Phantoms of Freedom: An Excerpt From “Illusions of Emancipation”

Happy Juneteenth! Celebrate and reflect on the emancipation of slavery with this excerpt from Illusions of Emancipation: The Pursuit of Freedom and Equality in the Twilight of Slavery by Joseph P. Reidy.

In this sweeping reappraisal of slavery’s end during the Civil War era, Joseph P. Reidy employs the lenses of time, space, and individuals’ sense of personal and social belonging to understand how participants and witnesses coped with drastic change, its erratic pace, and its unforeseeable consequences. 

“Reidy’s important book shows that the movement toward freedom was neither linear nor inevitable but was and must be constant. In that, he speaks to not only history but our own day.”

Library Journal

Bancroft Prize, Columbia University
2020 John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History, John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia
Finalist, 2020 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize

Phantoms of Freedom

On December 18, 1940, the distinguished Howard University historian Charles H. Wesley delivered a lecture commemorating the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This was seventy-five years to the day after Secretary of State William H. Seward announced that slavery was officially abolished. Wesley spoke at the newly opened Founders Library, named in honor of the thirteen men responsible for establishing the university, which Congress had chartered in 1867. That same year, the institution’s namesake, Oliver Otis Howard, the Civil War hero and commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau who was often referred to as the “Christian General,” purchased the land where the campus stood from John A. Smith, a prominent resident of the District of Columbia. Five years earlier Smith had received $5,146.50 in compensation from the federal government for fourteen enslaved persons under the act that abolished slavery in the District of Columbia. Smith’s 150-acre farm, “The Hill,” was located slightly more than one mile north of the White House, the Washington Monument, and the U.S. Capitol building, just beyond Boundary Street, which separated rural Washington County from the city of Washington. Several blocks east of the Capitol in Lincoln Park stood Freedom’s Memorial, the noted sculptor Thomas Ball’s famous work commemorating Abraham Lincoln as emancipator. Wesley referenced the memorial in his remarks.

Wesley focused particularly on the stylized portrayals of Lincoln and the black man who also occupied the pedestal. He noted that Ball’s original design, sculpted shortly after the president’s assassination, depicted the freedman “kneeling in a completely passive manner, receiving his freedom at the hands of Lincoln, his liberator.” In response to criticism, Wesley explained, Ball altered the model “so that the slave, although kneeling, is represented as exerting his own strength to break his chains.” “Nearer to historical truth” than the original, the final version of the statue nonetheless still failed to represent accurately the enslaved people’s role in emancipation. In the spirit of the day they commemorated, Wesley invited his audience to imagine the influence that black freedom seekers had on Lincoln and on the development of emancipation policy more generally.

One of the persons most responsible for Freedom’s Memorial, William Greenleaf Eliot, a prominent St. Louis minister and foe of slavery who helped found the Western Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, offered reflections similar to Wesley’s more than fifty years earlier. Acknowledging that the figures portrayed “President Lincoln in the act of emancipating a negro slave, who kneels at his feet to receive the benediction,” Eliot observed that the slave’s “hand has grasped the chain as if in the act of breaking it,” suggesting “that the slaves took active part in their own deliverance.” Eliot’s comments reflected an insider’s knowledge; in fact, he had convinced Ball to use the “likeness, both face and figure,” of Archer Alexander as the model for the freedman. Alexander had escaped from slavery in 1863, and Eliot offered him shelter and employment and even helped thwart an attempt to reenslave him. Eliot published an account of Alexander’s life in 1885.

Wesley invited his audience to imagine the influence that black freedom seekers had on Lincoln and on the development of emancipation policy more generally.

The African American artist Edmonia Lewis also portrayed emancipation through design elements and classical motifs similar to Ball’s in her 1867 sculpture Forever Free. Like Ball, Lewis employed two figures, one standing and the other crouching, and the freedman depicted in both wore clothing only around his waist. The similarities in composition ended there. Whereas Ball’s second figure was Lincoln, dressed in a suit, standing above the kneeling freedman with arm outstretched symbolically freeing him, Lewis’s second figure was a woman, clothed in a dress but, like the man, wearing broken shackles. It was she who knelt and he stood next to her, his right hand resting on her shoulder and his left arm raised in triumph. Both gaze skyward. Although critics have variously interpreted Lewis’s symbolism, none has doubted her intention to depict freedom as the product of struggle and to suggest that escaping slavery constituted only its initial phase.

Wesley, too, rejected the notion that freed people were passive recipients of freedom at Lincoln’s hand. To make the case, he drew on Frederick Douglass’s remarks at the dedication of Freedom’s Memorial on April 14, 1876. The veteran abolitionist strained to rebalance not just the images that Ball’s statue conveyed of Lincoln (the liberator) and Alexander (the liberated) but also the broadly popular stereotype that the artist had tapped into for his initial inspiration. Douglass spoke against a backdrop of the increasingly fragile Republican governments in the former Confederate states and the increasingly brazen violence against freed people everywhere. The audience included the sitting president, Ulysses S. Grant, and a host of other government officials and dignitaries as well as a number of the most distinguished black leaders in the land. The front of the memorial bore a plaque with the caption “Freedom’s Memorial in Grateful Memory of Abraham Lincoln,” which acknowledged that the freedwoman Charlotte Scott’s initial contribution of five dollars, “her first earnings in freedom,” had set the project in motion. Tellingly, the commemorative program altered the inscription on the plaque to read “the Freedmen’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln.”

An earlier elision transformed the nature of the occasion itself. In March, when John Mercer Langston, the renowned abolitionist and attorney, and his fellow members of the national committee on arrangements petitioned Congress to declare the day “a general holiday” for all government employees in the city, they recommended holding the event on April 14 in honor of two anniversaries. Besides Lincoln’s assassination, they wished to mark “the emancipation of the slaves in the District of Columbia” on April 16, 1862. The newspaper report that ran in the Washington Republican and that was reprinted in the commemorative pamphlet referenced only “the eleventh anniversary of the death of Abraham Lincoln.” This effectively separated Lincoln the martyr from the broader struggle for freedom, which long predated his birth, much less his assassination.

Fully aware of the delicacy of the situation, Douglass nonetheless recast the history of the struggle against slavery in terms that acknowledged Lincoln but placed his contributions within the context of the social movement. Douglass surely turned the heads of listeners when he observed that Lincoln was “pre-eminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men” and that black Americans were “at best only his step-children, children by adoption, children by force of circumstances and necessity.” He frankly admitted that many of Lincoln’s early actions left black Americans “stunned, grieved and greatly bewildered; but our hearts believed while they ached and bled.” “Despite the mist and the haze that surrounded him; despite the tumult, the hurry and confusion of the hour,” Douglass explained, “we saw him, measured him, and estimated him,” concluding “that the hour and the man of our redemption had met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.”

After Lincoln’s announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass elaborated, “we were thenceforth willing to allow the President all the latitude of time” necessary to achieve “liberty and progress.” The process was bound to be convoluted and perhaps halting as well. When “viewed from the genuine abolition ground,” he concluded, “Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical and determined.” Arguing that “few great public men have ever been the victims of fiercer denunciation” than was Lincoln, Douglass predicted that “the silent judgment of time” would vindicate the sixteenth president: “Whatever else in this world may be partial, unjust and uncertain, time! time! is impartial, just and certain in its actions,” Douglass insisted. Wesley followed suit, quoting the abolitionist: “No one can tell the day of the month, or the month of the year, upon which slavery was abolished in the United States”; rather, “the chains of slavery were loosened by degrees.” Indeed, in a summary assessment of the “results of emancipation” two years after the close of the war, Salmon P. Chase, Oliver Otis Howard, and other members of the American Freedman’s Union Commission observed that “emancipation in the United States was a growth rather than an enactment. The first act of war gave new vigor to the already strong anti-slavery sentiment of the North.”

Casting emancipation in these terms served a twofold purpose. First, it acknowledged the antislavery struggle that abolitionists and enslaved people had waged for decades. Second, it debunked the common myth that President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, abolished slavery in a single stroke.

Casting emancipation in these terms served a twofold purpose. First, it acknowledged the antislavery struggle that abolitionists and enslaved people had waged for decades. Second, it debunked the common myth that President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, abolished slavery in a single stroke. Wesley theorized emancipation from the enslaved people’s perspective. He characterized as “voluntary” those actions “in which the enslaved, working within their own framework of activity, sought freedom for themselves.” “Involuntary” actions featured “individuals and social forces from without [that] operated to advance the cause of freedom.” He parodied the conventional language that speakers and writers employed when addressing the subject—“ ‘When Abraham Lincoln struck the shackles from the slaves’, or ‘Seventy-five years ago, when the Thirteenth Amendment brought freedom to the Negro’ ”—labeling such formulations as “oratorical outbursts” rather than statements of truth. He also dismissed “the stereotype of the suppliant slave who did not desire freedom and who would not strike a blow for his freedom” as an outdated approach to “writing the history of the Negro people.”