Practical Freedom: Space, Sovereignty, and the End of Slavery in the United States

Presented by Greg Downs, City University of New York, at the Center for Historical Research, Department of History at The Ohio State University on April 11, 2014.

Ending slavery in the aftermath of the Civil War was not simply a legal challenge but a spatial one, a test of federal claims of sovereignty over the wide spaces of the southeastern states. As the military's war powers endured beyond Confederate surrender, freed people and Army officers and Republican politicians tied the return of peace to the actual, not just legal, end of slavery. Since slaves were largely held in the countryside, not in cities, the Army spun widely outward into the Southern landscape in the months after Appomattox. Learning from the complaints of freed people, Army officers asserted that freedom was a status claim that could only be recognized in proximity to the federal government in the form of the military. It was useless, they wrote back to Washington, to rely upon proclamations since planters simply ignored them. The contest between federal and local power over slaves, then, would be won not simply in courtrooms or congressional debates but in forceful encounters. In the process, they raised broad, complicated questions about the nature of the post-conflict period.

If the endurance of slavery justified the continuation of war, then what conditions of freedom would signal the return of peace? As Army officers eliminated slavery in most of the southeast in the summer and fall of 1865 and in Texas in the winter of 1865-1866, freed people pressed them toward broader definitions of "practical freedom." This vision empowered freed people to seek additional help and officers to override legislatures, judges, and magistrates, but it made the return of peace distant and unpredictable. More broadly, if national power could only be forced by force, then were all forms of centralized government over local law essentially forms of occupation? Over the course of the post-conflict period, politicians increasingly placed the United States' difficulty in overriding local power in its peripheries in a broad conversation about the new demands of global nineteenth-century government. What the United States faced was not just an end to a civil war but a piece of broader worldwide strains upon sovereignty claims that could be compared to many different forms of central assertions of power, from England over Ireland and India, to Austria over Poland, Switzerland over the Sonderbund, and France over Algeria. Seeing the end of slavery not just as a debate over race and emancipation but as a practical test of national authority helps us place the United States within those global currents of state-building and sovereignty assertion.

The Ohio State University Center for Historical Research in the Department of History provides a stimulating intellectual environment for studying important historical issues around the world. Each year the Center brings together scholars from various disciplines to examine issues of broad contemporary relevance in historical perspective.