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Slavery in the Modern World | The Nation

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Slavery in the Modern World

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Fugitive African-Americans fording the Rappahannock River, 1862

A daguerreotype of fugitive African-Americans fording the Rappahannock River, 1862

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation
By David Brion Davis.
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With this book, David Brion Davis brings to a conclusion one of the towering achievements of historical scholarship of the past half-century, his three-volume study of the “problem of slavery.” It must also set a record for the length of time—forty-eight years—between the appearance of the first and last works in a three-part series, a point I raise not to chide Davis for being dilatory but to commend him for perseverance. As in the previous volumes, Davis exhibits his command of a remarkable range of primary and secondary sources and of different nations’ historical experiences. And like its predecessors, the new volume reflects how scholarship on slavery has evolved, partly under the impact of the first two works in this trilogy.

The first volume, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), offered a penetrating analysis of thinking about slavery from ancient times to the late eighteenth century. It posed an obvious but previously neglected question: Why did it take so long for a belief in slavery’s inherent immorality to emerge? In one form or another, slavery has existed since the dawn of civilization. Slaves, to be sure, have always known that slavery is wrong. But Davis’s concern was with the rise of a humanitarian sensibility among those who did not suffer under the institution. Slavery was long accepted as an imperfect part of a necessarily imperfect social system, one example among many of social hierarchies on which public order was thought to depend. Anti-slavery, as a coherent body of thought, emerged only in the eighteenth century, due to a revolution in moral perceptions. Central to this process were evangelical religion and Enlightenment thought, both of which placed a new emphasis on every person’s inherent dignity and natural rights and on the possibility of perfecting society.

As intellectual history, Davis’s book was pathbreaking. But perhaps its deepest impact arose from his demonstration of slavery’s indispensable role in the rise of the modern world. Previous historians, especially in the United States, had tended to see slavery as an exception, a footnote in a teleological narrative of progress. But Davis demonstrated that slavery became the key institution in the European conquest and settlement of the New World. The book inspired a spate of works that showed the centrality of slavery to American and Atlantic history.

Davis’s second volume, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823 (1975), again led scholarship in new directions. It discussed the Haitian Revolution as a pivotal episode of that era, a commonplace today but a revelation forty years ago. The index to R.R. Palmer’s influential two-volume study The Age of the Democratic Revolution (1959–64), for example, does not include the words “Haiti,” “Saint-Domingue” or “slavery.” Davis explored with great subtlety the views of Thomas Jefferson and other American founders and analyzed how the leaders of the French Revolution confronted slavery. But what generated the most attention among historians was the part of the book that sought an explanation for the rise of abolitionism in the realm of social relations, not simply ideas. Noting the close connection of British Quakers and other Dissenters with both the early Industrial Revolution and the movement to abolish the Atlantic slave trade, Davis suggested that the condemnation of slavery had the effect of legitimizing free wage labor at a time of deeply oppressive conditions in English factories. This was not a conspiracy theory, as some interpreted it—a capitalist plot to use the slavery issue to deflect attention away from the situation of the working class—but an analysis of the social functions, sometimes unintended, of abolitionist ideology. The book stimulated a wide-ranging and fruitful debate about capitalism’s relationship to the emergence of modern moral sensibilities.

In the decades since the second volume appeared, the focus of the study of emancipation has shifted again. Increasingly, blacks—not white abolitionists—occupy center stage. Slave resistance is now seen as central to the process of abolition in the United States, the Caribbean and Brazil. The crucial role of free blacks in abolitionist movements has been widely recognized. In this latest work, Davis—following in the wake of recent scholarship—makes the role of blacks as historical actors and catalysts of emancipation far more central than in his previous volumes.

* * *

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation is considerably less comprehensive than its earlier companions. A “highly selective study,” as Davis describes it, the book focuses almost exclusively on the United States and Great Britain. For the end of slavery in Cuba and Brazil, the reader must turn to the work of other historians, most recently Robin Blackburn’s The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights. [See Foner, “Inhuman Bondage,” August 29, 2011.] Rather than a full history of abolition in the nineteenth century, Davis offers a set of erudite ruminations on questions central to the debate over slavery.

The book’s central theme is slavery’s tendency toward the “dehumanization” of its victims and the implications of this for abolitionist movements and the prospects for emancipation. Throughout the hemisphere, as Davis points out, black slaves were literally “treated like animals.” Legally, they were reduced to chattel, lacking both rights and a will of their own. They were disciplined and restrained as animals were, with whips and chains. Slave-sale broadsides often listed slaves and animals side by side, with similar prices and descriptions.

What interests Davis, however, is less the legal or physical treatment than the psychological implications for both whites and blacks of this “animalization.” In adopting this approach, he follows in the footsteps of Stanley Elkins’s Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959) and its discussion of the impact of total institutions on their victims. Like Elkins, Davis has a penchant for practicing psychiatry without a license. He briefly veers off on a not entirely helpful Freudian excursion, proposing that whites’ “projection of an ‘animal Id’” onto blacks became the key to racism, even as some whites “succumbed to the appeal of the ‘Negro Id’” by seeking to emulate black music, dance and other cultural expressions. More persuasively, he insists that by describing and treating slaves as animals, whites enhanced their view of themselves as rational and self-disciplined human beings. One wishes that Davis had also delved into Jefferson’s insight that exercising absolute command over other men and women warped the psychology of the slaveholders as much as the slaves, instilling in them a tendency toward authoritarianism and violence. More controversially, perhaps, Davis probes the extent to which slaves internalized their own dehumanization and how black abolitionists sought to counter this tendency.

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