The Resistance: How African-American Slaves Were Different From Egypt's Hebrews

Like the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, the emancipation has often been told as a story of passive slaves led by a heroic leader. This narrative is changing

Abraham Lincoln, left, and actor Charlton Heston as Moses in 'The Ten Commandments.'
Library of Congress and screenshot

Before Passover last year, my sister-in-law asked all participants in the family seder to choose a freedom fighter and tell his or her story during our reading of the Haggadah. Some chose Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize. Other choices included Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara. Meanwhile, I chose the slaves themselves, a choice that actually clashes with the story of the Haggadah since the traditional text tells of slaves who played no part whatsoever in the struggle for their liberation. Quite the contrary. They were insistently, if not stubbornly, passive. Only by the efforts of others, and the intervention of a higher power, were the Hebrew slaves rescued and delivered unto freedom.

This story of emancipation, by which we waited for salvation at the hands of a higher, mightier sovereign power, is derived of course from the biblical source.

The Hebrew Bible presents a saga based on a singular, omnipotent figure: “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments” (Exodus 6:6), as the redeemer himself attests.

James Hopkinson's Plantation. Planting sweet potatoes. ca. 1862/63.
Henry P. Moore / New-York Historical Society

The struggle for freedom is divided between God and Moses, who was later purged from the pages of the Haggadah. Nevertheless, the essence of the narrative is the same: Slaves are incapable of controlling their fate, able at best to lament their onerous existence and cry out in pain. And so, the Book of Exodus tells of slaves who not only offer no resistance, but cannot even defend themselves from the cruelty of an Egyptian master, incapable as they were of imagining such an act “for impatience of spirit, and cruel bondage” (Exodus 6:9). Moses, in contrast, was not a slave and so he acts with great determination. Indeed, his ability to challenge authority and slay the Egyptian cruelly tormenting the two Hebrew slaves is a unique demonstration of the privileged spirit of a free man.

This perception of the helpless slave is not unique to Jewish sources. A similar interpretation prevailed for years in the collective memory of American society with regard to the liberation of the slaves in the United States following the 19th century’s civil war. Americans embraced a national consensus that claimed slavery to be abolished by the political and moral daring of a singular personality – the country’s leader, President Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was thus compared to Moses, and even to God, at least in Christian terms: A martyr who gave his life to redeem the nation, after his assassination at the hands of a terrorist avenging the South’s defeat in the war.

According to the reigning consensus, the American Civil War broke out in 1861 with Lincoln’s election as the first president in the nation’s history who openly condemned slavery as “a moral, social and political evil.” This same opposition to slavery guided him through the next four years of bloody conflict, which claimed more casualties than all the rest of America’s wars put together. Victory was not just a military achievement but a moral one, enshrined in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution from 1865 that declared slavery illegal everywhere in the United States. This was a most radical outcome of the war when we recognize the utter centrality of slavery in American social and economic life since the British began to settle the continent in the 17th century.

The slaves in Egypt as depicted in the Hollywood spectacle 'The Ten Commandments.'

A little more than two years later, this was followed by yet another amendment to the Constitution, which granted unqualified citizenship to the four million former slaves, guaranteeing them equality before the law regardless of race. The far-reaching nature of these developments was also manifest in the fact that plantation owners in the South were forced to give up their slaves – worth an estimated $2 billion at the time – without receiving any compensation. Such a remarkable act of confiscation of property marked a true revolution.

This version of events, unfolding under the aegis of a visionary leader, parallels the drama of the Haggadah. As it is written: “And if the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our ancestors from Egypt, behold we and our children and our children’s children would [all] be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. links arms with other civil rights leaders as they begin the march to the state capitol in Montgomery from Selma, Ala. on March 21, 1965.
AP

But such accounts of the abolition of slavery in the United States have become increasingly challenged in recent years by scholars who view the story of Lincoln’s heroic courage as simplistic and one-dimensional, if not distorted. The personality cult around Lincoln is even suspected of serving an ideological agenda whose aim is to assign African-Americans an inferior status whose citizenship is subject to the good graces of the country that freed them, rather than to see them as equals for whom the inalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are automatic and unconditional, as written in America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776.

“I Have a Dream”

These claims were first heard in the years after World War II. This is when Afro-American citizens, including hundreds of thousands of soldiers returning from the battlefields in Europe and Asia, began to protest against the racial segregation practiced in the United States – the so-called “Jim Crow system.” (“Jim Crow” was a code name for apartheid, a comprehensive separation of the races carried out under the approval of the country’s Supreme Court and resting on the specious judicial doctrine of “separate but equal.”)

And so, in 1854, in the landmark legal decision of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court overturned the institutionalized segregation of white and black students in public schools. A year later, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man – a carefully planned act that initiated a boycott of the public transportation system (the Montgomery Bus Boycott).

Rosa Parks riding on the Montgomery Area Transit System bus. A carefully planned act that initiated a boycott of the public transportation system
AP Photo/Montgomery Advertiser

This model of nonviolent civil disobedience was then put into practice in further demonstrations and boycotts against Jim Crow – not only in buses and trains, but stores, movie theaters, places of entertainment, restaurants, sporting events and in public life.

In 1963, and despite the best efforts of then-President John F. Kennedy to prevent it, came a mass march in Washington remembered due to the famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered there by Martin Luther King Jr. The cumulative protests would force the U.S. government to undertake comprehensive legislation two years later, abolishing all forms of segregation in the country. This ushered in a campaign on behalf of registering blacks to vote, leading to the murder of three civil rights workers (as was later dramatized in the 1988 film ”Mississippi Burning”).

Playing a part in their own emancipation

Historians, together with other writers and scholars, were deeply influenced by developments, which showed how a community subject to prolonged oppression and systematic acts of violence was nevertheless capable of drawing on reserves of fortitude to demand justice. This affected the assumptions of researchers who were prompted to reexamine the history of slavery in America.

Was it really true that the slaves made peace with their enslavement, as had been claimed for so many years? If this was not the case, was it possible to conclude that they played a part in their own emancipation? In other words, could the abolition of slavery in the United States have been the outcome of resistance by slaves themselves, which Lincoln then supported?

The fact is, Lincoln declared at his first inauguration in March 1861 that he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.” He hoped that such a policy of nonintervention would effectively turn the wheel back and convince the seceding Southern states to rejoin the Union. He could then initiate a process by which slavery would gradually disappear on its own over the course of decades, as actually happened in various American slave societies such as Cuba and Brazil.

Who, then, turned the wheel in the other direction, causing the president to change his mind and recast the war from a struggle to preserve the republic founded in 1776 into a revolutionary crusade that would profoundly change the very nature of American society? It turns out that the slaves themselves played a pivotal role in this turn of events. While Lincoln issued his presidential order in January 1863 abolishing slavery in all states that had joined the rebellion, he was actually responding to other acts of abolition taking place throughout the country – a steady stream of slaves deciding to “steal themselves” by running away from their masters.

W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the 20 century’s most important thinkers about race in the United States, described these events in his work “The Souls of Black Folk,” a literary masterpiece in the guise of a historical study. “The war has naught to do with slaves, cried Congress, the President, and the Nation; and yet no sooner had the armies, East and West, penetrated Virginia and Tennessee than fugitive slaves appeared within their lines. They came at night, when the flickering camp-fires shone like vast unsteady stars along the black horizon: old men and thin, with gray and tufted hair; women with frightened eyes, dragging whimpering hungry children; men and girls, stalwart and gaunt – a horde of starving vagabonds, homeless, helpless, and pitiable, in their dark distress.”

Waiting for the right moment

For years, scholars had assumed the relative absence of slave rebellions in the United States attested to the relative well-being of the slaves themselves. That is what their masters proudly asserted of the purportedly humane conditions of plantation life. But now, once the vicissitudes of a war waged mainly in the South created unprecedented opportunity for mass flight, the opportunity was exploited by tens of thousands – a testament that shattered old historical truths about how the oppressed had learned to accept their fate.

The slaves, it turns out, were waiting for the right moment to rise up, when such rebellion would no longer verge on the suicidal, but would, rather, offer a good chance of success. In thus escaping en masse and crossing over to Union lines, they forced a new role on the federal army, turning it into an army of liberation.

Their initiative initially met with rabid opposition. The political and military leadership instructed commanders in the field to return the slaves to their masters, since liberation was not among the aims of the war. But sending them back also aroused resistance within the army and among the public as well, due to the patent illogic of the policy, which effectively strengthened the enemy by restoring its workforce.

This reasoning was not lost on decision-makers, who eventually changed course and revoked the order. As such, the same “old gaunt” slaves, “frightened” women, “hungry” children and “helpless” men had no less than dictated a strategic reversal in the conduct of the war.

The claim that the North adopted the abolition of slavery as one of its war aims under the pressure of the slaves themselves, receives further corroboration upon examining the president’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. This order did not, in fact, free a single slave, since it was applied only to those states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery in place in four other states that remained loyal. This distinction highlights the hesitation characteristic of Lincoln, who not only accepted the Constitution’s restrictions on interference with the status of slavery, but made great efforts to placate racist public opinion prevailing in the North, and that in order to mobilize public support for the war.

Lincoln should thus be considered less of a visionary and more a reluctant participant in abolition. He was confronted by a fait accompli created by slaves acting on their own in a situation that was clearly not under his control. This does not mean the slaves were exclusively responsible for their own liberation, but that freedom was the outcome of a complex dynamic involving a great variety of actors and historical forces. And so, while we cannot refer to a process of “auto-emancipation,” a close look at events clearly reveals the integral part played by slaves in bringing about their liberation. This role is measured by their success in putting the very question of abolition on the nation’s agenda, and keeping it there despite the concerted efforts of the national leadership to ignore the matter.

That is an impressive achievement by itself, but even more so when considering the fact that the slaves were bereft of the usual means of political resistance. They had no right to vote in elections, of course, nor any opportunity to formulate and disseminate a political philosophy, or any access to weapons. Their historic success, rather, lies in the fact that the slaves forced others, including Lincoln, to pass laws and exercise power on their behalf.

Lincoln himself underwent a dramatic passage over the four long years of war – beginning from a sweeping rejection of the very possibility of abolition, to gradual abolition involving the payment of compensation to masters, and ultimately to support for the unequivocal freeing of the slaves in all areas conquered by the federal army. This laid the groundwork for the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States forever. Of course, without this change by the president, slavery would certainly not have reached an end in 1865. But without the actions of slaves, Lincoln would never have changed course to become the “Great Emancipator.”

The slaves, who did all in their power to bring down the slave regime in the United States, were directly inspired by the Bible, and principally by the story of the exodus from Egypt – even though that same Bible, as we noted, denies the slaves any such ability in taking their fate into their own hands.

This apparent contradiction is explained by the 2013 film “12 Years a Slave,” based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup, in a key moment when Northup – a free man and resident of New York who was kidnapped and smuggled into the South, where he was sold as a slave – joins the melancholy chorus of the plantation slaves: “I want to get to Heaven when I die, Lord / To hear Roll Jordan roll.”

Northup hesitates in joining in with the others, but has little choice since he understands he has little chance of surviving without them. And so, he surrenders to his situation. But his surrender is also his salvation, becoming the bond of community. In thus accepting his enslaved fate, he also empowers himself, acquiring a collective identity, joining an alliance of the weak that offered an alternative to the master without risking a deadly violation of the latter’s authority.

We should assume that the Hebrew slaves likewise prepared themselves for liberation. The very tale of the exodus from Egypt proves just how ready they were: “And it came to pass at the end of four hundred and thirty years, even the selfsame day it came to pass, that all the host of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:41). Such behavior is not to be taken for granted, as history teaches us. Rather, it is the outcome of collective commitment, and a revolutionary consciousness, which enables individuals to rise up together and change their situation. Herein lies the legacy of our Festival of Freedom.