With 1980, the long, intense, yet fruitful historical debate over the nature of slavery comes of age. It was just 21 years ago that Stanley Elkins published his slim book Slavery, which set in motion the most profound and extensive re-examination of a subject ever undertaken by professional historians in the United States. In the course of that exploration of slavery, several of the many books it produced won major prizes and made lasting advances in our understanding of the American past. Since the television presentation of Alex Haley’s Roots, it is clear that slavery has been as engaging a subject to Americans in general as it has been to historians. Why, of all subjects, has slavery been so attractive? If ever there was a dead and unlamented institution, slavery is it. Historians might be expected to be engrossed by it; it is their business, after all, to deal with the outmoded and the outdated. The enormous public interest undoubtedly derives from the fact, however subconsciously it may be felt, that slavery is intimately intertwined with the two great and recurring themes in American history: freedom and equality. There is no more profound denial of freedom than slavery, and in the American context, at least, no more enduring denial of equality than the treatment of blacks by whites.
Leon Litwack, a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, examines slavery in his new book as no previous study has. He looks at slavery at the moment of its death; all other studies have examined it at its height. At slavery’s end, the meaning and character of the institution become clearest. Moreover, that instant in the life of slavery is undoubtedly the most dramatic episode in all of American history. In a matter of a few months some four million human beings who had been born into bondage entered into freedom and began their quest for equality.
Blacks were not the only people to feel the shock of history during those few months in 1865 when emancipation became a reality. Southern whites then lost not only a peculiar and valuable source of labor but a whole way of life as well. Even those Southerners who had never owned slaves now lived in a new social as well as legal relation with blacks. And those Northerners who came to the South as conquerors to enforce the great transformation also felt the shock of novelty. As Litwack points out, few Northerners had ever seen the South before or had ever observed such large numbers of black people. Moreover, not all Northerners welcomed the prospect of so many blacks being free in America. Even Lincoln, as we know, sought for a while to colonize the former slaves outside the limits of the United States. The Cincinnati Enquirer was even harsher in May 1865 when it said, “Slavery is dead, the negro is not, there is the misfortune. For the sake of all parties, would that they were.” And even some Northern antislavery people could be quickly disenchanted when they encountered blacks outside of slavery, as happened with a Methodist preacher who had come South to recruit blacks for the Union army. After less than a year, he talked of resigning because he was “hartily sick of Coaxing niggers to be Soldiers Anymore. They are so trifling and mean they don’t Deserve to be free.”
Litwack’s book recreates, as concretely and personally as a work of history can, the character of these three encounters in the course of the few years between 1863 and 1867. Litwack’s method is to let the former slaves, masters, and others speak for themselves, and to leave aside the issues and problems that the voluminous secondary writings on slavery over the last 20 years have raised. Nonetheless, just because he presents so much fresh, primary material, the book authoritatively addresses several of those issues. The great and inescapable question that Elkins placed at the center of the debate about slavery, namely the impact of bondage on black people, is given an answer by Litwack’s evidence that comes close to being final. Litwack is not the first historian to have taken issue with Elkins’ contention that slavery was so onerous that it transformed blacks into docile, irresponsible, and childish Sambos. But the actual behavior of blacks as they emerged from slavery is surely the most effective way of disproving the Sambo thesis. No contemporary remark is more telling than the words of a former slave as he said goodbye to his master a month after Appomattox. “When you’all had de power you was good to me, and I’ll protect you now. No niggers nor Yankees shall touch you. If you want anything, call for Sambo. I mean, call for Mr. Samuel—that’s my name now.” That there were few Sambos among the slaves is also shown by Litwack in his chapter on the blacks’ relentless pursuit of education and their deep commitment to their religion. For despite the ignorance the slave system demanded, black people emerged into freedom convinced that schooling was the key to their future, second only to the religion which they had fashioned for themselves out of the Christianity imposed on them by their masters, and which had been and would continue to be their surest comfort.
One of the principal evidential bases for Elkins’ contention that slavery made blacks into Sambos was testimony from slaveholders. That Elkins relied on that testimony is also a primary reason why his Sambo thesis proved to be wrong. For, as Litwack shows, white Southerners were astonishingly poor informants about their “people,” as they frequently referred to their slaves. During the early months of emancipation, whites were again and again taken aback by the behavior of the slaves they thought they knew. Over and over again came the lament, as one Virginian phrased it: “Those we loved best, and who loved us best—as we thought—were the first to leave us.” Or hear the bewilderment of a Tennessee woman: “They left without even a good-bye.” On the subject of slave loyalty, as Litwack observes, former slaves and white masters were in unusual agreement: the best treated were the first to leave because they were the ones who felt most sharply the denials imposed by slavery.
Many slaves, of course, did not leave their masters, sometimes because they genuinely felt they were needed by their ruined former owners, or just because they had no other place to go. In some locations emancipation came before the war had ended, a by-product of military operations. One former slave recalled how it happened to him. The master and his wife came out on the porch of the big house, facing their 150 slaves. “You could hear a pin drop, everything was so quiet,” the former slave remembered. After greeting them, the master said simply, “Men, women, and children, you are free. You are no longer my slaves. The Yankees will soon be here.” At that remark, two large armchairs were brought onto the porch and the master and mistress sat down, silently and intently looking down the road to the highway. “In about an hour there was one of the blackest clouds coming up the avenue from the main road,” the former slave remembered. “It was the Yankee soldiers.”
Even when the soldiers arrived at a plantation, however, freedom was not necessarily achieved. “I guess we musta celebrated “Mancipation about twelve times in Harnett County,” a former North Carolina slave recalled many years later. “Every time a bunch of No’thern sojers would come through they would tell us we was free and we’d begin celebratin”. Before we would get through somebody else would tell us to go back to work, and we would go. Some of us wanted to jine up with the army, but didn’t know who was goin” to win and didn’t take no chances.” Even after the war was over, some planters kept the news of freedom from the slaves, until compelled by the army to divulge it.
Although most slaves greeted the announcement of freedom with jubilation, it is one of the great merits of Litwack’s depiction of those years that his account always includes the ambiguities that are inherent in human experience. He reports not only the loyalty that some slaves showed to their former masters, but he also repeats the doubts some had about the value of freedom, for not even slaves are all cut from the same pattern. “The Master he says we are all free,” a former slave recalled how he felt at the time of emancipation, “but it don’t mean we is white. And it don’t mean we is equal. Just equal for to work and earn our own living and not depend on him for no more meats and clothes.”
Whites were surprised by black behavior not only because the favored slaves left, but also because the massive insurrections they feared during the war while the men were away from the plantations never erupted. There were many individual examples of blacks taking reprisals, to be sure, as when a black Union Army sergeant came upon a group of slaves in Virginia relishing the whipping of their former master. “Oh that I had the tongue to express my feelings while standing upon the banks of the James river,” the sergeant later wrote, “on the soil of Virginia, the mother state of slavery, as a witness of such a sudden reverse. The day is clear, the fields of grain are beautiful, and the birds are singing sweet melodious songs, while poor Mr. C. is crying to his servants for mercy.” On the whole, though, most slaves did no more to punish their former masters than to leave.
The lack of uprisings during the war may have been a source of relief for the whites, but to some slaves it was productive of guilt for an opportunity missed. “If every mother’s son of a black had thrown “way his hoe and took up a gun to fight for his freedom along with the Yankees,” complained one black man, “the war’d been over before it began. But we didn’t do it. We couldn’t help stick to our masters.” Later, during Reconstruction, black leaders would cite that same failure to rise as reason why whites should gratefully accept blacks as citizens. And after Reconstruction white leaders like William Mahone in Virginia would use the same fact as justification for the inclusion of blacks in the political life of the South.
Though blacks may not have risen up in rebellion, they nonetheless participated fully in the revolution that ended slavery. All told more than 186,000 blacks served in the Union army constituting nearly 10 percent of the total enrollees. Over three-quarters of them were former slaves. Almost an equal number of blacks also served in nonmilitary capacities from laborers and teamsters to carpenters, cooks, and nurses. Many of these received nothing more for their labor than their keep and their freedom. Even those who served as soldiers had to endure for many months the humiliation of lower pay than white men performing the same duty.
Though the services the blacks performed were recognized at the time as indispensable for victory over the South, the North accepted black soldiers only with reluctance. Lincoln himself at first had deep doubts, saying in 1862, “if we were to arm them I fear that in a few weeks the arms would be in the hands of the rebels.” But the dearth of victories during two years of war changed that, just as the prospect of defeat ultimately moved the Confederacy itself to authorize the arming of the slaves. But when the first black soldiers fell into Confederate hands, many were summarily killed as runaway slaves. At the battle of the Crater, for instance, General William Mahone was unable to stop a subordinate before he had slit the throat of a black Union soldier. In the end, threats from Lincoln to execute Confederate prisoners in reprisal brought the killing of black prisoners to a halt.
If some of the evidence in Litwack’s book is a pointed, though unintended response to Elkins’ Sambo thesis, other evidence in the book can also be interpreted as a similarly unintended rejoinder to Eugene Genovese’s portrayal of the way slaveholders felt about slavery. Because Genovese depicts the slave South as different in its world view or values from the North, he denies that many white Southerners felt any guilt about their holding slaves, even though in other contexts they made frequent references to the high value of freedom. Rather, he contends, they considered slavery no more and no less than a legitimate part of their social order, however at variance bondage may have been with the values and practices of the North or the rest of the western European world. Litwack’s evidence of the widespread fear among whites of slave insurrection does seem to suggest, however, that white Southerners did feel guilty about slavery. For, in expecting the slaves to revolt in the midst of the war, they in effect were admitting that if they had been slaves, they certainly would have risen up and killed their masters when the opportunity arose. A similar conclusion can be drawn from the practice of slaveholders to refer to blacks as their “people” or “servants”; rarely was “slave” used. But perhaps the most telling evidence that white Southerners were at most ambivalent rather than confident about the justice of slavery for blacks is that once the institution was on the way to extinction, no voices were raised in its support. On the contrary, the leaders of the South in the years after Appomattox fell all over themselves to make clear how glad they were that slavery had finally been ended. In the ideology of the New South, slavery was the sole admitted defect in the Old South.
Though white Southerners may have felt guilty about slavery, few of them felt guilty about white supremacy. Americans, Northern as well as Southern, have always made a distinction between opposition to slavery and opposition to racism. As we now recognize, many Northern opponents of slavery were deeply hostile to blacks; Southern abolitionist and Negrophobe Hinton Rowan Helper was not unique, North or South. It is this similarity in feeling about white supremacy, when coupled with the guilt of many white Southerners about slavery, which suggests how deep was the Americanism of Southerners, even as they sought to leave the Union. To recognize that Americanism helps us to understand how the South was able to return to the Union so quickly and so thoroughly once the North had abandoned Radical Reconstruction. It also helps to account for the depth of white Southerners’ resentment over Reconstruction.
Although Litwack’s book has no central thesis or argument, a theme that runs through it is that blacks, too, were first American and only secondarily black. In his preface, Litwack writes that though Africa was certainly echoed in the music, folktales, religion, and kinship patterns of the slaves, “in 1860 they were as American as the whites who lorded over them.” Here, too, though without acknowledging it, Litwack seems to be responding to Genovese, whose Roll, Jordan, Roll was built around the proposition that modern black nationalism began under slavery. In Litwack’s presentation the blacks’ sense of belonging to America was deeply felt. As one of the earliest conventions of freedmen expressed it: “The dust of our fathers mingle with yours in the same grave yards . . .we talk the same language, and worship the same God. . . . This is your country, but it is ours, too; you were born here, so were we; your fathers fought for it, but our fathers fed them.” Or as the black leader John Mercer Langston told a group of blacks in 1866, “We want to understand that we are no longer colored people, but Americans.” The most striking of all expressions of black sentiment on this score was that virtually all of the freedmen’s conventions immediately after emancipation adamantly refused to recommend that the former slaves leave the United States for Africa or any other place. As one freedman told a congressional committee, “if they could live here contented as slaves, they can live here when free. . . .”
The Americanism of the newly freed blacks is also evident in a less direct, but no less pointed way. Litwack writes that he was impressed by “the virtual absence of any substantive economic content” to the appeals and petitions issued by blacks immediately after emancipation. The most that any of the conventions of freedmen asked for by way of compensation for the deprivations experienced during the years of bondage was that those slaves who worked after Jan. 1, 1863—the date when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect—should receive back pay! And even that mild demand was rare. Among the landless mass of blacks there may have been much hope and some expectation that “forty acres and a mule” would be given to the former slaves. But insofar as the black leadership was concerned, no call for the redistribution of land or for compensation of any kind was heard. Nor was this silence on the land question, which later historians have frequently referred to as a fatal omission in the program of Reconstruction, simply a consequence of the timidity of newly emancipated slaves. For, from the earliest days of Reconstruction, blacks had forthrightly demanded equal civil rights with whites, and many months before radical white friends of blacks in the North were prepared to do so, they were already asking for the ballot.
The contrast between forthright demands for political and civil rights, on the one hand, and the absence of demands for economic compensation, on the other, sharply reveal the deepseated Americanism of the newly freed slaves. It was traditionally American to emphasize politics in that way while leaving to individual action the acquisition of property. Political freedom had been the complaint and goal in the revolt from Britain; redistribution of property had not figured at all. Similarly, during the age of Jackson, it was the equalizing of the elective franchise, not the equalizing of goods that attracted the attention of reformers. When Americans have demanded equality they have meant equality of opportunity, not equality of condition. As a convention of black men in South Carolina put it: “We simply ask that we shall be recognized as men; that there be no obstructions placed in our way; that the same laws that govern white men shall govern black men; . . . that no impediments be put in the way of our acquiring homesteads for ourselves and our people. . . .”
As the several quotations already given demonstrate, one of the merits of Litwack’s book is that it retains all the untidiness and ambiguity that inhere in the responses of real men and women to adversity and momentous change. There are no caricatures, no figures larger than life (except those few who truly were heroes or heroines). From extraordinarily rich personal sources, Litwack has woven a compelling evocation of that most dramatic moment in American history, the transition from slavery to freedom. Although the book is written from the point of view of blacks—Litwack himself is white— the sources drawn upon derive from whites and blacks, Northerners and Southerners. The depth and breadth of his impressive research are measured, however inadequately, in the more than 65 closely set pages of notes at the back of the book.
In common with previous historians who have tried to write about slavery from the slaves’ point of view, Litwack had to work with the fact that few slaves left written records. He has relied heavily, therefore, on the interviews conducted by the WPA during the 1930’s among the hundreds of former slaves still living in the South. He candidly acknowledges the several weaknesses of those sources, such as that most of those interviewed would have been children under slavery, yet he contends that when taken along with contemporary sources they are no less reliable than other, more traditional kinds of evidence, which, after all, require careful interpretation, too. In any event, he goes on, the slaves’ recollections of that exquisite moment when freedom came were so deeply etched in memory that even more than half a century later they were still fresh and sharp.
Even if one does accept the validity of testimony of former slaves decades after emancipation, a further question still arises in the mind of a critical reader, a question that really has no definitive answer, though it certainly needs to be asked. How valid are generalizations that are drawn from the piling up of particular examples, for that is the method followed in this book? Even where there are a half dozen or more examples to support a generalization, when measured against the actual number of freed blacks the number is infinitesimal. Or to put the matter another way, for every instance of a slave who did not desert his master, there is usually another of a slave who did. What general conclusion, then, can one draw as to the behavior of slaves immediately after freedom? Litwack does not confront this issue, and I am not sure it can ever be resolved. But to raise it does make evident that this is, methodologically at least, an old-fashioned kind of history. It does not seek to establish patterns of behavior or attitudes by accumulating representative or random samples. Rather it seeks, by collecting many examples, to provide a sense of what the experience of freedom after a life of slavery was like. The question of representativeness is left aside. In its recreation of experience the book succeeds admirably; the many and varied examples produce a sense of immediacy and personal engagement that can never be achieved by a more methodical or quantitative approach to the past. The particularity of the past is reproduced fully and often with touching emotion.
In only one place did I think Litwack let his sympathy with the emancipated seriously weaken his critical interpretation of his evidence. The occasion, though, was rather important. It occurs in a section of the book where Litwack quotes in full four letters from slaves who wrote back to their masters after emancipation. One of the letters is quite subservient in tone, the writer expressing regret for having left at all. But the most dramatic letter of all, and the one of the four which Litwack emphasizes, is a haughty and clever response to a master’s invitation to return. The former slave’s response does not ring true to me. Although the authenticity of the letter has been accepted by other historians besides Litwack, the numerous references to, and asides about the evils of slavery and masters which it contains, make it read like a letter written by an antislavery person who is seeking to put into dramatic form what he or she conceived to be a slave’s complaint against a master.
On the whole, though, the book is a gold mine of personal experiences with, and reactions to, freedom after slavery, setting forth in compelling fashion that historic episode in the history of Americans, white as well as black, Northern as well as Southern. For that great transition marked a significant step toward the realization of the American promise of freedom and equality, a promise that had been denied to blacks at the outset, and which was only half redeemed in 1865. The promise of equality is still in the course of being redeemed.