America's Long Struggle Against Slavery

Course No. 30000
Professor Richard Bell, PhD
University of Maryland, College Park
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4.4 out of 5
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77% of reviewers would recommend this product
Course No. 30000
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Survey the history of slavery in America, from the pre-colonial era through the Civil War.
  • numbers Witness the myriad forms that resistance took, from revolts aboard slave ships to battles on plantations.
  • numbers Meet both famous and little-known players in this great struggle for freedom.
  • numbers Experience day-to-day life throughout generations of African American slaves.

Course Overview

What do you really know about the fight against slavery in America? We’re all familiar with the Underground Railroad and the Emancipation Proclamation, but the fight to end slavery was not some sudden movement that sprang up in the middle of the 19th century. Resistance from the enslaved started on the western coast of Africa in the 15th century and continued as the institution of slavery was codified in America, culminating with the War between the States.

Many historical views of American slavery only look at small parts of this enormous struggle, focusing on single events or a small segment of famous figures. But to understand America—to fully understand our country today—one must examine the whole history of struggle, oppression, and resistance, not only by famous figures like Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Tubman, but also by an enormous and often unfamiliar cast of characters, including:

  • The “saltwater slaves” who revolted aboard slave ships and chose suicide over an unknown future;
  • Phibbah Thistlewood, a woman who made the best of her situation to bridge the gap between her master and her fellow slaves;
  • David Walker, Nat Turner, and other figures calling for immediate, urgent action; and
  • Northern Quakers, pamphleteers, preachers, and school teachers who changed the political tide.

What these disparate figures had in common was their belief in the injustice and immorality of slavery, which allowed them to slowly coalesce into a movement. Individuals gradually organized, and then the abolitionist movement led to war which led, in theory, to freedom. America’s Long Struggle against Slavery is your opportunity to survey the history of the American anti-slavery movement, from the dawn of the transatlantic slave trade during the late 15th century to the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and beyond. Taught by Professor Richard Bell of the University of Maryland, these 30 eye-opening lectures give you an up-close view of a venal institution and the people who fought against it—and who often paid for their courage with their lives.

This course is a must for scholars and history buffs alike. As Professor Bell examines the different means and methods that Americans, white and black, have used to escape slavery, he presents the grand problems that animated everyone engaged in this great struggle. Should you fight slavery with violence? How do you convert moral outrage into political action? Whose responsibility is it to act? Although there are no easy answers, America’s Long Struggle against Slavery dares to ask these and other tough questions, providing numerous historical perspectives to allow you to form your own thoroughly informed answers.

Trace the Long Arc of Slavery in America

For many, the struggle against slavery is tied to the abolitionist movement of the 19th century: a coalition made up mostly of free blacks and northern whites railing against an unjust institution, a movement that reached its peak with the Civil War and the subsequent 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

But as you will find out at the start of this course, resistance to slavery was embedded in the institution from the beginning. You see it in the accounts of the great lengths to which European traders went to keep their slaves contained during the brutal Middle Passage. You see it in the account of revolts such as the one that occured near Stono, South Carolina, in 1739, when a band of armed slaves challenged slaveholders’ supremacy. And you see it in the pamphlets and essays of the American Quaker community as early as the 17th century.

In surveying these and other stories of resistance, Professor Bell offers both a broad and deep history of slavery in America. From the economics of British traders looking to cut into the profits of the Caribbean sugar industry, to the rise of tobacco and “King Cotton” in America, to the migration of slaves from Barbados and Jamaica to Virginia and Mississippi, this is a story of movement and continual change.

What becomes clear, over time, is that resistance to slavery started with individuals working alone, and gradually coalesced into a movement for abolition, which took many forms: the writings of William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, the insurrections of Nat Turner and John Brown, and the achievements of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Tubman. This course offers the rare chance to step into their shoes to deepen your understanding of America.

Explore Uncomfortable Territory

America has long been a nation of uncomfortable truths. How did the founders square their advocacy of “liberty” with the fact of owning slaves? How do we as a nation reconcile “justice for all” with the legacy of Jim Crow? There are no simple explanations, but the more you dig into the history, the more complex it becomes.

Professor Bell provides a fair and unflinching evaluation of America’s legacy of slavery and the long struggle against it. The complexity begins in the 16th century, when the British merchant John Hawkins engaged in a type of piracy, stealing slaves from Africa and selling them in the Caribbean. One uncomfortable truth is the knowledge that Africans themselves engaged in the slave trade. As Professor Bell explains, one preemptive strategy to avoid being enslaved was to assume the role of the enslaver.

You’ll also meet Anthony Johnson, an 18th-century slave who bought his own freedom and promptly acquired slaves of his own. He ended up in a legal quarrel with a neighbor, which set the legal machinery in motion for an official acceptance of slavery in the United States. The law codified slavery a few decades later, after Bacon’s Rebellion, thus institutionalizing racial slavery. You’ll trace legal developments through the Civil War, including a deep dive into the mercurial character of Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney who, among other controversial opinions, decided the outcome of the Dred Scott case.

A Powerful, Life-Changing Story

The struggle for freedom was a long, complicated story. It began with the dawn of the transatlantic slave trade and included some of American history’s most well-known figures, but it also included black field workers and fugitives, preachers and vigilantes, as well as ordinary white soldiers and activists. The struggle includes the violence of insurrection and war, but also the fiery speeches of otherwise mild-mannered Quakers.

In the end, the conflagration of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment secured freedom for slaves, but Reconstruction and Jim Crow quashed any notion that the United States would be free and equal. This legacy continued through the civil rights movement and beyond. Professor Bell ends with a look at slavery in the world today—perhaps not the institutionalized system of southern plantations, but very real nonetheless.

On the whole, America’s Long Struggle against Slavery is an astonishing feat—a chilling historical narrative offering vital lessons for our world today.

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30 lectures
 |  Average 26 minutes each
  • 1
    Understanding the Fight against Slavery
    Begin your course with an exploration of the long war against slavery, which began centuries before the American Civil War. Professor Bell offers a survey of resistance among enslaved Africans in the 17th and 18th centuries and outlines five generational periods in the long struggle to end slavery. x
  • 2
    Origins of Slavery in the British Empire
    Slavery in the British Empire has its roots in the trading economy of the 16th century. See how the Englishman John Hawkins cut into the Portuguese slave trade in the New World, which led to the founding of the Royal African Company, the largest slaving operation in the Atlantic. x
  • 3
    Opposing the African Slave Trade
    The American slave trade began in Africa. It is an uncomfortable truth that African rulers and merchants played a hand in supplying slaves to Europeans. However, a look at the African continent also shows us the first strategies of resistance, from defensively trying to elude capture to offensive efforts to get away from the hellish confinement of European forts. x
  • 4
    Shipboard Rebellion and Resistance
    Leaving the continent of Africa, the second place for resistance was aboard the slave ships as they departed for the Caribbean. Although we have limited historical records, this lecture explores the suicides, runaways, and revolts on slave ships, as well as the efforts made by Europeans to control the enslaved. x
  • 5
    A Free Black Family in Colonial Virginia
    Shift your attention to the Chesapeake tobacco economy in the 17th century, a time when colonial law changed in a way that would promote the slave economy. First, you will meet Anthony Johnson, a freed slave who in turn held his own slaves. Then, see how Bacon's Rebellion paved the way for slave codes that changed the social order in Virginia. x
  • 6
    Quakers and Puritans Join the Fight
    Where were the moral voices among white Europeans speaking out against the heinous system of slavery? The American Quaker community had a long history of antislavery activism, from legal pamphlets to spiritual protests. Learn more about the Quaker community, its views on slavery, and its limitations in the early American economy. x
  • 7
    Thomas Thistlewood's Plantation Revolution
    One hallmark of the plantation economy in Barbados, Jamaica, and South Carolina is that black slaves outnumbered their white masters by a wide margin. As such, see how whites used dehumanizing tactics to control the slave population. Then review Tacky's Revolt, one of the largest slave rebellions in the British Atlantic world during the 18th century. x
  • 8
    Phibbah Thistlewood: Sleeping with the Enemy
    Among runaway slaves, men outnumbered women nearly two to one, but that doesn't mean women played no role in resistance. As this lecture will make clear, women practiced several strategies for resistance-critically important because of the prevalence of assault on plantations. A woman named Phibbah provides a fascinating case study. x
  • 9
    Slave Insurrections in the 18th Century
    Although there may have been several hundred slave uprisings in British North America and the United States, most of them were minor-or possibly even imagined by paranoid slave masters. Here, delve into the Stono Rebellion of 1739, which was the only significant armed challenge to slaveholders' supremacy on the mainland before the 19th century. x
  • 10
    Maroons: Those Who Escaped
    Runaway slaves in Virginia and the Carolinas had limited options. They could head for the coast or down to Spanish-controlled Florida, but some runaway slaves simply disappeared into the backcountry. Find out where these maroons" went, how they lived, and what dangers they faced if discovered." x
  • 11
    Three Quaker Activists
    Meet three important Quaker activists from the 17th and 18th centuries: a fiery hermit writer named Benjamin Lay, a shopkeeper and essayist named John Woolman, and a schoolteacher named Anthony Benezet, who set up Philadelphia's first Free African School. Reflect on the transformation in attitudes that was occurring during the 18th century. x
  • 12
    Slavery in the War for Independence
    While American colonists fought for independence against their British oppressors, the war provided free and enslaved African Americans an opportunity to fight their own war against slavery. Professor Bell introduces you to black militiamen and soldiers on both sides of the Revolutionary War, and reveals the setbacks they faced after the war. x
  • 13
    Taking Slavery to Court
    The American Revolution marked a watershed in the history of opposition to African slavery in America. In northern states, Pennsylvania led the charge in legal changes that would lead to gradual abolition. While abolition efforts failed in southern states, some individual slaves were able to strike deals with their masters for manumission. x
  • 14
    Charles Pinckney's Counterrevolution
    While many abolition efforts started to take hold after the American Revolution, an equally powerful revolution was underway to secure the slave system. Here, you will review the reprehensible three-fifths clause and other pro-slavery measures in the 1787 Constitution, which would take antislavery activists decades to undo. x
  • 15
    The Haitian Revolution
    Between 1791 and 1804, the Haitian Revolution tore apart a French Caribbean colony. As you will learn, not only was it the single largest slave revolt in the history of the world, it was the only one that had succeeded so far. Delve into this radical and violent revolution to meet the players and uncover what happened in these 13 astonishing years. x
  • 16
    Founding the Free Black Churches
    There is more to fighting slavery than achieving legal liberty, a simple truth that this country's first generation of free black leaders discovered in post-Revolutionary War northern cities. See how the expanding free black population in Philadelphia, New York, and elsewhere looked for ways to help themselves. x
  • 17
    The Second Middle Passage
    At the turn of the 19th century, social and economic conditions were shifting inside the United States, and President Jefferson signed into law an act prohibiting the importation of slaves. Learn about the mass migration of slaves from Virginia into the Deep South of Louisiana that resulted, and how this migration transformed the country. x
  • 18
    Our Native Country: Opposing Colonization
    Delve into the colonization movement, an effort that sprang to life in the 1810s to send black people from America to Africa. Consider the questions this movement posed for African Americans: Where was home? Were they African or American? Where did they belong? Investigate both sides of this controversial movement. x
  • 19
    David Walker, Nat Turner, and Black Immediatism
    Writer David Walker and insurrectionist Nat Turner transformed the debate about slavery in America. Their immediate words and deeds terrorized southern slaveholders as never before and forced legislators to articulate just how far they would go to protect the institution of slavery. Meet these extraordinary men and witness their actions. x
  • 20
    William Lloyd Garrison's "Thousand Witnesses"
    David Walker's words and Nat Turner's actions had a galvanizing effect upon white abolitionists, most notably William Lloyd Garrison. See how Garrison and others shifted from an attitude of slow, gradual change to a stance of immediacy. Survey an unprecedented campaign to challenge slaveholders' moral authority in the 1830s. x
  • 21
    Surviving King Cotton
    The mass migration of the Second Middle Passage changed the nature of resistance to slavery. Responding to the threat of separation from their families and opposition to their sale to the Deep South, slaves participated in multifaceted and unrelenting resistance. Survey this struggle and these troubling times. x
  • 22
    Roger Taney: Nationalizing Slavery
    Learn about the confounding life of Roger Taney, who as a young man turned his back on his family's tobacco plantation and manumitted many of his own slaves. Yet, as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he dramatically expanded the rights of slaveholders through infamous decisions such as Dred Scott v. Sanford. x
  • 23
    Frederick Douglass and Aggressive Abolition
    In the wake of a financial crash in 1837, Garrison's abolition movement was sidelined, but the 1840s and 1850s saw the rise of an even more radical and aggressive phase of American abolitionism. Meet Frederick Douglass, review his writings, and consider the depictions of suicide in antislavery writing. x
  • 24
    Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Tubman
    Uncle Tom's Cabin was a blockbuster novel that depicted the flight to freedom. Consider this depiction from two very different vantages: the world of the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the life of Harriet Tubman, who was at the center of immediate and decisive steps being taken by enslaved people. x
  • 25
    The Black Heart of John Brown
    John Brown's failed raid on Harpers Ferry is one of the most famous antislavery actions before the Civil War. Who was he, and why was this raid so important? Was it an act of revolution or terrorism? Reflect on the irony that he achieved in death what he so palpably failed to achieve in life. x
  • 26
    The Slaves' Experience of the Civil War
    From the beginning of the war, enslaved people understood it to be a war of freedom, a war to destroy American slavery. But President Lincoln's charge was simply to preserve the union. Find out how this tension played out on plantations and battlefields, in Congress and in the White House, during the Civil War. x
  • 27
    US Colored Troops: Those Who Served
    Continue your study of the Civil War with a look at the role of black soldiers. Review what life was like for them in a predominantly white army, and the ill treatment many received. Then shift your attention to the role of black women during the war, many of whom served as cooks and nurses in Union hospitals. Survey the incredible wartime career of Harriet Tubman. x
  • 28
    Fighting Slavery after Emancipation
    The end of the Civil War brought legalized slavery in the United States to an end, and 3.5 million freed slaves in the South stepped into an uncertain future. Dive into some of the many challenges Americans-white and black, southern and northern-faced in the subsequent years. x
  • 29
    Slavery by Another Name
    Although the 13th Amendment outlawed race slavery in America and the Civil War is far in the past, the legacy of slavery and the fight for equal protection and representation among black Americans has been an ongoing struggle. Reflect on the effects of Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and the state of race relations in America today. x
  • 30
    Fighting Modern Slavery
    The history of the early 21st century may show racism is alive and well-but so, too, is slavery. Around the world, 20 to 40 million people are enslaved. To conclude this course, survey several case studies of slaves around the world and in the United States. What lessons can we draw from history? x

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Your professor

Richard Bell

About Your Professor

Richard Bell, PhD
University of Maryland, College Park
Richard Bell is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. He holds a BA from the University of Cambridge and a PhD from Harvard University. Dr. Bell has won more than a dozen teaching awards, including the Board of Regents’ Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching, the highest honor for teaching faculty in the University System of Maryland. He has held major research fellowships at Yale...
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America's Long Struggle Against Slavery is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 18.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I am a Canadian with a desire to understand the "whys" of people's bias. This course is opening my eyes. It is well done. I'm learning a lot; some of which deeply saddens me enough to cause tears. I do recommend this course, in the hopes that people will be more understanding and accepting.
Date published: 2020-08-05
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Fatally flawed Lack of Intellectual Objectivity The presentation of facts is very useful. But when the prof gets off into reading the mind of Ben Franklin? He establishes a failure of intellectual discipline and the critical quality of disinterested evaluation. The old and very sick Ben Franklin did indeed become the leader of the Abolitionist Movement. The claim he needed any more personal social recognition is farcical. That a very sick near death and in pain Ben made no personal sacrifice to assume this position? No he repented as good Americans do. Then served. As his repentance and contrition. Ben did all he could to have others take credit for his efforts. So it was very usual he would make the hard personal sacrifice to serve as the Abolitionist leader. Yes, Abortionists burned Constitution by torch light. But this ignorance is why Fredrick Douglas broke from them. Asserting correctly as measured by outcome, that the Constitution was designed to end the contradictory birth defect of slavery. The Framers also understood economics and resulting population gains. That in time the free markets of the North would result in populations dwarfing the imperial planters of the South. Ben established he understood the Wealth of Nations before it was published. Indeed, the preoccupation of politicians was the necessity of ending the sin of slavery without a civil war. Which is why Fredrick Douglas let a rare smile slip when he said let the war come. Likewise the time delay on ending the international African slave trade. The political posturing of a backward racist politician to his base is proof of nothing. Fact is, America banned the international slave crime on the first day possible. Further, sent our very limited navy to enforce it. Thankfully in nearly all other lectures, the profs are careful to mark when they slip from disinterest to their studied reasoned opinions. Even then presenting the opposing or even majority counter position. When done properly, this is one of the most enjoyable elements of The Great Courses. Of course I believe my position is logically superior. But it is the duty of a prof to acknowledge such opposing views. As the most excellent Prof Aldrete practices in the Rise of Rome. He reintroduces all the key elements which cannot be definitively resolved. Then allows his students to reason further. Unfortunately this prof degraded into making what amounts to a legal case. Without the benefit of cross examination. It is terrible practice at any time. But most destructive at times of inflamed uninformed political emotionalism.Which our Framers rightfully feared - greatly. I wish I could award an unqualified 5 Stars as Great Course content usually deserves. But critical portions of these lectures fall far short of the discipline of disinterested instruction. This is a course which despite all the careful vetted information can not be a stand alone source of understanding. Which is a shame. The lecture should be reworked to achieve the critical element of disinterest. .
Date published: 2020-08-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Magnificent, Memorable, Masterfully Taught! This is the history of our nation’s practice of racial slavery that began in 1619, and continued (officially) for some 2 1/2 centuries. We are introduced to numerous villains, victims and heroes, often with brief bios as well as their gripping stories and actions. We become more fully aware of how our Constitution and later legislation and court decisions affected the institution of slavery, often supporting the oppressive practice and its spread. (I now have a much better understanding of the horrific impact and far-reaching implications of the US Constitution’s “Three-Fifths Clause,” which, in effect tipped in favor of slaveholding states the control of political power in all three branches of the government for decades hence). Because of the heart-wrenching subject - the oppressive state, the cruelty endured and the despair felt by millions of people and their ancestors and descendants, this is a difficult course to attend. Dr Bell’s presentment of this material is outstanding, however. He is obviously very knowledgeable, the content of his lectures is well organized, and the material, sensitive though it may be, is shared thoughtfully, straightforwardly and in the best of taste. His speech is clear and refined, well-paced, with a mild British accent (which I found to be charming and very understandable), and his tone is perfect - serious, respectful, passionate, and empathetic. The guidebook, comprehensive at 225 pages long, deserves special mention. There are 161 images, lush, generously sized, mostly period sketches in black and white (public domain), along with other portraits and some familiar artwork, augmented by 13 renderings by contemporary artist Elizabeth Witcher. The inclusion of these enchanting drawings brought the subjects / subject material to life with a vibrancy only art can provide, making the content seem more “up close and personal.” All in all, this was an outstanding course on the subject of racial slavery. The last few chapters dealt briefly with the aftermath of that institution, addressing ongoing racism and, lastly, a modern type of slavery in the form of trafficking. We need no reminders that there is much left to be done in order for our nation (or the world) to achieve genuine racial parity. Two months ago we witnessed the tragedy of George Floyd’s death. Since then we have seen a new spark in our national awareness with regards to racial relations. This course couldn’t be more timely. I would highly recommend this course and implore you to see for yourself what this course has to offer. I would also recommend, as a companion course, “A New History of the American South.” If you sometimes wonder at the racial prejudice expressed by some of our founding fathers and other prominent figures, (i.e. Thomas Jefferson), I would suggest that you consider reading the book, “Stamped From The Beginning,” a brilliant work by Ibram X Kendi - an exhaustive study of the beginnings and history of racism. It answered a lot of questions for me. For now, I thank Dr Bell for his awesome contribution to our better understanding of slavery and racial issues. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to take this course.
Date published: 2020-07-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Sad but true American history As a reader of Civil War literature, I found this course to be of great interest. Although much of the course predates the Civil War, Prof. Bell gives a good understanding of the slavery issue and how it led to the war. He is obviously very troubled and offenced by the subject and doesn't mince words in describing the horror and inhumanity of slavery in the past and present. As he mentioned, we've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. I thought the course was well-organized and presented. If I have one criticism, it is that some of the lectures were short of the 30 minutes I had expected. I'm sure there was even more history that could have been conveyed. Neverthless, and although I can't say I enjoyed it, given the subject matter, I found it very interesting and informative.
Date published: 2020-07-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from America's Long Struggle Against Slavery This is the best series my wife and I have experienced. The presenter is passionate, dramatic, and efficient. The subject matter is difficult to listen to at times, but always presented with integrity. I am a college professor, so I appreciate the preparation and delivery. My wife who is African-American appreciates the candor.
Date published: 2020-07-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from America's Long Struggle against Slavery I knew about Great Courses from my wife ,but I hadn't taken a course. I was missing out. I am back on track now. This course has the information I can trust is accurate.When I want the most accurate information available this is were I will come. g
Date published: 2020-07-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Informative I bought this a couple of weeks ago and have watched all 30 lectures. It is a difficult subject and a sobering look in the mirror. The professor is knowledgeable and a good communicator. He dispels many long held beliefs about slavery and the abolition of slavery in this country, and the civil war.
Date published: 2020-07-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Powerful, timely and valuable – but with flaws This is a powerful course. Dr. Bell is engaging and passionate about his subject. His lectures are clear and organized, and the stories gripping. There are some relatively minor flaws described below, but those cannot detract from the strengths and message of this timely and valuable course. No one today, of whatever background or color, can truly understand what slavery was like, not to mention any one of hundreds of outrages in the reconstruction era and after. (Dr. Bell gives very brief attention to the convict-lease system in the truncated penultimate lecture. I would like to have seen a more extensive treatment, perhaps some vignettes taken from Slavery By Another Name, by Douglas Blackmon.) But one must at least attempt to understand, viscerally, to have any appreciation for the course of race relations in American history after the end of legalized formal slavery in 1865. Comprehending the rage, in the 1960s, in 2020, or any other time, is less an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. The stories and scenes presented in this course, many of which are graphic and indelible, touch the emotions, and are a worthwhile part of trying to gain some of that deeper understanding. Also powerful and touching is the final lecture on the slave trade today. However, Dr. Bell is occasionally sloppy with the details. Some are not so important. He identifies “a man named John Sandford” as the party in the Dred Scott case. The man’s name was Sanford, notwithstanding that the official reports misspelled it. That’s no reason for Dr. Bell to repeat the error. He also says that the Civil War lasted five years. No, it was four years, almost to the day. Dr. Bell says Lincoln was inspired by Dred Scott to run for the Senate in 1858. No, he needed no new inspiration in 1858. He was inspired to re-enter politics in 1854 as a result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He ran for the Senate first in 1855, the seat won by Lyman Trumbull after several votes in the Illinois legislature. These are annoying but inconsequential. Some errors or omissions are a bit more substantive. Dr. Bell cites Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia where Jefferson claimed that blacks were inherently inferior. I’m no Jeffersonian apologist. However, in fairness, Jefferson wrote Notes about halfway through his long life. People evolve. Jefferson modified his views. Jefferson later acknowledged that the “appearance of want of [talents]” may be “owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence.” (Letter to Banneker, 1791.) See also his 1809 letter to Gregoire (“My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable, and those of exercising it less so.”) Although racist, Jefferson was and remained throughout his life a man of the enlightenment in the sense that he was always open to new evidence and new ideas. Dr. Bell tells us that under the Compromise of 1850, the Southerners secured a promise that the Utah and New Mexico territories “would soon be admitted into the Union as slave states.” No, the Compromise provided that these territories would decide for themselves under the principle of “popular sovereignty.” Nor was the Compromise itself as a whole bundled into a package that was “designed to attract votes” from both sides, as Dr. Bell implies. The package, or “omnibus,” approach of Henry Clay and Zachary Taylor did not work. But breaking the measures into distinct bills, each to be voted on separately, did work, under the Fillmore administration and the legislative leadership of Stephen A. Douglas. At the end of the lecture on John Brown, Dr. Bell intones that Brown’s “core conviction that equality means sharing a common and equal humanity with all people is why this man matters and it is why the Civil War came.” But the war came not so much because anyone, North or South, had a sense of shared humanity with the slaves. Many if not most in the North cared little at best for the slaves, but cared more about not having to compete with slave labor at home or in the territories. The war came for an array of reasons, including the paranoia of the South (greatly heightened by John Brown) and the intensity of the North’s devotion to the idea of the Union. Although slavery was the root cause of the war, the North would not have gone to war had it been framed as a crusade to free the slaves, or as a war to assert “common and equal humanity” with them. Lincoln knew that. Part of his genius was his sense of when and how to convert the war for Union to a war for freedom. The role of the slaves in freeing themselves cannot be diminished, and Dr. Bell rightly emphasizes it. But it’s also true that the slaves would not have had the opportunity to liberate themselves without the war, and the war would not have come but for Lincoln’s stubborn refusal to yield on the question of slavery expansion. Once the war came, the first imperative was to win the war, which was at least as important to the slaves as to anyone. The war would not have been won had Lincoln tried to make it a war for freedom at the outset. I would prefer that each lecture be expanded to be closer to 30 minutes. But none of these “flaws” detract from the overall intense message of the course. Understanding the facts and history of slavery, in all its manifestations and ramifications, up to and after 1865, is crucial to understanding today’s news.
Date published: 2020-07-03
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