Seizing Freedom – David Roediger


Why did I read this?

VersoBooks is a leading leftwing publishing house that specializes in array of social, political, historical and cultural subjects ranging from Critical Theory to Economics. It’s certainly up there on my list of favorite book distributors.

I caught Roediger’s latest release on holiday sale, and since I’m always in the market for studies on Reconstruction, I thought I’d give this a shot, my first read of the author. While I’m familiar with the general background and lead-up to Reconstruction in America, arguably the most egalitarian period in the nation’s history, this book promised a more detailed look at the ordinary, detailed facets of life during this period of history. In that expectation, I was not disappointed. Roediger demonstrates radical attitudinal changes amongst Northerners with respect to the possibilities of black (and women’s) emancipation with such artifacts as anti-racist envelope designs; paintings depicting the social power of women – particularly in the care of disabled veterans; and even popular jokes at the time (“the runaway master”) that showed a world turning upside down. The review below summarizes some additional takeaways and suggestions for further study.


Since taking up independent study of The Civil War and Reconstruction about 10 years ago, I’ve found myself strongly on the side of an historiography that, taking Eric Foner’s research as a foundation, frames this period of American history as a revolutionary one, both in the political and social sense. David Roediger’s Seizing Freedom shares this perspective and expands its description of “revolutionary time” to include suffragists, labor and immigrant rights activists beyond the typical protagonists of such history: Radical Republicans, abolitionists and, of course, the slaves themselves. The entire picture amounts to what Roediger has recovered from a rich and incredibly well-documented collection of primary and secondary sources as a period of “Jubilee,” a joyous era of emancipation, the ripple effects of which could be found in the struggle for women’s suffrage, as well as Marxist and Anarchist-inspired movements for the 8-hour workday.

In many ways, Roediger’s study is a spin-off of the “self-emancipation” concept originally developed by W. E. B. Du Bois’s in his classic Black Reconstruction. The major premise here is that slaves conducted a “general strike” against the Slaveocracy, withholding – before and during the course of the War – their labor through various means of escape, resistance and taking-up of arms in the struggle against the Confederacy. In its current iteration, the thesis is a challenge to titans in the field, such as the brilliant James M. McPherson, whose “Who Freed the Slaves?” answers with a resounding “Abraham Lincoln.”

As I understand his argument, Roediger poses “self-emancipation” against the “Great Man” thesis not by way of absolutely negating Lincoln’s important role in prosecuting the revolutionary struggle against the Confederacy. Rather, borrowing from Byron’s dictum that “…who would be free, must themselves strike the blow” and Frederick Douglass’s understanding that power concedes nothing without a demand, Seizing Freedom challenges us to see beyond Lincoln’s role as the “Great Emancipator” – “shorthand,” Roediger argues, for impoverishing all [the] movements” addressed under the rubric of Jubilee. He identifies the North’s victory in the largely anonymous freedmen, women and allied whites in the abolitionist movement, without whose pressure and resolve the North would not have unleashed the war’s revolutionary potential. As he quotes Douglass in the introductory chapter, “We are not to be saved by the captain, but by the crew.”

Douglass and Du Bois are stand-out figures in this book, and while I have a few outstanding questions about their / Roediger’s “self-emancipation” thesis, Roediger has left me with a much deeper interest in both of his subjects’ thought and activism. Victoria Woodhull’s sister, Tennessee Claflin, has also stood out for me as an interesting subject of deeper study, a militant socialist who at the head of an African-American militia marched with the Irish nationalists, and with the International Workingman’s Association in commemoration of the Paris Commune. 

I have highlighted Union Leagues, Disability Studies (a relatively new field of study it seems), the Civil War Veterans pension program and rifts between the Womens Suffrage and Abolitionist movements broadly as additional focuses for further research. I also appreciated several parallels that Roediger implicitly draws to today’s political environment: (a) the tendency of social movements to break-apart into sectarian or sectoralist milieus during historical troughs (anti-Revolution Time, as Roediger might say) and (b) the tendency of those movements to compromise principled independence when their strength appears to be waning (a la the Suffragists under Anthony and Stanton when they approached the reactionary Democratic Party).

In summary, I found the book to be readable, engaging, conceptually rich, and considering the weight given to such cultural artifacts as suffragist patches and wartime anti-racist envelopes, incredibly detailed. In the Acknowledgements section, Roediger thanks his graduate mentor Sterling Stuckey, an historian and Melville expert “who made this book possible”- remarkable, I think, given Roediger’s own ability to tell such a compelling story across high and low points of social and political history.

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