Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation And
Melish explores the origins of racial thinking and practices to show how ill-prepared the region was to accept a population of free people of color in its midst. Because emancipation was gradual, whites transferred prejudices shaped by slavery to their relations with free people of color, and their attitudes were buttressed by abolitionist rhetoric which seemed to promise riddance of slaves as much as slavery. She tells how whites came to blame the impoverished condition of people of color on their innate inferiority, how racialization became an important component of New England ante-bellum nationalism, and how former slaves actively participated in this discourse by emphasizing their African identity.
Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and
In the long and rich historiography of North American slavery, relatively few scholars have explored the subject of slavery in New England or the impact of slavery and emancipation in the region on the racial attitudes of New Englanders. Joanne Pope Melish's book Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and "Race" in New England, 1780-1860 seeks, in her words, to put "slavery and the painful process of gradual emancipation back into the history of New England (p. 200)." Melish views as a blind spot the assumption by previous scholars that slavery in New England was peripheral to the economic, social, or political development of the region. She argues that New England slavery had a far more powerful impact on the thinking of New Englanders than they wanted to believe, and their longstanding view of the region as "free and white" has been a kind of historical amnesia, an effort to erase slavery and black people from the history of the region. That erasure of black people, she argues, resulted directly from white anxiety and confusion about how to view free blacks in their midst and what to do with or about them.
Melish maintains that white New Englanders' views of black people emerged directly from their experiences with blacks living in bondage and from their association of blackness with slavery. She writes that the unsettling process of gradual emancipation in the region after the American Revolution stirred white fears that disorderly blacks would threaten the new republic. Whereas blacks assumed that they would become free and independent citizens, whites assumed that blacks still needed to be controlled. She also argues that white people experienced anxiety about racial identity, freedom, and servitude, wondering if freedom would turn black people white and if white people could become slaves.
Beginning in the late eighteenth century, Melish writes, New England whites gradually resolved these questions by coming to regard blacks as inherently inferior and in need of control. She argues that a clear ideology of race thus first emerged in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century New England, in response to gradual emancipation. New Englanders, she argues, gradually came to view "racial" characteristics as immutable, inherited, and located in the body, and to view the black and white "races" as hierarchical and largely opposite in nature. Such a view permitted white New Englanders to seek to expell or erase black people, both literally and figuratively, from their region.
Melish's most important contribution may be to the emerging body of literature on how North Americans constructed and made use of an ideology of race. Here she pushes to locate precisely when and how Americans racialized difference and came to define blackness and whiteness as fixed, immutable, biological categories. Her answer, that this process took place in New England during gradual emancipation, is new and surprising.
Melish suggests that New England was first in developing a new ideology of race because of its early experience with slave emancipation. However, the struggle to define the meaning of emancipation and the fundamental nature and place of blacks was also going on in the upper South. There, manumissions increased during and after the American Revolution, and the growing numbers of free blacks increased white anxiety. Indeed, anxiety there was more pronounced than in New England, because of the larger black population. Colonization was also very popular in the upper South, and much of the strongest and most persistent support for colonization came from that region. In contrast to New England, opponents of slavery in the upper South never embraced the idea that freed slaves ought to remain in the United States, and antislavery activists in the upper South always combined efforts at gradual emancipation with plans for colonization. The process that Melish describes of racializing identity and seeking to expell blacks may thus have been taking place simultaneously in New England and the upper South. A comparative study of emancipation efforts in the two regions would be illuminating. Of course, the upper South did not achieve gradual emancipation, and over time, antislavery activism and even voluntary manumission there were largely choked off.
Pennsylvania was the first to agree to gradual abolition during the Revolution. First, the Executive Council suggested to the Assembly in 1778 that they stop further importation of slaves as a first step towards emancipation. An initial emancipation bill, framed that year, called for the children of slaves born after the effective date to be freed after serving 18 years for females and 21 years for males. It also ordered slaves arriving with new residents of the state freed within six months, although they could be indentured until the age of 28 for minors or for four years for adults. Passage of the law was delayed due to the war but the ideas were reinforced in 1779 when the Council declared that slavery was incongruent with the goals of the Revolution and a disgrace to a people who were then fighting for the cause of liberty. When the state returned to the abolition bill they revised it so that all children under the bill would serve until the age of twenty-eight. While this extended the time in bondage, there were two important concessions made for the African-American community. The bill dropped a provision that would have bound out freed blacks if they could not maintain themselves and also dropped a ban on interracial marriage. This law was passed in 1780; it did not free any slave born before that year and the first emancipation under the law would not happen until 1808. In hindsight, the Pennsylvania law was actually the most restrictive of the five gradual abolition laws passed in northern states. With its provisions for 28 years in bondage, the law gave a two generation grace period for slavery to die out. Total abolition did not happen in Pennsylvania until 1847. However, it was the first gradual emancipation law passed, it served as a base for neighboring states to take similar steps, and at the time it was heralded as revolutionary.
By 1785 these varied measures ended the natural increase of slaves in New England, but did not immediately stop the institution. Over the next decade or so, these states would pass more bills ending participation in the slave trade, outlawing the sale of slaves outside the state, repealing slave codes, or adjusting the ages in gradual emancipation bills, but this did not necessarily legislate the immediate end of slavery. Slaves continued to be counted on the federal census in New England until 1840, and Joanna Melish suggests in her work that even when no slaves were reported some may have existed in the state. Even after slavery apparently was gone in New England states, the debate continued. Rhode Island and Connecticut passed bills banning slavery in 1843 and 1848, respectively, and New Hampshire passed a final abolition bill in 1857.