Monday, July 16, 2012

The Politics of Self Emancipation

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I have been reading (and rereading) Stephanie McCurry's Confederate Reckoning over the last few days and it has rekindled some thoughts that recall graduate school classroom debates at the University of Virginia. Is self emancipation a political action?

McCurry thinks so. I will save an in-depth review of the book for a later date, but for now I will note that she believes slaves - in the contexts of impressment, Confederate military duty, and the opportunity for escape - developed political networks and formed a political entity with which both Confederate and United States governments had to deal.

I'll give her this. Many slaves organized, spread war news through plantation networks, and seized opportunities when they were presented. But is this political? Certainly not in the traditional sense - yet ruling out political activity based on narrow definitions is always a bad idea.

I still can't help but wonder if we are retrospectively assigning the term "political" to a group of people who did not assign it to themselves. Could self emancipation and the development of communication networks function politically as...say...intentionally slowing the work pace on a plantation as a subtle protest to the institution? I am not sure the latter is political either. Just protest - and perhaps vindictiveness. And for the former - it may be nothing more than an attempt to remove oneself from a bad situation in the hopes of finding a better one. Not necessarily political...but certainly human nature.

One could consider political action in terms of personal investment (even without the franchise) in some sort of governing body - state, community, region, section, joining the Union army, for instance. That seems political. But even here I tend to drift to the traditional sense of the term.

My point with all of these equivocations over the term itself and the actions supposedly (or not) defining it is that I am not yet convinced that the broader definition of politics holds up from the point of view of those engaging in said actions - but I am keeping an open mind...and I am more than happy to discuss the subject with anyone.




  1. Yup, I know what you mean. I'm dissertating about evangelical southerners in the antebellum, and am struggling with ways to describe social and cultural changes that lacked partisan political articulation--and therefore are not visible to historians--but nonetheless had significant political implications. (So I get to grapple with Professor McCurry's other important book.)

  2. Hi Keith, Perhaps surprisingly, I have a rather broad definition of politics--the distribution of power and resources, or in other words, who gets what, where, and when. Labor certainly is a resource, and the output of labor can be seen as a resource as well. If the enslaved people are able to take action to deny some output of their labor to their enslavers, that is a form of political action [making a determination their enslavers will not get a portion of the output of their labor at that time]. A protest is a political action as well, since politics isn't necessarily at the formal governmental level. There is also politics at the interpersonal level. If we aggregate the actions of enslaved people to the state or regional level, the effects are magnified and actually have their own effects at the governmental level, thus affecting the traditional notion of politics.

  3. The problem with narrow definitions of politics are that they limit political participation to the actions of people enfranchised by political elites.

    The movement of slaves to Union lines was inherently a political action. It only occurred because slaves could envision a change in the reaction of the US government to the escaped slaves its agents encountered. The law may have said that the slaves should be returned to their owners, but the slaves believed that their actions could change that legal situation.

  4. cg - sounds like a fun project - how far along ar you in the process?

  5. Hey Al, I certainly agree that these things could be deemed political - I am just not convinced that they are in the case of slaves in the Confederacy in general. I am sure you will not be surprised by my logic, but I think that we need to take a contemporaneous look at their intentions rather than acknowledging the affects of actions retrospectively. Were they (the slaves) consciously undertaking political actions? If so, then this would indeed tell us quite a bit about the politics of the Civil War era. But if they were not, it may be saying more about modern historians, who are assigning political agency to those who may not have been interested in such things.
    I am ready and willing to be convinced - if someone would show me significant evidence suggesting slaves sought more than escape from, rather than affecting change in the Confederacy.

  6. Pat - did they really believe that they could change the legal situation? Or were they just trying to escape it? Now, I believe that those who joined the Union army may have had this in mind - but that only accounts for some. Others seem to be more interested in personal or family freedom. Like I noted in my response to Al's comment - much of this sounds like we, from a modern perspective, are imposing our definitions onto people who may not have been interested in such things. We see their actions as political retrospectively because they did affect change on the legal (and political) system of the entire United States - while it is altogether possible that it was not their primary intention to do so. My guess is that they were thinking more along the lines of survival than sweeping - indeed revolutionary - changes in the political landscape.

  7. Hi Keith,

    I'm just a humble HR Manager :-) I have to rely on the pros to do the in-depth research for now, but for one little bit, let's look at Susie King Taylor, writing in her "Reminiscences of My Life in Camp":

    [begin quote]
    Every person had to have this pass, for at nine o'clock each night a bell was rung, and any colored persons found on the street after this hour were arrested by the watchman, and put in the guard-house until next morning, when their owners would pay their fines and release them. I knew a number of persons who went out at any time at night and were never arrested, as the watchman knew them so well he never stopped them, and seldom asked to see their passes, only stopping them long enough, sometimes, to say "Howdy," and then telling them to go along.

    About this time I had been reading so much about the "Yankees" I was very anxious to see them. The whites would tell their colored people not to go to the Yankees, for they would harness them to carts and make them pull the carts around, in place of horses. I asked grandmother, one day, if this was true. She replied, "Certainly not!" that the white people did not want slaves to go over to the Yankees, and told them these things to frighten them. "Don't you see those signs pasted about the streets? one reading, 'I am a rattlesnake; if you touch me I will strike!' Another reads, 'I am a wild-cat! Beware,' etc. These are warnings to the North; so don't mind what the white people say." I wanted to see these wonderful "Yankees" so much, as I heard my parents say the Yankee was going to set all the slaves free. Oh, how those people prayed for freedom! I remember, one night, my grandmother went out into the suburbs of the city to a church meeting, and they were fervently singing this old hymn,--

    "Yes, we all shall be free,
    Yes, we all shall be free,
    Yes, we all shall be free,
    When the Lord shall appear,"
    -- when the police came in and arrested all who were there, saying they were planning freedom, and sang "the Lord," in place of "Yankee," to blind any one who might be listening. Grandmother never forgot that night, although she did not stay in the guard-house, as she sent to her guardian, who came at once for her; but this was the last meeting she ever attended out of the city proper.
    [end quote]

    Maybe there wasn't a sophisticated plan, maybe they didn't work out a step-by-step program of, "If we do A, we will force the government to do B." I don't plan to make that assertion at all. But while I don't claim they set out to effect a national political change, they did set out to so things that had a political effect. It's been a little while since I read McCurry's book, and I could be way off, but I don't recall her saying they consciously set out to effect a national governmental change. I think the sum total of their actions led to something that was more than what they intended, but was quite political. Again, using the definition of politics I used in my first comment on this post.

    The scrolling on the new format is great to have. :)

  8. Oh Keith, if people have to be conscious that they are on a revolutionary course to be involved in revolutionary politics then the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord were just defending a local munitions supply from thieves.

    Slaves escaping to Union lines before the Emancipation Proclamation were clearly involved in a political act. They were escaping a seceding jurisdiction that enshrined slavery in its constitution.(the Confederacy) to enter a country which had enshrined slavery in its laws for the previous eight decades (the United States). Since they had all lived in the United States before Ft. Sumter, they presumably knew of those laws. When they escaped into United States jurisdiction, they were manifesting a Utopian project in which they believed they would be free in spite of what the laws said. Mass spontaneous political action such as this, unless inspired by mental illness, always carries with it the hope for change as well as the belief that the action in itself somehow will help bring about that change by creating new conditions on the ground requiring a response from legally constituted authorities.

    So, of course the slaves actions were political.

  9. But Pat - conceiving of a political act and affecting political change are not one in the same. This is the point where historians like McCurry go astray. I believe a distinction needs to be made. Were their actions political? Of course they were. But were they in effect political actors? I am not yet convinced - at least not for all slaves. I believe that your universal approach - people "always" do one thing or another - is off base. It is just as likely that some slaves were simply seeking freedom - sans politics.

  10. Al - that's a great would have served McCurry well :)
    She does say in the end that slaves were on board to affect radical wide spread change.
    Of course some were, especially those who took up arms - but I still think historians make too much of this.

  11. Keith, you wrote of my comment that: "I believe that your universal approach – people “always” do one thing or another – is off base. It is just as likely that some slaves were simply seeking freedom – sans politics". To clarify I wrote
    "Mass spontaneous political action such as this, unless inspired by mental illness, always carries with it the hope for change".

    This does not imply that every escaped slave in 1861-1862 had a fully formed political consciousness, just as not every resistant Minuteman in 1775 did. However, you yourself say that many of these escaped slaves were "simply seeking freedom",, but since the laws as they existed at the start of the exodus did not grant freedom, the action coupled with the hope imply a belief that escaping slaves understood, long before most folks did, that things were changing and that change was being pushed along by the slaves' acts.

  12. Well Pat - I guess it boils down to this; do you have contemporary evidence that the majority of slaves articulated the sentiment you mention...or are you just assuming that they did from a 21st century perspective? McCurry's evidence, by the way, is pretty weak - she makes note of a handful of Confederate government officials' testimony - not the slaves themselves.

  13. Keith, can you think of a single mass historical event in which a majority of the participants "articulated" any sentiment at all, let alone a uniform or consensious sentiment? In my field, law, people's actions often manifest intent more than their words do. Lawyers tend to believe that people intend the reasonably foreseeable consequences of their actions and we do not necessarily priviledge writings over other manifestations of intent, in fact we often view writings with a jaundiced eye as likely to be self-serving unless uttered against the speaker's own interests..

  14. Yes, I can.
    Your comments are beginning to confirm what I have suspected for many years. Lawyers do not necessarily make very good historians.