Friday’s Disunion in the New York Times has a thoughtful piece co-written by Gregory P. Downs and James Downs. They ask a simple but powerful question: “Was freedom enough?” That is, was freedom for the slaves meaningful, if it resulted in a quality of life that was arguably worse than under bondage? This is not to say that slaves were better off under slavery, but many once liberated initially became refugees in dire circumstances, without adequate food, shelter, and access to other resources to meet their most basic needs. And even as they re-established themselves in freedom they often lacked the means to live a decent and dignified existence.
Scholars have asked some form of this question posed by the Downs at least since Eric Foner’s Nothing But Freedom in 1983, the published version of his 1982 Walter Lynwood Fleming lectures at Louisiana State University. That is, Foner’s basic point was that most slaves emerged from bondage with little more than the clothes on their back.
And to digress a bit, some owners even made an issue of the clothing. For example, in my book, After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans, I discuss the case of Thomas McDougal, a black soldier from Larue County, Kentucky, who served in the 107th U.S. Colored Infantry. As a loyal border state, Kentucky was exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation and its slaveholders stubbornly refused to free their slaves even when it became clear that the war was extinguishing the peculiar institution. Slavery would only end there in December 1865 with the final ratification of the 13th Amendment. McDougal had won his freedom earlier by enlisting in the Union army, and by congressional legislation, his family as well. In Fall 1865, the soldier went to collect his family from their owner, Hillary Johnson. Johnson, who was a local judge, had Thomas McDougal arrested and jailed for theft. The judge did not claim McDougal’s family as the property stolen, but the clothes his wife and children wore when they left his custody, worth collectively 75 cents. “The Judge it is reported,” wrote a local Freedmen’s Bureau official, “takes the astute distinction that though the act of Congress may free wives and children of soldiers ‘it does not divest the owner of the title to the clothes they wear.’” McDougal sat in jail for weeks, with the bureau officials and the army apparently unable to arrange his release, until he was finally freed after a grand jury in Larue County failed to indict him.
Gregory and James Downs in Disunion also discuss recently freed slaves in trouble. They bring up an account of Harriet Jacobs, who herself escaped slavery in 1842 and was the author of a thinly veiled autobiography of her time as a slave published in 1861, who the following year was doing relief work with contrabands in the nation’s capital. The Downs write:
She confronted the many meanings of freedom when she encountered dozens of liberated slaves in Duff Green’s Row in Washington in 1862. “Many were sick with measles, diptheria [sic], scarlet and typhoid fever,” she wrote. “Some had a few filthy rags to lie on; others had nothing but the bare floor for a couch.” As Jacobs attempted to comfort them, they looked up at her with “those tearful eyes” that asked, “Is this freedom?
The Downs then discuss the proliferation of scholarship since Foner’s Fleming lecture on the meaning of freedom for the slaves and the factors that placed constraints on their freedom, mentioning the work of Thavolia Glymph, Susan O’Donovan, Steven Hahn, James Oakes, Hannah Rosen, Kate Masur, and Dylan Penningroth. They sum up the writing of these persons and others on emancipation, stating:
Asking hard questions about freedom helps scholars envision emancipation as a process rather than a shotgun moment of liberation. If understood as a practice, not a stroke of a pen, emancipation becomes a longer story, one that emphasizes the gulf between the federal government’s plans and life on the ground in the postwar South. While it is possible to define those moments through the absence of freedom, it may well be that what ex-slaves suffered from was not a lack of freedom, but a lack of power and belonging.
It is articles by academics like the Downs, as well as a variety of other high quality contributors, that explains why I have become such a fan of Disunion. As I’ve said before, this blog is doing a great service to academics by bringing their scholarship to the attention of the general public. Something scholars themselves have done poorly, leaving many people reading books on the Civil War written by journalists and other non-academics, or relying on the internet, which while it has some high quality material (this blog, for instance!) also is the home of blogs, websites, and other “resources” of dubious reliability.
Sources: 1) Donald R. Shaffer, After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 99; 2)