Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Abolition Democracy 4/13: The Abolition of Slavery

By Bernard E. Harcourt

In the chapter titled “The General Strike” of his book Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B. Du Bois demonstrates that the women and men who were enslaved in the South used their collective power, their labor and the threat of their labor force, to bring victory to the movement for abolition. With almost four million enslaved persons of color and over a quarter million freed Black men and women, the sheer power of their labor and their acts of resistance decided the Civil War. They waged what Du Bois called a “general strike”: “the slave entered upon a general strike against slavery… He ran away to the first place of safety and offered his services to the Federal Army. So that in this way it was really true that … this withdrawal and bestowal of his labor decided the war.”[1]

A central thrust of Du Bois’s writings serves to demonstrate that abolition was achieved through the actions of Black men and women: through escape to fight in the ranks of the Union army, through the general strike and the threat of a general strike, through forms of resistance, through their presence as the primary force that fueled the Southern economy. The enslaved women and men “decided the war” despite the South and despite the North. As Du Bois explained:

It was not the Abolitionist alone who freed the slaves. The Abolitionists never had a real majority of the people of the United States back of them. Freedom for the slave was the logical result of a crazy attempt to wage war in the midst of four million black slaves, and trying the while sublimely to ignore the interests of those slaves in the outcome of the fighting. Yet, these slaves had enormous power in their hands. Simply by stopping work, they could threaten the Confederacy with starvation. By walking into the Federal camps, they showed to doubting Northerners the easy possibility of using them as workers and as servants, as farmers, and as spies, and finally, as fighting soldiers. And not only using them thus, but by the same gesture, depriving their enemies of their use in just these fields. It was the fugitive slave who made the slaveholders face the alternative of surrendering to the North, or to the Negroes.[2]

The war transformed abolition into a democratic movement, against the will of the majority of the North and the South. The North had no choice but to bring enslaved persons into the democratic fold as a way to win the war. The South would have had to do the same in order to win the war, but it was, of course, unwilling. As Du Bois wrote, “It was this plain alternative that brought Lee’s sudden surrender. Either the South must make terms with its slaves, free them, use them to fight the North, and thereafter no longer treat them as bondsmen; or they could surrender to the North with the assumption that the North, after the war, must help them to defend slavery, as it had before. It was then that Abolition came in as a determining factor, and itself was transformed to a new democratic movement.”[3]

In this seminar, Abolition Democracy 4/13, we turn to interrogate the lessons that the abolition of slavery might teach us today in our struggles for abolition democracy.

One of the most salient of those lessons has to do precisely with the often-neglected but primordial role of enslaved and freed Black persons in the victory of emancipation. As my brilliant colleague and friend Maeve Glass writes, a new history of abolition is emerging which centers the role of Black men and women in the ultimate abolition of chattel slavery. As Glass writes: “Drawing on overlooked archives and revived social theories, this new history has de-centered the field’s traditional emphasis on the white bourgeois northerners who did little to change the centuries-old racial caste system upon which their own sense of self and privileges so often rested. Instead, this is a history that calls upon us to listen and learn from the transformational ideas, words, and deeds of Black abolitionists, who rose up and spoke out against an American injustice so profound it continues to defy the standard lexicon of the historian’s craft.” Our colleague Eric Foner as well, in The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, documents the critical role of the “Colored Convention” movement among free Black men and women, the place of Black abolitionists, and the influence of Black leaders.[4]

We will begin the seminar on this theme with a presentation by the amazing artist Dread Scott  of his slave revolt reenactment project to explore the motivation, planning, and execution of the performance. Dread Scott’s piece highlights, precisely, the place of enslaved Black women and men in the struggle against oppression. We will then follow that presentation with presentations and critical discussion with a remarkable set of historians and critical thinkers, including professors Dennis Childs of the University of California, San Diego, Maeve Glass of Columbia University, and Stephanie Jones-Rogers of the University of California, Berkeley.

Stephanie Jones-Rogers’s historical research highlights the dimension of gender in the historical accounts of abolition, recentering the role of white women’s economic relationships to slavery. In this seminar, she will explore how abolition should have been renumeration for the acts of theft perpetrated against people of African descent through chattel slavery, and what that means for abolition today.

Dennis Childs’s historical research highlights the continuities from slavery to the systems of convict leasing and plantation prisons in the postbellum period, raising significant questions about the legacies and metamorphoses of oppressive institutions such as slavery.

This passage from a de jure to de facto system of racial oppression in this country raises many critical questions: What can we learn from analyzing the similarities and differences of these different periods? What can we learn especially about present abolitionist efforts? In what ways do the struggles inform each other? What are the shoals to be avoided in future abolitionist campaigns?

The passage from one institution to another—in this case, de jure to de facto racial hierarchy—and the structural transformation of social systems, has been a rich topic of learning, especially in the field of punishment. The parallels can be instructive.

In social theory in the 1960s and 70s, the shift in the nineteenth century to total institutions was a source of rich critical writing and thought—from Erving Goffman’s work on mental hospitals and the birth of total institutions in Asylums: Essays on the Condition of the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (1961), to the work of David Rothman on The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (1971), to Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975).

More recently, the deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals and reinstitutionalization that produced mass incarceration has offered a case study of lessons to be learned when institutions undergo metamorphoses. The same type of questions attach to the continuity from chattel slavery to convict leasing.

The experience of the abolition of slavery, then, presents a number dimensions relevant to the contemporary struggle for abolition democracy:

There is, first, in Du Bois’s emphasis on the power of the general strike, an element of what Michael Dawson would call “linked fate,” in the sense that the fate of any one enslaved Black person was tied to that of the Black community as a whole. Dawson’s discussion of linked fate has been productive. It ties closely to the experience of abolition. It also seems especially relevant today as we are inundated with analyses of the voting patterns of Black and Latinx Americans in the recent 2020 elections.

Another dimension, second, is the aspect of interest convergence, to borrow a term from Derrick Bell, that is reflected as well in the way in which enslaved and later freed Black men and women were used, strategically, in white power struggles before, during, and after the Civil War.

This was so clear with the Emancipation Proclamation, which only freed slaves in Southern rebellious states. As Du Bois wrote, emancipation was driven by two instrumental or strategic ends—what he called “ulterior objects”: “It was designed to make easier the replacement of unwilling Northern white soldiers with black soldiers; and it sought to put behind the war a new push toward Northern victory by the mighty impact of a great moral ideal, both in the North and in Europe.”[5]

And, even after the war, strategic interests prevailed. This is evident in Alabama where, after 1866, the power struggle was between the northern-state poorer whites and the Black Belt former slave owners—the former despising the latter for having caused the war to begin with, for having dominated them in the past, and for likely holding power over them again. The poorer northern-state whites wished “to have the power to hand, shoot, and destroy in retaliation for the wrongs they have endured,” as Du Bois wrote, because they hated the plantation owners “whom they accuse of bringing on the war and who, they are afraid, would get into power again.”[6] In the Alabama Constitution of 1865, the northern-state poorer whites gained power because apportionment was according to the white population only—so the plantation-owner counties could not include their large Black population in apportionment. This threw the former plantation owners into an alliance with the former slaves: “The planters were thus thrown into involuntary alliance with Negro labor, and the matter of Negro suffrage was discussed. The planters were sure they could control the Negro vote, while the poor white merchants and farmers opposed Negro voters.”[7] It is hard not to see interest convergence at play–with all its tensions.

A century and a half later, similar tensions can be felt today, especially in the wake of the electoral victory of President-elect Joe Biden. His victory in Georgia, one of the central battleground states, must be attributed to the long and hard work of Black organizers and politicians, especially the organizing efforts spearheaded by Stacey Abrams. At the same time, and despite that recognition, there is a fear that the vote of the Black communities, which tipped the election, may be taken for granted by the predominantly white Democratic party establishment.

This tension between centering the role of historically marginalized persons in achieving victory, but the questionable gains achieved thereby, is an ongoing concern. One of the goal of this seminar, Abolition Democracy 4/13, is to explore it in its most formative historical setting.

Third, the continuities are, of course, most frightening and challenging today with regard to the ambition of abolition democracy. The way that slavery was turned into convict leasing and all those cruel institutions that Dennis Childs describes and analyzes in his work: “the convict lease camp, the chain-gang camp, the county farm, the peonage camp, the prison plantation, and the ‘modern’ penitentiary.”[8] Childs refers to this as “neoslavery from the chain gang to the prison– industrial complex.”[9] This is what, you will recall from our last sessions, Carl Schurz called “a new form of servitude.”[10]

Recall, it is with this advertisement from the pages of the Annapolis Gazette in Maryland that Childs opens Chapter 2 of his book, Slaves of the State: Black Incarceration from the Chain Gang to the Penitentiary, on the Thirteenth Amendment.  Convict slavery replaced chattel slavery:

Public Sale—The undersigned will offer for Sale, at the Court House Door, in the city of Annapolis, at eleven O’Clock A.M., on Saturday, 22d of December [1866], a negro man named John Johnson, aged about Forty years. The said negro was convicted the October Term, 1866, of the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel county, for Larceny, and sentenced to be sold, in the State, for the term of one year, from the 12th of December, 1866.

Also a negro man convicted of aforesaid, named Gassaway Price, aged about Thirty years, to be sold for a term of one year in the State,

Also, a negro woman, convicted as aforesaid, named Harriet Purdy, aged about twenty- five years, to be sold for a term of one year in the State,

Also a negro woman, convicted as aforesaid, named Dilly Harris, aged about Thirty years, to be sold for a term of two years in the State.

Terms of sale— Cash.

WM. Bryan, Sheriff Anne Arundel County

Dec. 26th, 1866.[11]

This raises as well, fourth, the central place of the law, especially the criminal law and its perceived objectivity and neutrality, in the production of this new system of de facto slavery. As Childs makes plain, it is law that served to justify the new forms of slavery. The objective, neutral character of criminal guilt displaced, through the Thirteenth Amendment, the property regime and moralism of white supremacy antebellum. Childs writes:

The grandest emancipatory gesture in U.S. history contained a rhetorical trapdoor, a loophole of state repression, allowing for the continued cohabitation of liberal bourgeois law and racial capitalist terror; the interested invasion of “objective,” “color- blind,” and “duly” processed legality by summary justice and white supremacist custom; and the constitutional sanctioning of state- borne prison– industrial genocide.[12]

This reflects the myth of legal liberalism, of the rule of law—a recurring interrogation for us, especially today.

Fifth, the experience of slavery and its abolition centrally highlights the dimension of visibility and invisibility in history. Not only was Reconstruction deliberately misrepresented by historians and the Supreme Court for decades—as a result predominantly of the racist Dunning School, named after Columbia University professor and historian William A. Dunning[13]—but the history of oppression is mostly hidden by history, buried and excluded from the archive. As Dennis Childs emphasizes, we know little to nothing about the experiences of convict slavery. “Most of what we have in the way of any sort of encounter with their lives once they were converted into fungible black property for the alleged thieving of white property is the unspeakable conjecture allowed us by sonic, testimonial, and literary fragments of slaves and prison slaves,” Childs writes.[14]

This is what gives rise to Saidiya Hartman’s brilliant notion of critical fabulation as a way to more fully grasp the past. Hartman proposes the method of critical fabulation to fill the space of emptiness, of missing narratives. And Dread Scott performs similar work with his slave revolt reenactment. This is a theme we will discuss in the work of Dread Scott as well.

What, then, does the emancipation of slavery and the role of enslaved persons in abolition tell us about today’s possibilities for abolition and of our role in abolition? These are the questions and dimensions we will explore next.

Welcome to Abolition Democracy 4/13!



[1] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 57.

[2] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 121.

[3] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 121.

[4] See, e.g., Foner, The Second Founding, 9, 11, 13, et seq.

[5] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 84.

[6] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 488.

[7] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 489.

[8] Childs, Slaves of the State, 62.

[9] Childs, Slaves of the State, 63.

[10] Quoted in Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 136; quoted in Childs, Slaves of the State, 64.

[11] Quoted in Childs, Slaves of the State, 57-58.

[12] Childs, Slaves of the State, 64.

[13] See, generally, Foner, The Second Founding, xxi-xxiv.

[14] Childs, Slaves of the State, 58.

Bernard Harcourt