The Uses of Antislavery

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823

by David Brion Davis
Cornell University Press, 576 pp., $17.50

At a recent meeting of American historians a session was devoted to the question: “Is intellectual history dead?” Those who replied in the affirmative should read David Brion Davis’s new book. Like Mark Twain, they might discover that some reports of death are greatly exaggerated. Of course intellectual history is not what it used to be. Ideas are no longer generally seen as free-floating entities which can be described, compared, and placed in chronological patterns with little or no reference to their social and economic setting. But they remain important; for it is ideas and not the “hard data” of the quantifiers and “cliometricians” that people have in their heads when they do the things that make history. As Davis’s work demonstrates, good intellectual history is absolutely essential for an adequate understanding of the past; its proper subject is the way flesh-and-blood human beings make sense out of their world and try to gain some kind of mastery over it.

Central to the kind of intellectual history exemplified by The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution is a concern with ideology as the link between, on the one hand, social and economic realities and, on the other, the realm of abstract ideas and principles. If we find, for example, that someone in the eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries says publicly that slavery is “morally wrong,” we no longer simply try to locate him in some chain of thought or developing reformist tradition; we are likely to be even more interested in what it was in his own circumstances that induced him to make a statement which at the time was highly controversial. This leads to a consideration not only of his social background but also of his attitudes on a variety of other issues, so that we can get a sense of the ideological filter through which he viewed black slavery.

Used in this way, the term ideology loses a lot of its pejorative connotations. Instead of being a deliberate distortion of reality, it becomes simply the way in which people who share a common situation give coherence to their hopes and fears, and prepare themselves mentally for social or political action. Ideologies are, as Marxists have always contended, bound up with the power aspirations of social groups. But they are not, as some Marxists have argued, simply a rationalization for economic interests. According to the view which historians are increasingly adopting, ideology is more a matter of culture than of the kind of economics that reduces human motivation to the pursuit of material gain. It can perhaps be described most simply as the set of principles, programs, and goals that reflect the way a social group applies its values and attitudes to the problems it faces at a particular time.

This conception of ideology is playing a major part in current efforts to reinterpret the conflicts arising from the existence of black slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Some of the most striking examples of …

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