OAKES: Freedom National (2012)

Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 by James Oakes. W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. Cloth, ISBN: 0393065316. $29.95.

James Oakes has received high praise for his Lincoln Prize winning Freedom National: the Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865. When an eminent nineteenth-century historian tackles this topic we must pay attention, especially when he promises radically new interpretations. Oakes indeed argues much that challenges previous historiography, although not always successfully. Yet the work is a much-needed reminder that the Republican Party was formed with the purpose of slowly eradicating slavery, and that its leaders were anything but reluctant emancipators.

Oakes seemingly responds to Gary Gallagher’s The Union War (2011), which argued that the North’s primary motivation in the Civil War was the Union’s preservation, and that emancipation was only embraced once it seemed necessary to win the war. On the contrary, Oakes maintains, from the outset the Republicans supported an emancipationist war. Indeed, after Lincoln’s election they warned the South that such would be the case, and began liberating slaves just months after Fort Sumter. Congress’s confiscation acts set this process in motion, Oakes argues, requiring Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to enforce the Second Confiscation Act and to allow the army to entice runaways and raise black troops. When southerners effectively suppressed the number of fugitives, the Thirteenth Amendment was needed to ensure that slavery would not survive the war in any place, or in any form.

Oakes begins by masterfully explaining the “freedom national” agenda of the Republican Party, examining the legally complex arguments that abolitionists had long employed to insist that the Constitution did not recognize slaves as property under federal law. Only state laws did so. The government could not interfere with those state laws but could prevent slavery from expanding into the territories. Therefore, antislavery Republicans proposed to create a “cordon of freedom” around the slave states and to withdraw federal support for the institution, slowly but legally choking it to death. This material is not particularly new, but Oakes delivers it exceptionally well, revealing that after Lincoln’s inauguration Republicans happily believed that their agenda doomed slavery in the long term.

More provocatively, Oakes argues that antislavery radicals also embraced a second way that slavery might be constitutionally destroyed: military emancipation. Leaning on the arguments of John Quincy Adams, they maintained that if a war erupted against slaveholders, the government’s constitutionally granted war powers would allow for freeing slaves as a means of winning the war.

Undeniably some radicals argued this, but in Oakes’s narrative “military emancipation” becomes prewar Republican gospel. He maintains that they gave southerners a choice; stay in the Union and have slavery slowly end, or secede and have it immediately destroyed. Yet the proof of this surprising assertion is scanty, requiring a bit of sleight-of-hand from Oakes. Before Fort Sumter, northern leaders (as well as southern Unionists) countered secessionists by insisting that slavery was safer within the Union than it would be outside of it. By leaving behind the protections of the U.S. government the South would be vulnerable to slave insurrections. Freedom National uses excerpts from these arguments to insist that even prior to the war Republicans warned that secession would result in military emancipation.

An example is Oakes’s handling of a speech by William Seward given on the Senate floor in January 1861. The future secretary of state delivered what he described as “my plea for American Union,” arguing that the South was more prosperous and powerful inside the Union that they would be separated from it. During extended remarks, Seward briefly maintained that because slavery was internationally condemned, the U.S. government was the primary force preventing John Brown-like radicals from descending on the South. Leave the Union, he argued, and the South would no longer have this protection. Oakes separates these words from Seward’s larger point, skillfully edits them, infers much that that senator did not imply, and builds a cornerstone for arguing that before the war Republicans warned that they would use military emancipation to liberate slaves. Yet even if Oakes’s inferences are correct, it is dubious to argue that they reflect mainstream Republican thought. After all, Seward failed to receive the party’s nomination because he had a reputation for being more radically antislavery than Lincoln.

Oakes further supports his claim with Republican newspaper editorials, insisting they reveal that the threat of military emancipation had become “standard Republican rhetoric.” Like Seward’s speech, the quoted passages mostly predict that secession would destabilize the institution of slavery and/or provoke slave rebellions. Slave rebellion, of course, is not the same thing as federal military emancipation, and the quotations never directly assert that the government could or would liberate slaves as a military necessity. Further, although historians generally view the New York Times as the best barometer of moderate and conservative Republican sentiment and the public voice of the Lincoln administration, its editorials hardly make an appearance in Freedom National. An examination of them would reveal a general resistance to emancipation until the summer of 1862.

Still, Oakes maintains that true to their warnings, once the war began the Republicans almost immediately implemented a program of military emancipation, passing the First Confiscation Act in August 1861. The measure provided for the confiscation of slaves that had been used to support the Confederacy, but Oakes argues that the Lincoln administration went beyond the strict guidelines of the act, freeing all slaves behind Union lines.

This intriguing interpretation relies on a message from Secretary of War Simon Cameron to General Benjamin Butler in which he explains that slaves behind Union lines whose owners had used them to support the Confederacy were now “discharged” from serving their masters. As with the legislation itself, this wording does not clearly indicate they were freed. Yet Oakes challenges traditional interpretations by insisting they were definitely emancipated.1

Furthermore, Cameron instructed Butler to record the names of slaves behind his lines who had not been working for the Confederacy, and thus who did not meet the criteria of the Confiscation Act. The secretary then speculated that when the war ended Congress would “doubtless properly provide for all the persons thus received into the service of the Union and for just compensation to loyal masters.” Did this mean that masters would be paid for services rendered by their slaves, as in the antebellum system of slave hiring? Did this mean the slaves would be returned? Did it mean that the government would pay for the slaves? Cameron is unclear, but Oakes simply concludes, “This was compensated emancipation,” maintaining that those slaves were also freed. Cameron seems to have been merely speculating about the future, however, not establishing official policy about the status of those slaves not covered by the act.

Oakes then demonstrates that whenever military commanders sought clarification they were forwarded Cameron’s letter. Thus, based on his interpretation of a speculative (and perhaps purposely vague) communication, Oakes repeatedly insists that Lincoln and his party were freeing all slaves behind Union lines just months into the war.

Few contemporaries saw it that way, and in the fall of 1861 newspaper editorialists, politicians, military officers, and abolitionists debated whether even slaves who met the act’s criteria were freed (or even should be). Oakes gives much attention to those who believed that they were emancipated (such as Edward Pierce, who supervised black laborers behind Union lines in the Sea Islands), but the debate itself is ignored. Many pointed out that the legislation’s vagueness essentially placed the government in the position of owning slaves. They also insisted that the status of slaves behind the lines who had not been working for the Confederacy was even more ambiguous, pressing the administration for clarification. Not until Lincoln’s December 1861 address to Congress did the president define the slaves who met the act’s strict criteria as “liberated,” but he said nothing about those who did not meet the criteria. This address is largely ignored by Oakes, perhaps not surprisingly, since Lincoln also expressly denied that there was as yet a need for military emancipation.

Congress then moved to resolve the act’s ambiguities and to expand its scope, proposing a Second Confiscation Act to expressly free all slaves owned by rebels whether they had been working for the Confederacy or not. This was one of the most important purposes of the new legislation, but Oakes argues that in this regard it actually just reaffirmed a policy already in place.

In July 1862 the bill was passed, as Charles Sumner explained, “under pressure from our [military] reverses at Richmond.” Yet while Oakes painstakingly details the congressional wrangling that led to the act, he largely shunts military events to the side as if the war itself (and the number of African Americans it brought behind the lines) alone justified military emancipation. But it could only be legally justified if freeing the slaves was deemed necessary to win the war. How could emancipation be justified if the North could win without it? Nevertheless, the war’s military contingencies receive little attention in Freedom National.

The work contains other controversial elements. Oakes maintains that Congress’s Second Confiscation Act essentially required the president to issue the Emancipation Proclamation as a means of enforcing it. This seemingly disregards that Lincoln’s proclamation went much beyond Congress’s act by declaring free all slaves in seceded states regardless of whether their owners were rebels. (Oakes maintains that Republicans no longer believed there to be loyal white southerners, yet William Blair has convincingly shown that the Second Confiscation Act was carefully crafted to protect southern Unionists).2 Furthermore, in a 500-page book on Republican policy, colonization receives only five pages of treatment, ultimately leaning on the standard interpretation of many Lincoln scholars who insist that the president and members of his party only embraced it as means of selling emancipation to a reluctant north.

Oakes is keenly aware that his narrative challenges a good deal of the historiography, especially in insisting that Republicans warned the South of military emancipation prior to the war and were liberating all slaves behind Union lines for well over a year before the Emancipation Proclamation. He is also aware that there are many primary sources in which leading Republicans (such as Seward, Chase, Sumner, and even Lincoln himself) made contemporary statements that contradict his interpretations. But in what is the book’s boldest section (and perhaps its most stunning), Oakes labels these many wartime statements as “collective amnesia,” blaming them for creating a “myth” that still persists (328-339).

Yet in the book’s later stages Oakes gets back on firmer ground, interestingly demonstrating the variety of means that southerners employed to limit the number of runaways. Freedom National effectively obliterates the popular image of an irresistible tide of fugitives flowing to Union lines once the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Because the South successfully preserved the institution even after Lincoln’s proclamation, Republicans pushed for the Thirteenth Amendment, and the author provides a fascinating discussion of why the legislation was needed, and how it was accomplished over Democratic resistance. After proclaiming freedom, Oakes demonstrates, Lincoln and his party saw that the institution of slavery was much stronger than they expected, and they were unwilling to allow the process of emancipation to go backwards.

Thus despite some debatable and not fully supported assertions, the book’s strong ending and overarching theme allows Oakes to successfully depict the Republicans as an antislavery party that consistently worked toward emancipation from its inception until the end of the war. He effectively highlights the party’s “Freedom National” agenda to slowly destroy slavery, but is less successful at demonstrating that military emancipation was mainstream party ideology even before the war, and is on debatable ground when dogmatically insisting that Republicans implemented it before military events proved its necessity. Nevertheless, Freedom National reveals that while preservation of the Union was the war’s purpose, this should not obscure the Republican commitment to eradicating slavery. The conflict just allowed them to do it sooner rather than later.
1 See, for example Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 175, and James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press), 356.

2 William Alan Blair, “Friend or Foe: Treason and the Second Confiscation Act,” in Wars within a War: Controversy and Conflict over the American Civil War, edited by Joan Waugh and Gary Gallagher (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2009), 27-51.
Glenn David Brasher is the author of The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans & the Fight for Freedom (2012) and winner of the 2013 Wiley-Silver Prize from The Center for Civil War Research.

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