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The Idea of Slavery

The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture

by David Brion Davis
Cornell, 505 pp., $10.00

In the year AD 61 the prefect of the city of Rome, Pedanius Secundus, was murdered by one of the slaves in his town house. Under the law, not only the culprit but all the other slaves in the household had to be executed, in this instance numbering four hundred. There was a popular outcry and the Senate debated the question. Some senators rose to plead clemency, but the day was carried by the distinguished jurist, Gaius Cassius Longinus, who argued that all change from ancestral laws and customs is always for the worse. When a mob tried to prevent the sentence from being carried out, the emperor personally intervened on the side of the law, though he rejected another proposal that Pedanius’s ex-slaves should also be punished by banishment. That, he said, would be unnecessary cruelty.

The emperor was Nero and it has been suggested that one of the unsuccessful advocates of mercy may have been his closest adviser, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, in whose writings there are some powerful passages calling for the treatment of slaves as fellow-humans. Not once, however, did Seneca suggest that the institution itself was so immoral that it ought to be abolished. For that radical idea the western world still had to wait more than 1500 years, while philosophers, moralists, theologians, and jurists—save for an isolated voice here and there to whom no one listened—discovered and propagated a variety of formulas which satisfied them and society at large that a man could be both a thing and a man at the same time. This ambiguity or “dualism” is the “problem of slavery” to which Professor Davis has devoted a large, immensely learned, readable, exciting, disturbing, and sometimes frustrating volume, one of the most important to have been published on the subject of slavery in modern times.

THE GENESIS OF THE BOOK was a modest one. Professor Davis set out to make a comparative study of British and American antislavery movements. Gradually he began to appreciate that “the problem of slavery transcended national boundaries” in ways he “had not suspected.” Slavery was brought to the New World at a time when it had disappeared from most of Europe; yet there were no hesitations, no gropings, because the heritage of the Bible, classical philosophy, and Roman law provided a readymade set of regulations and a readymade ideology. Differences within the New World, between the Anglo-Saxons in the north and the Latins in the south, between Protestant and Catholic colonies, appeared, on closer examination, to be tangential and far less significant than “their underlying patterns of unity.” On this particular topic Professor Davis has now come forward with powerful support for a recent trend in scholarship running counter to the romantic idealized image of Latin American slavery, and in particular of race relations in the southern hemisphere, which had long prevailed, a view perhaps best known from the works of the Brazilian Gilberto Freyre and from Frank Tannenbaum’s seminal little book Slave and Citizen. In short, Professor Davis came to the conclusion that “there was more institutional continuity between ancient and modern slavery than has generally been supposed” and that “slavery has always raised certain fundamental problems that originated in the simple fact that the slave is a man.”

From this conclusion a new and fundamental question followed. If the “legal and moral validity of slavery was a troublesome question in European thought from the time of Aristotle to the time of Locke,” why was it that not until the 1770s were there “forces in motion that would lead to organized movements to abolish…the entire institutional framework which permitted human beings to be treated as things”? This development, he rightly says, “was something new to the world.” Slavery had declined markedly in the later Roman Empire, not as a result of an abolitionist movement but in consequence of complex social and economic changes which replaced the chattel slave by a different kind of bondsman, the colonus, the adscriptus glebi, the serf. Modern slavery, in contrast, did not become slowly transformed. It was abolished by force and violence. Attempts to picture “antislavery and efforts to Christianize and ameliorate the condition of slaves as parts of a single swelling current of humanitarianism” falsify the historical record. “All such dreams and hopes ran aground on the simple and solid fact, which for centuries had been obscured by philosophy and law, that a slave was not a piece of property, nor but a half-human instrument, but a man held down by force.”

THE BOOK Professor Davis started to write was thus converted into a large project of which this is the first volume (though a self-contained one) carrying the story from antiquity to the early 1770s. The story, it must be stressed, is essentially one in the history of ideas. “A problem of moral perception” is how he himself phrases it.

This book…makes no pretense of being a history of slavery as such, or even of opinion concerning slavery…I have been concerned with the different ways in which men have responded to slavery, on the assumption that this will help us to distinguish what was unique in the response of the abolitionist. I have also been concerned with traditions in thought and value from which both opponents and defenders of slavery could draw. I hope to demonstrate that slavery has always been a source of social and psychological tension, but that in Western culture it was associated with certain religious and philosophical doctrines that gave it the highest sanction.

As an essay in the history of ideas—more precisely, of ideology, a word which Professor Davis curiously shies away from—the book is brilliant, filled with detail yet never losing control of the main threads, subtle and sophisticated and penetrating. Even the relatively brief and derivative first part, on ancient and medieval thinking, has some fine insights. Then, with the discovery of America, Professor Davis comes into his own. No man, surely, has read so much or so deeply on the subject: the footnotes provide the most complete bibliography we have; too complete indeed, and one wishes he had been more discriminating in his selection of titles. It is imposible in a review to survey the ground covered or the multiplicity of fresh ideas and suggestions. But an example or two will indicate how complicated is the counterpoint that is woven throughout around the “dualism” concept. Early on the leitmotif emerges. The question is posed as to why in the later Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages, when “slavery all but disappeared from most parts of Europe,” we do not find “the Church turning away from its compromises with the Roman world and using its great moral power to hasten a seemingly beneficial change.” Professor Davis answers:

The most plausible explanation would seem to lie in the complex network of mental associations, derived from antiquity, which connected slavery with ideas of sin, subordination, and the divine order of the world. To question the ethical basis of slavery, even when the institution was disappearing from view, would be to question fundamental conceptions of God’s purpose and man’s history and destiny. If slavery were an evil and performed no divinely appointed function, then why had God authorized it in Scripture and permitted it to exist in nearly every nation? If slavery violated the natural law of equality and the divine law of human brotherhood, could not the same be said of the family, private property, social orders, and government?

The heretical sects were a threat all the time, for they seized on those ideas Implicit in Christianity “that were potentially explosive when torn from their protective casings and ignited in the charged atmosphere of class rivalry and discontent.” They had to be contained, and they were. Not until the middle of of the eighteenth century did an English sect finally take a firm official stand against slavery (while the Church of England remained indifferent). The Quakers came to that after a long period of inner conflict on the subject, but by then society had been so transformed that the moral issues acquired new practical implications.

In a period of intense soul-searching, of desire for self-purification and of concern over their image in the eyes of others, a decision to refrain from dealing in slaves was a means of reasserting the perfectionist content of their faith. It was a way of prescribing a form of selfish economic activity without repudiating the search for wealth;…a way of affirming the individual’s moral will, and the historic mission of the church, without challenging the basic structure of the social order.

SO BALD A SUMMARY invites the charge of mere cynicism, but nothing would be more unjust. Behind the summaries lie meticulous accounts of the intense intellectual and moral struggles that went on in the search for a moral position. In all societies which are characterized by class or national conflicts and divergence of interests, ideology is necessarily ambivalent. No account is adequate which fails to reveal how ideology serves both to criticize and to preserve the social order at the same time, and the careless or blinkered observer automatically dismisses as cynicism any analysis which gives due weight to the second function. On the subject of slavery, the crowning paradox is that the rationalist attack on Christian theology in the eighteenth century brought the slave no nearer to freedom. Locke had already shown how a defense of slavery could be reconciled with natural rights. Now, “insofar as the Enlightment divorced anthropology and comparative anatomy from theological assumptions, it opened the way for theories of racial inferiority.”

And yet, at the point where this book ends, anti-slavery had become a program and eventually it was to become a successful major political issue. Slavery was finally abolished in the West. Why? It is on that decisive question that I find Professor Davis’s account frustrating. “For some two thousand years men thought of sin as a kind of slavery. One day they would come to think of slavery as sin.” Who are “they”? “By the early 1770s a large number of moralists, poets, intellectuals, and reformers had come to regard American slavery as an unmitigated evil.” It is only a little unfair to remind Professor Davis of Jim Farley’s remark, towards the close of Adlai Stevenson’s first presidential campaign. Someone at a party was being jubilant over the fact that nearly all intellectuals were for Stevenson. “All sixty thousand of them,” retorted Farley. Moralists, poets, intellectuals, and reformers did not destroy slavery. The Civil War did that, and Professor Davis himself has, as a by-product, delivered a crushing blow against the “unnecessary conflict” school of historians. I do not, of course, wish to deny the essential role of several generations of abolitionists. But nothing did or could happen until their moral fervor became translated into political and military action, and how that came about cannot be answered by the history of ideas. Nothing is more difficult perhaps than to explain how and why, or why not, a new moral perception becomes effective in action. Yet nothing is more urgent if an academic historical exercise is to become a significant investigation of human behavior with direct relevance to the world we now live in.

It would be gross injustice to call this book an academic historical exercise or to suggest that Professor Davis is unaware of the central question. Throughout the volume there are sharp comments very much to the point. In a brief note on the rather mechanical economic explanations in Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery, Davis joins the opposition but then adds that one cannot “get around the simple fact that no country thought of abolishing the slave trade until its economic value had considerably declined.” He knows and uses the most recent discussions (down to Eugene Genovese’s Political Economy of Slavery, published in 1965) of the profitability of slavery and its effects on economic growth. He agrees that it is “theoretically possible” that such divergences with respect to freed slaves as existed between North and South America “had less to do with the character of slavery in the two countries than with economic and social structures which defined the relations between colored freedmen and the dominant white society.” He mentions the wars of the eighteenth century and the changes in the balance of power, which “brought a growing awareness of the instability and inefficiency of the old colonial system.” And it may be that what I am looking for will find its proper place in the next volumes.

YET THE FACT REMAINS that the comments I have just quoted are really asides, often relegated to footnotes, and I do not think it is a sufficient defense that a man has a right to choose his own subject, in this case the history of ideas. Slavery is not an autonomous system; it is an institution embedded in a social structure. It is no longer the same institution when the structure is significantly altered, and ideas about slavery have to be examined structurally too. Only by remaining in the realm of abstractions can Professor Davis lay so much emphasis on the “institutional continuity” between ancient and modern slavery. He is in consequence led astray on several important aspects. His account of slavery among the Hebrews and other ancient Near Eastern societies suffers from precisely the weakness he has so effectively exposed in the case of Latin American slavery. He has allowed his authorities to mislead him into taking at face value pious hopes which he penetrates easily when they appear in Seneca or modern writers. And he has misjudged the social ambience by failing to appreciate sufficiently that for most of human history labor for others has been involuntary (quite apart from compulsions exercised by either family or wage-earning, which are of a different order from the kind of force that is the final sanction against slaves, serfs, peons, debt bondsmen, coolies, or untouchables): Slavery in that context must have different overtones from slavery in a context of free labor. The way slavery declined in the Roman Empire, to repeat an example I have already given, illustrates that. Neither moral values nor economic interests nor the social order were threatened by the transformation of slaves and free peasants together into tied serfs. They were—or at least many powerful elements in society thought they were—by proposals to convert slaves into free men.

What sets the slave apart from all other forms of involuntary labor is that, in the strictest sense, he is an outsider. He is brought into a new society violently and traumatically; he is cut off from all traditional human ties of kin and nation and even his own religion; he is prevented, insofar as that is possible, from creating new ties, except to his masters, and in consequence his descendants are as much outsiders, as unrooted, as he was. The final proof of non-status is the free sexual access to slaves which is a fundamental condition of all slavery (with complex exceptions in the rules regarding access of free females to slave males). When Professor Davis writes, “Bondwomen have always been the victims of sexual exploitation, which was perhaps the clearest recognition of their humanity,” he has stood the situation on its head. Sexual exploitation is a denial, not a recognition, of a woman’s humanity, whether she is slave or free.

I HAVE STATED the slave-outsider formula schematically and therefore too rigidly. Structural differences emerge clearly when one considers how much societies have differed with respect to the freed slave. At one extreme stood Rome, which not only allowed almost unlimited rights to individual masters to free their slaves but which also automatically enrolled the freedmen as citizens if their owners were citizens. At the other extreme was the American South. Professor Davis produces evidence that by 1860 there were more free Negroes, even in the South, than is often realized. Nevertheless, the emancipation process was hemmed in by very stringent regulations. And the fate of the freed slave in the United States hardly needs spelling out. What does need a careful look is the question of color, which is too central to be evaded out of sentimentality and on which Professor Davis has an important chapter (as usual, in the realm of ideas). Dr. Williams holds that “slavery was not born of racism, rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” One wishes profoundly that one could believe that. However, the slave-outsider formula argues the other way, as does the fact that as early as the 1660s southern colonies decreed that henceforth all Negroes who were imported should be slaves, but whites should be indentured servants and not slaves. The connection between slavery and racism has been a dialectical one, in which each element reinforced the other.

Racism has already outlived slavery by a century. Why, we are entitled to ask, did the “revolutionary shift in attitudes towards sin, human nature, and progress,” which we may concede to have been a necessary condition of antislavery, not extend to racism? Is slavery any more a sin than the denial of civil rights, concentration camps, Hiroshima, napalm, torture in Algeria, or apartheid in South Africa or Rhodesia? Why did the new moral perception succeed in wiping out one sin and not the others? It is that question which makes this book a profoundly disturbing one. There is cold comfort here for anyone who trusts to the slow ameliorative process of a growing humanitarianism, of the “progressive development of man’s moral sense” which Thomas Jefferson found in history. In Professor Davis’s lapidary phrase, “faith in progress smothered [Jefferson’s] sense of urgency” when it came to slavery.

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