Steven Hahn contends that blacks played a more active role in bringing an end to slavery than historians generally recognize. Indeed, in his latest book, The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom, he characterizes the Civil War as “the greatest slave rebellion in modern history.” He argues that some Northern black communities may have functioned like Haitian or Brazilian “maroons”—independent sites peopled and governed by runaway slaves that were vital to sustaining black political and military struggles for emancipation.
Why do you call the civil war a slave rebellion?
It’s true that there was no big bloody uprising, like in Haiti. But the Confederates had no confusion about what the slaves were doing—fleeing north, refusing to work, demanding wages and so on. It was rebellious behavior, and they wanted government intervention to put it down. In Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois writes about the “general strike” among slaves. You don’t have to be a Marxist like him to see that he was really saying slaves were important political actors in the Civil War.
What about the abolitionist movement?
The public still has this idea that, with the exception of Harriet Tubman, white people are rescuing black people. But historians have learned that the abolitionist movement was made chiefly of people of African descent. In the 1830s and 1840s in the Northern states, blacks had access to a public sphere of politics, and held conventions to press against discrimination and for political rights, which carried through the Civil War. They’re the ones who subscribed to abolitionist newspapers. They set up and staffed the Underground Railroad. They knew where to go in order to be hidden and protected, or get employment.
What made you think runaway slaves had a key role in all this?
In other slave societies, maroons, or runaway slave communities, establish independence, support revolts and become important politically. In the United States, it appeared that outside of Spanish Florida, the lower Mississippi and a few swamps, not much was going on that way. But then I started thinking about slavery and emancipation as a long national experience, not a sectional one, and I started to speculate.
There were still slaves in the North at the time of the Civil War, even though they lived in states where theoretically slavery wasn’t legal. Free blacks’ status in the North could be contested; they could be kidnapped. Most people in the North, including Lincoln, supported the Fugitive Slave Law. So slavery was effectively legal everywhere. Then how do you think about the communities of African Americans in the Northern states? Historians write as if Northern and Southern blacks had little to do with each other, yet we know by the end of the antebellum period a lot of African Americans in the North were born in the South. What if some of these communities were like maroons? The people in them were fugitives from slavery who had to arm and defend themselves against paramilitary invasions, just as maroon communities elsewhere did.
In Lancaster County, Pa., in 1851, there was a shootout between around 100 blacks and a Maryland slaveowner who was looking for four runaway slaves with his son and friends and a U.S. marshal. This is the kind of situation where the maroon analogy makes sense. Here are black people across the Mason-Dixon line in Pennsylvania, collected among themselves out in a rural area. Many of them are fugitives from slavery. They are armed. They have networks of communication designed to alert them to trouble. The slaveowners get deputized by the federal government.
How did slaves push emancipation?
When the war starts, the federal government doesn’t really have a policy about slavery. Lincoln goes out of his way to assure Southern slaveholders that he will not tamper with, as he puts it, a “domestic institution.” He tells Southerners that as the Union Army is marching through, if they need help putting down slave rebellions, the army will do that. Now, part of the reason is that he knows Northern sentiment is divided and he doesn’t want to be distracted from saving the Union. But slaves have their own ideas about what’s going on, and they act by running away to Union camps. They have local intelligence: Where’s the Union Army? What’s going on? Initially, the Union side doesn’t want them and sends them back, so it’s a risky undertaking.
What changes the situation?
Fairly early on, the Union side learns that the Confederacy is using slave labor to build fortifications. So the logic becomes, if we send them back, they’ll be used against us. All of a sudden they’re declared contraband of war, which still acknowledges they’re property. But little by little, as the Union Army moves into the deeper South, slaves come in the hundreds and thousands. As the war drags on, they realize that black labor and, eventually, 200,000 black Union soldiers, will be important in saving the Union. So slavery becomes destabilized by what the slaves did.
How does this shape the Emancipation Proclamation?
Most people think it just establishes the idea of freedom and frees slaves in areas where the Union Army isn’t. But they forget about the provision allowing blacks to enlist. This is a huge and amazing move, very different from the preliminary proclamation Lincoln issued in September 1862. Because of African-American participation in the war, they were in a position to make claims afterward about citizenship and equality.
How did all this change America?
The Civil War completed the Revolutionary period’s nation-building process. Look at the world of the 1850s. The sovereignty of the federal government was in dispute and local sovereignties were emphasized. There was a nativist movement looking to deprive growing numbers of immigrants of any political rights. Then look at the country in the late 1860s and 1870s, where you have the Reconstruction amendments, when the idea of national citizenship for the first time comes into being, when you begin a massive process of enfranchisement after a decade and a half of disfranchisement, including women’s suffrage. Obviously this process was painfully slow, and met with serious pushbacks all along the way. But if the war had ended in an armistice instead of unconditional surrender, none of this would have happened for much longer. Slavery might have continued deep into the 20th century.
How does Barack Obama fit into this picture?
Obama is clearly part of a new segment of African descent in the United States. As immigration laws changed in the 1960s and 1970s, more people from Africa and the Caribbean came here, some with a good deal of education and resources. He’s also the product of the civil rights movement and affirmative action, which really contributed to the growth of a black middle class. That segment of the black population is much more integrated with other groups. So his election is a tribute to what the struggle for civil rights accomplished, but it could also reemphasize class distinctions. He is going to run into problems with African Americans who expect a lot of things from him, which as president of the entire country, he won’t be able to deliver.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.