The defeat of Russia in the Crimean War (1853–1856) convinced the newly enthroned Alexander II (r. 1855–1881) of the need for fundamental reforms in his country. The first institution he tackled was serfdom, and his Emancipation Edict (1861) ostensibly freed peasants from their bondage to the landowning aristocracy. Although the edict affected some 50 million serfs, it was not fully implemented. Peasants were not given land titles per se; the land was turned over to the control of local communities (mirs), which then allocated parcels to individual serfs. Moreover, they were forced to make annual payments to the government in the form of loans that would compensate the former landowners; the loan amounts were often higher than the dues aristocrats had demanded before emancipation.
João José Reis
Although slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888, slave revolts were frequent and remarkable for their ambitions, success, and diversity of participating elements. Two urban revolts of the nineteenth century were especially significant. First, the Tailor’s Rebellion of 1798, in Salvador, the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, drew on the assistance of freedmen, people of mixed race, and even craftspeople of Spanish descent. The second was a Muslim-inspired and Muslim-directed uprising of slaves in Bahia in 1835, organized by African-born freedmen and slaves who had attained an Islamic education in West Africa before enslavement. This Muslim revolt is particularly fascinating because of the role of written documents, here deployed as protective amulets, among the members of the slave resistance. This excerpt from a book by a Brazilian scholar attempts to demonstrate the role of the written word in this rebellion, illustrating another, and less frequently recognized, “power” within historical documents.
João José Reis, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia, trans. Arthur Brakel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 99–103.
Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), the Republican party candidate from Illinois, won the presidential election without carrying a single southern state. Although he had worked his way up from humble beginnings to a comfortable law practice and even one term in the House of Representatives, before 1858 Lincoln had not earned the political prominence that he burned to achieve. In that year, in a series of debates as part of a campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Lincoln established a national reputation. Although he lost the battle for the Senate, he won the much more important war for national political power. It is important to note that Lincoln had established a much stronger antislavery position than he would present in his First Inaugural Address, as his famous assertion that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” demonstrates. He maintained at that point that America would be all slave or all free. By March 1861, with southern states openly seceding, Lincoln espoused the position of limiting slavery to its existing locales, but not interfering with it there. Although he was willing to compromise on this issue, he would not allow the southern states to secede from the Union. In his view, the Union was perpetual, unless dissolved by the citizens of the whole nation. Unlike Calhoun, who ardently advocated “states’ rights,” Lincoln argued that the Constitution and the sovereignty of the people demanded that he preserve and defend the Union. In his First Inaugural Address, excerpted here, he presented his modified position on slavery but also his own interpretation of the American nation and of the nature of the Union.
Abraham Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: Complete Work., ed. John G. Nicolay and John Hay. New York: The Century Co. (1894): 2: 1–7.
Chinese migration to Latin America was a major part of the pattern of mass migration streams across the world that typified the nineteenth century. “Coolies” (from the Urdu word kuli, or “hireling”) were indentured laborers recruited from India and China on 5- or 10-year contracts, who were forced to work to pay off the cost of their transportation. Roughly 235,000 Chinese came to Peru, Cuba, and Costa Rica, working in guano pits and silver mines, on sugar and cotton plantations, and later on railroads. Such work contracts were little better than slavery, and oftentimes were accompanied by institutions familiar from enslavement itself. This photograph, published in a Chilean army newspaper, depicts a Chinese coolie who is being liberated by an invading Chilean army in 1881.
Born the son of an unknown white planter and a black slave mother Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) was one of the most exceptional human rights leaders in American history. His fiery speeches and eloquent writing made him an important leader of the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement, and his autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), is considered a classic in American history and literature. Douglass devoted his life foremost to the issues of freedom and equality, and his powerful words on these subjects provide another important perspective on the meaning and the limitations of the American Revolution.
One of the most vexing challenges faced by Douglass during his long career was public skepticism about his slave background. Many whites in both the north and the south doubted that such an articulate and intelligent man as Douglass could ever have been a lowly and ignorant slave, which in itself reveals much about prevailing racial attitudes and assumptions in America at that time. This skepticism compelled him not only to write his Narrative but also to address and challenge white misconceptions in all of his speeches and writings. One of Douglass’s most critical speeches occurred on July 5, 1852, at a meeting of the Rochester (N.Y.) Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. In his address, “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?” Douglass used “scorching irony” to denounce American slavery, which he claimed showed a shocking disregard for both the Constitution and the Bible. He concluded that Independence Day was a holiday only for whites; for blacks and slaves, it was only a bitter reminder of the fact that they had no freedom or liberty to celebrate.
Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?” in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Ed. David Blight. Bedford Books (1993): 141–45. This shortened version of the speech is the one Douglass reprinted in his autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855).