Age of Emancipation (HIST-301)

The first colored senator and representatives - in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States

"The first colored senator and representatives in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States", Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Instructor: Lynda Morgan

Two long-range historical developments defined the Atlantic basin in the nineteenth century: the collapse of slavery, and the acceleration of industrial capitalism.

For these reasons, the century is often called both the Age of Emancipation and the Age of Capital. In the United States, this process required a bloody war that claimed more lives - over 700,000 - than all of the nation's subsequent wars combined.

Some call this war a civil war; others think of it as a revolutionary slave rebellion.

Scholars are currently engaged in a debate over the relationship between enslavement, the profits from nineteenth-century cotton production, and the rise of a capitalist economy. When the war ended in 1865, plantation slavery, a system of labor nearly two and half centuries old, was replaced by a relatively youthful labor regimen known as free labor, or wage labor.

For many historians, the watershed of emancipation, and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution represented historical breaks extreme enough to be termed revolutionary and represent the only real revolution in American history.

For others, the Civil War changed little if anything; they argue that because poverty, racism, and exploitation continued, the achievements of the war were minimal at best.

Still others emphasize Reconstruction as the most democratic of American movements, emphasizing African American politically democratic successes in the face of terroristic opposition.

The majority of historians stand united on the fact that social conflict during the United States' Age of Emancipation was present in abundance, and that we remain firmly in the historical grip of Reconstruction’s legacy, to the extent that none of the subsequent history of the United States can be understood without this crucial linchpin. The reasons for the outbreak of the Civil War, its changing nature, and its consequences, therefore, remain matters of heated debate that we will explore from a variety of perspectives.

Our readings in the Age of Emancipation will pivot chiefly around the viewpoint of African American labor history and its social and political ramifications.

We will begin with an examination of the antebellum United States, in an effort to understand the institution of slavery that caused the Civil War and the generation who experienced slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. We will proceed to events of the war itself.

Our semester will close with the study of the period of Reconstruction, and with a brief look toward the future of segregation.

Throughout the semester we will stress African Americans as central, though not the sole, historical actors in this crucial period of American history, paying close attention to the ways in which they fought for and shaped their own freedom, and in what ways they both won and lost the raging battles to define freedom.

We will examine, for example:

  • slave labor and cultures
  • the war and historical memory
  • the key role of African Americans in the war itself
  • the contests over the definition of African American labor
  • African American political thought and behavior. 

Some readings will allow us to make comparative observations with other societies undergoing emancipation, enabling us to put American emancipation in historical and international perspective.

We will often address the legacy of this period for our time.

Highlight image: Engraved portrait of Abraham Galloway. From William Still's Underground Railroad, p. 150-151, published 1872, by Porter & Coates, Philadelphia. From the collections of the Government & Heritage Library, State Library of North Carolina.