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Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and "Race" in New England, 1780-1860 1st Edition

4.0 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0801434136
ISBN-10: 0801434130
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Editorial Reviews


"Joanne Pope Melish argues that the need to portray a virtuous North battling the slave-holding South during the Civil War resulted in the creation of a 'mythology of a free New England' in the antebellum period and that the notion persists to this day. . . . She makes the case that slavery was far more important to New England's economy than is commonly recognized by historians."―New York Times

"Melish's work is original, important . . . a fascinating work that opens new interpretations of emancipation and race in New England."―William and Mary Quarterly

"Disowning Slavery brims with ideas: it is an exciting and argumentative book."―Journal of American History

"Melish's book makes an important contribution to the literature on slavery and abolition and fills a significant gap in our understanding of how slavery in New England affected both that region and the nation. . . . This is a terrific book, one that all scholars of slavery, abolition, and the early republic absolutely must read."―H-Net Reviews

"Painstakingly researched, filled with new information and astute analysis, this book is a major contribution to our knowledge of New England slavery and a valuable addition to the understanding of race relations in the United States."―American Historical Review

"Melish's searching analysis compels a reconsideration of many aspects of the conventional narrative of antislavery within both white and African-American communities. . . . This is an important book, one that commands a reconsideration of many of our assumptions about the meaning of emancipation, the development of racial ideologies, and also about antislavery itself."―Reviews in American History

"The work is an invaluable contribution to the emerging picture of slavery and emancipation in the American North. Pope Melish has made it difficult for New Englanders ever to see their history quite the same way again."―Law and History Review

"Fifteen years in the making, this is an unusually mature and finished first book. It is also a major contribution to the study of the construction of American national identity."―Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science

"In this ambitious and often compelling study, Joanne Pope Melish seeks to explore in detail, and then to reconfigure, our sense of the meaning of 'gradual' emancipation in New England. . . . Her relentless vision of New England Americans 'disowning' the enslaved history, and displacing it on the South, illuminates in a new and important way the history of race and regionalism that we must rethink again."―Journal of Southern History

"Melish's determination to put the history of local slavery at the core of New England racial attitudes has produced a highly nuanced picture of the gradual emancipation process that goes well beyond anything of its kind. . . . A tremendous achievement that will have an impact across a wide historiographical spectrum."―Connecticut History

"In this wonderfully observed history, Melish's keen truth-giving shows a new picture of the past, in turn giving us a different perspective on the turbulent race relations of our country today."―Providence Sunday Journal

"Joanne Melish sheds more fresh light on the significance of slavery in the North than any other historian I can think of. Disowning Slavery is a brilliant book."―David Brion Davis, author of The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution

"Disowning Slavery impressively roots the development of white racial ideology in the antebellum North both in an expansive New England nationalism and in the day-to-day experience of gradual emancipation. An important addition to the literature on race relations and on sectionalism in the U.S."―David Roediger, University of Minnesota


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"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead is a magnificent novel chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. See more

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press; 1 edition (May 14, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801434130
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801434136
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,217,131 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
In Disowning Slavery, Joanne Pope Melish strongly refutes the myth of a free New England, untainted by slavery and racial disharmony. While slavery did not exist in either quantity or duration on a scale comparable to the South, Melish conclusively shows that it existed in the northern states well into the 19th century, and argues that it was an important component of New England's economic success. Like feminist historians who have argued that women's domestic labor was crucial if men were to be able to engage in economic activity outside the home, Melish shows that as domestic servants and agricultural laborers, slaves performed the drudgework that Yankee entrepreneurs would otherwise have been employed in. Because such urban entrepreneur slaveowners were a small (though influential) percentage of the population, slavery was allowed to gradually die out in New England, most often through judicial interpretation. Gradual emancipation meant that there were few great political battles over ending slavery in the North, allowing New Englanders to erase their memories of its very existence.
However, because slavery was allowed to die without the benefit of public debate and legislative control, freedmen's legal and social status was never clearly defined, nor was the means by which former slaves were to be integrated into free society. Whites were able to congratulate themselves on their moral superiority as free societies without having to concern themselves with the welfare of now-emancipated slaves. In turning their backs on the problems of freedmen trying to adjust to their new status, they prevented blacks from becoming full members of their communities.
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Format: Paperback
Over the past few years, general interest in the subject of slavery in the northern US has been growing. Books such as Complicity and Inheriting the Trade have done much to bring attention to this previously under-researched area of American History. In Disowning Slavery, author Mellish takes a look at the abolition movement before and immediately after the civil war, at how the reality of emancipation affected the lives of the people who were now "free".

This book requires patience and concentration, as much of the narrative necessarily focuses upon legal documentation. But careful reading pays off. Mellish makes clear the inability of northerners to grasp the concept of sharing "their" country with the population of the previously enslaved. Indeed, she shows that the identity of "slave" adhered to black persons no matter were they freeborn or emancipated. Abraham Lincoln has been widely criticized for his proposal that former slaves be moved back to Africa, but, according to this body of research, recolonization was held to be the best solution by countless others. These and other deeply embedded attitudes form the underpinnings of America's racial status today.

To read Disowning Slavery is to come to a better understanding of the appalling racial situation that persisted in the US for a century. It isn't pretty, but it is essential to know where we were, and why we were there, in order to bring ourselves to a better place.
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By now, it should be general knowledge among anyone presuming to comment on American race relations and the Civil/War Between the States that the Northern states did not exactly have clean hands when it came to keeping African (and then African-American) slaves. Works like "Complicity" attest to the element of discovery that recent academic research and journalism have made possible. Nonetheless, it is taken as common knowledge that the Northern states achieved emancipation reasonbly quickly after the Revolution, even if motivated chiefly by economics. It is still widely presumed that people in the Northern states, the New England states in particular, were particularly enlightened about slavery/emancipation and race, and therefore morally superior to Southerners.

For this reason, this book is shocking: while it delineates the gradual, compensated emancipation that was a feature of England's vaunted anti-slavery laws, and thus outlines an alternative method that could have been used to end slavery in all states, it demonstrates that this process coexisted with the kind of racism people routinely associate with the South and the South only. Dialect humor, "darkie" cartoons, and the lingering assumption that Black people owed labor to whites go against the cultivated image of enlightened New England. Even those already skeptical of such claims to Northern moral superiority cannot but find themselves taken aback by Melish's illustrations of Northern prejudice and dismissiveness. For one thing, she hauls a carefully cultivated image up short. For another, the attitudes she demonstrates among Northerners are those that give modern readers pause and cause them to react with distaste.
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Format: Paperback
This is a timely book along with some others being researched and written now. It was not easy to read but contains documented historically acurate information unlike much of the history of the North that has been written in the past. It is enlightening to read the truth about Yankee slavery. This book and some others like it if taught as real history in our schools and universities could lead to bring Americans closer together as the truth, no matter how bad or humbling, can do if we humble ourselves and accept it. We can see from this book that people in both the South and the North were guilty and that most of them ,in the North, weren't ending slavery really for the benefit of the the African Slave but to get rid of the Africans and return to a white and specifically New England America.
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