The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation

In The Nation, Eric Foner’s review of David Brion Davis’s book “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation” is a great exercise in ‘reading between the lines’:

As [Davis] points out, although barely remembered today, colonization was a mainstream movement before the Civil War. Prominent white Americans from Jefferson to Lincoln (at least until he issued the Emancipation Proclamation) believed that with the end of slavery, blacks should be encouraged or even required to leave the United States. Moreover, a remarkable number of black leaders at one time or another embraced the idea of seeking a homeland elsewhere. For its white advocates, colonization would remove a people who had become so brutalized that they posed a menace to the social order if allowed to remain in this country in freedom. For blacks, separation from the American environment would allow former slaves to overcome the psychological effects of being treated like animals.

For supporters of colonization, white and black, Davis argues, the biblical narrative of Exodus imbued the idea with millennial significance. More recent precedents also existed: the expulsion of Moors and Jews from Spain and the deportation of the Acadians from the Canadian Maritime Provinces by Great Britain in 1755, not to mention Indian removal in the United States. A considerable number of American blacks migrated to Haiti in the 1820s, although many returned after finding that island nation less of a utopia than they had hoped. As conditions for free blacks in the United States worsened in the 1850s, emigrationist sentiment revived. If black Americans, in the words of the black abolitionist Martin Delany, constituted a “nation within a nation,” then logic suggested that they deserved a nation state of their own. Davis makes the point that unlike white colonizationists, Delany did not advocate the emigration of the entire black population; indeed, he and others insisted that the establishment of a powerful black nation overseas would help those who remained in the United States to win citizenship rights.

Nonetheless, Davis acknowledges, emigration was always a minority impulse among black Americans. Liberia, established in West Africa by the American Colonization Society, failed to attract a large number of colonists. (Those who did go, he writes, frequently acted like “high-handed imperialists” in their relations with the native population.) The establishment of the Colonization Society in 1816 produced an immediate backlash among ordinary free blacks, leading them to assert their Americanness and to articulate a vision of the United States as a land of equality before the law, where rights did not depend on color, ancestry or racial designation. The black mobilization against colonization became a key factor in the rise of a new, militant abolitionism in the 1830s. Compared with previous anti-slavery organizations, mostly led by whites and promoting gradual emancipation, the new abolitionism was different: immediatist, interracial, and committed to making the United States a biracial nation of equals.

Davis offers a thoughtful discussion of the role of free blacks in abolitionist movements and their relations with slaves. That relationship differed from society to society, but free blacks everywhere occupied an ambiguous and marginal place in slave systems. Disdained by whites, they often tried to establish an identity separate from slaves. But sometimes, as in revolutionary Haiti or the northern United States, they made common cause with those in bondage.

Free blacks were “the key to slave emancipation,” but in a double sense. Their work was essential for the abolitionist movement, but they bore a great burden—demonstrating in their own lives the slaves’ capacity for freedom. Consequently, Davis argues, even the most militant abolitionists chastised many free blacks for poverty, intemperance and violations of the Sabbath. They worried that evidence of the impact of “dehumanization” on the black population might make emancipation seem inadvisable.

David Walker, whose Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829) in some ways launched the new abolitionism, spent part of that radical manifesto berating slaves and free blacks for accepting and internalizing their inferior status. Frederick Douglass called on free blacks to prove themselves “men” by working hard, rising in the social scale and, during the Civil War, enlisting in the Union Army. Unlike some recent scholars, however, Davis stresses that rather than being a conservative impulse—an attempt to impose elite values on a Dionysian lower-class black culture—the campaign for “racial uplift” formed part of the movement to demonstrate to white America the fitness of black people for freedom. Its aim was “empowerment,” not repression.

In this context, the Haitian Revolution took on sharply different meanings among whites and blacks. The very existence of a black nation founded by a slave revolution challenged every slave regime in the hemisphere. Among whites, the alleged “horrors” of Haiti, including massacres of white residents, not only produced “alarm and terror” but also offered evidence of the bestial nature of the rebel slaves and the need to strengthen slavery where it still existed. For blacks, free and slave, Haiti was an inspiration. It demonstrated black “manhood,” Douglass would later declare. The example of Haiti inspired the leaders of the Barbados insurrection of 1816, Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy in Charleston in 1822, and slave rebels in Cuba. Walker urged his readers to study the history of Haiti, “the glory of the blacks and terror of tyrants.”

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