Anarchy at the Circumference

Gregory P. Downs

in After Slavery

Published by University Press of Florida

Published in print September 2013 | ISBN: 9780813044774
Published online January 2014 | e-ISBN: 9780813046440 | DOI:
Anarchy at the Circumference

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Historians surely understand that the American state failed the freedpeople, but it is not clear that we understand why federal power failed them so badly, despite common explanations that focus upon a failure of intentionalities rooted in racism or free-labor ideology. By foregrounding efficacy, scholars can see anew the central role of state institutions in shaping the experience of Reconstruction and the extent and limits of emancipation. Grounding freedpeople's actions, not just in community building or ideological expression but in practical access to particular state functions, reminds us that emancipation was not solely a labor struggle or an ideological crucible. The rights freedpeople sought to defend had little meaning absent their attachment to a state powerful enough to make them felt. In a dualism too little appreciated in the literature, freedpeople were frequently most assertive in asking for help from above; their claims-and the claims of many relatively weaker people-were not isolated from but deeply intertwined with the need for support from government actors. Instead of operating in opposition, freedpeople's agency and state action were often mutually constructing.

Keywords: North Carolina; Union troops; Freedmen's Bureau; state; petitions; black politics; Presidential Reconstruction; demobilization; Albion W. Tourgée

Chapter.  10655 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas

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