Abolition of Russian serfdom vs Abolition of US Slavery

It seems like the emancipation of 23 million serfs in Russia in 1861 was a lot better organized and planned out than the emancipation/abolition of U.S. slaves during the American Civil War happening at the same time. In part, this difference would likely have stemmed from the fact that the Imperial Russian government could act by fiat and receive compliance. Moreover, the serf-holding landowners in Russia were way more indebted/obligated toward their government (than the already literally rebelling Southern American slaveholders) and thus couldn’t resist such a decision from the central government.

But, more importantly, the committee that planned the Russian emancipation also did a lot of theorizing on how to handle emancipated serfs in a manner that didn’t trap them on old lands and gave them some economic opportunities. Freed serfs didn’t exactly get 40 acres and a mule either — and it was still a pretty bumpy outcome — but it was a lot closer to a comprehensive and effective dismantling of the system in a responsible manner. The U.S. approach seems to have ended up at “you’re free now, problem solved. ok, next thing on the agenda,” which immediately led to slavery-by-another-name practices like abusive sharecropping contracts.

President Lincoln was elected by a pro-abolition party (even though that wasn’t personally his primary or even secondary campaign plank). Many of his generals repeatedly tried to brainstorm and implement measures — such as the aforementioned, abortive 40 acres land grants proposal — to deal with the slaves encountered in the South while suppressing the rebellion (and he objected to all of them). So obviously, in spite of (and because of) the Civil War going on at the time, a lot of people in the United States were thinking about this issue on some level.

I would have hoped somebody in the Republican Party or government or military would have at least had a working group on implementation of abolition. After all, this wasn’t a foreign concept because the northern states already had plenty of experience with dismantling their slave-inclusive economies with relatively minimal disruption. Yes, they consistently had fewer slaves, but they still figured out something that worked. So the information and ideas needed to plan for this eventuality — foreshadowed as early as the Constitutional Convention of 1787 — should absolutely have been there by 1861.

But instead, U.S. abolition was implemented chaotically and indecisively over the 1860s, with little plan for what to do with/for all the freed people, and with little enforcement (especially after the removal of Federal troops at the end of Reconstruction) to prevent abuses.

Bill Humphrey

About Bill Humphrey

Bill Humphrey is the primary host of WVUD's Arsenal For Democracy talk radio show and is a Senior Editor for The Globalist. Follow him @BillHumphreyMA on twitter.
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