Leonard L. Richards, professor emeritus of history at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), has given us a compelling and multi-faceted account of how the antislavery movement achieved its definitive triumph in the form of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
Like any historical account, Who Freed the Slaves? presents interpretations that examine certain points of view at the expense of others. This is, of course, a problem inherent in historical studies. But to his credit, Richards has produced a very rich account—a veritable gold mine of information—that consists of many overlapping stories: stories of how the overall strategies of different kinds of slavery opponents developed; stories of how different individuals, groups, and key episodes played out as the violent struggle over slavery in America unfolded.
Spectacular transformations accompanied the struggle: Some advocates of slavery found themselves performing a gradual (or sudden) about-face as they came to loathe the institution—or else oppose it for opportunistic reasons of their own—and some white supremacists discovered that their bigotry was ill-grounded. Alliances shifted and broke apart, erstwhile enemies became the unlikeliest of allies, and so forth.
Impressions of a great many admirable, hideous, and ambiguous personalities leap from these pages: John J. Crittenden, the stubborn pro-slavery senator from Kentucky; the quirky political general Benjamin Butler; Frederick Douglass, the fearless black abolitionist; Lorenzo Thomas, a brigadier general given plenipotentiary powers to recruit black troops and who threatened to throw out of the Army any racist officers who opposed him; the cantankerous and deeply racist Blair family of Maryland and Missouri, who were opposed to the spread of slavery; August Belmont, the pro-slavery financier, Manhattan socialite, and Democratic party leader; key Radical Republicans; members of the Lincoln cabinet; and Abraham Lincoln himself.
Most of all, however, Richards chose to weave his account around Representative James Ashley of Ohio, the Radical Republican who played the foremost role in pushing the 13th Amendment through Congress. (Anyone who saw Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln a few years ago may remember its portrayal of Ashley.) And one of the points that emerges here with particular force is the Herculean effort ridding America of slavery required and the knife-edge contingency upon which the outcome hovered during most of the Civil War.
From the Founding Fathers onward, the eminently moderate and arguably sensible idea of phasing out slavery by compensating the slave-owners—the method that the British used successfully during the 1830s to banish slavery from the West Indies—was opposed with fanatical intensity by many, if not most, American slave-owners. Let the economic determinists take note of this case study: Slavery was not fundamentally, or at least not exclusively or principally, a matter of money and wealth. The most virulent defenders of slavery could not be bought off by anyone: They could not even be paid to do the right thing.
There were other forces, beyond economics, at work: Slavery provided a ready outlet for power-lust, domination, and, of course, the near-universal lunacy (prevalent in both North and South) of race ideology, built upon the notion that the outward physical features of our fellow human beings are indicators of inward character traits, either good or bad. But it was the Civil War itself—a war caused by the slavery dispute, as the proclamations of secession by South Carolina, Mississippi, and other slave states make clear—that provided the horrific, but nonetheless priceless, leverage that was needed to rid the United States of slavery.
After preparatory chapters that set the stage by examining micro-politics in several distinctive arenas, Richards brings it all together by showing how James Ashley gathered the swing votes necessary to push the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives. His fundamental strategy was to target Northern and border-state Democrats who were lame ducks and thus largely immune to the threat of political retaliation for breaking with their own party’s overwhelmingly racist orthodoxy.