Over the last forty years, historians of the Civil War era have illuminated how enslaved blacks helped bring about the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and then, two years later, the abolition of slavery. Building on W.E.B. Du Bois’s iconoclastic Black Reconstruction in America, first published in 1935, these studies have described how hundreds of thousands of slaves flocked to Union Army lines, dramatizing and then forcing the issue of freedom, which helped change a war to crush southern secession into a war to destroy slavery. Scholars still emphasize how Lincoln and the Republican Congress shaped these events, and no one disregards the indispensable contributions of Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman and the rest of the Union military. A consensus has emerged, though, that the slaves themselves, as well as free blacks in the North and black soldiers, were decisive in instigating and completing what Du Bois called “this spectacular revolution.”1

Some recent revisions of American history, however, have raised doubts about how spectacular that revolution truly was, to the point of questioning whether it even occurred. The most prominent of these interpretations, intially advanced by 1960s prison abolitionists and a few academics but now ubiquitous, has focused on the Thirteenth Amendment, the constitutional capstone to slavery’s abolition. Pointing to a clause prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime,” this argument, known to its critics as Thirteentherism, calls the amendment a fraud, a supposed blow for freedom that actually enshrined black enslavement in national law. While it appeared to abolish slavery, the Thirteenthers assert, the amendment established constitutional protection for a convict leasing system that was tantamount to slavery and that in time became systemic mass incarceration. Slavery never really died, nor was it intended to die; it simply evolved and was sustained, not despite the Thirteenth Amendment but because of it.2

Whatever its noble intentions in combating contemporary racial injustices, the entire premise of this interpretation is skewed. The notion of the Thirteenth Amendment as deceptively proslavery glosses the historical background—above all, that convict labor dated back well into the colonial era, in all regions, for whites and blacks—as well as the history of the amendment’s framing and ratification, during which racist and in some cases proslavery congressional Democrats nearly killed it. There is no evidence that the amendment’s framers and supporters aimed to subvert its stated abolitionist purpose. The prisoner exemption clause—inherited from earlier national ordinances and state constitutions outlawing slavery—simply recognized state police powers that already existed. White southerners did not need the clause to establish their notoriously racist and brutal convict leasing systems in the 1870s, which indeed included characteristics of slavery. To achieve the equality under the law that Thirteenther critics now claim the amendment repudiated would have required a constitutional abolition of convict labor as well as chattel slavery—a measure that, if proposed, would almost certainly have doomed the abolition amendment among northerners for reasons having nothing to do with slavery.

Though historically dubious, Thirteentherism is rhetorically useful in mobilizing moral repugnance at chattel slavery to protest present-day prison conditions, as if current abuses aren’t sufficient cause for indignation.3 More important, it suffuses righteous protest with the core racialist view of American liberal politics as, the anti-Thirteenther historian Daryl Michael Scott observes, “itself…a species of white supremacy, national in operation and scope.”4

Black Ghost of Empire endorses the Thirteenthers’ view of the amendment, but Kris Manjapra has in mind a much larger indictment. A professor of history at Tufts, Manjapra trenchantly observes that “how slavery ended, not just that it ended, should matter to us.” He proceeds to confront the history of slavery’s demise, beginning in revolutionary America in the late 1700s, and follows it around the globe as far as the Indian subcontinent over the ensuing century. No two emancipations, he allows, were exactly alike, but they shared certain cruel similarities.

Everywhere, Manjapra writes in his introduction, “emancipations provided a failed pathway to justice.” Far from liberating, he contends, they “aggravated slavery’s historical trauma and extended white supremacist rule and antiblackness.” This was not due, he emphasizes, either to “faulty implementation” or to flaws in the process. From the start, emancipation was a “systematic” effort to extend racial oppression and exploitation, the result of “careful planning and international coordination among European and American states over many generations.”

This makes Manjapra’s interpretation sound like a global racist conspiracy theory. So does his contention that the history of emancipation’s failures has, until now, been suppressed—“ghostlined,” in his term—by triumphalist, self-congratulatory white liberal narratives of slavery’s destruction. In fact, as the Du Bois–inspired works indicate, historians long ago renounced one-dimensional mythic celebrations of great white emancipators. Appreciating the momentousness of slavery’s abolition has not blocked reckoning with what the preeminent scholar David Brion Davis called “the origins and damage of antiblack racism,” which strangled hopes that the dawn of abolition might bring racial justice.5 Ghostlining these historians’ conclusions about post-emancipation defeats and regression even as he sometimes cites their work, Manjapra presents his interpretation as a kind of discovery, claiming “the misrecognized, the disavowed, and the ignored historical presences among us.”


Beneath this academic posturing lie long-standing differences over how to interpret the history of slavery and antislavery. One approach emphasizes slavery’s virtually unchallenged authority dating back to classical times, including in the New World beginning with the first European settlements. Slaves resisted and rebelled, but through the 1760s their uprisings were ruthlessly suppressed. Suddenly, though, in the era of the American Revolution, the first semblance of an effective antislavery opposition among whites arose, and a little more than a century later, as a result of the efforts of blacks and antislavery whites, slavery and its once-invincible racist chattel principle had collapsed—despite all its cruel limitations, an astounding development, described by Davis as “a century’s moral achievement that may have no parallel.”

Another approach focuses on those abundant limitations and scorns the white abolitionists (except, perhaps, for a few honorable, frustrated radicals) as half-hearted in their antislavery advocacy, condescending at best toward blacks, too deferential to the slaveholders, and too craven (and, in most instances, too racist) to push more forcefully for equality for the emancipated. The existence of those radicals shows that emancipation might have followed another path, something closer to black liberation, but everywhere the emancipators enacted a formal freedom that was hollow, indeed despotic.

Manjapra’s interpretation takes the second approach a large step further, describing emancipation’s failures as exactly what the emancipators desired. He rests his case largely on the Anglo-American emancipations, to which he devotes two thirds of his historical chapters, and especially on the United States. Far from being haphazard or contingent, he argues, racist emancipations across the Americas drew directly on a gradualist model first enacted in Pennsylvania in 1780. The chief exception to that model, interestingly, was the emancipation—more precisely, the abolition—that followed the American Civil War, the largest of them all, which was immediate and without compensation to the former slaveholders but which still reproduced black subjugation. More than any of the others, these American emancipations, divergent in form but oppressive in outcome, are critical to Manjapra’s analysis. Yet his handling of them points to his book’s larger flaws.

Rebuttals to recent claims about the proslavery origins of the American Revolution commonly invoke how its egalitarian ideals sparked the first abolition measures of their kind anywhere in the world. In some of the emerging independent states, above all Massachusetts, slavery formally ended more or less immediately, without compensation to slaveholders. More commonly, northern state legislatures, beginning with Pennsylvania’s, passed gradual abolition laws. These, too, offered no direct monetary compensation to the enslavers but authorized a far more incremental elimination of slavery. Men, women, and children already in bondage would remain so. Freedom went to children born to enslaved mothers after a certain date, with the provision that they labor as indentured servants to their mothers’ masters for a period that ranged, depending on the state, from eighteen to twenty-eight years for women and twenty-one to twenty-eight years for men.

These first legislative efforts at emancipation did not create anything remotely resembling racial justice or equality, and in saying so Manjapra is on solid if well-trod historical ground. Numerous scholars have described the harsh realities that both free and still-enslaved northern blacks endured under gradual abolition, consigned to the lowest rungs of the social and economic order, menaced by racism that only hardened as the decades passed, and otherwise denied what one group of still-enslaved men in Connecticut called “Liberration” in what was supposed to be “a free contry.”6 Some historians have blamed the laws themselves, amplifying one New Jersey radical abolitionist’s denunciation of gradualism in 1780 as “telling our slaves, we will not do justice unto you, but our posterity shall do justice unto your posterity.”7 In rejecting racist assertions of innate white supremacy, meanwhile, mainstream abolitionists, black and white, contended that the enslaved needed to overcome the deprivations of slavery before they could enjoy the full fruits of freedom. Above all, gradual abolition guaranteed that slavery would endure for decades. Slaves were living in Pennsylvania as late as 1847 and in New Jersey as late as the 1860s.

Manjapra, imputing causes from results, describes these hardships and injustices as proof of the emancipators’ racist and proslavery intentions. Gradual emancipation, he writes, was “designed by slave-owners for slave-owners” in order “to honor the property rights of the slave-owners.” As northern emancipation laws were “born of racist law codes,” he asserts, they “could only have racist outcomes.” Because the slaveowners “exercised ownership over the process itself,” gradual emancipation “confirmed the legitimacy of white property owners to enslave African people.” (He might have added that many white abolitionists, even when they proclaimed racial equality, retained a patronizing attitude toward blacks, to the point of collaborating with black abolitionists while failing to admit them to their abolitionist societies.) Like all the emancipations to come, Manjapra contends, northern gradual abolition was “a process of continuation, not conclusion.”


Focusing entirely on continuities, however, obscures major, even transformative changes. In part, Manjapra’s analysis is hampered by his acceptance of historians’ long-standing conventional vocabulary concerning slavery, abolition, and emancipation. Early northern abolitionists generally called themselves abolitionists, not emancipationists, and they mostly referred to their cause as “gradual abolition,” not, as the scholarship has it, “gradual emancipation.” (Hence, for example, the title of Pennsylvania’s 1780 law, adapted by subsequent state laws: An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.) Even when they spoke of emancipation, their intention was not simply to emancipate slaves but to commence eradicating the institution of slavery, first in their own states and then across the nation and, indeed, the world. Manjapra can hardly be faulted for replicating widely accepted terminology about gradual emancipation, but by doing so he diminishes the aims and outlooks of his antislavery subjects, which helps him malign their achievements.

What is properly known as gradual abolition, even with its many injustices, did vastly more to create a free black northern population than it did to prolong slavery. Highlighting how slaves still resided in the North for decades is deeply misleading when their numbers, absolute and proportional, dropped dramatically as a direct result of the gradual abolition laws. Without at all mitigating the limits on northern freedom, the figures are remarkable: whereas the numbers of free and enslaved blacks north of Delaware were roughly equal in 1800, by 1830 free blacks outnumbered enslaved in those states (as well as in the newly admitted states north of the Ohio River) by roughly forty to one.8

In blaming emancipation’s flaws on the emancipators, moreover, Manjapra seriously misrepresents both the logic behind gradual abolition and the history of its enactment.9 At the heart of the struggle was a basic question: Could legislatures annul slaveholders’ vested rights to hold property in human beings? By definition, all abolitions, no matter how gradual, involved what one constitutional scholar has called the “use of government coercion to outlaw a specific form of previously lawful property.”10 Northern gradual abolition did not immediately outlaw all property rights in human beings; the political power wielded by the slaveholders, above all else, would have made that impossible. But the northern laws without question formally eliminated, immediately and as a first step toward total abolition, the right to hold the offspring of slaves as chattel—a fundamental slaveholders’ property right that the Pennsylvania statute pointedly declared “utterly taken away, extinguished and forever abolished.”11

This was the crucial breakthrough, and Manjapra ignores it. For a state legislature to destroy a central property right of slavery, negating the chattel principle with the express purpose of commencing slavery’s complete eradication, was a radical departure, made all the more radical in the case of Pennsylvania by the law’s abolition of the state’s slave codes and its guarantee of basic judicial rights to whites and blacks (which Manjapra also ignores). Far from honoring the legitimacy of the slaveholders’ property rights, gradual abolition destroyed them, albeit incrementally, with a clear conviction that slavery’s legal cornerstone—the authority, in the words of the Rhode Island abolition law of 1784, to hold “Mankind in a State of Slavery, as private Property”—was repugnant to the natural rights due to “all Men.”

Little wonder, then, that northern slaveholders, far from designing gradual abolition, as Manjapra contends, fiercely opposed it as an assault on their property rights. As one New Jersey slaveholder asserted, slaves “bought with money” were “as much their owners’ property as anything we possess.” Any kind of abolition, no matter how gradual, would be, another proslavery writer declared, “a solemn act of robbery, or fraud” that endangered the property rights of all. Given widespread presumptions about the sanctity of private property, as well as deep resistance to ex post facto laws, these arguments had force. But the abolitionists, envisioning slavery’s complete elimination, countered that such property claims were empty since there could be no legitimate possession of humans as chattel. Slavery, by stealing individuals’ natural rights to self-ownership, was, they said, the ultimate robbery and fraud; consequently, as one New York journal put it, “every constitutional declaration and every law” establishing slavery would, if properly considered, be “ipso facto void.”12

The fights over gradual abolition were protracted and bitter, and they ended in compromise. This too Manjapra overlooks, depoliticizing what was an intense political struggle. Although he briefly acknowledges the radical antislavery ferment that accompanied the Revolution, he omits how it helped to achieve emancipation and finally abolition in northern states against a well-entrenched proslavery opposition. He misleadingly has slaveholders simply overseeing gradual abolition—leaving their motivations for doing so obscure—backed by the power of whites, the “dominant caste,” to hold “property rights to another.” In place of struggles between obdurate slaveholders and abolitionists out to destroy slavery, he presents what he calls northern emancipation as a smoothly executed wicked design.

As it happens, in state legislatures, slaveholders and their allies wielded power disproportionate to slavery’s place in the overall northern economy and sufficient to obstruct abolitionist stirrings that dated back to the 1760s. They retained enough power during and after the Revolution to win important concessions over gradual abolition.13 Even after the laws’ enactment, slaveholders kept fighting back, and in some places, in practice, they held the upper hand for some time, notably in New Jersey, the last state to approve gradual abolition.14 But the slaveholders lost the fundamental battle over the legitimacy of property in humans and the government’s authority to strip them of supposedly inviolable property rights, which prepared the way for slavery’s complete demise. The emancipating abolitionists, meanwhile, far from satisfied with the compromises, stayed on the attack long after the initial gradual abolition laws were enacted.

The abolitionists, black and white, compelled legislators to close some of the egregious loopholes in the laws; they pressed for anti-kidnapping legislation and extended legal assistance that secured freedom for tens of thousands of black victims; they undermined the foundations of vestigial enslavement, winning the still-enslaved rights to due process, marriage, and property ownership; they established private schools for black children and secured regulations that, among other things, required white masters to teach their indentured charges how to read. Not incidentally, they also pressed to replace gradual abolition with immediate abolition. A growing number of slaveholders, meanwhile, seeing the writing on the wall, arranged to manumit their slaves. Gradual abolition, against stiff and often daunting opposition, accelerated and in some states initiated slavery’s rapid decay and collapse, not its continuation.

Manjapra aptly rounds out his discussion of gradual abolition by surveying the development of northern free black communities, notably in Philadelphia and New York, which struggled against great adversity after the enactment of gradual abolition laws. He nicely summarizes the rise of black businesses, churches, voluntary associations, and benevolent societies that helped to consolidate what freedom blacks did enjoy and then to widen that freedom, to repel the violence of kidnappers and other racists, and to sustain impoverished and otherwise oppressed blacks. Although he exaggerates the underground nature of black civic life, slights the interracial connections that defied abiding racism, and ignores the involvement of blacks in electoral politics, his discussion does show how these communities resisted and at times overcame white supremacy.15 Remarkably, though, Manjapra doesn’t consider how all of this refutes his claim that northern abolition kept blacks in what he calls a state of “slave-like bondage.” He bypasses the fact that without gradual abolition, those communities never would have existed, and thereby neglects how this first abolition helped prepare the way for the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the general abolition of 1865—an abolition he similarly regards as a racist deception.

Black Ghost of Empire has more to say about the nineteenth-century abolitionists and antislavery advocates than about their eighteenth-century forerunners. At the core of what Manjapra calls the “white abolitionism” of the 1830s and after—sidestepping interracial antislavery activity—“sat,” he writes, “a yearning for reconciliation and union” between North and South that accompanied “a strong tendency to displace the problem of slavery onto the slaveholding South” and let the North off the hook for its own slavery and enduring racism. (There is nothing here about how black abolitionism, based in communities that arose with northern emancipation, helped ignite a more radical turn among white abolitionists.)

In describing the run-up to the Civil War, Manjapra builds a broader case about racist hypocrisy and proslavery complicity in the North, where, he flatly states, “white supremacy ruled.” He takes special note of the notorious Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and relates the famous stories of the renditions from Boston back into bondage of the fugitive slaves Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns. He fails to mention that over the following years six northern states passed personal liberty laws to thwart the Fugitive Slave Act, as well as the vehement and at times violent mass protests, by whites as well as blacks, which in numerous places, notably Boston, led to attempts to rescue captured slaves from federal authorities (including, unsuccessfully, Sims and Burns). Likewise, Manjapra cites the Supreme Court’s landmark proslavery Dred Scott decision of 1857 but takes no account of the firestorm of northern outrage it sparked; instead he abruptly switches subjects to condemn the stealthy participation of northern shipowners in the outlawed Atlantic slave trade.

Ignoring the rising northern antislavery fervor that underlay the expansion of the Republican Party allows Manjapra to assert that “the Civil War, at its origin, had nothing to do with slavery and abolition.” For decades, upholders of the Lost Cause mythology were the chief peddlers of the idea that conflicts over something other than slavery—state rights, the tariff, Yankee industrialism, abolitionist demagogy—caused the war. A variation of the theme also appears outside pro-Confederate circles, to the effect that Lincoln and the Republicans initially had no interest in ending slavery, just in preserving the Union, and only later decided to oppose slavery. Manjapra, in yet another variation, claims the war began as a struggle not over slavery but “over the future of the American frontier,” pitting a liberal, free-trade vision of imperial expansion “anchored by Northern banks and factories” against a mercantilist vision anchored by “the Southern plantation machine.” (Unhappily, he has his economic visions reversed: it was the North that was protectionist and the South that upheld the dogma of free trade, which many northerners saw as subservience to the British Empire.)

The trouble with all of these interpretations is that they must explain away the vast preponderance of evidence that affirms the antislavery and proslavery origins of the war, ranging from the antislavery Republican Party platform of 1860 to the southern secession ordinances and related declarations that justified dissolving the Union in order to preserve slavery and white supremacy. It’s true that for constitutional as well as political reasons, President Lincoln took office denying that he would seek abolition of slavery in the states where it existed, while stressing that the overriding imperative was crushing secession, a position he stuck to in public for eighteen months. He left no doubt, though, that he believed, as he said in his First Inaugural Address, that the clash over the rightness or wrongness of slavery was “the only substantial dispute” between the North and the South. He also stood behind his earlier vow to commence slavery’s “ultimate extinction.” He signed a bill immediately abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia with limited compensation to the slaveholders and another that banned slavery outright from the territories; signed a treaty with Britain to suppress the illegal international slave trade; presented a plan for compensated abolition in the border states; and recognized the black government of Haiti—all before he finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

Manjapra passes quickly over the proclamation, noting that it legalized the protection of fugitives dwelling in Union Army camps. He omits that by declaring the enslaved in rebel states “forever free,” Lincoln’s order turned the Union military into a freedom force, while it also opened the army to recruiting black soldiers. To underscore how northern racism and emancipation could go hand in hand, Manjapra discusses Lincoln’s stubborn pessimism about the future of race relations and his interest well into the war in promoting quixotic but politically popular projects for voluntary repatriation, an idea he eventually, according to his secretary John Hay, “sloughed off.” Mislabeling those misbegotten projects as “expulsion” and “deportation,” Manjapra overlooks how, when Lincoln issued his final proclamation and pursued constitutional abolition, there was no mention, let alone requirement, of colonization. He barely alludes to how Lincoln’s views of equality widened over the course of the war, and he ignores how, in his tragic Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln suggested that the war’s slaughter was God’s judgment on the North as well as the South for the enormity of slavery. Manjapra does, however, deprecate the Thirteenth Amendment enshrining abolition that Lincoln helped enact, repeating the Thirteenther falsehood “that Southern states soon used [it] to reenslave large numbers of black people.”

Regarding Reconstruction, Manjapra contends that the figure “perfectly in line with the basic tenets of emancipation as they had been worked out internationally over the previous century” was Lincoln’s successor, the insecure, hard-drinking, and virulent racist Andrew Johnson. He allows that Johnson “did not redirect wartime emancipation,” which is putting it mildly. But Johnson, he says, did reassert “the government’s goals of deliberate black dispossession and slave-owner compensation.” And if Johnson shared the government’s alleged racist goals, his vicious racist views do not seem much different from those of Manjapra’s white supremacist North, including, he states, Johnson’s views on emancipation and deportation, which “echoed those of Abraham Lincoln from as late as 1864.”

But even before Johnson departed the presidency, Manjapra notes, Congress suddenly began passing laws “to bring black people into the system of civic representation.” Soon southern blacks were doing “things they could not ever before have done,” such as assemble, outside the surveillance of whites, in churches, civic organizations, fraternal and sororal orders, and political clubs. Most auspiciously, black men who had been enslaved until 1865 voted, and in large numbers, electing black state and local officials by the hundreds as well as sixteen black members of the House of Representatives and two black US senators. “The decade of congressional Reconstruction, 1867 to 1877,” Manjapra concludes, “was a taste of participatory democracy for black people after more than 230 years of American oppression and exclusion.” But he devotes just three paragraphs to these astounding developments, saying nothing about how they came to pass, before segueing abruptly into the “dirty war” against blacks that brought sharecropper peonage, lynching, and Jim Crow.

It is remarkable that a book on emancipations fails to explain how and why a US Congress dominated by white Republicans ushered in a decade of black participatory democracy. (The Radical Republicans Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens do not appear in Black Ghost of Empire, nor, amazingly, does President Grant.) In this case the failure is not surprising given everything else Manjapra writes about emancipation as an essentially racist, carefully plotted effort to reinvent slavery-like oppression. Understood that way, these events shouldn’t have happened—but they did. To be sure, Reconstruction was destroyed, with the aid of resurgent northern Democrats and some weary Republicans, by racist revanchists who had lost the war over emancipation and who wanted to come as close as they could to reenslaving black people. The demise of American slavery did, indeed, prove the prelude to a long nightmare of white supremacy. But contrary to Manjapra’s general argument, the brutal victory of emancipation’s enemies did not mark the fulfillment of the emancipators’ original vision for the future. It marked that vision’s defeat.

Two basic flaws run through Manjapra’s treatments of both the first and the second US abolitions and turn up in the rest of his book. The first is a tendency to minimize intraracial divisions, especially among whites, acknowledging only quickly the involvement of principled whites in ending slavery. The second is a foreshortening and even an evasion of the actual politics of abolition. In the case of northern gradual abolition, effacing the political struggle between abolitionists and slaveholders and presenting emancipation as a slaveholders’ enterprise eradicates the radical principle of denying property in man that gradual abolition vindicated and passed on for future generations to develop. In the case of the Civil War and Reconstruction, emphasizing northern racism to the point of virtually eliminating the reality of antislavery politics and then ignoring the political struggles that followed slavery’s abolition make a mystery both of the ten-year experiment in southern interracial democracy that lasted until 1877 and of what Du Bois called “the counterrevolution of property” that destroyed it.

These flaws have significance well beyond the history of slavery and racism. As his final chapter makes clear, Manjapra intends his book as a brief for the current reparations movement. “Emancipation processes,” he writes, “saw the future after slavery through the eyes of the perpetrators,” and so history requires a “reckoning with reparations for slavery.” Why, given his profound fatalism, he imagines this as the only practical solution is left unexplained. But given his eliding of the actual politics of gradual abolition and Reconstruction, it is not surprising.

Unfortunately, this tendentious book does nothing to strengthen Manjapra’s present cause, while it prompts some very different conclusions about the politics of slavery and antislavery and their legacy. First, American emancipations and abolitions arose not from the enslavers but from their antislavery foes, black and white. Second, the ferocious struggles between these forces produced genuine if partial victories for oppressed blacks and their white advocates. But those victories were subject to dramatic reversal through political reaction, and the conflict has continued for generation after generation, focused, since Reconstruction, on retrieving and expanding on not only the Thirteenth Amendment but also the guarantees of citizenship, equal protection, and political enfranchisement encoded in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. In politically pessimistic times, when those rights are under siege across the country and threatened by a radical, illiberal Supreme Court majority, it may be difficult to discern that more complicated but enlightening history. But those are precisely the times when it has been essential to do so.