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By John David Smith, The Charolotte Observer


In “The Long Emancipation,” the distinguished University of Maryland historian Ira Berlin provides an important reinterpretation of “the transformation of millions of men and women from property to person.” Berlin’s “Slaves Without Masters” and “Many Thousands Gone” remain essential works on free blacks in the Old South and the first two centuries of slavery in North America, respectively.

Most writers explain slavery’s abolition as commencing with the “immediatist” abolitionists in the 1830s and culminating with President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

Within that chronological range historians often debate who – the blacks themselves or Lincoln and his army – actually freed the South’s 4 million slaves.

Berlin challenges both interpretations, arguing “that freedom’s arrival was the product not of a moment or a man, but of a process in which many participated ... a near-century-long process.”

“The demise of slavery was not so much a proclamation as a movement; not so much an occasion as a complex history with multiple players and narratives.” Far from a short linear path, “emancipation’s road was long and bumpy.”

His identification of emancipation’s “long” history positions Berlin with other historians who extend the chronological boundaries (and complexity) of their subjects. His approach broadens emancipation, “restoring a sense of contingency” to a tangled social and political movement, “and undermining the aura of invincibility that attaches itself to a winning cause.” In charting abolition’s history from the late 18th century until the 1860s, Berlin identifies several distinctive elements that ran through all phases of the movement.

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