Two Visions of Abolition and Emancipation: An OAH “State of the Field” Roundtable

Two Visions of Abolition and Emancipation: An OAH “State of the Field” Roundtable

Today we continue our series of reports on the recent Organization of American Historians annual meeting with a concise summation of a lively discussion on abolition and emancipation, recorded by Evan Turiano.

Our first report from the 2018 meeting can be found here and the final report on the Confederate monuments town hall can be found here.

“Was abolition a fundamentally radical or conservative movement?” Joshua Rothman, Professor of History at the University of Alabama, presented this question as one of several that the panel of esteemed nineteenth-century historians could pursue at the OAH Conference’s “State of the Field: Abolition and Emancipation” roundtable session. This question proved central, engaging both the panel and the audience of nearly 120 people, who packed the hall of this primetime panel. The answer, it turns out, largely depends on context: are abolition and emancipation best understood in relation to the political and social movements that preceded them, or in relation to the shortcomings of Reconstruction that followed?

The panel featured a range of distinguished scholars whose research projects touch on emancipation from different angles. Stephen Kantrowitz, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, expressed in his opening remarks an interest in moving beyond the “slavery/freedom binary” and described the fruits of liberal emancipation as “disappointing.” He also called for an understanding of emancipation in the context of continental history, and of American empire. Manisha Sinha, the Draper Chair of American History at the University of Connecticut, assumed the opposite stance in her opening remarks. She warned that the long-fought scholarly efforts to overturn whiggish “slavery to freedom” narratives are at risk of being overdone, and can flatten the radical transformations inherent to abolition. She also warned that emancipation is too often considered as a contingent moment, one of wartime desperation, which obscures the long fight for abolition. Kidada Williams, Associate Professor of History at Wayne State University, considered emancipation from the Reconstruction era, and expressed particular interest in how an expanded source base, one that amplifies black voices, can add to our understandings of emancipation.

In her opening remarks, Chandra Manning, Professor of History at Georgetown University, laid out what she thought to be the three primary sites of conflict in the modern historiography on abolition and emancipation. First is the conflict between those arguments that emphasize the important agency of the enslaved, versus those that emphasize the hard power of enslavement and the meaningful ways in which it limited agency. The second debate is whether emancipation began quickly and decisively, or whether it was deferred to slowly as a desperate act. The final, most central debate Manning posed regarded whether or not we can collapse different forms of exploitation together: Does emancipation matter? How much did the material condition of African American laborers really change? More specifically, was Reconstruction doomed to fail from the start, or was it overthrown?

Joshua Rothman then posed the first of Manning’s questions to the panelists on frank terms: Does emancipation matter? Stephen Kantrowitz answered first. “Of course emancipation matters,” he said, but he urged that it be considered in the context of what follows. In this light, according Kantrowitz, we are left with the sense that things could have gone differently after emancipation. Sinha also began by asserting that emancipation matters a great deal. She contended with Kantrowitz and others that we cannot include the “overthrow of Reconstruction” in our study of emancipation. This sort of “post-post-revisionist” conflating of two distinct events, according to Sinha, undercuts the transformative aspects of emancipation. Manning disagreed somewhat with Sinha on this interpretation. She described the marrying of emancipation and Reconstruction as being both fruitful and dangerous, suggesting that it can reveal some imperfections inherent to how emancipation played out.

In a question posed from the audience, Thavolia Glymph, Professor of History at Duke University, expressed shock that the state of the field was such that “Does emancipation matter?” was still an open question. She received the first applause of the session. From the panel, Manisha Sinha echoed Glymph’s frustrations. She questioned some of Stephen Kantrowitz’s earlier points, urging that the study of American imperialism cannot be allowed to undercut our recognition of abolition’s radicalism. Kantrowitz acknowledged that the focus on Reconstruction’s failures has created a somewhat troubling trend in public-facing history, the idea that, “slavery didn’t end, it just changed.” He points specifically to Ava DuVernay’s award winning 2016 documentary 13th as evidence that much of the public has lost sight of the transformative aspects of emancipation. A division was clear, and an audience question from Richard Blackett, Andrew Jackson Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, laid it out in concrete terms: Does focusing on emancipation in relation to Reconstruction mean that we under-study what came before? When we look at the shortcomings of Reconstruction, do we lose sight of the processes behind abolition and emancipation?

From the panel, Chandra Manning tried to organize the room’s increasingly clear rift back toward the historiographical question she had attempted to pose earlier. She posited that the question at hand was whether Reconstruction’s overthrow was the product of shortcomings inherent to emancipation, or of separate, outside forces. Both of these, according to Manning, were worthy of serious consideration. Sinha pushed back, reminding the audience that the former of the two theses, that Reconstruction’s failures were inherent to emancipation, did not have a “respectable genealogy.” Former slaveholders were the first to propose these ideas, as Sinha points out, in an effort to build a mythical Confederate narrative. Instead, she argued that the field must consider emancipation and abolition on their own terms, and understand Reconstruction as a project that was overthrown by external forces. In a final audience comment, Richard Blackett reminded everyone that abolition was “the most radical movement of its time,” and that we cannot say that nothing has changed in its wake.

This panel, delivered before a packed, often tense room, revealed that the study of emancipation and abolition is host to more conflict than consensus. The stakes of the fundamental question at hand are very high: How should we understand the Civil War? How do we make sense of slavery in relation to other forms of unfreedom throughout American history? Where do we break off the U.S. History survey course—is emancipation an end, a beginning, or neither? This panel made it clear that these questions are open but are certainly in good hands.


Evan Turiano

Evan Turiano is the Macaulay Honors College Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Queens College, CUNY. He received his Ph.D. from the Graduate Center, CUNY.

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