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale, some sixty scholarly books on slavery and related subjects have been published. To these any number of novels, children's books, chronologies, textbooks, and genealogies can be added. Slavery has been on the cover of Time and Newsweek. It has been above the fold in the Washington Post and the New York Times. And if all of that is not enough, there was the discovery of what we might term, Sally Heming's "blue dress."
Now Sally Heming's "blue dress" provides a reminder of how much slavery has become a part of contemporary politics. Bill Clinton recognized this early on, and hence the debate or kind of phantom debate over "The Apology," which Clinton eventually delivered at Goree, a former slave factory on the west coast of Africa. Actually, it was not quite clear what Clinton said at Goree, since the American media reported it so poorly, but it soon became evident that Clinton had indeed apologized because conservative congressmen demanded that he retract his apology. As the haze of dueling editorials over "The Apology" faded, the National Advisory Panel on Race Relations chaired by the distinguished historian John Hope Franklin hovered into view. Then the spotlight was stolen by disputes over the Confederate flag, which started in South Carolina, soon spread to Georgia, and then Mississippi.
Am I alone in seeming to think that every time you open the newspaper or listen to the evening news there is some new controversy on slavery? In Washington, it is the question of whether school children can visit an exhibit in a Baltimore museum with a euphonious name of Great Blacks in Wax." In Richmond, it is the torching of Robert E. Lee's likeness on the River Walk, a local tourist attraction, that feeds the debate. Elsewhere similar events have similar effects, reminding us of almost the impossibility of escaping our slave past. In New York, there is a lawsuit against the Aetna Insurance Company for insuring slave property more than a century earlier. In Massachusetts, the Archbishop apologized for the Catholic Church's slowness on the question of abolition. In Washington, senators and congressmen discovered that slave labor built the White House and the Capitol. As these events resonate in the press, debates over thousands of schools named for Confederate generals, slave-holding politicians, including some of our most revered leaders in American history, are just beginning. Looming even larger is the vexed and troubled questions of reparations. Recently, Governor James Gilmore III of Virginia, a self-described history buff, tried to escape the implications of naming May as Confederate History Month by declaring that "the slavery issue began in Jamestown in 1619 and ended in Appomattox in 1865." Needless to say, Governor Gilmore was wrong on both accounts.
It is rare for Americans to engage their history, especially at this level of intensity and with this degree of persistence. As a people, the past has not been of great concern to us, and, particularly, this painful aspect of the past. So it is useful to ask the question, "why."
Surely part of the reason for this explosion of popular interest has something to do with the recognition of the sheer weight of slavery's importance. Simply put, American history cannot be understood without the institution of slavery. Slavery shaped the American nation, its economy, its politics, its culture, and its most fundamental principles. For most of American history, the mainland colonies and then the United States were a society of slaves and slaveholders. The American economy, of course, was founded upon the production of slave-grown crops. The great staples-tobacco, rice, sugar, and finally cotton-which slave owners sold on an international market, brought capital into the new colonies. That capital eventually funded an enormous economic infrastructure upon which the modern American economy rests.
CAMP BRIGHTWOOD, D.C. CONTRABANDS IN 2ND RHODE ISLAND CAMP
The great wealth that slaves produced allowed slaveholders to secure a central role in the establishment of the federal government in 1787. They quickly transformed that economic power into political power which they maintained between the founding of the republic and the Civil War. The majority of presidents, everyone from Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe to Jackson, Tyler, Polk, and Taylor were slaveholders and generally substantial slaveholders. The same was true for the Supreme Court, where a slaveholding majority was ruled successively by two slaveholding chief justices, John Marshall and Roger Taney, from 1800 to the Civil War. A similar pattern could be found in the Congress of the United States, and the control of Congress by politicians representing the free and the slave states was the central issue of antebellum politics. The power of this slaveholding class represented in the nation' s leadership gave it a large hand in shaping American culture and the values that were associated with American society. It is not an accident that a slaveholder penned the founding statement of American nationality and that freedom became the central value in American ideology. Men and women who drove slaves understood the meaning of chattel bondage, as most certainly did the men and women who were legally defined as chattel. And if it is no accident that Thomas Jefferson wrote that "all men are created equal," then it is certainly no accident that the greatest spokesmen for that ideal from Richard Allen to Frederick Douglass and from W. E. B. DuBois to Martin Luther King, Jr., were former slaves and the descendants of slaves.
Slavery was also the central cause of the American Civil War, a war that more than a century later continues to stir deep emotions. This is properly so, for clothed in the rhetoric of biblical prophecy and national destiny, the American Civil War accompanied a profound social revolution. That revolution destroyed forever away of life based upon the ownership of human beings. It restored to the former slaves proprietorship of their own persons. It liquidated, without compensation, billions of dollars of property, while forcibly substituting the relationship of free labor for that of slavery. Following that Civil War, the Constitution was amended to designate former slaves citizens, place citizenship for all Americans on new ground, and remove the disposition of these people beyond the jurisdiction of the states. In obliterating the sovereignty of the master over the slave, the Constitution handed a monopoly of sovereignty to a newly consolidated nation state, overturning that old regime in the South and setting the entire nation on a new course. The Civil War, in short, changed everything.
In the Civil War and the Reconstruction that followed can be found the main themes of nineteenth-century American history: state formation, political realignment, economic transformation, and class conflict. So too with the great ideals of American life: freedom, self-determination, the ability of individual men and women to shape their own destiny, drenched in the blood of some 600,000 men and women. No wonder the battlefields of American history, over which the National Park Service presides, are the sacred ground of the American people.
It would be comforting to conclude that the recognition of slavery's importance has driven the American people to the history books. I certainly would like to believe that the importance of slavery and the Civil War has brought us here today to integrate the history of slavery into the story of America's great national monuments and its sacred ground. However, there is more to it than that. There is a recognition, often backhanded and indirect, and sometimes subliminal or even subconscious, that America's largest and most pervasive social problem-what W. E. B. DuBois called the great problem of the twentieth century (and which is fast on its way to becoming the great problem of the twenty-first century)-that is, racism-was founded in the institution of slavery. There is a general, if inchoate, understanding that any attempt to address this question of race in the present must also address slavery in the past. And, indeed, this imperative is more compelling as the United States becomes a more racially segregated and a more unequal society. In short, behind this interest in slavery is a great crisis in the question of race.
It is precisely this confluence of the history of slavery and the politics of race, which suggest that slavery has become a language, a way to talk about race in a society in which black people and white people hardly talk at all except for perhaps the banter of sports or the groan of daytime television. In the language of slavery, black and white Americans have found a voice to address their deepest hurts, their greatest fears, and their festering anger at the all-too-depressing reality that so much of American life in the twenty-first century-access to jobs, access to housing, access to medical care, access to justice, even access to a taxi-is still controlled by the matter of race. The renaissance in the interest of slavery-the movies, docudramas, museum exhibits, monuments, living history exhibits, and books-have become a way, an emblem, a metaphor, and a sign of both the failure to appreciate and address directly the question of race and of the desire to do so. Part of the reason that we are here today is not only to appreciate the significance of slavery in the American past, but also to under stand why it looms so large in the present. Perhaps more importantly, we meet to prepare our children for the burden they must bear as the descendants of a slave society. The subject of slavery on America's sacred grounds, its Civil War battlefields, speaks not simply to the question of the past, not simply to the question of the present, but ultimately to our posterity and the posterity of the Republic.
Gaining an appreciation of slavery's significance does not necessarily make it easier to address. Everywhere we find ourselves tripping over our historical and ideological shoelaces. Take, for example, the dispute over John Vlach's Behind the Big House exhibit, which was an exemplary presentation of slave housing by one of the nation's premier folklorists. Its placement in the Library of Congress angered the employees of the Library-mostly black, mostly non-professional-who demanded its removal. They saw the pictures of the slave quarters as a representation of the plantation metaphor that they had often employed in describing their own stormy relationship with the Library's administration. The Librarian of Congress, a historian by training and trade, quickly acceded to their demands. But no sooner was the exhibit dismantled, than the librarians at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., welcomed it and made it the centerpiece of their Black History Month commemoration.
There was a similar kind of double take in the debate over "The Apology" for slavery, which began with great fanfare and ended with muffled silence. Likewise Governor Gilmore's attempt to balance the celebration of Black History Month with Confederate History Month in Virginia and the seeming inability of the white Jeffersons to come to terms with the black Jeffersons over access to the Monticello graveyard elicited the same quizzical response. These vexed cases, which appear regularly on the evening news, demonstrate how the discussion of slavery is not an easy one. While slavery may provide an entry point for a dialogue-the dialogue we so desperately need--on the question of race, it carries with it deep anger, resentment, indignation, and bitterness for some, along with embarrassment, humiliation, and shame for others. And here I speak of both black and white, for everyone is touched by this complex legacy of slavery.
Thus we create a selective history: The Mayflower is me, the slave ship Brooks is them; freedom fighters at Valley Forge is me, freedom fighters at Southampton is them; freedom is me, slavery is them. Even as we make slavery a surrogate for race, it becomes tangled in the old, familiar emotional briar patch. Discussions of slavery become muted by fears of embarrassment both personal and political, and this is not simply a matter of good manners. More than 130 years since slavery's demise, the question of slavery still sits on tender and sensitive grounds--so sensitive that some Americans cannot even say the word. For some it is "servants," or "servitude," a recognition of subordination but an obscuration of the slave's unique status as property. For others, it is "enslaved people" or perhaps more awkward still, "enslaved circumstance." Here is recognition of the slave's humanity and a pointed denial of the slave's consent to enslavement, but also a similar beclouding of the unique meaning of property in man. The struggles over nomenclature reveal that Americans-white and black-feel they need to address the question of slavery and understand it but don't know exactly how. The task of incorporating the history of slavery into the history of slavery's sacred ground, the task with which the National Park Service in Civil War battlefields have been charged, is complicated and confounding. It would be a great mistake to underestimate it, either in importance or difficulty.
What should the American people know about slavery? Obviously, there are many things. Some issues relate specifically to battlefields; some are more general. Let me initiate the discussion by making a few points. First, the story of slavery in the United States has two large and, in some ways, contradictory messages. Their contradictory nature is precisely what makes slavery such a difficult subject to appreciate. The first of those messages is that slavery is a physical and a psychological imposition, and that physical and psychological imposition stands at the heart of the history of slavery. The history of slavery in the United States is a hideous history of obscene violence, of mutilations, beatings, rapes, and murders, of the forcible separation of husbands and wives, and parents and children, of husbands forced to see wives abused, and of wives forced to do unspeakable things. It is the story of power over liberty; it is the story of a people victimized and a people brutalized.
But, there is a second theme for the story of slavery that is not the history of victimization and is not the history of brutalization. If slavery was violence and imposition, if slavery was death, slavery was also life. Former slaves did not surrender to the imposition, physical and psychological. On the narrowest of grounds, in the most difficult of circumstances, they created and sustained life in the form of family, churches, schools, and associations of all kinds. These organizations-clandestine and fugitive, fragile and unrecognized-created language and literature, history and aesthetics, as well as a philosophy expressed in story, music, dance, and cuisine. Slaves produced leaders and ideologies that continue to inform American life into the twenty-first century. Indeed, the creative legacy of slavery is so great that we must concede that if slavery is the darkest part of America's past, it may also be the most creative part of America's past. It is almost impossible to understand anything about American culture without understanding something about the creative legacy of slavery.
Thus, slavery cuts both ways. It is both a profound violation of our most fundamental ideals- ideals stated in our national charter. It is a nightmare from which we as a people have yet to escape. But slavery was also a period of great cultural creativity and reaffirmation of life. It was the story of heroic determination, not merely to survive but also to create lives worthy of the men and women who made them and then passed them on to their posterity.
How do we tell both stories? Let me put it differently. How do you of the National Park Service tell both stories? I think the answer is not easily. To tell the story of slavery merely in terms of captivity, violence and death, the destruction of families and the assault on culture is to tell only half the story. It leaves out the heroic struggle of men and women under extraordinary duress. If we do so, we can rightly be accused of denying the slave's humanity, and of denying the slave's ability to take control of part of their own lives and, indeed, to make their lives their own. On the other hand, to speak merely of the slave's agency and creativity is to deny the suffering that accompanied slavery, and to be rightly accused of idealizing and of romanticizing the institution. Put another way, how could things be so good if they were so bad? Or, if things are so bad, how could they be so good?
Much of the recent, excellent history of American slavery attempts to walk the fine line between these two themes. One way of avoiding the trap of telling one side or the other is to recognize that slavery was not a fixed relationship. It was a historical relationship. This means that the institution was always changing; that there is no one slave experience. Historicizing slavery helps us navigate between the history of slavery as victimization and death and the history of slavery as creativity arid life. For slaves were constantly struggling with their owners, negotiating between those who had big power and those who had little power. It was precisely the struggle which allowed slaves to shape, and, upon rare occasion, control their lives and even to shape the lives of their owners and others in American society.
Such a perspective puts us in good stead when we turn to the primary task of the National Park Service-the interpretation of battlefields of the Civil War. For slavery stood at the heart of the conflict between North and South, the coming of the war, the war itself, and its ultimate outcome. These are large subjects. Certainly, there is a long tradition to the argument that slavery was not the cause of the war, but that the war's origins were in a sectional conflict that revolved around issues of economy: tariffs, railroads, and monetary policy. Others have employed the matter of constitutional principles, the rights of state and nation, while still others have focused on the failure of political judgment, bumbling politicians and fanatics who rejected a tradition of compromise. I believe all of these arguments are mistaken, not so much because there were not fanatics and bumblers-plenty of those; and not so much because constitutional principles were not significant-constitutional principles had enormous weight in antebellum America; not so much because economic interests did not have consequences-because they had enormous significance. All of those matters were important in the conflict between North and South. But, ultimately, they were all linked to the issue of slavery. Very few men and women stood for states' rights in the abstract. Many more understood states' rights as a means to promote or to protect their own cause. When Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, declared that slavery was the cornerstone of his new nation, he knew whereof he spoke. And, certainly, slaves understood the significance of Stephens' truth.
It is precisely for that reason which makes it impossible to separate the history of America's sacred ground from the question of slavery. By appreciating the connections between war and freedom, we then can understand that slaves knew from the beginning that a Union victory was imperative for themselves and for their future. From the beginning of the war, slaves ignored the pronouncements of Republican politicians that the war was only to preserve the Union or that it was a white man's war, which had nothing to do with them. Slaves threw their full weight behind the federal cause, even when federal officials denied them a place. By the thousands, they volunteered their services as teamsters, stable hands, boatmen, butchers, bakers, cooks, nurses, orderlies, laundresses, or simple laborers. Hundreds of thousands of black men and women worked for the Union army. Ultimately, more than 135,000 slave men served as soldiers in the Union army, and others as sailors in the Union navy.
Deep in the Confederacy, where slaves were unable to escape to the federal lines and where black men were unable to enlist in the Union Army, black people did what they could to undermine the Confederacy and to strengthen the Union. By supporting the Union with their loyalty, with their labor, and with their lives, slaves provided crucial information, muscle, and blood for the federal war effort. No one was more responsible for transforming the war from a war for union to a war for freedom and, in the process, smashing their own shackles, than the slaves themselves. In short, to leave the subject of slavery out of the story we tell on our sacred grounds denies a large part of our history.
To be sure, slaves did not free themselves. Adding them to the history of the Civil War does not deny or diminish the part others played in the story. But it does, however, change the story. Take for example the case of "Billy Yank," historian Bell Irwin Wiley's name for the common Union soldier. Arriving in the South with little direct knowledge of slavery, tinged, perhaps, with an abiding contempt for black people, federal soldiers were greeted by slaves eager to test their owners' fulminations against Yankee abolitionists and black Republicans. Union soldiers soon found their camps inundated with slaves seeking sanctuary, offering to assist them in any way possible. In so doing, slaves took considerable risks. They not only faced sure punishment if they were captured, but they risked harm from Union soldiers themselves, who often turned on slaves violently. Still, some gained entry into federal encampments where they found work aplenty. The slave's labor cut to the heart of the soldier's military mission. Slaves were pleased to pass along information about Confederate troop movements, to assist in the construction of fortifications, and to guide Union troops through a strange countryside. Just as often, slaves ingratiated themselves to federal soldiers in ways that had no particular military significance. They forged for firewood, cooked food, and cleaned campsites, performing dozens of onerous jobs that otherwise would have fallen to the soldiers themselves. Northern soldiers did not have to be freesoilers, abolitionists, or even radical egalitarians to appreciate the value of the slave's services.
Soldiers were dismayed to discover that they had violated orders by harboring fugitives, many of whom had arrived in federal camps in tatters bearing marks of abuse. They grew increasingly angry when the men and women who cleaned their camps and cooked their food were dragged off to certain punishment by angry slaveholders. Indeed, even those soldiers who stoutly maintained that they fought only for Union bitterly resented being implicated in the punishment of men and women who had done nothing more than do them a good turn in exchange for a blanket or a few morsels of food. "I don't care a damn for the darkies," declared a Midwestern volunteer in March 1862. "I could not help send a runaway nigger back. I am blamed if I could." The blame that many Union soldiers felt at being implicated in slavery was complicated and compounded by the outrage they experienced when they discovered that these very same men and women who had been returned to bondage were being mobilized against them by their Confederate enemy. It seemed folly for the Union soldiers to deny themselves the resources that their enemy was using freely, and, indeed, assisting their enemy in maintaining those resources.
The lessons learned by common soldiers in the early years of the war were soon passed on to the officers. The protection and employment offered to fugitive slaves by individual northern soldiers created numerous conflicts between slaveholders and the Union army, embroiling officers in a disagreeable contest whose resolution required considerable time and effort. Slaveholders, many of them flaunting their Unionist credentials, demanded that northern troops return fugitives who were taken into their encampments. When regimental officers would not or could not comply, slave owners blustered about their connections that reached to the highest levels in Washington. Generally, the bluster was just that, but, often enough, officers in the Union army felt the weight of high authority upon them. Officers in the middle ranks not only bore the brunt of the soldier's frustration with federal policy but also the sting of official abuse from on high. Many apologists for federal policies soon came to believe they contradicted their experience and good sense. Field officers found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to enforce what they disdained. They objected particularly to being compelled to doing the slave master's dirty work, and they particularly disliked being demeaned before their own men. The high-handed demand of slaveholders turned many federal officers into the slave's champions.
When federal policy toward fugitive slaves finally changed during the summer of 1862, one could almost hear an audible sigh of relief from the Union officers' corps. "This whole thing of guarding rebels' property is played out," wrote one officer. "We have guarded their homes and property long enough. The only way to put down this rebellion is to hurt the instigators and abettors of it. Slavery must be cleaned out." Faced with the conflicting demands between their own needs for labor and the requirements of federal policy, the desire to protect hapless fugitives and the demand of unionist slave owners, many Union soldiers and officers searched for a way to stand clear of the entire business or, in the idiom of the day, to be neither slave catcher nor slave stealer.
Union policy toward slaves beginning in the fall of 1861 and running through the spring of 1862 was designed to eliminate what one officer called the "devilish nigger question" by excluding fugitives from Union lines. But slaves refused to surrender their belief that the federal army would be a refuge from slavery. They would not let federal soldiers evade the central reality of the war. Slaves continued to press themselves on soldiers, bringing gifts of food, information, and, of course, labor. There always seemed to be a few Yankee soldiers-for whatever reason-who would shelter runaway slaves and a handful who encouraged slave flight. Even when the fugitives were denied entry into federal lines, they camped outside, perhaps just far enough to avoid expulsion by federal commanders but just close enough to avoid capture by Confederate soldiers and sympathizers. Meanwhile, they were alert to ways to turn the military conflict to their own advantage, and slaves continued to search the seams of federal policy looking for an opening-the ascent of a sympathetic commander or a crisis that might inflate the value of their knowledge or their muscle. They learned the letter of the law so that some could recite passages from memory the House Resolution of July 1861, the additional Article of War of March 1862, the First Confiscation Act of August 1861, or the Second Confiscation Act of July 1862, all of which made it much easier for slaves to remain with Union troops.
Time and time again, slaves forced federal officers and their soldiers to make choices; choices that became easier as the Union army need for labor grew. Change came-not all at once-but it came. The lessons that slaves taught individual soldiers on the ground, in their encampments, and in the border States ascended the ranks of the federal chain of command, and, by November 1861, they had reached Lincoln's cabinet for the first time. Secretary of War Simon Cameron publicly endorsed the policy to arm slaves to fight for the Union army. Lincoln quieted Cameron and packed him off to Russia as United States ambassador. But the slaves continued undeterred nonetheless.
This slow shift of federal policy gained momentum as the Union army penetrated more deeply into the Confederacy, where the slaveholders were not reluctant Unionists but outright rebels. In these circumstances, many field commanders became quick learners. Their respect for the old order yielded to a willingness to challenge the rights of slave masters and, finally, to a firm determination to destroy slavery. Others, of course, learned more slowly, more imperfectly, and, some learned not at all. The latter found few promotions or active commands. By the summer of 1862, Abraham Lincoln made it clear that he too would not be left behind.
Integrating this story of the slave's struggle and the slave's action-their failures and their successes-into the story of our sacred ground is not a task that should be seen as something simply to attract additional visitors, be they black or white, to our battlefields. The task before us is not to politicize our history. The task is not to make our history more politically correct. It is not even to assure funding of the battlefields in an often politically poisonous environment. The task is to interpret history in a way that is more inclusive, to make a better history, and a richer history. It is to make a history in which all Americans can see themselves, so that the past may, at long last, be past.
Questions and Answers
Question: We know that the Emancipation Proclamation only legally had an effect on slaves in the areas that were under rebellion. But the actual effect of the Proclamation must have been greater, since many people thought it had freed slaves. I was wondering if you had any comment on the actual impact of the Emancipation, as opposed to its legal effects.
Answer: The Emancipation Proclamation had an extraordinary impact far beyond its legal bounds. It was said by the great historian, Richard Hofstadter, that the Emancipation Proclamation had the moral impact of a bill of lading. Lincoln, despite his enormous abilities with language, made the Emancipation Proclamation an extraordinarily flat, passionless document. I think Lincoln did that because he understood that the Emancipation Proclamation did not need any rhetorical help. It was powerful enough standing on its own.
The most significant part of the Emancipation Proclamation was Lincoln 's willingness to accept black men in the Union Army. That distinguished the Emancipation Proclamation from his earlier preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It distinguished it from the Second Confiscation Act, which otherwise had much the same effect as the Emancipation Proclamation. It was the willingness to take black men in the Union Army, which began almost immediately in January 1863 with the recruitment of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, as well as black regiments in Connecticut and Rhode Island, which transformed the federal army. The black men who entered the Union Army, more than anyone else, were the people who transformed the war for the Union into a war for freedom. They made it clear that they and their families certainly were not going to be slaves. Eventually Congress acquiesced to their understanding.
Question: Do you believe the subject of slavery should be integrated into all Civil War interpretations, or is it better to offer a separate or more expansive program specifically about slavery?
Answer: I think what the practice of history is about, is asking questions, then trying to answer questions, and then trying to connect the answers. The more connections the better your history. That is, the more seamless, the larger the amount of information you can encompass in the understanding of any phenomena, the better that history. This is true universally. It certainly is true about the question of slavery in the American Civil War. This combination is not a mixture. It is a compound in the scientific sense. In other words, the issue we have been discussing cannot be separated. We do not even have a choice whether to integrate the history of slavery into the history of the Civil War. The history of slavery is part of the Civil War and the history of the Civil War is part of the his tory of slavery. So, these things are in fact of one piece.
Question: You said that slavery was not a shame. Wasn't slavery degrading in itself, and wasn't there degradation and shame in slavery by its very nature?
Answer: Yes, however, I was trying to distinguish between slavery's purposes and slavery's effect. Slavery had many effects. It certainly was degrading. Both slave and master, as such, understood that. But in its origins and original purpose, the function of slavery was not to degrade. Slaves were not dragged across the Atlantic Ocean for the purpose of ridicule, shame, degradation, or dehumanization. They were dragged across the Atlantic Ocean to work. This fact is critical to understanding slavery and its function in American society. Once slavery was established, it touched everyone and eventually became the center not simply of a system of labor but of a way of life. This is why slavery was so difficult to eliminate and why it eventually took a civil war to destroy. It is also why slavery has cast such a long shadow over our own society, and why, in fact, we are here today to discuss the integration of slavery into our history on our sacred ground.
Question: Would you please comment on the black soldiers who fought for the Confederacy? It seems a bit of a controversy in that they were fighting for a country that was keeping them in bondage.
Answer: Well, the safest thing to say about this controversy is that it is a non-controversy. I do not believe there were many such black men in Confederate ranks. We know there were over 200,000 black men who served in the Union army and navy--0ver 135,000 of them were slaves. There were at most a handful of slaves who served in the Confederate army. These men identified with the Confederacy for a variety of reasons, mostly because they had long identified with white society. In the last month of the war, there was an attempt to recruit slaves into the Confederate army en masse. There was, in fact, legislation passed to that effect. There is very lime evidence that any slaves were recruited. It is very difficult to imagine that anybody, whatever their color or whatever their status, joining the Confederate Army in March 1865.
Question: Do you believe that the already poorly funded interpretation programs at the National Parks will be severely curtailed by taking resources away from the literal mission, and, in part, supplanting that with the general social histories? If that is the case, why interpret the battlefield?
Answer: From my experience, there never is enough money to do the job. I presume it is true with National Parks as well. But I also understand that this is not a zero sum game-that by attending one matter you cannot attend another. Rather by doing both things (address the history of the battle site and the history of slavery) you will be able to do both of them better. You can do them more efficiently in an intellectual sense in that you will be able to tell a larger history. It does not appear to me that it is possible to tell the history of the battlefields without telling the history of slavery.
Question: You talked about the future, and we also know that historians deal with the future. I would like to know what you think this speech would sound like if given twenty-five years from now. What changes might you expect in our understanding of slavery?
Answer: I have no better ability to predict the future than anybody in this audience. What I would say is that I think what we see in this moment, which in some ways is represented by the task assigned the National Park Service, an opportunity to change our history and to change American posterity. Right now we don't have any models for talking about slavery. I expect in twenty-five years we will.
Question: Slavery as a legalized institution collapsed in late nineteenth-century Brazil without a war. Is the Brazilian discourse on race different than the United States discourse? If so, how?
Answer: The Brazilian discourse is very different than ours. Brazilians define race differently than we do. We are believers in the one-drop rule. Brazil has a very different definition of who is black and who is white. In doing this, they draw upon their experience, one example of which is that there was no civil war in Brazil to end slavery in 1888. But there was an enomlous amount of violence. Indeed, my own studies of emancipation in comparative perspective have yet to locate a place in which slavery ended without violence. Slavery is an institution of violence, and the sad truth is that an institution of violence cannot end without violence itself. And this was true in Brazil and the Brazilians, like ourselves, paid and are paying the price.
Suggestions for further reading:
Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
_______, et at., eds. Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.
Blassingame, John. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Frey, Sylvia. Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Random House, 1976.
Gutman, Herbert G. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom. 1750-1925. New York: Random House, 1977.
Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619-1877: New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.
Levine, Lawrence. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Rose, Willie Lee, ed. A Documentary History of Slavery in North America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999.
Starnpp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.