Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and "Race" in New England, 1780-1860

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Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and "Race" in New England, 1780-1860. By Joanne Pope Melish. (Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press, c. 1998. Pp. xx, 296. $35.00, ISBN 0-8014-3413-0.)

In this ambitious and often compelling study, Joanne Pope Melish seeks to explore in detail, and then to reconfigure, our sense of the meaning of "gradual" emancipation in New England between 1780 and the Civil War. Working with a wide field of sources--from the mundane private transactions recorded in court records to the splashy come-ons of theatrical broadsides--she portrays the consequences of the end of slavery there as far more pernicious than we have been satisfied to think. Melish aims to show that the New England emancipation of African Americans was not so much the end of slavery as the creation of a deep racialist vision and, concurrently, an elaborate fiction about "free" New England that would fuel sectional debate to 1860. Melish argues in particular that the meaning of gradual emancipation is best seen in terms of two interrelated narratives, one that came to dominate accounts of slavery's end in the North, and another notable for its near total absence. The latter missing story is the story of how deeply embedded African American slavery was in the society and economy of early New England.

As legal slavery faded from the social scene in New England in the mid-1820s, southern slavery emerged into a critical glare as never before. This coincidence drove the history of New England slavery out of the national debate, thus also effacing much of the history of New England African Americans, to the point where they themselves did not grasp the importance of their past. The other story, the one told instead, was of a perennially free New England, cradle of American liberty, and fortress against the increasingly evil South. Some of the ground Melish covers is familiar, such as the racial discrimination in political and economic life that constricted African Americans' citizenship. But most of her concerns in this broadly conceived book--the biological construction of African American bodies by white physicians, for example, and the striking images of racial role-reversal in drama, art, and literature--are freshly seen and compellingly interpreted in ways that broaden our understanding of how deep and yet problematic was the bond between racialist ideology and the twin images of free New England and slave South. …