Review of Slavery and Emancipation by Rick Halpern and Enrico Dal Lago (eds)

Eras Journal – Corbould, C: Review of “Slavery and Emancipation”, Ed. Rick Halpern and Enrico Dal Lago

Rick Halpern and Enrico Dal Lago (eds), Slavery and Emancipation,
Blackwell Publishing , Malden, Mass., 2002
Isbn 0 63121 735 5

What was the nature of slavery in North America? This question, or some aspect of it, has occupied not a small portion of the literature devoted to the history of the United States written since the mid-1970s. In their new book, and second collection edited together, Rick Halpern and Enrico Dal Lago provide a succinct introduction to many areas of debate within the history of slavery and emancipation.

The collection is divided into fourteen chapters, each containing three primary documents and one article, taken from the work of a historian from the decade preceding publication. Eight chapters are devoted to the antebellum South, three to the colonial period, one to slavery and the American Revolution, and two to the Civil War and emancipation. The articles are very well edited, running at about only twenty pages apiece, yet conveying the main thrust of each historian’s argument and a taste of the evidence on which it relies (the endnotes have been retained). Some of the best-known historians of American slavery are included, in particular Philip D. Morgan, Ira Berlin, Eugene D. Genovese and Drew Gilpin Faust, alongside younger scholars such as Kathleen M. Brown, Mark M. Smith, Walter Johnson and Brenda E. Stevenson.

The editors argue in the introduction for the importance of seeing slavery and emancipation within the same frame. They hope that the collection will provide a companion piece to Peter Kolchin’s synthetic American Slavery, 1619-1877. It is thus a surprise to find relatively little material on emancipation: the final two chapters, and one earlier excerpt from Kolchin that includes a couple of pages on the end of slavery in the North. Also surprising is the omission of material on the slaves’ attitudes toward freedom. If anyone saw slavery and emancipation in the same frame, it was the slaves, whose rich culture was at least partly based on dreams of freedom, and whose views of themselves as non-servile human beings began in slavery and continued into freedom.

The title of the book, rather than ‘Slavery and Freedom’, has the advantage of limiting the reader’s expectation as to the length of time covered. It also perhaps says something about the focus of the book. The word ’emancipation’ connotes the granting of freedom to slaves, the recent statements about people ’emancipating themselves’ notwithstanding. As the work by Ira Berlin and others, excerpted in the final chapter, has shown, slaves were instrumental in transforming the Civil War from one about keeping the Union together into one that was about freedom. Neither slaves’ views, nor the historiographical debate as to the degree of autonomy of the slave community versus the centrality of the master-slave relationship, get sufficient air-time in this collection. This is reflected in the choice of ’emancipation’ rather than ‘freedom’ in the title.

It seems churlish to criticise a book of this sort for what it does not include; collections by their nature require omission. But given the stated aim that the book “serve as a text for courses on slavery and emancipation without the need for additional material” (p. 1), the omissions are too many not to mention. The text includes very little material, and no primary documents, on slavery in the North. Of the slave voices that are included, Frederick Douglass appears in three chapters. The difficulty of writing a history of slaves’ experiences, ideas and views is well documented, but there is no inclusion here of a discussion of methods that historians use to write about the slaves themselves.

This then leads to a final problem that results from a decision to include historical interpretations written since 1992. Although all of the work included is excellent, and well-edited, it means omitting some of the richest work on slave culture (John Blassingame, Herbert Gutman, Charles Joyner, Lawrence Levine, George Rawick), and one of the best texts, still, on slaves’ attitudes to the Civil War and freedom, and their role in shaping the broader ideas about freedom: Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long.

Halpern and Dal Lago’s collection will be very useful for students of American slavery and freedom in America’s South, because of the quality of the excerpts, the way in which they have been edited and the sheer range of the debates presented. It could not, however, serve as a lone textbook, because it does not provide enough opportunity for students to evaluate competing historical interpretations, nor sufficient primary source material for analysis.

Clare Corbould

Department of History, University of Sydney