Edward Rugemer, “The Problem of Emancipation”: some initial thoughts

In The Problem of Emancipation Edward Rugemer heeds the frequent call in recent years to expand the scope of American history by exploring how the American Civil War was influenced by international causes in the wider Atlantic world.  Rugemer highlights how northerners and southerners alike lived in a transatlantic world, so it makes sense to view the causes of the Civil War through a framework that takes into consideration the political developments of the wider Anglo-American world.

Rugemer discusses how in the historiography of the American Civil War, there have long been two major competing interpretations: the “fundamentalist” interpretation, which holds that slavery was the sole factor leading to disunion, and the “revisionist” approach that highlights the larger political factors, slavery among them, that ultimately forced the United States into Civil War.  Rugemer states that his book will engage with Ed Ayers’s idea of “deep contingency” which attempts to reconcile this historiographical debate.  His focus, however, on competing ideas about Caribbean emancipation and abolition, drawn largely upon North/South lines, seems to lean heavily towards the “fundamentalist” interpretation.  Yes, he discusses the politics and public opinion surrounding these issues, but they always seem to be highlighting the differences between northern and southern attitudes.  If British abolitionism and emancipation in the Caribbean had such significant impacts on political debates in the United States, and the differences in opinion largely fell along North/South lines, it seems to me that The Problem of Emancipation, rather than engaging with the concept of “deep contingency,” seems to be a trans-Atlanticized elaboration of the fundamentalist approach.

Rugemer doesn’t seem to be just telling the history of the United States as it approached the Civil War within a larger narrative of the history of the Atlantic world, though.  Rather, he argues that “Britain’s abolition of slavery should be understood as a seminal event in the history of the United States” (6).  In this way, Rugemer’s focus on British abolition and its effects in the West Indies seems slightly over-determined; he seems to assert that all of Americans’ views about the future of slavery and the possibilities of emancipation were based on how abolition and emancipation developed in the British empire.  While Rugemer is undoubtedly correct in his assertion that “American society had much in common with the societies of the Atlantic world,” politics and developments unique to the United States probably had a larger impact on American ideas about slavery, race, and emancipation than Rugemer lends credence to.

One thought on “Edward Rugemer, “The Problem of Emancipation”: some initial thoughts

  1. Nice opening post, John. You’re right that two of the main literatures Rugemer is engaging are (1) calls to internationalize American history and (2) Civil War causation scholarship. With regard to the latter, you might be able to test your claim about the fundamentalist aspects of his argument by reading other recent books on the coming of the Civil War to see where Rugemer stands in relationship to them. I’m not sure he would say all Americans’ views about slavery were informed by the Caribbean, but instead that key figures who mattered a great deal in the sectional crisis did, and in that sense there is an element of the “revisionist” argument here. It might be worth spelling out in greater detail what Rugemer/Ayers mean by deep contingency, too; Rugemer’s understanding of newspapers as a source base is critical to what he means by that.

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