Patrick Rael is Professor of History at Bowdoin College. This interview is based on his new book Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865 (University of Georgia Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Eighty-Eight Years?
PR: Why did it take slavery so long to die in the U.S.? When we think of ending slavery in the U.S., we tend to focus on the Civil War, or perhaps the radical abolition movement which began in 1831. We seldom remember that slavery beganending here in 1777, when Vermont quietly wrote slavery out of its stateconstitution. For almost nine decades, the U.S. existed as a “housedivided against itself,” as Abraham Lincoln put it in a famousspeech. This is all the more fascinating when we compare the end of slaveryin other Atlantic polities. Even when slavery ended in conflagration, asin St. Domingue (Haiti), it ended relatively quickly. In the U.S.,though, slavery took not only decades to end, but required a catastrophic war– the only major conflict begun over slavery itself — to complete the task.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Eighty-Eight Years?
PR: The book argues that,relative to the “slave powers” of other Atlantic societies, the planters of the U.S. South were particularly potent. They enjoyed full participation in a federal system of governance that — unlike their colonial counterparts in the Caribbean — was fully vested in the system of national governance. (Indeed, with the benefit of the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, which permitted the slave states to consider 60% of their slave populations for representation in the House of Representatives and Electoral College, they were empowered beyond their mere numbers.) Toppling this powerful interest required a movement just as unique: a mass antislavery movement that rivaled Great Britain’s, and the only one to incorporate free and enslaved people of African descent in such numbers. I show how slave resistance and antislavery ideology worked together to fracture the political system and cause the war that required slavery’s final destruction.
JF Why do we need to read Eighty-Eight Years?
PR: Eighty-Eight Years reframes popular understandings of slavery and its ending. It reminds us that slavery was once a national institution, legal in all of the colonies that became states, and it shows that the so-called “free” states pioneered forms of racial bigotry that became commonplace in the South after the Civil War. Finally, the book places that experience in the context of other New World experiences of slavery and emancipation. If you read only one book about how slavery ended in theUnited States, I hope it will be this one. By placing familiar passages from American history — the ratification of the Constitution, the Nullification Crisis of 1832, John Brown’s 1859 raid on the federal armory Harpers Ferry — in broad temporal and geographic frames, it shows how they are linked together into one coherent story of slavery’s long death in the United States. Along the way, we even learn a thing or two about slavery and its abolition elsewhere.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
PR: As a youngster I always loved history for its capacity to transport us into distant times and places, and illustrate how people just like us lived and thought differently. Good history is like good travel: it reminds us that we are both all connected in one huge experience, and yet all individual and specific. As a student in college, I learned that African American history is particularly important. Anyone seeking a courageous and truthful engagement with their country must come to grips with its limitations as well as its promises. As the great novelist Richard Wright once saidof his fellow African Americans, “what we endure is what Americais.” Learning about African American history challenges us tore-think everything we thought we know about the American past. I feel blessed to play some small part in that reconsideration.
JF: What is your next project?
PR: I have always been fascinated with the period of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War. This has been the subject of much excellent recent work, but more remains to be done. In particular, I want to understand more about the post-Civil Warorigins of the carceral state that America has become. Many recent discussions around the hyper-policing of black communities look back to the Jim Crow era of the late 1800s for origins. But I believe that the roots of this national shame lie earlier, in the first years following freedom.
JF: Thanks, Patrick. Great stuff!