Patrick Rael. Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777–1865. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015. 416 p. (paperback), ISBN 978-0-8203-4839-1.
Reviewed by Sebastian Jobs
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (January, 2016)
P. Rael: Eighty-Eight Years
Books that can boil down their research agenda to a very simple question are rare, but this one succeeds anyway. In his study Patrick Rael aims to make an argument about the following question: Why did it take so long to abolish slavery in the United States, the country that set an important milestone for the concept of personal liberty within the Atlantic world? The period of eighty-eight years that is referred to in the book’s title marks the time it took between the first constitutional abolition in an American state (Vermont in 1777) to the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. constitution (1865) that outlawed the “peculiar” institution of slavery for the entire Union. One has to admit that this kind of plan could easily go wrong and end up in an American “Sonderweg” argument. Not so Rael’s book. He carefully tracks the rise of an abolitionist ideology within the United States following the American Revolution and compares it to developments concerning slavery in other parts of the Atlantic world.
As the title already suggests, the book is organized chronologically. Beginning with the debates following the Declaration of Independence (1776) the author lays his finger in the wound of the revolutionaries and elicits a conflict the so-called Founding Fathers faced from the beginning. On the one hand, they were ardent advocates of individual freedom; on the other hand, they would not grant the same degree of political self-determination to the individuals that worked for them as slaves. Rael does not solve this dilemma by attesting those involved in these debates some kind of schizophrenic mind-set. He rather shows how the concept of property rights bridged those two claims and assumptions. The same way they defended their commerce against taxation through the English crown, slave-holding Americans (mainly from the South) would not give up their right to own slaves, whom they regarded as chattel. Rael shows that the authors of the American constitution rather avoided conflict about the issue and settled for a compromise: neither did they expand slavery nor did they call it into question altogether, thus preparing the ground for “a house divided” over the end of slavery. The author follows a narrative of political conflict and maneuvers between different parties, between Northern and Southern states, between metropolitan areas where whit anti-slavery societies grew increasingly discontent with the impact of bonded labor and more rural areas that heavily relied on the work of slaves. He covers the history of constitutional and political rifts throughout the 19th century: the nullification crisis, the annexation of Texas, or ultimately the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation (1863).
So far so good, that is the classic narrative of political abolition. Yet, at the same time, Rael leads his readers to a broader understanding of emancipation. He very convincingly urges them to consider the influence African American solidarity and institutions had on the debate about abolition, thus highlighting black agency in the political process. Starting with the contribution of free black advocates in the North who started to claim the rights of “colored people” as early as the 1790s he shows how African Americans tried to take matters of liberty into their own hands: as violent revolutionaries, as pastors and church-goers, as teachers, or as journalists. Rael tracks how Northern black abolitionists, beginning in the 1830s, started to invoke the Haitian revolution and the “specter of collective violence” (S. 200) as powerful warning signs for what could happen if the problem “slavery” would not be solved. Finally, the author shows how black soldiers during the Civil War fought for the Union Army and, thus, had a chance to actively oppose slavery. Therefore, Rael is able to counter a narrative of gradual emancipation that runs the danger of describing the end of slavery as a benevolent act of white slaveholders from the South and political activists from the North. He portrays African Americans as agents of emancipation, instead, not as mere recipients or passive bystanders. It is one of the great strengths of this book to show how ‘black’ and ‘white’ movements to end slavery – although different in means and rhetoric – influenced and depended upon each other. Yet, Rael is not as romantic as to celebrate the end of slavery as a universal success and a happy ending. In extending his narrative beyond the Civil War and Reconstruction, he also addresses the shortcomings of emancipation: “It is cliché but true: slavery died, racism persisted.” (S. 327)
Last but not least, to add a third frame of reference, the author brings together the history of political arguments in the United States, while he also checks these developments against the background of slavery in the Atlantic world – such as the Haitian Revolution or the British abolitionist movement – thus adding a transnational layer to this American debate.
This is a very smart book and, even more, it is also well written. Not only is Rael’s academic prose both nuanced and elegant, the thematic structures within the chapters break with the strict chronological order and open up the topic for a greater variety of approaches. Thus, Rael achieves something remarkable: on the one hand, he builds a panorama of research perspectives where even those experts who thought they had already seen and read it all will find something new and interesting. On the other hand, he makes a complicated topic also accessible to an audience that has not yet had a chance to familiarize themselves with the matter of slavery and abolition in the United States. Of course, this reviewer would have been interested in seeing more of the everyday implications of the debates Rael so elaborately describes and interprets. While Rael mainly focuses on the history of political and social institutions (e.g. parties, schools, churches), others have shown how slavery and abolition were interwoven with aspects of everyday life that are not covered by such a study. Yet, the way Rael’s book is set up, as an intellectual and social history, it works perfectly and is certainly a must-read for those interested in the history of abolition in the United States.
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Sebastian Jobs. Review of Rael, Patrick, Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777–1865.
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