Emancipation—freeing the slaves—Hell? The Emancipation Proclamation—one of the sacred icons of American history—a tragedy? How can this be?
That was the opinion of Frederick Douglass, the most important African American leader of the 19th century, who proclaimed, “I denounce the so-called Emancipation.” Douglass wrote: “I admit that the Negro…has made little progress from barbarism to civilization, and that he is in a deplorable condition since his emancipation. That he is worse off in many respects, than when he was a slave, I am compelled to admit…” Indeed, social statistics of 1900 indicate that material quality of life was lower for most black Americans than under slavery.
Kirkpatrick Sale marshals much forgotten evidence to cast this glorious part of American history in a realistic and critical light. Emancipation, yes. But as a military measure during a cruel war of invasion? Slavery once existed throughout the Western Hemisphere, but almost everywhere except the United States, it ended peacefully. Emancipation with no thought or plan for the unprecedented situation to be managed? With no real sympathy or interest in the people freed except their usefulness in controlling and exploiting the conquered South? (Some Northern leaders denounced the Proclamation as an atrocity and an estimated 200,000 Northerners deserted or evaded service in a war for African Americans rather than for the “Union.”) Perhaps never in history, Kirkpatrick Sale demonstrates, has a benevolent act been so tainted with impure motives and disdain of consequences. Abraham Lincoln has a lot to answer for, says the author. His flawed proclamation doomed Americans to a century and a half of racial conflict and disparity that is still with us.