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 takeslavery so long to die in the U.S.? When we think of ending slavery inthe U.S., we tend to focus on the Civil War, or perhaps the radical abolitionmovement 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, theplanters of the U.S. South were particularly potent. They enjoyed fullparticipation in a federal system of governance that --- unlike their colonialcounterparts in the Caribbean --- was fully vested in the system of nationalgovernance. (Indeed, with the benefit of the three-fifths clause of theConstitution, which permitted the slave states to consider 60% of their slavepopulations for representation in the House of Representatives and ElectoralCollege, they were empowered beyond their mere numbers.) Toppling thispowerful interest required a movement just as unique: a mass antislaverymovement that rivaled Great Britain's, and the only one to incorporate free andenslaved people of African descent in such numbers. I show how slaveresistance and antislavery ideology worked together to fracture the political systemand 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 ofslavery and its ending. It reminds us that slavery was once a nationalinstitution, legal in all of the colonies that became states, and it shows thatthe so-called "free" states pioneered forms of racial bigotry that becamecommonplace in the South after the Civil War. Finally, the book placesthat experience in the context of other New World experiences of slavery andemancipation. If you read only one book about how slavery ended in theUnited States, I hope it will be this one. By placing familiar passagesfrom American history -- the ratification of the Constitution, theNullification Crisis of 1832, John Brown's 1859 raid on the federal armoryHarpers Ferry -- in broad temporal and geographic frames, it shows how they arelinked together into one coherent story of slavery's long death in the UnitedStates. Along the way, we even learn a thing or two about slavery and itsabolition elsewhere.
JF: When and why did you decide to become anAmerican historian?
PR: As a youngster Ialways loved history for its capacity to transport us into distant times andplaces, and illustrate how people just like us lived and thoughtdifferently. Good history is like good travel: it reminds us thatwe are both all connected in one huge experience, and yet all individual andspecific. As a student in college, I learned that African Americanhistory is particularly important. Anyone seeking a courageous andtruthful engagement with their country must come to grips with its limitationsas 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 feelblessed to play some small part in that reconsideration.
JF: What is your next project?
PR: I have always beenfascinated with the period of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War. This has been the subject of much excellent recent work, but more remains to bedone. In particular, I want to understand more about the post-Civil Warorigins of the carceral state that America has become. Many recentdiscussions around the hyper-policing of black communities look back to the JimCrow era of the late 1800s for origins. But I believe that the roots ofthis national shame lie earlier, in the first years following freedom.
JF: Thanks, Patrick. Greatstuff!