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DuBois’s “General Strike”

“The General Strike” is the title of chapter four of W. E. B. DuBois’s classic account of Black Reconstruction.  Like every other chapter in the book, this one opens with a short epigraph neatly summarizing the point DuBois intended to make.  It reads:

How the Civil War meant emancipation and how the black worker won the war by a general strike which transferred his labor from the Confederate planter to the Northern invader, in whose army lines workers began to be organized as a new labor force.1

This is indeed the central thesis of the chapter, and it’s worth quoting in full because its title—“The General Strike”—can seem jarringly anachronistic even to the most sympathetic readers.  It conjured up industrial capitalism far more than plantation slavery.

In one sense the title is not surprising.  DuBois had identified himself as a socialist as early as 1907, although he remained unfamiliar with Marxism for more than two decades after that.  Having initially withheld judgment of the Russian Revolution, DuBois was smitten during a visit to Russia in 1925.  A few years later, with the onset of the Great Depression, DuBois undertook his first serious study of Marx’s writings, shortly before he began writing Black Reconstruction.  By then he was closely associated with several radical black scholars who applied class analysis to the condition of African Americans, among them Ralphe Bunche, A. Philip Randolph, and Abram Harris, who in 1931 co-authored a study of The Black Worker—a term DuBois soon applied to southern slaves.2   Indeed Black Reconstruction was suffused with the rhetoric of socialism:  Not only was the black worker engaged in a general strike, but emancipation itself was defined as a transition to a new labor system and the overthrow of Reconstruction was deemed the “counter-revolution of property.”  But this only served to make Black Reconstruction a paradoxical book.  It speaks of classes but without much class analysis and still less exploration of political economy—a peculiarity that shaped DuBois’s account of federal antislavery policy during the Civil War.3    In a sense, the book is more rhetorically than substantively Marxist.

For this reason the charge of anachronism seems misplaced.  Like the book as a whole, the chapter on “The General Strike” itself was steeped in the sources of the 1860s, mostly government documents, though supplemented by postwar memoirs.  The epigraph alone suggests that DuBois did not mistake the struggles of the Civil War era for the labor conflicts of industrial America.  Despite the titular suggestion that the strike was general, for example, DuBois made it clear that the Union Army never reached the vast majority of the slaves.  (If DuBois missed anything, it was the evidence of widespread disruption on farms and plantations the army did not enter and where most slaves remained through the war.)  The “strike” he referred to was the transfer of the labor of black workers “from the Confederate planter to the Northern invader,” a transfer that proved crucial to the North’s ability to defeat the South.  We can qualify DuBois by noting that there were additional reasons why the North won the war, but his basic claim remains sound.  The transfer of the labor services of half a million black workers, from the masters who owned them to the Unionists who employed them as wage laborers, was the essence of  the revolution we call emancipation, a revolution that was indispensable to Union victory.4

DuBois argued that from the onset of the Civil War the Confederates appreciated the crucial importance of black laborers to the defeat of the slaveholders’ rebellion.  Beyond the work slaves performed on the plantations the Confederate authorities were quick to realize that enslaved black workers “could be of even more immediate use, as military labor, to throw up breastworks, transport and prepare food and act as servants in camp” (58).  But it was precisely this southern dependence on black workers that gave slaves the opening they used to tip the balance of power in favor of the Union.  Wherever northern forces arrived in the southern states slaves came within Union lines offering to work for the Yankee invaders.  “This was the beginning of the swarming of the slaves,” DuBois wrote, “of the quiet but unswerving determination of increasing numbers no longer to work on Confederate plantations, and to seek the freedom of the Northern armies” (65).  Despite his longstanding socialist sympathies, DuBois was repelled by the specter of revolutionary violence, hence his admiring account of the moderation of the southern slaves.  They “showed no disposition to strike the one terrible blow which brought black men freedom in Haiti…. for the simple reason that there was an easier way involving freedom with less risk” (65, 66).  They went on strike.

This was not merely the desire to stop work.  It was a strike on a wide basis against the conditions of work.  It was a general strike that involved directly in the end perhaps a half million people.  They wanted to stop the economy of the plantation system, and to do that they left the plantations. (67)

Here again we can qualify DuBois’s generalization while affirming its basic validity.  Most of the strikes for freedom and better working conditions took place in Union-occupied areas, often on the same plantations where black workers had for so long labored as slaves.  With the backing of the Union occupiers the freed people forced planters to abandon slavery and adopt a contract-based system of wage labor.  Eventually, from this great body of emancipated black workers came tens of thousands of recruits into the Union Army, where their military service proved crucial to the success of the northern war effort and, by extension, the successful abolition of slavery itself.

DuBois accurately captured the process by which this general strike spread from Fortress Monroe in Virginia early in the war, down to the Sea Islands off South Carolina and Georgia, across the Gulf Coast to the plantations around New Orleans, and thence and up and down the Mississippi River valley.  These were the areas occupied by the Union army in the first year of the war, and so were the first places where the army dealt systematically with black refugees.  Given his elitist radicalism, it is hardly surprising that DuBois wrote so respectfully of the Union army officers who oversaw the earliest efforts to reorganize the southern labor system, men like Benjamin Butler, John Eaton, and Nathaniel Banks.  DuBois admired Butler’s egalitarian discipline, an approach that dramatically improved the conditions of black and white workers in and around New Orleans in 1862.  DuBois was similarly impressed by the strenuous and largely successful efforts of Colonel John Eaton to relieve the humanitarian crisis among tens of thousands of refugees, white and black, in the Mississippi Valley.  There were others, like Rufus Saxton in South Carolina and army chaplain Horace James in New Bern, North Carolina, under whose direction “the poor, both black and white, were helped” (71).  DuBois even appreciated the much-maligned Nathaniel Banks who, having at first established a draconian labor system in Louisiana, quickly responded to the demands of black workers by loosening their restraints, securing their wages, and improving their working conditions.  DuBois sympathized with such men because he understood that the only feasible solution to the manifold problems caused by the rapid emancipation of hundreds of thousands of slaves—in the context of a brutal war—was to get the freed people back to work as quickly as possible, for reasonable wages and under considerably improved conditions.  By 1865 the results, in DuBois’s view, were demonstrable:

Negroes worked fewer hours and had more time for self-expression….  [E]mancipation had enlarged the Negro’s purchasing power, but instead of producing solely for export, he was producing to consume.  His standard of living was rising.5

DuBois was hardly naïve about the emancipation process.  He was fully aware of the sickness and disease that spread through contraband camps, the corruption and inefficiency of the system of leasing abandoned lands to northern speculators, and the abusive treatment of blacks by too many soldiers in the Union Army.  But he also recounted the efforts of public officials, military personnel, and private relief services to alleviate those conditions and ease the transition to free labor.  “[C]onfusion and lack of system were the natural result of the general strike,” DuBois wrote.  “Yet, the Negroes had accomplished their first aim in those parts of the South dominated by the Federal army.  They had largely escaped from the plantation discipline, were receiving wages as free laborers, and had protection from violence and justice in some sort of court” (79).

DuBois also knew that the southern ruling class used appeals to white supremacy to drive a wedge between whites and enslaved blacks.  Indeed, for most of his life DuBois believed that racial prejudice was so pervasive among white workers that he dismissed the possibility of a united working-class politics.  On the other hand, DuBois’s elitist faith in a progressive leadership cadre led him to draw attention to the Union officers who transcended the racial divide.  He noted that General Butler, first in New Orleans and later in North Carolina, went out of his way to alleviate the desperate condition of impoverished whites and blacks alike.  He quoted John Eaton’s account of the thousands of white refugees in Mississippi valley who swarmed into Union camps along with escaped slaves.  He cited similar reports from North and South Carolina, repeatedly emphasizing the class basis of secession and the shared suffering of whites and blacks alike.  Finally, DuBois recounted the growing hostility of yeoman farmers to the Confederacy, culminating in the mass desertions of southern soldiers by the last year of the war.  For DuBois, then, the internal dissolution of southern slave society began, but did not end, with the “General Strike” of black slaves.

DuBois’s interpretation remains a singularly compelling account of emancipation during the Civil War.  The transfer of the labor power of hundreds of thousands of black workers was, indeed, central to the emancipation process—arguably the central element of it.  Unfortunately, DuBois appended to the details of the General Strike a far less satisfactory account of the evolution of Union emancipation policy.  He could scarcely conceive of a northern populace that took the superiority of free labor as a given much less imagine a Republican Party that was resolutely hostile to slavery.  Where his account of wartime labor policy was nuanced, his treatment of the North too often collapsed into crude economic determinism.  When the war began, DuBois wrote, the North “was overwhelmingly in favor of Negro slavery, so long as this did not interfere with Northern moneymaking” (83). Whatever else this was, it was hardly a compelling analysis of the political economy of free labor.

There’s an irony here.  In his famous historiographical essay at the end of Black Reconstruction, DuBois skewered Charles Beard for claiming that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War.  Erasing slavery from the origins of the Civil War was a common theme among “progressive” historians like Beard and U. B. Phillips, and DuBois was among the first to call them to task.  But the erasure of slavery involved two distinct arguments, only one of which DuBois rejected.  Beard claimed that the southern states seceded to protect “the agricultural interest,” and DuBois easily exposed this fallacy.  Secessionists openly and unashamedly insisted that they were leaving the Union precisely because of their desire to protect and perpetuate slavery.  But from what?  Progressives not only denied the proslavery origins of the Civil War, they also denied that the war had any antislavery origins.  For Beard, the arch-economic determinist, the northern war effort was little more than selfish move by “the manufacturing interest” to promote high tariffs and a stable currency.6   Antislavery sentiment had little to do with it.  Having effectively repudiated Beard’s cynical account of southern secession, DuBois naively adopted Beard’s equally cynical account of the Northern war effort.  The consequences for DuBois’s account of slavery’s destruction were significant.  Having fallen back on economic determinism, he could not imagine that by 1860 generations of northerners had grown up in states that had long since abolished slavery and took it as an article of faith that societies grounded on “free labor” were economically, politically, socially, and morally superior to societies based on slave labor.  On the contrary, DuBois wrote, the North “started out with the idea of fighting the war without touching slavery” (66).

By perpetuating the erasure of the antislavery origins of the Civil War DuBois ended up producing an incoherent account of federal emancipation policy.  Noting the steady flow of slaves escaping into Union lines, DuBois claimed that U.S. officials neither planned nor foresaw “this eventuality” (62).   In fact antislavery leaders had been warning for decades that slaves would take advantage of war by escaping to federal lines in overwhelming numbers, and during the secession crisis Republican leaders—editors and politicians alike—repeatedly predicted that if the southerners provoked a war the slaves would stream into Union lines in overwhelming numbers.  In the event of secession the Mason-Dixon line would become a de facto international border, and the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution would no longer apply to slaves who crossed from “foreign” territory not only into free states but into Union-occupied territory in the slave states.  By 1859 even a moderate Republican like Abraham Lincoln warned that if the southern states seceded from the Union northerners would be relieved of any obligation to return fugitive slaves.  Lincoln repeated this familiar warning in his inaugural address.  Yet by erasing the history of antislavery politics DuBois made the early Union decision not to return escaping slaves seem like an unanticipated expedient of wartime.

The constitutional theories and federal policies formulated by abolitionists and adopted by antislavery politicians, years before the war began, were entirely missing from DuBois’s account.  He made no reference to the historical precedents for military emancipation, the near universal American consensus in favor of freeing slaves in wartime, and the threat of emancipation in the speeches and writings of antislavery activists and politicians before the Civil War.  DuBois never explored the antislavery commitment to making “Freedom National”—a principle long associated with antislavery radicals but which Lincoln himself endorsed in 1855.  In the decade leading up to the Civil War northerners engaged in a massive refusal to return thousands of fugitive slaves escaping from the South.  All of this was missing from Black Reconstruction.  The result was a disjointed account of federal emancipation policy as it developed in the first years of the war.

The evolution of Union emancipation policy requires careful attention to chronology, but DuBois’s dating was random and confusing.7    He misread documents and attributed quotations to the wrong people.  He had federal officials saying things that flatly contradicted his own thesis.8   He relied heavily on misleading post-war memoirs rather than the abundant contemporary sources.  He made consequential mistakes.9   He contradicted himself.  At some points DuBois claimed that the slaves took a wait-and-see attitude—that they did not run to Union lines until they knew the Army was ready to liberate them.  At other times DuBois argued that the policy of liberating slaves was forced on a reluctant Lincoln administration after arrival of the slaves.  He missed basic distinctions between “contrabands” and “fugitive slaves,” for example, or between emancipation and abolition.  But DuBois’s most disconcerting flaw was analytical:  By relying on simplistic economic determinism rather than political economy, DuBois posited a capitalist revolution in which none of the capitalists came into the war driven by a powerful commitment to the superiority of free labor.

None of this was necessary.  DuBois’s compelling evocation of the General Strike did not require the subsidiary claim that federal policymakers were reluctant emancipators.  On the contrary, the General Strike succeeded in large measure because it was consistent with Union antislavery policy from the earliest months of the war.  This is not to say that the interests of the slaves were identical to the interests of the northern bourgeoisie.  It is to say the Civil War was a revolutionary conjuncture, the moment when the slave’s desire for freedom converged with the Republican Party’s determination to destroy the Slave Power and establish the national hegemony of free labor.  We know what the slaves did during the war.  What we need to recover is what the Republicans were doing.

For decades antislavery leaders warned that slaves would take advantage of a military conflict in the South by escaping to federal lines and emancipating themselves.  For this reason they doubted that the slaveholders would ever risk secession.  As early as 1825 a young William Seward was convinced that “the south will never, in a moment, expose themselves to a war with the north, while they have such a great domestic population of slaves, ready to embrace any opportunity to assert their freedom and inflict their revenge.”10 A decade later former president and then Massachusetts congressman John Quincy Adams elevated those sentiments into a constitutional principle justifying military emancipation.  If a war or rebellion breaks out in the South, Adams argued, the war-powers clause of the Constitution authorized the federal government to emancipate slaves in areas in rebellion.  By the 1850s radicals like Joshua Giddings and conservatives like Francis Preston Blair agreed that secession meant war and war meant emancipation.  In January of 1861, as the slave states were seceding from the Union, Republican congressman John Bingham warned that “in time of war” the federal government was empowered to “interfere with slavery in the States [by] emancipating the slaves.”  In issuing this threat, Bingham added, “I adopt the words of Mr. John Quincy Adams.”11   Outraged Democrats demanded that Republicans repudiate the Adams doctrine, but the Republicans stood fast.  Indeed they insisted that the revolutionary upheaval would be set in motion by the slaves themselves, in much the same way DuBois later described.  “Whenever our armies march into the Southern states,” Orville Browning wrote to Abraham Lincoln barely two weeks after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, “the negroes will, of course, flock to our standards.  This,” he said, “is inevitable.”12    Browning fell on the conservative end of the Republican spectrum, whereas Kansas Senator James K. Lane was far more militant.  Yet they were agreed that the mere arrival of the Union army would provide the slaves with the opportunity to free themselves.  Shortly after the war began Lane predicted that “the institution of slavery will not survive, in any State of this Union, the march of the Union armies.”13

This should not surprise us.  Hostility to slavery was the organizing premise of the Republican Party.  It was not simply that slavery was a backward and despotic, it was that the liberty and prosperity of the North were a reflection of the superiority of free labor.   Like most northerners of his day, for example, Abraham Lincoln subscribed to the labor theory of value.  “Labor is prior to and independent of capital,” he said.  “Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed.”  All working people had a natural right to the fruits of their labor, whether the workers were black or white, male or female.  “[I]n her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands,” Lincoln said, the black woman “is my equal, and the equal of all others.”14   Republicans never doubted that the slaves would leap at the opportunity to abandon their masters and work instead for wages.  In DuBois’s terms, the slaves would go on strike.

In this context it’s worth noting that one of the hallmarks of free labor, as Lincoln saw it, was the freedom to strike.  Commenting on a widespread walkout by shoemakers in New England in early1860 Lincoln was “glad to know,” he said, “that there is a system of labor where the laborer can strike if he wants to! I wish to God that such a system prevailed all over the world.”15   When Lincoln used the word “strike” he undoubtedly meant a wage-earner’s right to quit a job and voluntarily choose another.   This was a far cry from the labor radicals who were already denouncing the wage system itself as a form of slavery.  Nevertheless, in the context of an impending struggle over chattel slavery in the South, Lincoln’s idealization of the laborer’s right to strike had radical implications—implications that became clear only weeks after the Civil War began.

On May 24, 1861, a little more than a month after Fort Sumter, three slaves escaped to the Union outpost at Fortress Monroe, Virginia.  The Union commander, General Benjamin F. Butler, justified his refusal to return the refugees to their owners by highlighting the significance of the slaves’ labor services.  “I am credibly informed that the negroes in this neighborhood are employed in the erection of batteries and other works by the rebels, which it would be nearly or quite impossible to construct without their labor,” Butler wrote to his superiors in Washington.  He had “determined” not to return the slaves to their owners, Butler wrote, “as these men were very serviceable and I had great need of labor in my Quartermaster’s Department, to avail myself of their services.”16   Three days later Butler wrote again, in a somewhat more urgent tone.  “The inhabitants of Virginia are using their negroes in the batteries,” he wrote.  “Without them, the batteries could not have been erected….  As a military question it would seem to be a measure of necessity to deprive their masters of their services.”  Once again Butler “determined to employ, as I can do very profitably, the able-bodied persons in the party.”17   Butler prodded his superiors to make a decision as to federal policy.  Would it not be better, he asked, to accept the slaves’ offer to work for the Union army rather than return them to their owners, who would put them to work in support of the Confederate war effort?

Within days Lincoln met with his cabinet to discuss the question, after which the Secretary of War informed Butler that his “action in respect to the negroes who came within your lines is approved.”   The general was instructed to “refrain from surrendering to alleged masters any persons who may come within your lines.”  Instead, the Secretary of War told Butler, “You will employ such persons in the services to which they may be best adapted.”18

Employ such persons in the services to which they may be best adapted.  Federal authorities, military and civilian alike, explicitly framed the first critical move toward emancipation as the transfer of the labor services of black workers from the Confederacy to the Union—precisely as DuBois would later define the “General Strike.”

Although they were being put to work in the service of the Union, the “final disposition” of the black workers had yet to be decided.  Were they emancipated?  Or were they merely “contraband of war,” moveable property to be returned to its owners upon the cessation of hostilities?  That decision was made on August 6, when Congress passed the first federal emancipation law in American history, known as the First Confiscation Act.  The law decreed that masters who put their slaves to work in support of the rebellion would permanently “forfeit” their property right to slaves.  (Even before he was elected Lincoln used similar language, warning that if the slaveholders seceded from the Union the North would be absolved of any constitutional obligation to recapture escaped slaves.)  When slaves of rebel masters came within Union lines they were “confiscated.”  At that point the president exercised his war powers to emancipate them and offer them wages in return for the work they did for the Union army.  The transfer of labor service was built into emancipation from the very beginning.

By August 8, when the War Department issued its instructions for implementing the new law, hundreds of slaves had escaped to Fortress Monroe and were working for the Union Army in return for wages.  The same thing happened a few months later, on a somewhat larger scale, when Union forces occupied the Sea Islands off South Carolina.  This time it was thousands of slaves who had refused to follow their fleeing masters, instead remaining behind and offering to work for the Union army.  In South Carolina, as elsewhere, the occupying Union forces stressed the voluntary transfer of the labor service of black workers as the central theme in this, the first full-scale “experiment” in wartime emancipation.

In early December, with the recent Union occupation of the Sea Islands clearly in mind, Lincoln and his cabinet secretaries issued a striking series of reports explaining and justifying the administration’s emancipation policy.  In his own annual address to Congress the president himself noted that under the terms of the First Confiscation Act numerous slaves were already coming within Union lines and were “thus liberated.”  On December 4 Secretary of State William Seward again cited the Confiscation Act in an order declaring that slaves escaping from rebel territory into Washington, D.C., were emancipated.  Seward added that any Union soldiers who attempted to return such fugitives to their owners would be prosecuted.  In their separate annual reports published that same week the Secretaries of War, Navy, and Treasury, likewise declared that slaves of rebellious masters who came within Union lines were to be emancipated and offered work in return for wages.  According to Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, “fugitives from insurrectionary places [who] have sought our ships for refuge and protection….  Should be cared for and employed in some useful manner, and might be enlisted to serve on our public vessels or in our navy yards, receiving wages for their labor.”  If no jobs were available, Welles added, the fugitives “should be allowed to proceed freely and peaceably without restraint to seek a livelihood in any loyal portion of the country.”19

The cabinet report that carried the most weight, however, was the one issued by Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase.  His department was directly responsible for implementing federal policy regarding all refugees who came within Union lines in the occupied portions of the Confederacy.  Under ordinary circumstances, Chase explained, contraband property would be returned to its owner once peace was restored.  But slaves held as property under state laws “must, of necessity, form an exception to the rule of confiscation,” no doubt because the Constitution—as Chase had long argued—did not recognize slaves as property but only as “persons held to service.”  As Chase explained in his report of December, 1861, “Persons held by rebels…  to service as slaves, may… be justly liberated from their constraint, and made more valuable in various employments, through voluntary and compensated service, than if confiscated as subjects of property.”20   Liberated from the “constraints” of enslavement, emancipated blacks became wage laborers.

It was one thing to declare a policy and another to enforce it.  Like northern society as a whole, the Union army was divided over emancipation and there were numerous instances of soldiers and generals turning away slaves who went on “strike” by escaping to Union lines.  Emancipation was, after all, a partisan Republican Party policy, a policy northern Democrats fiercely opposed and roundly denounced.  Union soldiers carried those partisan allegiances with them to war:  Democrats would fight for the Union as it was; Republicans for an antislavery Union.  Not all Democrats in the Army were hostile to emancipation, but those most hostile to Republican antislavery policy—generals like George McLellan and Don Carlos Buell—were Democrats.  Not surprisingly, in a few notorious cases, soldiers and officers actually assisted owners in the capture and return such slaves.  (We might call them, following DuBois, strikebreakers.)  Republicans in Congress were infuriated by such reports.  Loyal black southerners were risking their lives to escape to Union lines and offer their labor services to the northern war effort.  In private letters and official correspondence, northern soldiers told of countless slaves who provided the invading Union troops with crucial military intelligence.  Slaves knew the local geography, they knew where Confederate supplies were stockpiled, where Confederate troops were camped, some had been privy to Confederate battle plans—all of which they eagerly shared with the Yankee invaders.

By the beginning of 1862 it was becoming a familiar refrain among Republican policymakers that the slaves were the only reliably loyal Unionists in the South.  As the evidence of the General Strike mounted, Republicans became more and more aggressive in their determination to assist in the revolutionary overthrow of the southern labor system by transforming enslaved black workers into wage laborers.  The Committee on the Conduct of the War demanded explanations from generals who turned slaves away.  Individual congressmen and Senators privately pressed Union generals to implement emancipation policy.  In early 1862 Congress passed a law making it a crime for anyone in the Union military to participate in the capture and return of fugitive slaves.  Throughout 1862 administration officials repeatedly instructed Union generals up and down the Mississippi Valley to replace slave labor with wage contracts for tens of thousands of black workers on sugar and cotton plantations.  Northern newspapers predicted that as word of federal emancipation policy spread the slaves “would refuse to work [and] demand wages.”  Already it was all but impossible to distinguish emancipation from a “general strike” for wages and better working conditions.

In the year straddling the Emancipation Proclamation—roughly mid-1862 to mid-1863—the transformation of black workers from slaves to wage laborers became systematic.  Not surprisingly, this is the period DuBois focuses on in his own account of emancipation.  With this general transition from slavery to contract labor there emerged among federal authorities an equally generalized language explaining and justifying it.  By depriving the rebels of their slaves we weaken the enemy, Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas explained, while we “add to our own strength.”21   It was commonly said that there was a double benefit to emancipation—that it deprived the Confederacy of the same amount of labor it added to the Union war effort.  This was especially clear when the “service” black workers performed was military service.  The “raising of colored troops,” Lincoln himself wrote, “works doubly, weakening the enemy and strengthening us.”  By the end of 1863, Lincoln reported, fully one-hundred thousand slaves “are now in the United States military service…, thus giving the double advantage of taking so much labor from the insurgent cause.”22   By the last year of the Civil War Lincoln claimed that the Union could not win the war without the service of tens of thousands of black soldiers.

That was precisely DuBois’s point, summarized in his epigraph to chapter four.  “How the Civil War meant emancipation and how the black worker won the war by a general strike which transferred his labor from the Confederate planter to the Northern invader.”


The abolition of slavery was the most radical revolution in American history.  It liberated four-million enslaved people, destroyed the Slave Power that had dominated the federal government since its founding, re-wrote the Constitution, and cleared the way for the triumph of capitalist wage relations in the United States.  But like all revolutions, abolition was messy and its promise of equality incomplete, limited in large measure by the fact that it was, as far as northern policymakers were concerned, a capitalist revolution.  The ideal of free labor was enough to inspire the overthrow of slavery, but it was in many ways a blinkered vision with a thin notion of what freedom was supposed to mean.  In the middle of the war the radical abolitionist Lydia Maria Child gushed that free labor had “obviously the advantage, in all respects, over slave labor.”  She wrote at a time when Democrats were denouncing the increasingly radical emancipation policy of the federal government, demanding to know “what will be done with the Negro.”  There would be “no occasion for doing any thing with them,” Child answered.  The plan of slavery’s opponents was “a very simple one….  It is merely to stimulate laborers by wages, instead of driving them by the whip.  When that plan is once adopted, education and religious teaching, and agricultural improvements will soon follow, as matters of course.”23   Such faith in the miraculous effects of wage labor goes far toward explaining the limits of capitalist revolution.

Seventy-five years later DuBois tossed a much-needed bucket of analytical ice-water on the utopian element in Free Labor ideology.  Certainly by 1866 Republican policymakers understood that leaving the freed people to the bracing force of the labor market would not be enough to make their emancipation meaningful. Though undoubtedly necessary, liberalism’s formal legal protections—a Civil Rights Act, a constitutional guarantee of black citizenship, and black voting rights—were not sufficient to forestall the “Redemption” of the South by a ruling  class that had lost its slaves but still owned most of the land.  The revolution had been real, slavery had been permanently destroyed.  But millions of black workers now faced the challenge of making freedom meaningful and a new set of struggles—against racial violence, discrimination, disfranchisement, and economic exploitation.


1. W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935), 55.
2. Sterling D. Spero and Abram Lincoln Harris, The Black Worker: The Negro and the Labor Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931).
3. DuBois’s growing attraction to Marxism in the 1920s and 1930s is described in David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. DuBois:  The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963 (New York: Henry Holt, 2000).  For perceptive analyses of the place Marxism occupied in DuBois’s thinking, see Arnold Rampersand, The Art and Imagination of W.E.B. DuBois (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), and Adolph L. Reed, Jr., W. E. B. DuBois and American Political Thought:  Fabianism and the Color Line (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).  The evolution of DuBois’s thinking about Marxism and class struggle can be traced in David Levering Lewis, ed., W.E.B. DuBois: A Reader (New York: Henry Holt, 1995), 539-638.
4. Black Reconstruction was one of a number of books published in the 1930s that rejected the reigning historiographical orthodoxy that portrayed slavery as benign and Reconstruction as a disaster.  Frederic Bancroft’s pioneering exposé of Slave Trading in the Old South had appeared in 1931, three years before DuBois’s book, and James S. Allen’s Reconstruction: The Battle for Democracy was published in 1935—one year after DuBois’s.  In 1938 Bell Wiley’s Southern Negroes, 1861-1865 demolished the myth that the slaves were loyal to their owners during the Civil War.  Like DuBois, both Allen and Wiley emphasized the agency of the slaves themselves.  What distinguished Black Reconstruction, however, was its analytical depth, its grasp of the larger significance of the Civil War and emancipation. DuBois understood—in a way that Wiley did not—that emancipation was a capitalist revolution, that the truly revolutionary character of the Civil War lay in the overthrow of slavery and its replacement by a new system based on wage labor, and furthermore that this wartime revolution was critical to the defeat of the secessionists.
5. 75.  In view of the recent claim that as many as a million slaves got “sick from freedom,” it’s worth noting the accuracy of DuBois’s evaluation.  In the aftermath of slavery the average life expectancy of southern blacks nearly doubled, infant mortality fell by half, and a more varied diet significantly improved the nutritional level of the freed people.
6. Charles and Mary Beard, The Rise of American Civilization (New York: Macmillan, 1933), although critical of slavery, nevertheless discounted slavery as the source of sectional conflict and instead framed the Civil War as a struggle between the “manufacturing interest” of the North and the “agricultural interest” of the South.  In various works Ulrich Bonnell Phillips asserted that secession was motivated by state rights, that slavery was economically moribund and, by implication, would have died without a war; that slavery was a benign system of “racial adjustment,” and that the abolitionists failed to appreciate the racial imperative underlying slavery.  See, for example, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, Georgia and State Rights (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1902); Ulrich B.Phillips, American Negro Slavery (New York: D. Appleton, 1918); Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, The Course of the South to Secession, ed., E. Merton Coulter (New York: D. Appleton, 1939).  The effect of Phillips’ work was to make the Civil War seem like a needless conflict, a position articulated most thoroughly by Avery O. Craven, The Coming of the Civil War (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1942), which can be read as a synthesis of Beard and Phillips.
7. DuBois quotes extensively from speeches, documents, articles and books published after the war—sometimes decades after the war—to make claims about policy in the crucial early weeks of the war.
8. On page 63, for example, he quotes from the December, 1863 Annual Report of the Secretary of Treasury endorsing emancipation but attributes it to the Annual Report of the Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, whose report was edited by Lincoln because he endorsed arming black soldiers.  Lincoln’s argument was that it was up to Congress, not the War Department, to change the law to allow blacks into the Union Army.
9. DuBois writes that when fugitive slaves escaped to Fortress Monroe in May and June of 1861 Union General Benjamin Butler “kept the fugitives and freed them.” But Butler’s letters make it clear that he did not emancipate the fugitives at Fortress Monroe until August 8, when the War Department instructed him to do so.
10. William H. Seward, The Works of William H. Seward, ed. George E. Baker… (New York: Redfield, 1853), 3:195.
11. Congressional Globe, 36:  2, app. 66, 83, 129.
12. Browning to Abraham Lincoln, April 30, 1861, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress.
13. Congressional Globe, 37th Congress, 1st Session, 187.
14. Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln , 2:405 at  Hereafter cited as Collected Works.
15. Collected Works, 4:8.
16. Private and Official Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler (Norwood, MA: The Plimpton Press, 1915) 1:105.
17. Private and Official Correspondence, 1:112-113.
18. Private and Official Correspondence, 1:119.
19. Report of the Secretary of the Navy, December 2, 1861, in House of Representatives, Executive Documents, 37th Cong., 2d Sess., “Message of the President of the United States,” 20-21.  In his own annual report, Secretary of War Simon Cameron also explained that slaves coming within Union lines from rebel areas were emancipated as “contraband of war.”  Cameron also advocated arming slaves and enlisting them in the Union Army.  Lincoln ordered Cameron to retract the recommendation to arm slaves from his annual report on the grounds that it was up to Congress, not the executive branch, to revise the 1792 Militia Act which banned blacks from enlisting.
20. Report of the Secretary of the Treasury, December 9, 1861, in Senate Executive Documents, No. 2, 37th Cong, 2d sess., 13.
21. Cited in James Oakes, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 (New York:  W. W. Norton, 2013), 372.
22. Collected Works, 6:374; 7:49-50.
23. Lydia Maria Child, The Right Way the Safe Way, Proved by Emancipation in the British West Indies and Elsewhere (New York: no publisher, 1862), 94-6.
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