How They Stopped Slavery: A New Perspective

Brooklyn Museum
Eastman Johnson: The Ride for Liberty, the Fugitive Slaves, circa 1862

While historians have long countered the myth that slavery was not the central cause of the Civil War, they have clung to the view that the Union’s opposition to slavery developed very slowly and almost reluctantly, largely due to the Republicans’ commitment to the constitutional ban on “interference” with slavery that already existed in slaveholding states. Hence Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation often appears as a sudden, radical action, really out of the blue. Though I long accepted most such interpretations, I have always been puzzled by the so-called First and Second Confiscation Acts, passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862, which have received far too little attention. These acts applied, among others, to armies fighting in the South, to whom slaves might surrender. The 1861 act, for example, held that Confederate properties including slaves were the “lawful subject of prize and capture wherever found.”

Fortunately James Oakes’s Freedom National clarifies the aims of the war with a wholly new perspective. I agree with the eminent historians Eric Foner and James M. McPherson that his book (in Foner’s words) is “the best account ever written of the complex historical process known as emancipation,” though for some reason Oakes omits the complex French and British responses to the Civil War, including the close decision not to intervene and formally recognize the Confederacy.1 But Oakes shows how President Lincoln and other Republican leaders experienced “memory lapse[s]” that contributed to myths that obscured the meaning and impact of the two Confiscation Acts, that portrayed Lincoln as a “reluctant emancipator,” and that erased much of the history of emancipation before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863.

The basic theme of Oakes’s long and extremely detailed book is that Lincoln’s new Republican Party was a strong and united antislavery party both before and throughout the war, a party dedicated to the proposition that defining humans as chattel property was a violation of the “freedom principle” embodied in natural and international law. Republicans held that such chattel bondage was unrecognized in the US Constitution, which defined slaves as “persons held in service,” not property, and was thus restricted within the boundaries of specific Southern states whose laws sanctioned true slavery.

This was the meaning of the slogan “Freedom National, Slavery Sectional,” terms used by the abolitionist Charles Sumner not long after he was elected to the Senate in 1851, terms that extended back to the pivotal British Somerset ruling of 1772, which held that “no master ever was allowed here to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he had deserted from his service, or for any other reason whatever.” The terms also extended back to the natural condition of the populations of Western Europe.

Oakes shows that Republicans had devised well-considered plans for a national assault on slavery, that…

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