Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States

Article excerpt

The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States. By Ira Berlin. (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2015. Pp. [viii], 227. $22.95, ISBN 978-0-674-28608-5.)

Perhaps more than any other historian, Ira Berlin is responsible for shaping our vision of Civil War emancipation. As the founding editor of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, he was the driving force behind Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, a portable archive of federal records documenting the drama of slavery's collapse in wartime. Over the years, the volumes in the series and the book of interpretive essays that accompanies them have served every historian writing on emancipation, and they are in many ways the basis of the field's shared knowledge of the emancipatory process.

Thus, it is a good measure of our current historiographical moment that Berlin's new book abandons the war years as it strives to offer a fresh look at how slavery came to an end in the United States. The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States takes place largely above the Mason-Dixon Line and adopts an expansive chronological framework, starting in the late eighteenth century. With this approach, Berlin joins other prominent scholars, like Steven Hahn and Stephen Kantrowitz, who have also sought to move beyond an exclusive focus on the Civil War as the main act of American emancipation and reposition the 1861-1865 period as one episode, albeit a crucial one, in the black struggle for freedom, equality, and citizenship. This temporal approach is interlaced with a new geographical framing, in which the end of slavery in the United States is part of a transnational story that includes both the abolition of slavery in Britain in 1772 and Brazilian emancipation.

Berlin's slender volume is composed of three essays that originated as the Nathan I. Huggins Lectures at Harvard University. The first essay rejects the common narrative that the antislavery movement in America progressed in "stages," with major breaks along the way (p. 27). Berlin sees the destruction of slavery progressing not sequentially but simultaneously, "as the opponents of slavery warred on all fronts. To a remarkable degree, antislavery sentiment remained constant over the long haul" (p. …

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