Princeton historian Matt Karp talks with Jacobin magazine’s Megan Day and Micah Uetricht about his recent Catalyst essay, “The Mass Politics of Anti-Slavery.” This is a wide-ranging discussion about abolitionism, Karl Marx, Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party of the 1850s, and contemporary politics.
Here is a taste:
MU: Let me ask the classic question that is debated by Civil War–era historians: Who freed the slaves?
MK: I will answer this, but I have to preface it with a lame disclaimer, because in some ways I think that question actually was framed by people who want to produce a simplistic answer. In fact, Jim McPherson, God bless him, wrote an essay called “Who Freed the Slaves?” and the last sentence of that article is “Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.” You have to give the man credit. He asks historical questions. He doesn’t complicate; he doesn’t do a dialectic. He answers the fucking question.
Whereas I’ve got my hands waving, I’m all over the place. But I think I would say the antislavery movement freed the slaves. That would include antislavery politicians; antislavery voters; the Union Army, which became an armed wing of that movement; and, of course, the slaves themselves, who both took part in the Union Army and destabilized the system of slavery on the ground during the war.
I think a lot of the other answers are actually pretty ahistorical. I think “Abraham Lincoln” isn’t a historical answer. You see people trying to find a line of transmission, like “Lincoln wrote this document, and that empowered the army to do this.” They’re trying to solve it like it’s an engineering problem. Same thing for people who say the slaves freed themselves. While it’s true that thousands of slaves did free themselves, if you’re actually trying to give a historical answer to this question and not an engineering answer, you have to think about the forces that brought a situation about in which slaves could free themselves in the first place.
That’s why I would say that the answer is this antislavery movement — not the abolitionists narrowly, but the broad movement against bondage in America. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about “the abolition democracy” in the North, which ultimately formed a political alliance with slaves in the South. I think that’s the coalition that freed the slaves.
MU: What’s useful about your article is the way that it focuses on each of those pieces of the antislavery movement, which includes the slaves themselves but understands that what the slaves were able to do was often stoked by the organizing of the Republican Party. So there’s a complex interplay between all of these components of the antislavery movement.
MK: Not to be too polemical, but to say that the slaves freed themselves entirely is to say that all of the other enslaved people that did not free themselves at other points in history, and in other countries, etcetera,to free themselves every day that they were enslaved. Which is insane, because this is an overwhelming system of power and oppression that made the individual will to free oneself almost irrelevant. In terms of challenging the system of slavery, obviously that resistance was a necessary ingredient, but not sufficient. You needed, as you need now, a larger political movement to challenge something that powerful.
Read the entire interview here.