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Book Review: Half Enslaved Person and Half Free. The Roots of Civil War by Bruce Levine

In Half enslaved person and Half Free, Levine expounds on social dimensions concerning antebellum politics, terming them as the “resynthesis of politic and social history.” As highlighted by the title of the book, throughout the various chapters, Levine explores the central paradox that followed the American Revolution, particularly asserting that the newly-minted state of America was simultaneously one of the worldwide most extraordinary slaveholding powers and, at the same time,, the freest nation of the nineteenth century (Levine 4). According to Levine, the American Civil War exemplified “the second act of America’s democratic revolution” as he aimed to explore and outline its primary causes (3). The conflict was deeply rooted in the differing economies of the enslaved American South and American free North. The differences created clashing perceptions concerning each region’s values and aims.

The author highlights the significant differences between the Southern and Northern political leaders, alongside social and cultural distinctions that might have disrupted the nation’s fragile unity, founded by successive sectional compromises through 1861. Levine explores different opinions of both the Southerners and Northerners, ranging from those of the masters who were open-minded and willing to “embrace individuals from all social classes” to the brutal enslavers (84). Notably, it is significantly challenging to determine the author’s social opinion concerning social structure due to his rich use and integration of both primary and secondary sources. The integration of the different sources makes Levine’s writing more focused on unfolding the events and the readers’ emotions, contrary to buying his take on the matter. An interpretation is set between the tensions of the American South and North. The author places the slavery institution as the primary cause of the American Civil War and ascertains that it was not merely an economic system but a political and social institution that helped shape US politics and culture. The Civil War helped in resolving the moral question surrounding the slavery institution.

Levine starts by outlining the American slavery practice and culture when introducing the readers to his monograph. The author argues that slavery existed before it was employed or introduced in the US, and the ancient cultures deemed it appropriate and valuable. Firstly, the author depicts the American paradox by describing “this new land liberty as the “greatest (slaveholding power) … of the nineteenth-century world” (Levine 5). The US was renowned for establishing new beginnings and a haven for many. However, the incorporation of the paradox demonstrates how the desire for a civilized society was utterly contradicted by the American South’s excessive dependence on slavery. The American North resolved the contradiction quickly since they did not depend on cotton production, while the American South was lagging to “follow the path of gradual emancipation” (Levine 13). The contrast between the two gives the readers significant insights concerning the causes of the Civil War and divisions between the South and North. In addition, the author posits that slavery evoked the strongest emotions concerning the desire for liberty and equality in the US. In explaining how the “North and South organized their labor systems,” the author implies that the two regions separated because of their different beliefs and due to the country’s needs (Levine 14). The country struggled to attain economic independence, and the enslavers needed to produce large amounts of products efficiently and quickly.

Levine uses a narrative method of writing, which explores and outlines the events that caused the Civil War. Unlike the other political historians who narrow their focus on electoral outcomes, leaders, or machinations, Levine offers a comprehensive synthesis of cultural trends that impacted and influenced antebellum political life. The author posits that the hybrid slavery system in the American South, with a portion following the provincial and traditionalist and the other tied to the larger and capitalist world, formed a culture that was riddled with significant contradictions. He emphasizes the planters’ roles in Southern politics, specifically in defending against slavery after 1820, which gives more comprehensive information on how the planters ruled their communities, families, and plantations. The overview of the African-American slave community is comprehensive, thorough, and satisfying to the readers as it demonstrates various ways enslaved people, for example, re-shaped and appropriated Christianity as their strategy to deal with debasement and bondage (Levine 106). In addition, the author synthesizes secondary sources, offers a critical analysis of historical figures and events, and offers his interpretation of antebellum politics. The combination of analysis and storytelling forms an accessible and transparent method of writing that creates compelling and informative data on the primary causes and outcomes of the Civil War.

One of the main strengths of Half enslaved person and Half Free by Levine is the use of first-hand accounts, particularly primary sources like newspapers, diaries, and letters, in providing detailed and comprehensive information about life during Antebellum America. First-hand information gives the readers a sense of the people’s emotions, thoughts, and experiences, mainly the enslaved individuals, who were directly impacted by the events and economic issues that led to the Civil War. Consequently, humanizing the discussed historical events and figures makes the narrative more engaging. On the other hand, Levine projects his biases to the readers by implying that the Civil War was unavoidable following the drastic diversity among the Southern lifestyles and abolitionist North. The author implies that since no party was willing to buy the ideas of the other, the possible resolution was either war or rebellion. Despite the previous interpretation and documentation of the events leading to the Civil War suggesting the inescapability of the Civil War, Levine explores and expounds on these events by providing examples of misunderstanding, fear, and stress, which can conclude his certainty that the war disrupted American society.

The author falls short in explaining the racial underpinnings of American North slavery. Levine could have effectively addressed these issues by evaluating more concerning the pernicious and pervasive, alongside national tenets that enhanced white superiority. It would have helped indicate how the US was half free and half slave despite the sectional discord and political tensions. Furthermore, the author fails to explain why African Americans who offered free labor in the North identified themselves as free and enslaved. At the same time, the whites defined themselves in terms of values. Levine would have developed his work on why the North blacks suffered occupational eviction in the hands of desperate and unskilled Irish laborers.

Instead of interpreting the text to insinuate that the American South was home to enslavers while the North was for slavery abolitionists, the author would have further explained why the free African Americans identified as free and enslaved. The book should integrate an explanation that some free individuals who were previously enslaved and residing in the North still identified as half-enslaved people and Half free because of the poor treatment they were receiving in the job market. The author highlights that Northern society was significantly riddled by racism and fails to acknowledge or give explicit details on how racism shaped antebellum American politics. Notably, the author would have benefitted significantly from The Wages of Whiteness by David Roediger, which explicitly explores wage slavery and white slavery while showing the racist foundations set by the white working class in antebellum America. It would have enriched his work on issues of racism and race since these were the central features of antebellum US.

In summary, Half enslaved person and Half Free is an engaging and exciting work by Bruce Levine as it broadens the vision range for readers learning and invested in knowing the exact causes of the Civil War. The author skilfully and excellently exemplifies the two American societies that existed within one nation during the events leading to the civil war. In addition, Levine intelligently assesses different cultural components, such as religion, that shaped antebellum political life. Nevertheless, in some instances, Levine fails to provide the in-depth information necessary for understanding significant issues and events since the text is a synthesis of limited length. The book is also prose that can be boring and dense for college students.

Work Cited

Levine, Bruce. Half enslaved person and Half Free, Revised Edition: The Roots of Civil War. Macmillan, 2005.


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