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.