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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men - Book Review

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, a professor of history and economics at Golden Gate University in San Francisco has done every American High School student a service.  Hummel presents the history of the American Civil War in a readable manner, while taking on not just the major conflicts, but the economic aspects of the war as well.

The American student gets a raw deal from 'school' history on the Civil War.  Hummel uses short chapters and readable prose to allow access to difficult concepts about the Civil War.  Hummel covers the ideological and economic rifts over slavery.  The varying camps within the abolitionist movement as well as the numbers and viability of southern slavery are both handled skillfully.  Did you know that 25% of southern whites owned slaves, and half of that number owned 5 slaves or more?  I don't know what you were taught, but the garden variety American history class teaches that all southern whites were slaveowners, and it was Lincoln and the Civil War that ended slavery.  The political power of the south was cobbled together and held by the large plantation owners, but the majority of the population of the South did not own a single slave.

As you read through Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, you learn that much of what we are told about the Civil War is wrong - from both sides.  The northern apologists worship Lincoln and his actions, while the Southern Apologists cavalierly dismiss the role of slavery leading up to the war.  What Hummel craftily manages to do is find the answer to this difficult question: If there had been no Civil War, would slavery have eventually ended peacefully, as it did in every other western hemisphere country except Haiti?

The only way to answer that is to analyze the economic, political and social effects of slavery before the war.  Hummel invites the reader to skip the 2 chapters he dedicates to the economics of slavery (Was slavery profitable? How did it affect trade?  How did the economy of a slaveholding society compare to a free one?).  I, however, found these chapters the most interesting in the book.  Slavery was not an economic boon to really anyone except the large plantations, and they controlled Southern government.  Working whites hated slavery as it made their quest for work and salary demands more difficult.  How do you compete against free labor?  There were also slaveowners who barely monitored their slaves and allowed them to work and manage enterprises.  There were also the cruel and vicious slaveowners - how did these two types coexist economically?  Why were there differences?

After reading Hummel's book you'll have a much better picture of the United States before and after the Civil War.  You will learn that it was ironically the first strike against widespread freedom, as the explosion of federal power began and has never been checked since.  The federal government was 2% of the US economy before the war, and 25% of it afterward.  Realizing that government makes no money and creates nothing, you begin to see the beginning of the huge drag it has been on the American people.  This began before the war, with the Fugitive Slave Act.  The Federal Government passed the costs of capturing runaway slaves to the Northern states.  There were many abolitionists who were happy to see the South secede and be done with - this was unknown to me beforehand.

You will also see the horror show that was the Lincoln administration.  The forced jailing of dissenters, the stifling of free speech, the suspension of habeus corpus - I will never see the Lincoln administration the same way again.  Hummel shows just how arrogant and fascist Lincoln was - not the usual take on an area of history that has been captured by the Cult of Lincoln.

I highly recommend the book.  The bibliographical essays at the end of each chapter show the depth of research the book contains.  They are somewhat complex, so if you are a high school student and you want an honest look at a complex area of history, skip the essays.  The short, easily readable chapters will clear up the inconsistencies you've been presented when it comes to this era.

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