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The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, by David Bryon Davis.

February 27, 2014

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, by David Bryon Davis.   Knopf (2014), Hardcover, 448 pages.

The third volume of a trilogy on slavery by one of America’s premier historians, a man who has helped to shape how we think about history of slavery today.

When David Bryon Davis published The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture in 1966, most historians considered the institution of slavery to be a minor local issue, best left to southerners, white of course, who relied on the documents of slave owners to tell its story.  Davis was among the first to challenge this approach. He recognize the significance of slavery in American and international history.  For him, slavery and the wealth it produced were key to settlement of the “New World” and the Industrial Revolution.  In the second book of the trilogy, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823, he focused on why, after centuries of acceptance of slavery, a massive movement for its abolition came into existence.  Alongside the influence of ideas from the Enlightenment and Dissenters such as Quakers, he addresses economic factors such as the justification of “free” labor.  Much of what we know today about how slavery affected Africans has grown out of his initial writing.

After a gap of 50 years, Davis has completed what he always considered the third volume of his work on slavery.  During the intervening years, he has had a busy career teaching and published his overview, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World.  In addition, other historians have built on his early work to create a rich body of information about various aspects of slavery and slave life.  Such work has meant that Davis’s new book differs from the others in the trilogy with less attempt to survey the sweep of the topic and more attention to specific aspects of it such as the deliberate attempts to dehumanize slaves by their owners and the rise of the colonization movement advocating the removal of blacks to Africa.  Davis stresses the importance of black abolitionists to the rise of a more militant movement in the 1830s and to the importance of their example of how capable blacks were ready for freedom.   He also examines the political role of slave resistance and the presence of escaped slaves, viewing the Fugitive Slave Law as a critical step toward civil war and emancipation.  In his eyes, the end of slavery was not inevitable and “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.”

In addition to his critical work on slavery, Davis has also been important in shaping what it means to do history.  In the early years of his career, historians in the USA were divided between a somewhat elitist focus on intellectual history and “new social history” which concentrated on the lives of “inarticulate” people whom they believed (wrongly) could only be studied as groups and statistics.  Davis refused to accept that dichotomy, addressing how ideas popular in a particular time and place had an impact and how those considered silent had played active and significant roles in the struggle for their own freedom.  Many of his students went on to work in various ways in what we now call “cultural history,” an approach which incorporates post-modern thinking.

I usually do not read reviews by others before I write my own.  This time I have relied on Eric Foner’s review in The Nation about Davis’s contributions to American history and on Marc Parry’s review in The Chronicle of Higher Education which credits Davis with contributing to the rise of cultural history.

Davis is always worth reading, but he writes primarily for an audience of other historians.  I enthusiastically recommend his new book, but general readers might find his earlier, more sweeping works also meaningful.

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