A Plea for Multi-Causality in Emancipation, Part 2

This is a follow-up to my post yesterday, which pled for multi-causality in explaining emancipation in the American Civil War. To borrow a phrase from the U.S. Congress, I would like to “revise and extend” my original blog post. This revision and extension is largely the result of feedback I received. The gist of the feedback boiled down to two points. First, that I was not being fair to Gary Gallagher by suggesting he was backing off partly his thesis in The Union War (2011). Essentially, that Gallagher always had believed in multi-causality for emancipation, just that he contended the Union Army was the single most important agent of freedom for the slaves. Second, the feedback was critical of my comment that “the chain of cause and effect is sufficiently complex that it really is not useful trying to decide who or what was most important in emancipation.” Essentially, that by refusing to judge the relative weight of the causes of emancipation, I was abandoning scholarship’s essence: analysis.

The criticism certainly has a point, but only up to a point. Still, I am grateful for it, for making me sharpen my argument. That is, what is it exactly about books like The Union War that is troubling? Certainly, it is not that Gary Gallagher denies multi-causality for emancipation in the Civil War. What troubles me is that he is suggesting one cause of emancipation is more important than all the others.

To be fair to Gallagher, he is merely the latest in a long line of scholars asking the question, “Who freed the slaves?” For a long time, scholars would give that credit to Abraham Lincoln (a notion still popular among the public). Then with rise of social history, other scholars began to emphasize the role of the slaves in their own liberation, the so-called “self-emancipation” thesis. To be fair to my mentor, Ira Berlin, and his colleagues at the Freedmen and Southern Society Project–who have been incorrectly but understandably identified with this thesis–they  believed and still believe in multi-causality in emancipation. Other scholars, most notably James McPherson, tried to suggest they believed the slaves liberated themselves but Berlin and the current head of Freedmen of Southern Society Project, Leslie Rowland, while emphasizing the slaves’ importance in ending slavery (natural given the nature of their documentary editing project), have always stated the slaves’ activities were one cause of many factors in emancipation and never claimed it was the most important. For true believers in self-emancipation, one must look to activist scholars like Sterling Stuckey, eager to find black nationalism emerging out of slavery and its destruction.

So I suppose what I am getting at here is that scholars need to find a new question to guide exploration of the causes of emancipation. “Who freed the slaves?” has certainly identified a variety of important causes of emancipation in the American Civil War, and how a war to defend slavery ultimately resulted in its end. But the question also encourages scholars to suggest incorrectly one cause as the most important, whether it be Abraham Lincoln, the Union Army, the slaves, etc.

There is not a most important cause of emancipation because all the causes mentioned above are inseparably intertwined. For example, does Fortress Monroe become a refuge for slaves in May 1861, setting a much followed precedent, because Benjamin Butler gave sanctuary to three slaves that escaped from their rebel owners or does it happen because the three slaves sought the sanctuary in the first place putting Butler on the spot? It is the old chicken or the egg question. Which comes first? Neither really, because these actions are so intertwined as to become inseparable.

So does this mean that scholars should not analyze the relative importance of Civil War causes? There the commentators have an important point. It is certainly worth doing so, as long as one cause is not put on a pedestal as the most important cause. For the sake of advancing discussion, it would be worthwhile to suggest there are two groups of emancipation causes: primary and secondary. Primary causes are ones that if they had not existed, emancipation likely would not have occurred during the Civil War. Among these are Lincoln’s support, the slaves making an issue of themselves, and the Union Army as an institution deliberately and inadvertently undermining slavery. In terms of the secondary causes, one might identify such factors as secession, popular opinion within the United States, and international opinion. No doubt there are other causes that could be added here, or shifted back and forth across the two categories.

So, yes, let’s analyze the causes of emancipation in the Civil War. After all, that is what scholars do. But let us stop privileging one factor as more important than the rest when the situation was clearly more complex and interesting than that.

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About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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One Response to A Plea for Multi-Causality in Emancipation, Part 2

  1. marcferguson says:

    Rather than privileging one cause, I would suggest that the advance of Union armies provides the context for understanding all of the other factors that led to emancipation during the war.

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