Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 29, 2012

“Emancipation without affranchisement was a partial emancipation unworthy of the name.”

Filed under: Civil War,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:29 pm

Michael Vorenberg, “Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment”:

Black abolitionists were even less likely than their white allies to throw their weight behind the amendment. By early 1864 they had begun to shift their attention away from slavery and toward the fate of the freed people. An anonymous black correspondent captured the spirit of much black abolitionist thought when, in January 1864, he complained about two recent antislavery speeches: “We have had enough of politics and slavery-of the latter we are nearly tired to death. We read it, we sing it, we pray it, we talk it, we speak it, we lecture it, and the whole United States is in arms against it. You come to tell us it is dead. Well, if that is so, I thank God. Don’t bother its carcass. Let us improve the living who have been under slavery. . . . Don’t come anymore riding that old weather beaten horse, anti-slavery.”66

African Americans well understood that a constitutional amendment that emancipated the slaves might do little to prevent economic and legal inequality. For evidence of the potential shortcomings of emancipation, black activists had only to look at free African Americans in the North, most of whom were the victims of disfranchisement and discrimination.67 An anonymous black writer derided those who agitated for emancipation, arguing that freedom for the slaves would do little to change the degraded condition of African Americans in general: “The slave bears the irons of slavery; the other [the free black] has been relieved from them, but, enclosed in the same dark dungeon with the former, they are both prisoners.”68 Nor had the military service of African Americans improved their legal status. In April 1863 Douglass had promised free blacks that “to fight for the Government in this tremendous war is … to fight for nationality and for a place with all other classes of our fellow-citizens.” But by the spring of 1864, black soldiers still did not receive the same pay as white soldiers, and Congress had yet to pass an act assuring the freedom of enslaved wives and children of black recruits.69 Far from making the antislavery amendment their primary political objective, black Americans sought empowerment in forms more immediate and tangible.70

At the very time that Congress was poised to debate the emancipation amendment, African Americans tended to look at three other objectives as more likely to secure permanent freedom and equality. The first of these was equality before the law – not merely equal pay and equal treatment in the military, but equal access to civilian institutions such as courts and public conveyances. “We at the North are contending for and shall not be satisfied until we get equal rights for all,” the prominent attorney John S. Rock told a black artillery regiment in May 1864.71 By 1864 black lobbyists already had persuaded Congress to pass laws allowing African Americans the right to carry the U.S. mail and to serve as witnesses in District of Columbia courts. African Americans now took aim at the all-white streetcars in the district. While black newspapers remained relatively silent on the amendment in the early months of 1864, they gave much publicity to the initiative of Major A. T. Augusta, a black army surgeon who tried to ride in a streetcar but was forcibly removed. Augusta’s efforts spurred Charles Sumner to introduce a bill in the Senate to desegregate the street-cars.72 But Frederick Douglass still feared for the future of African Americans, because he saw “looming up in the legislation at Washington in almost every bill where rights are to be guaranteed and privileges secured, that the word white is carefully inserted.”73 Douglass’s apprehension was justified: most of the black initiatives for civil rights legislation met with success only after the war was over.

Along with civil rights, blacks held dear the goal of economic self-sufficiency. From their experience as free but economically oppressed laborers in the North and South, those African Americans free before the war knew that emancipation did not necessarily lead to unimpeded economic opportunity. The abolition amendment might still leave African Americans as something other than free agents in the labor market. As the veteran abolitionist James McCune Smith predicted, “the word slavery will, of course, be wiped from the statute book, but the ‘ancient relation’ can be just as well maintained by cunningly devised laws.”74 Thus African American reformers focused their efforts less on the antislavery amendment than on measures promising more palpable forms of economic security. The editors of the New Orleans Tribune, for example, suggested the formation of labor courts, modeled on the French counseils de prud’hommes, composed of government-appointed officials and representatives of employers and employees.75 In their plea for courts of arbitration, the editors revealed the great extent to which African Americans, while embracing much of free-labor ideology, rejected that strain of it that envisioned labor and capital working out equitable arrangements organically, without government intervention. Eventually, the movement for an institution regulating relations between freed people and former slave holders was fulfilled – but only partly – by congressional legislation creating the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was proposed in early 1864 but not passed until 1865. By concentrating their efforts on that legislation rather than on the antislavery amendment, African Americans revealed their preference for explicit rights for free labor over a constitutional decree against slavery.

A sophisticated system of labor regulation such as the editors of the New Orleans Tribune envisioned certainly had its appeal to African Americans, but even more popular was the method most commonly asserted by blacks as the truest path to economic self-sufficiency: land owning. “When the plantations of the South shall be parcelled out to the hardy sons of toil who have made them, under the system of slavery, what they are,” exhorted one African American writer, “… war shall cease in our fair land; prejudice shall die by the force of a just moral sentiment; the descendants of Africa shall no longer be despised because God has been pleased to make them black, but . . . they will be received on the broad principles of their manhood.”76 The plea for land for the freed people arose everywhere – from the freeborn editors of the New Orleans Tribune, from the former slaves in the South Carolina Sea Islands working under new, northern planters, and from northern legislators like George Julian and Thaddeus Stevens.77 For many blacks as well as whites, land redistribution was a solution to a problem of class more than race. Reformers of all colors carried on the antebellum tradition of promoting land distribution as the key to what Lydia Maria Child termed the “individualizing of the masses.”78 The absence of any explicit promise of land for the freed people within the antislavery amendment gave black Americans another reason to regard the measure as insufficient.

Of all the reasons African Americans had for concentrating their efforts elsewhere than on the antislavery amendment, the most important was the absence of voting rights within the measure. Whereas the notion of an antislavery amendment captured the attention of northern white editors, jurists, and politicians, the question of black suffrage, even more than the issues of civil rights and land and labor reform, dominated the rhetoric of African Americans.79 “Emancipation without affranchisement,” wrote the black editor Robert Hamilton, was “a partial emancipation unworthy of the name.”80 Frederick Douglass all but ignored the proposed amendment during late 1863 and early 1864 because he believed that only suffrage would provide African Americans with the power necessary to make themselves truly free. As Americans began considering the merits of the proposed antislavery amendment, Douglass advised them to strive “not so much for the abolition of slavery . . . but for the complete, absolute, unqualified enfranchisement of the colored people of the South.”81 The amendment was for Douglass an abstraction, a promise of freedom with no teeth, whereas the right to vote translated into real equality.

The loudest calls for black suffrage came from free black communities in the South, most notably from the African Americans of New Orleans. In February 1864 white voters in Louisiana elected a slate of Unionist candidates pledged to statewide emancipation. The constitutional convention scheduled to meet in April would definitely outlaw slavery, but many of the state’s African Americans demanded as well an extension of voting rights to people of color. Northerners watched and debated among themselves as New Orleans residents took up the issue of voting rights. Leading the movement for an expanded franchise were two prominent free men of color from the Crescent City, Jean-Baptiste Roudanez and Arnold Bertonneau, who toured the North in the spring of 1864 to stir up support for their cause. They came to Washington and presented Lincoln with a petition demanding black suffrage signed by over one thousand African Americans.82 Lincoln was impressed. The day after the meeting, he wrote to the newly elected Louisiana governor Michael Hahn suggesting that intelligent African Americans and black veterans be allowed to vote.83

The struggle for equal suffrage, which yielded little in the way of actual legislation until the last months of the war, revealed the extent to which African Americans initially – and perhaps correctly – mistrusted the anti-slavery amendment. They were not interested in “authoring” the amendment, for the amendment lacked the explicit political rights that they thought necessary to end slavery. White politicians might contend that slavery was abolished once the Constitution said so, but African Americans tended to follow Frederick Douglass’s decree that “slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.”84

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