Memory  /  Longread

American Slavery and ‘the Relentless Unforeseen’

What 1619 has become to the history of American slavery, 1688 is to the history of American antislavery.

Cynicism about the Revolution gives way to cynicism about the Civil War and, in particular, about Abraham Lincoln—rendered as a white supremacist who, whatever his qualms about human bondage, supposedly had no interest in ending slavery, but only in preserving the Union. One is left to wonder how Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address, delivered weeks before the fighting began, affirmed to one admittedly unfriendly Northern editor “that anti-slavery is the corpus, the strength, the visible life of the party which has now assumed the reins of government.” One is bidden to forget that the war was a Southern counterrevolution against the victorious Republicans’ explicit intention to place slavery, in Lincoln’s words, “in the course of ultimate extinction”—and much else that Lincoln said against slavery—a counterrevolution that Lincoln was determined to crush. It took a year and a half—just a year and a half—before the Emancipation Proclamation officially turned the struggle against secession into a struggle for liberation under force of arms, fought in part by African-American Union troops who included more than one hundred thousand former slaves. That, too, was part of the Emancipation Proclamation. From the very start, however, the war for the Union was inherently antislavery.

The antislavery impulse, of course, has not disappeared utterly from our accounts of American slavery. Historians rarely fail to credit the radical abolitionist movement that arose in the 1830s under the leadership of, among others, William Lloyd Garrison, for courageously calling to moral account not just the slaveholders but their Northern accomplices and apologists. Hannah-Jones’s essay cites the Pennsylvania Anti-Federalist and abolitionist Samuel Bryan attacking the US Constitution in 1787, as well as the later abolitionist William Goodell. 

Our current interpretations, though, fail to appreciate both the magnitude of the unforeseen antislavery rupture with the past and America’s crucial role in that rupture. They overlook how organized antislavery politics originated not in the Old World but in the rebellious British North American colonies. One line of argument finds it hard to explain how most slaveholders and some antislavery advocates reasonably regarded the nation’s founding in 1787 as a blow for slavery. The other cannot explain why leading abolitionist and antislavery voices just as reasonably believed exactly the opposite, that the Constitution advanced the promise proclaimed by an anticipatory ode published in Philadelphia: “May servitude abolish’d be / as well as negro-slavery / To make one LAND OF LIBERTY.”


Placing antislavery along with slavery at the center of American history produces an unfamiliar alternative history that tracks the unfolding of the unforeseen. Lacking a novelist’s genius for invention, a historian can only record it. This alternative account illuminates the fragility of history not by telling what might have happened and didn’t, as in The Plot Against America, but by relating things that did happen, disrupting all that seemed settled and foreclosed back then, as well as what might now seem settled fact about American history. Above all, it shows that Revolutionary America, far from a proslavery bulwark against the supposedly enlightened British Empire, was a hotbed of antislavery politics, arguably the hottest and most successful of its kind in the Atlantic world prior to 1783.