How to Understand Slavery

Slavery and Freedom

by Willie Lee Rose, edited by William W. Freehling
Oxford University Press, 224 pp., $17.95

Who would have predicted, back amid the storms of 1975 or thereabouts when American historians were still smiting each other over the historical meaning of slavery, that only a half-dozen years later the waters could have become as deadly calm as they seem to be now? I can’t say exactly why this is so, or how long it will last.* But meanwhile a voice is heard above these waters, speaking with precision and in tones of quiet reason. It is that of Willie Lee Rose; the voice has been with us for quite a while, and we have always known the sound of it. But it was never very loud, or nearly as insistent as most of the others, and we can hear it better now.

A volume of Mrs. Rose’s essays, several hitherto unpublished, together with material from the large study she had started work on prior to the stroke she suffered in the summer of 1978, has just been brought out with the editorial assistance of her Johns Hopkins colleague William Freehling. We are thus free to listen, really for the first time without interruption, to what one of our best historical minds has been thinking on the subject of slavery over the past fifteen years. So before the storm blows up again, let us strain to catch everything, including the overtones, and we will find that what we have heard was vastly worth waiting for.

Having these pieces all together, and going through them at one stretch, makes the entire subject—considering all that has been said about it—look strikingly new and different. I would go further and say that if an entirely new exhaustive survey of American slavery were to be undertaken now, what we have here comes closest to anything else I can think of as the right agenda for how it ought to proceed. This is a very large assertion, and I shall be taking up the rest of this essay trying to prove it.

I am struck by two characteristics of Mrs. Rose’s writing and thought, two preoccupations that reveal themselves in everything she has done here. One of them is the urge for particularity. In the light of all the schematic abstractions that have emerged from the work of the past generation, the importance of this point should really be allowed to sink in. She has heard all the arguments and has absorbed them; nothing is going to be thrown overboard. But she still has to know what it was actually like. The world she writes about has a texture and an idiom; there are sights, sounds, and circumstances, and it is full of people. She won’t quite trust anything that doesn’t square with it. Her other concern is for time, for what happened to slavery in the course of it.

Slavery existed in America for well over two hundred years. It was very different in the nineteenth century from what it had been in the eighteenth. Why, and how? Most…

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