Slavery in the Modern World

Slavery in the Modern World

David Brion Davis’s pathbreaking study of the problem of slavery.


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.

The emphasis on the dehumanization inherent in slavery helps explain what may strike many readers as the surprising amount of space (four full chapters) that Davis devotes to the movement to “colonize” freed slaves outside the United States. As he points out, although barely remembered today, colonization was a mainstream movement before the Civil War. Prominent white Americans from Jefferson to Lincoln (at least until he issued the Emancipation Proclamation) believed that with the end of slavery, blacks should be encouraged or even required to leave the United States. Moreover, a remarkable number of black leaders at one time or another embraced the idea of seeking a homeland elsewhere. For its white advocates, colonization would remove a people who had become so brutalized that they posed a menace to the social order if allowed to remain in this country in freedom. For blacks, separation from the American environment would allow former slaves to overcome the psychological effects of being treated like animals.

For supporters of colonization, white and black, Davis argues, the biblical narrative of Exodus imbued the idea with millennial significance. More recent precedents also existed: the expulsion of Moors and Jews from Spain and the deportation of the Acadians from the Canadian Maritime Provinces by Great Britain in 1755, not to mention Indian removal in the United States. A considerable number of American blacks migrated to Haiti in the 1820s, although many returned after finding that island nation less of a utopia than they had hoped. As conditions for free blacks in the United States worsened in the 1850s, emigrationist sentiment revived. If black Americans, in the words of the black abolitionist Martin Delany, constituted a “nation within a nation,” then logic suggested that they deserved a nation state of their own. Davis makes the point that unlike white colonizationists, Delany did not advocate the emigration of the entire black population; indeed, he and others insisted that the establishment of a powerful black nation overseas would help those who remained in the United States to win citizenship rights.

Nonetheless, Davis acknowledges, emigration was always a minority impulse among black Americans. Liberia, established in West Africa by the American Colonization Society, failed to attract a large number of colonists. (Those who did go, he writes, frequently acted like “high-handed imperialists” in their relations with the native population.) The establishment of the Colonization Society in 1816 produced an immediate backlash among ordinary free blacks, leading them to assert their Americanness and to articulate a vision of the United States as a land of equality before the law, where rights did not depend on color, ancestry or racial designation. The black mobilization against colonization became a key factor in the rise of a new, militant abolitionism in the 1830s. Compared with previous anti-slavery organizations, mostly led by whites and promoting gradual emancipation, the new abolitionism was different: immediatist, interracial, and committed to making the United States a biracial nation of equals.

Davis offers a thoughtful discussion of the role of free blacks in abolitionist movements and their relations with slaves. That relationship differed from society to society, but free blacks everywhere occupied an ambiguous and marginal place in slave systems. Disdained by whites, they often tried to establish an identity separate from slaves. But sometimes, as in revolutionary Haiti or the northern United States, they made common cause with those in bondage.

Free blacks were “the key to slave emancipation,” but in a double sense. Their work was essential for the abolitionist movement, but they bore a great burden—demonstrating in their own lives the slaves’ capacity for freedom. Consequently, Davis argues, even the most militant abolitionists chastised many free blacks for poverty, intemperance and violations of the Sabbath. They worried that evidence of the impact of “dehumanization” on the black population might make emancipation seem inadvisable.

David Walker, whose Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829) in some ways launched the new abolitionism, spent part of that radical manifesto berating slaves and free blacks for accepting and internalizing their inferior status. Frederick Douglass called on free blacks to prove themselves “men” by working hard, rising in the social scale and, during the Civil War, enlisting in the Union Army. Unlike some recent scholars, however, Davis stresses that rather than being a conservative impulse—an attempt to impose elite values on a Dionysian lower-class black culture—the campaign for “racial uplift” formed part of the movement to demonstrate to white America the fitness of black people for freedom. Its aim was “empowerment,” not repression.

In this context, the Haitian Revolution took on sharply different meanings among whites and blacks. The very existence of a black nation founded by a slave revolution challenged every slave regime in the hemisphere. Among whites, the alleged “horrors” of Haiti, including massacres of white residents, not only produced “alarm and terror” but also offered evidence of the bestial nature of the rebel slaves and the need to strengthen slavery where it still existed. For blacks, free and slave, Haiti was an inspiration. It demonstrated black “manhood,” Douglass would later declare. The example of Haiti inspired the leaders of the Barbados insurrection of 1816, Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy in Charleston in 1822, and slave rebels in Cuba. Walker urged his readers to study the history of Haiti, “the glory of the blacks and terror of tyrants.”

* * *

Davis devotes a revealing chapter to another form of slave resistance—running away from slavery—and its political impact in the United States. In some ways, however, this discussion seems to cut against the argument about the impact of slavery on slaves. The fugitives’ courage, ingenuity and self-reliance challenges the idea of widespread psychological “dehumanization.” William Still, a free black and the key operative of the underground railroad in Philadelphia, wrote that his encounters with fugitives led him to realize how many slaves had “deeply thought on the subject of their freedom.” Speeches by fugitives, including Douglass, Henry H. Garnet, Henry Brown and many others, attracted large audiences in the North and Great Britain. Fugitive slave narratives—accounts written by runaways of their ordeals and accomplishments—emerged as a popular literary genre and an effective argument for abolition.

“The fugitive slave issue,” Davis writes, was “absolutely central in bringing on the Civil War.” At the most basic level, running away from slavery gave the lie to proslavery propaganda about contented slaves. The actions of fugitives forced onto the center stage of American politics intractable questions about the balance between federal and state authority, the extent to which the laws of slave states extended into the North, and the relationship between the national government and slavery. Washington’s active efforts to assist slaveholders in their attempts to reclaim fugitives reinforced the abolitionist contention that the Slave Power effectively determined national policy. None of this would have happened without the actions of slaves who sought to escape to freedom.

If Haiti inspired black radicalism, Parliament’s abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833 convinced American abolitionists of the practicality of immediate emancipation. Yet, Davis points out, this moral triumph was also the product of political negotiation and compromise. Britain liberated 800,000 slaves, but rewarded their owners with £20 million in monetary compensation—an immense sum, amounting to 40 percent of the national budget. (Because of a regressive tax system, the British working class paid most of the bill.) Moreover, as former slaves took up small plots of land to grow food for their families, Caribbean sugar production plummeted. By midcentury, respectable opinion on both sides of the Atlantic had concluded that emancipation was a failure. Thus, ironically, the British experience hardened opposition to abolition in the United States, stoking fears that it would lead to economic disaster.

Nonetheless, August 1, 1834—the date the British law went into effect—was celebrated as a “turning point in human history.” For free African-Americans, August 1 replaced July 4 as a day of annual celebration. Their admiration for Great Britain put abolitionists (black and white) in a complicated position when they lectured in the British Isles during the 1840s, just as the Chartist movement was drawing attention to political and economic inequalities there. In a brief discussion that to some extent modifies his earlier analysis of the ideological relationship between chattel and wage slavery, Davis points out that Garrison and Douglass did express sympathy for Chartist demands. Yet Davis also notes that despite the success of speaking tours by American abolitionists, there was a remarkable degree of support for the Confederacy in England during the American Civil War—not only among the aristocracy, which despised democracy, but also journalists, reformers and clerics.

The abolition of slavery appears, in retrospect, so inevitable a part of the story of human progress that it may seem jarring when Davis emphasizes that there was nothing predetermined about it. He endorses the view advanced by recent scholars that, far from being retrograde or economically backward, slavery in the mid-nineteenth century was a dynamic, expanding institution, with powerful support everywhere it existed. “Never was the prospect of emancipation more distant than now,” the Times of London observed in 1857. Despite abolition in the British Caribbean and Spanish America, there were more slaves in the Western Hemisphere on the eve of the Civil War than at any point in history. Had the Confederacy emerged victorious, which was entirely possible, “it is clear that slavery would have continued well into the twentieth century.” Contingency, even accident, produced the end of slavery in the Old South, the greatest slave society the modern world has known.

Davis is well aware, of course, that emancipation did not usher in the abolitionist dream of a society of equals. The end of slavery in the Caribbean was succeeded by new forms of unfreedom, as planters brought in indentured workers from Asia to replace the blacks who had abandoned the plantations. Davis notes that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, adopted in the United States immediately after the Civil War to guarantee the civil and political equality of the former slaves, are virtually without precedent in other post-emancipation societies. Yet Reconstruction was soon succeeded by a new system of racial inequality. Did emancipation, then, make any difference in the United States?

In a moving personal reflection that opens the book, Davis dates his interest in studying the history of slavery and racism to his experience in 1945 as an 18-year-old draftee on a troop ship headed to Europe. He was shocked to discover that hundreds of black soldiers were jammed together in the hold, in conditions reminiscent of what he imagined a slave ship during the Middle Passage must have been like. When he reached Germany, he had to listen to racist diatribes by US Army officers. Three hundred pages later, Davis ends by acknowledging that, in various forms, slavery persists in the world even today.

Davis is fully aware of the moral ambiguities involved in the crusade against slavery, the process of abolition and the long afterlife of racism. Nonetheless, in a rebuke to those historians today who belittle the entire project of emancipation, he insists that the abolition of slavery in the Western Hemisphere was one of the profoundest achievements in human history, “a crucial landmark of moral progress that we should never forget.” His monumental three-volume study helps to ensure that it will always be remembered.

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