Final Freedom by Michael Vorenberg

The 13th Amendment clearly states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” But the process by which an antislavery amendment was adopted is not quite as clear. Sure, Steven Spielberg’s biopic of Abraham Lincoln, titled simply Lincoln, has done much to educate the common movie goer of the political intricacies surrounding the passing of the amendment, but the film still fails to do justice to the intense levels of political wrangling needed to get from the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to an amendment to the Constitution in 1865. Michael Vorenberg’s Final Freedom: The Civil War, Abolition, and the Thirteenth Amendment takes the reader into the halls of the congress and into the minds of political leaders across the country to chart emancipation’s legal evolution from antislavery executive proclamation to constitutional law, an evolution that effectively finalized black freedom and reshaped the contours of American society.

From the very beginning of book, Vorenbeg is quick to point out the varying ways in which 19th century Americans viewed the Constitution. Almost all looked upon it as a sacred text and revered those who brought it into existence. Therefore, the idea of amending it, carried very little traction. As Vorenberg points out, between the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791 and the 13th amendment in 1865, the Constitution had only been amended twice, once in 1794 and once more in 1894. Amend, after all, means change, so why would anyone want to change something as brilliant and comprehensive as the U.S. Constitution? The process of amending the document, as a result, took on new meaning in the eyes of the nation’s politicians and legal scholars. Amend came to mean “add to” not “alter,” making the idea of amending the document much more promising.

When confronted with the question of slavery, however, the view of the Constitution becomes muddied, and the question of how to deal with slavery within the legal confines of document becomes even murkier. Some abolitionists viewed the Constitution as an explicitly antislavery text, pointing to the 5th amendment and the passing of the Northwest Ordinance, a document outlawing slavery in the Northwest territories, as proof. To these “Radical Constitutionalist,” the constitution needed no amending as an amendment would only be an admission that the original Constitution was, in fact, a proslavery text, faulty in its intent not in its interpretation. Others, like William Lloyd Garrison, believed the Constitution to be an explicit proslavery pact with the devil. Garrison and his constituents wanted not to amend the constitution but tear it asunder so a new document, one outlawing slavery and making good on the promise of the Declaration, could be written. Still others found a way to establish a middle ground between these two views. Men like Salmon P. Chase argued that the Constitution was neither antislavery nor proslavery. Instead, they contested that the framers wanted to protect slavery in the states where it already existed so it could be abolished by state legislation but federally prohibit it in the territories where slavery did not yet exist so as to not infringe upon the rights of free laborers.

The legal contention over slavery’s place in the Constitution was only compounded when the issue of what course to take to abolish slavery arose during the tumultuous war years. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued, theoretically freeing the slaves in the Southern states, the slaves in the border states notwithstanding. But the Emancipation Proclamation was, first and foremost, a war measure designed to strike at the heart of the Confederacy. As a war measure, it could be revoked at war’s end; not to mention that its enactment was completely contingent on complete Union victory. An official constitutional prohibition of slavery was needed, especially since with the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the meaning of the war had changed. It was no longer a war to simply maintain the Union but a war to put an end to the question of slavery once and for all. The allure of reconciling the Union and readmitting the South with slavery intact, however, would prove to be a major thorn in the side of those hoping to push an amendment through congress.

If you have seen the movie Lincoln, then you know the major issue with the amendment had to do with racial equality. The famous scene, of course, being when Thaddeus Stevens, a leading Republican and abolitionist played by Tommy Lee Jones, stood at the front of the House of Representative and declared that he did not believe in social equality only equality before the law even though he was known to believe the opposite. The same issue haunted the amendment from its initial inception: does the amendment sanction or imply social equality? If so how would it be enforced?

In the drafting stage, Charles Sumner took a hardline stance by proposing an amendment that decreed “all men equal before the law,” a phrase he borrowed from the French Declaration of rights. His language, in essence, coalesced the intent of the antislavery amendment with that of what would later be the 14th amendment, the omnibus bill guaranteeing civil rights. The committee ultimately decided against Sumner’s phrasing, choosing instead to stick with the more moderate wording of the Northwest Ordinance that prohibited both slavery and involuntary servitude. To Sumner’s credit, the moderate wording left open the question of how the new antislavery amendment would be enforced. Vorenberg suggests that the committee members believed the amendment did, in fact, secure legal equality for all races and that they envisioned its enforcement would come through what would later come to be known as the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. They, of course, could not foresee the potential challenges awaiting the fates of both of those bills as well as the antislavery amendment at the hands of Southern intransigence. It should also be noted that a simpler bill, void of any hint of racial or social equality would be much easier to pass. If the writers put together an amendment prohibiting slavery, explicitly securing equality, and allowing for the creation of a government agency designed to help former slaves transition into freedom, the bill would take years to pass, if it was passed at all. The writers knew they had to strike quick while the war was still raging so they could procure the votes of the “War Democrats” who saw constitutional abolition as a mode of military expediency.

The amendment was without a doubt highly controversial, but it was made even more so by the tactics of the opposing Democrats. They immediately charged the Republicans with promoting what they referred to as “miscegenation,” essentially the genetic mixing of the races. Employed specifically as a fear tactic to shift the crux of the public debate away from slavery, the Democrats argued that by pushing for an antislavery amendment that may or may not endorse racial equality, the Republicans were therefore sponsoring a bill that would promote interracial sex and the dilution of white anglo-saxon blood. The Republicans repudiated the claim, but instead of writing it off as nonsense, they struck back by declaring the Democrats to the true miscegenationists since slavery, long protected by Democrats, allowed for the illicit rape of slave women by their masters. Fortunately, though, the rhetoric of miscegenation, as Vorenberg points out, remained mostly in the public sphere as the subject of stump speeches. For all of its bluster, rarely did it come up in the debates in the Senate. It would, however, take center stage during the house debates and the election cycle of 1864 as images of “Miscegenation Balls” depicting provocative images of delicate white women dancing with grotesque black men filled the newspapers.

The prevalence of miscegenation rhetoric should, at the very least, speak to the Democrats’ knowledge that abolition would fundamentally reshape American society. They knew that the passage of such legislation would dismantle the old social order, bringing with it the possibility of radical change and social realignment. The threat of miscegenationists, therefore, played off of American desire for stability, a facet of life long forgotten during the war years. In the minds of many, the Republicans, by advocating for an end to slavery, were seemingly adding to, not detracting from, the country’s dreadful state of instability. Yet, ideas about miscegenation should also speak even more clearly to the intense levels of racism found in the North. The idea that black freedom would somehow dilute white purity or even threaten white womanhood was a popular trope employed by white vigilante groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, roaming across the South. It was also a mainstay in the oppressive years of Jim Crow. The presence of miscegenation rhetoric in the antislavery debates, however, discloses the fact that Northern Americans, much less Americans from the border states, possessed deep fears about what they considered to be a form of “mongrolization.” They, just like their Southern counterparts, were deeply disturbed by the possible consequences of an interracial society.

Of course, the amendment passed, and if you have seen Lincoln, you know that it was not without drama or political arm-pulling in the form of patronage. Nevertheless, it passed, and those in favor lauded it as a linchpin of freedom. Yet, as Vorenberg belies in his rather pessimistic conclusion, the amendment proved to be a rather weak linchpin. Southerner’s, recognizing there was no way the law could be enforced, quickly developed their notorious black codes, trampling on the freedoms of the newly emancipated slaves. As a result, in 1868, Congress passed the 14th amendment, announcing citizenship and ensuring civil rights for all. Over time, the 14th amendment, not the 13th, became the beacon of freedom everyone had pinned on the antislavery act. The 13th amendment, as groundbreaking as it was, was quickly supplanted in hearts and minds of Americans and, more importantly, the American court system. The power of the 13th amendment still resonates, though, as it, not the hopelessly toothless Emancipation Proclamation, procured a Final Freedom for the country’s four million slaves.

Vorenberg, Michael. Final Freedom : The Civil War, The Abolition Of Slavery, And The Thirteenth Amendment. Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Image via

The Claims of Kinship by Dylan Pennigroth

In the world of the enslaved, kinship and property are often thought to be components of life just beyond reach. Slaves, after all, were bought and sold at the will of their masters, displacing kin and disturbing the natural growth of multigenerational families; and since slaves themselves were considered property, anything they claimed to “own” was, in theory, also the property of their masters. However, in The Claims of Kinfolk, Dylan C. Pennigroth shows that property and kinship did indeed exist in the slave quarters and that the two composed a dialectic relationship of sorts—Kinship helped make property and property helped build kinship. Pennigroth’s outstanding book highlights the ways in which slaves accumulated property and explains that property or the acquisition of property, not blood, often served as the foundation upon which a slave’s social and familial connections were made.

Yes, slaves did own property despite being property themselves. But a slave’s idea of property varied from that of whites. In the 19th century, property was synonymous with land, but to slaves, property took the form of household possessions, crops, and goods. To foster plantation harmony and decrease any excess expenditures, slave owners often   set aside small plots of land away from the primary fields to serve as personal gardens for his slaves. These gardens offered a much needed form of sustenance to supplement the scant rations given to them by their owners. Any excess items, however, entered what scholars refer to as the slaves’ internal economy. Mostly on weekends, slaves would take their foodstuffs—these items were mostly items from the garden but they also could consist of fish, hunted game, or even handcrafted items like woven baskets or wooden furniture—to neighboring plantations, local markets, or to the big house looking to sell their goods for a monetary return. If able to sell their goods, slave families would then pool their money together, saving up if they had to, to buy valuable items such as chickens, hogs, the occasional cow or wagon, and, if lucky, their own freedom.

Slaves were also able to accumulate property by being “hired out.” In the slow, non-harvest season, slaves were able to go around the country side looking to be employed by someone in need of labor. The master himself would often broker these labor contracts, personally finding “hired” work for a slave with or without the slaves consent. The wage paid for the hired slave’s labor would be broken up with a portion going to the slave and a portion, probably a much larger one at that, would go to the master. Skilled slaves, those slaves with any craftsman skills or special abilities, invariable fared much better in the “hired” market. So too did domestic slaves. It was not uncommon for a family to host a large party in which extra servants and maids were hired from neighboring families in order to accommodate all of their guests.

The Low Country region of South Carolina and to an extent Georgia, where rice was the primary cash crop, offered a unique opportunity for slaves to accumulate property. There slaves worked according to the task system of labor as opposed to the gang system commonly seen on cotton plantations. Working by the task essentially meant that a slave was assigned a set number of tasks to perform each day or week, like, say, harvesting a set amount of rice, digging a specific number of canals, or clearing a particular acreage of forests. Once the assigned tasks for the given day or week was finished, slaves were then able to use their “free time” however he or she wished. Most, however, chose to spend it cultivating their own crops, hunting or fishing, or working extra jobs for which they would be compensated for in some way. Choosing to work once their assigned task was finished was absolutely essential, for it was the only way slaves could acquire “wealth’ that could improve their already base material well-being and ensure their sustenance considering the lack of resources provided to them by their masters. Therefore, a slave’s “free time” as it is often called, should not denote leisure, but it did offer a small reprieve from the constant control of the master by allowing slaves to determine how they would manage their own labor.

Kinship proved to be a critical component of the slaves’ internal economy. Working to accumulate property was a family affair as it took the efforts of every member to raise the collective material and monetary wealth of the family. But kinship bonds could extend beyond familial ties. Slaves that were completely unrelated to another by blood could “join” a family or network of kin by helping a family acquire property. In return, the unrelated slave would be given access to spoils of the family’s labor. This sort of agreement is best seen in the example of Charles Ball. Upon being separated from his family and sold South, Ball was inorganically placed in slave cabin on his new plantation. In his narrative, Ball remembers being hungry to the point of starvation, but he makes no mention of the slave family living in the cabin. It was not until Ball agreed to work with the slave family in return for his share of the food and clothing that the family is even mentioned. From there on out, he was taken care of and brought into the “family” and introduced to their pre-established social networks.

In the case of Ball, as it was with many other slaves, agreeing to work collectively for the acquisition of property allowed access to kinship bonds for slaves transplanted to a plantation where they had no ties to the other slaves. Property essentially made kinship, and, likewise, the collective labor of the kin produced property.


Penningroth, Dylan C. The Claims Of Kinfolk: African American Property And Community In The Nineteenth-Century South. John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture, 2003.

Image from LAprogressive.com

Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy by Stephen Kantrowitz


Benjamin Tillman was a new breed of politician. He came of age during what he and his fellow white South Carolinians deemed a crisis. Out of the ashes of the Civil War, former slaves and “Yankee” Republicans formed a powerful political coalition strong enough to rule the state and alter the contours of South Carolina society. Freeing the slaves was one shock to the system, but now men like Tillman were convinced Northern Republicans aimed to overthrow the entire social order of white patriarchy. With formal military defeat already at hand and national Reconstruction underway, leading white South Carolinians responded with a reconstruction of their own: a movement Stephen Kantrowitz has dubbed a “reconstruction of white supremacy.”

But to be clear, the term “white supremacy,” is a little misleading. It simply evokes white over black, but as Kantrowitz points out in his aptly titled book, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy, white supremacy is synonymous with white manhood and to reconstruct white supremacy was to reassert white manhood as the center of Southern society. At times, resurrecting white supremacy called for the “vanquishing” other white men, particularly those “carpetbaggers” or “scalawags” working to, as men like Tillman perceived it, upend the patriarchal tradition of the South. These men along with those “capitalists” working as mill owners or furnishing merchants betrayed their own claim to white manhood by asserting an undo amount of authority over the “true” white men—the producing class of land owning agriculturalists.

Kantrowitz notes that reconstructing white supremacy worked and became so alluring to postbellum Southerners because it was “built on words and ideas with deep histories (4)” in South Carolina and the region as a whole. Antebellum Southerners had always expressed anxieties about outside influences and black resistance to white rule. They combated these perceived threats by developing a particular adroitness for social arrangement, displaying an almost esoteric understanding of how to manipulate race, gender, and economic position to preserve white patriarchy’s fundamental position in the culture of the South. Tillman’s postbellum efforts, in other words, were neither new nor extraordinary. They were simply the continuation of deeply ingrained cultural expectations he and his fellow South Carolinians had known their entire lives.

Following the Civil War, however, reestablishing white male cultural norms did not come easy. Social hierarchy, the source of law, order, and patriarchy in the antebellum period, had been shattered. Former slaves were participating in the political process, carrying weapons, and asserting their rights as land holders as if they were free men, and Republicans were stripping the traditional ruling class of their social and economic power. To men like Tillman, the situation was truly dire and violence, a defining characteristic of Southern white masculinity, proved to be the most effective means of resurrecting the situation in their favor.

In a concerted act of support for Wade Hampton, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the 1876 election, Tillman and others formed a paramilitary group notoriously known as the “Redshirts.” Spawning from Southern “rifle clubs” and consisting mostly of Confederate veterans, the Redshirts unleashed a reign of terror on would be black voters and white Republicans. They accompanied Hampton during his speaking tours across the state, showing up armed, mounted, and rowdy as to intimidate any Republican in attendance. When a Republican rose to speak—whether at a debate or Republican rally—the Redshirts would often demand to “divide the time” between Republicans and Democrats, only to commandeer the entire event so that the Republican message would not be heard. When Republican stood up to the terror group, the Redshirts did not hesitate to cause a ruckus by brawling with whoever stood in their way.

Their most heinous crime, however, came on July 4 of 1876, in the now extinct town of Hamburg, South Carolina, only a few miles across the state line from Augusta, Georgia, when a black militia organized a fourth of July parade through the middle of town. The militia was quickly confronted by a horse and buggy driven by two noted Hamptonites, Thomas Butler and Henry Getzen, whom refused to get out of the way of the parade, leading to a standoff. The militia readied their bayonets and the white democrats flashed their pistols before tensions cooled and both sides went on their way. Taken as an affront to their white manhood and a severe breach of the perceived social hierarchy, the white citizens of Edgefield County vowed to “teach the negroes a lesson (67).” Butler, Getzen, their lawyer, and at least seventy Redshirts led by Tillman descended upon tiny Hamburg, corralling the black men in their militia office above a local store. What happened next became “one of Tillman’s proudest memories (69)” as the white paramilitary force opened an artillery barrage upon the tiny upstairs office, forcing its black inhabitants to flee for their lives. Some were cut down by an array bullets as they left the building but close to thirty others were captured. Four of the captives were lined up one by one and shot through the back of the head while others were told to run while the white mob fired upon them.

Though considered an act of inhumanity by most, Tillman wore his leadership in the Hamburg Massacre like a badge of honor, using it as somewhat of substitute for his lack of service in the Civil War. Throughout his career, whenever one would question his commitment to the white men of South Carolina, Tillman would call on someone to vouch for the work of his Redshirts during the massacre at Hamburg or the “Ned Tennant Riot,” another militia confrontation provoked by a white paramilitary force. In the end, both Republicans and Democrats claimed victory in the 1876 election, providing a fitting end to the bloodiest year in South Carolina history. The South Carolina Supreme Court would go on to appoint Hampton as the winner, making him the first Democrat to be elected since the end of the Civil War and signifying the official return to white “home rule” in South Carolina.

Tillman’s leadership in the Hampton campaign earned him a place in South Carolina’s white political leadership, but in the late 1880s, Tillman found himself at odds with many of the same people he worked closely with during the ’76 election cycle. Though never wavering from his commitment to white supremacy, Tillman launched an attack on the Democratic Party, asserting that it had veered away from its traditional base. According to Tillman, the real Democrats were the farmers—the “true” white men who tilled the earth, owned property, and made up South Carolina’s producing class. The Democratic Party, as Tillman saw it, had turned its back on the farmer in favor of the white aristocratic elite that populated the commercial centers of Columbia and Charleston.

The Tillman movement, as it is now known, benefited greatly from the national rise of The Farmers’ Alliance and its political offshoot, the People’s Party or simply the Populists. However, for all of his rhetoric in favor of placing the state back into the hands of its farmers, Tillman never embraced Populism and Populism never attained a strong foothold in the state. In the words of Kantrowitz, “Radical Alliance and Populist proposals went far beyond his [Tillman’s] modest program of reform and college building within a white man’s Democratic Party (147).” The Populist also offered a challenge to Tillman’s assumptions of white supremacy and white manhood. Many of the leading Southern Populist like Tom Watson of Georgia and Leonidas Polk of North Carolina reached across the color line and attempted to unite poor whites and blacks in an effort to seriously challenge the political establishment as a third party, a move that, by default, recognized black manhood and placed them on equal social footing with white farmers. In Tillman’s narrow and rather demented world view, the Populists had it all wrong in “believing that one could fight the ‘money power’ by forming a collation with its chief allies, black Republicans and the federal government (148).” In contrast, Tillman saw the rise of the poor farmer as the continuation of the process of white conservative “redemption” that overthrew “yankee misrule” during reconstruction and reasserted white supremacy as the primary fulcrum on which South Carolina society hinged.

Elected Governor in 1890 and serving as a Senator from 1895 to 1918, Tillman’s commitment to white supremacy manifested itself in a number of different, albeit sometimes just as violent, ways. As Governor he found himself toeing a fine line on the issue of lynching. Ostensibly, he portrayed himself of an opponent of lynching, recognizing that his positon as governor required him uphold the law at all times. But his opposition to lynching found itself at odds with his own racial views, leading to a subtle softening on his anti-lynching stance. In an 1892 he famously reshaped his views on lynching by framing them in the scope of black criminality and white womanhood by claiming he would “willingly lead a mob in lynching any negro who had committed an assault upon a white woman,” leading his followers to adorn him with banners that denoted him as the “Champion of White Men’s Rule and Women’s Virtue (169).”

His main objective as governor was to rewrite the South Carolina constitution in an effort to disenfranchise South Carolina’s large African American population. Seen as an attack on universal suffrage in general, Tillman’s efforts were opposed by many, both white and black. Nevertheless, he called for a referendum for a state constitutional convention that passed by way of widespread fraud and voter manipulation. The convention, with only six black delegates, went on to pass a litany of voting laws all of which were designed to inhibit black access to the electoral process.

Tillman’s political career began in 1890 with his ascension to the governor’s office, reached its apex in 1896 with a failed presidential bid, and ended with his death as a Senator in 1918. It was a career characterized by fraud, violence, and pure unadulterated demagoguery, the extent of which could never be fully realized in 1500-2000 word book review. His lifetime campaign to “reconstruct white supremacy” seemingly never ended and his ability to manipulate the hearts and minds of white South Carolinians knew no bounds. Now, almost 100 years since his death, we are left to deconstruct the violent legacy he has left behind, but Kantrowitz puts it best when he says that:

To undo Tillman’s reconstruction of white supremacy requires us not only to challenge the consequences of his actions but also to understand the words and ideas that he used and the sources of their power. Only that understanding can provide the basis for a real reconstruction of American democracy (309).


 Work Cited

Kantrowitz, Stephen David. Ben Tillman & The Reconstruction Of White Supremacy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,2000.

Image from the object of