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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.1 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 this trend can be found in the flourishing literature on the sectional struggle over slavery that led to the American Civil War. Eugene Genovese has written provocatively on how the developing “world view” of the slaveholding class of the South, as embodied in the thought of a man like George Fitzhugh, collided irresistibly with the capitalistic, free-labor ideology of the North.2 Eric Foner has argued that the rhetoric of the Republican party in the 1850s, with its slogan of “free soil, free labor, free men,” was the natural outgrowth of adherence to a distinctive northern way of life and a belief that this way of life was threatened by an alien southern civilization.3

A new interpretation of the origins of the Civil War seems to be gaining currency. The concern about which side was “right” and which was merely “ideological” (in the old sense of a rationalization of material interests) is being replaced by an understanding of how Northerners and Southerners could hold sincerely differing convictions about what kinds of values and social arrangements should prevail throughout the United States. The status of slavery in the western territories became the immediate divisive issue of the 1850s because the territories became the setting for conflict between southern hopes for the preservation and extension of a slave-based civilization and northern expectations that western lands would remain a place where free white workingmen and farmers could go to realize their dream of an open society without confronting the unfair economic competition, overweening political power, and undesirable cultural influences that they associated with slaveholders and plantations.

According to this emerging synthesis, neither side was motivated directly by economic self-interest or was hypocritical in its assertion of abstract principles. The fact that one economy relied on black slave labor and the other on free white labor is still at the root of the ideological divergence. But intervening between economics and the public story of political and military conflict was the culturally conditioned realm of ideology—the symbols and metaphors that represented emotional commitment to a particular way of life, a commitment that was inevitably heightened by fears for the future aroused by the growing claims of the rival ideology.

David Brion Davis’s new book deals with the controversy over slavery in an earlier period and over a broader geographical area. But what strikes me most forcefully about The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution is the author’s fresh use of this new understanding that ideology is a cultural imperative and not merely a propagandistic façade for material interests. Up to now, early antislavery thought has been regarded either as a rationalization for capitalistic economic interests or as a pure manifestation of the rising liberal-humanitarianism of the eighteenth century.4 Davis has dissolved this dichotomy by exploring in detail the links between controversies over slavery and the larger struggles for group power and influence in the period 1770 to 1823. For him economic and humanitarian concerns are not separable and clearly distinguishable sources of motivation; they in effect fuse as part of the integrated patterns of belief associated with the efforts of dominant groups or classes to justify their ruling position, both in their own eyes and in those of the ruled.

In trying to relate antislavery to broader class ideologies and to explain the successes and failures of the movement on both sides of the Atlantic in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Davis makes considerable use of the concept of cultural “hegemony.” Inspired by the theoretical writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and recently invoked for an understanding of the Old South by Eugene Genovese, the idea of cultural hegemony refers to the process by which a cohesive ruling class imposes its values on the society as a whole and is thereby able to induce voluntary acceptance of its privileged position by subordinate groups. An example of hegemony, one particularly important for Davis’s interpretation of British antislavery, is the gradual internalization by the English working class of the “Protestant work ethic” of the middle class, so that in the course of the Industrial Revolution most workers ended up submitting willingly to capitalist industrial discipline because they acknowledged its legitimacy.

Applying the concept of hegemony to a particular historical situation is not as easy as it may seem; for the cultural dominance of one group over another cannot be inferred directly from the respective differences in their power. The extent to which a particular ruling group is genuinely “hegemonic”—i.e., no longer needs to rely mainly on force to keep inferiors in their place—can only be determined by direct investigation of lower-class attitudes and behavior.5 But it can hardly be doubted that dominant classes are constantly striving to give plausibility to their claim to speak for everyone in the society. It is in this sense that Davis can quite properly discuss the hegemonic role of antislavery ideology.

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution is the sequel to Davis’s earlier study, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, in which he described the intellectual background of antislavery up to the 1770s.6 He was concerned there mainly with the changes that had to occur in Western views of the nature of man and his relationship to society and authority before antislavery ideas could emerge. He discussed at length, for example, the role of original sin as a justification for slavery and how the modification and dilution of this traditional Christian doctrine in the eighteenth century had raised troublesome questions about black servitude. The new volume considers how ideas antithetical to slavery could win acceptance and become the basis of practical policies that served the broader needs of dominant groups.

Although he pays some attention to the problem of slavery in France and the French colonies, Davis concentrates mostly on British and American developments. It is clear from his account that the British antislavery movement had much greater success in this period than the American, even though both countries legislated against the international slave trade in the same year (1807), and gradual emancipation began in the northern states of America before it had commenced in any of the British colonies. Such signs of common progress toward black emancipation were in fact deceptive. In the United States, antislavery sentiment was mostly limited to the North and even there its progress was hesitant and uncertain. In the South, where most of the slaves lived, there was little substantial opposition to slavery even during the Revolutionary period when southern patriots were proclaiming the doctrine of natural rights as a justification for their own rebellion against England.

In his penetrating discussion of Thomas Jefferson, Davis demolishes the myth that the great southern ideologue of American liberty was an effective opponent of black servitude. What he shows is a record of equivocation, concession, and de facto support of slaveholding. Whatever else Jefferson may have accomplished, he clearly did not deserve to be enshrined as a patron saint of American antislavery. The only real southern abolitionism of Jefferson’s time came from Quakers and other sectarians on the fringe of society. But as the Methodists, Baptists, and other evangelical denominations grew in strength and respectability in the South, they too made their peace with slaveholding and, except in a few isolated pockets, ceased to bear witness against black servitude.

The great national “antislavery” achievement of the period—the prohibition of the international slave trade—came about as a delayed consequence of one of the compromises between northern and southern states made at the Constitutional Convention. And this prohibition was not, in fact, an unequivocal act against slavery. Many Southerners, especially Virginians, favored ending the external trade for reasons of security and self-interest. The rapid natural increase of American slaves made it unnecessary to import more to sustain the system, and the persistence of a domestic trade, along with the possibility of migration by slaveholders from one region to another, meant that it was easy to shift slave labor from overstocked areas to regions where the plantation system was expanding.

In England, on the other hand, abolition of the slave trade was carried out against the opposition of West Indian slaveholders and was a clear assertion of metropolitan authority over what had come to be regarded as a parochial interest. Unlike the southern planter class, the West Indians were not parties to a constitutional compact which protected their dominance over a region and its “peculiar institution.” Furthermore, the campaign against the slave trade was conducted in England as a crusade against slavery itself. Abolitionists made it clear that they viewed an end to the international trade as a first step leading to emancipation.

Hence the ban on the Atlantic trade took on a meaning radically different from the superficially similar action in the United States. It showed unequivocally that the British nation favored a capitalistic system of “free labor.” The American debate on slavery which preceded the prohibition on slave imports demonstrated that one section had made such a commitment but that it had made it only for itself. As the price of national union the North had formally acknowledged the South’s right to remain a slaveholding region indefinitely.

To make sense of these contrasting developments, Davis undertakes a detailed analysis of the relationship of antislavery to dominant ideologies in both the United States and Great Britain. It would appear, first of all, that the cost of nationhood in the United States was not merely a sectional compromise but also a compact between two distinct elites—a northern capitalist class that increasingly recognized the advantages of a free labor system and a southern planter class already implicitly committed to the preservation and extension of slavery. (Jefferson failed to follow the Declaration of Independence to its logical antislavery conclusion, according to Davis, because he was unable to transcend his class loyalties.) Hence the United States seemingly emerged from its revolutionary period without a national ruling class; it was in fact a federation of two regional ruling classes. Although Davis ends his book in 1823, it is easy to look ahead to the conflict of interests and the struggle over the interpretation of the original compact that would heighten the awareness of ideological and cultural differences and end up as a war between two nationalisms.

In England the situation was quite different. The period of antislavery agitation corresponded with the triumph of a relatively unified ruling class whose main interests lay in the modernization and industrialization of Britain under capitalist auspices. Davis views the crusade against slavery and the slave trade as a part of this larger development. Although he dismisses the once popular “Marxist” thesis that the abolitionists acted in response to their own economic interests, he goes to great length to demonstrate how antislavery agitation and abolition of the slave trade served the “hegemonic” needs of the class to which the abolitionists belonged.

Following the lead of the British historian E.P. Thompson, Davis sees the transformation of a lower class of peasant origins into a disciplined industrial work force as the main problem confronting the emerging elite. Subjecting peasants and pre-industrial craftsmen to the new order often required stern repressive measures. Reformers and humanitarians who were ideologically committed to capitalistic “progress” were impelled either to overlook or to rationalize such repression and to put to rest any qualms they may have had about the harshness of conditions in the “dark satanic mills” which were absorbing an increasing proportion of the working population.

It was no accident, Davis suggests, that abolition of the slave trade took place during the period of suppression of the English working class organizations and radical activities which followed the French Revolution and continued during the long struggle with Napoleon. Seeking legitimacy for the new order at a time when it seemed threatened by foreign and domestic foes, and especially by the resistance of English workingmen to new forms of industrial discipline, antislavery reformers and politicians—men like William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and James Stephen—helped conquer their own doubts and provided a needed occasion for national (and class) self-congratulation by successfully convincing Parliament to abolish the slave trade in 1807. By stressing the evils of plantation slavery, they made it appear that essentially coercive forms of labor that did not involve the ownership of one man by another were not only acceptable but beneficent. By concentrating on a distant and peculiarly harsh form of oppression, they made it easier to overlook new forms of oppression that were taking root in England itself.

In short, they helped to give legitimacy to an emerging English ruling class by incorporating “benevolence” into its ideology, while at the same time carefully limiting the scope of that benevolence so that it could not threaten class hegemony. All this was done, it should be emphasized, without hypocrisy or deliberate falsification. Davis assures us that the abolitionists meant what they said. Their blind spots and limitations must be understood as a consequence of their unavoidable ideological commitments, their adherence to “an integrated system of beliefs, assumptions and values, not necessarily true or false, which reflect[ed] the needs and interests of a group or class at a particular time in history.”

Such a brief summary of Davis’s main argument and its implications cannot do justice to the subtlety and complexity of his scholarship and its freedom from the dogmatism that often mars studies influenced by Marxism. It is obvious that Davis’s interpretation was not imposed on his sources but resulted from a struggle to give them whatever structure and coherence seemed most consistent with the data itself and with the best recent historical work in the field. Nor does he attempt to explain all responses to the problem of slavery as ideological. He includes separate chapters on legal and Biblical interpretations of slavery because he felt that these subjects were “only indirectly related to the political and economic controversies of the Age of Revolution.” For him they apparently represent traditions of thought that were to a large extent autonomous and hence were not easily or quickly reshaped by emerging ideologies.

Finally, his efforts to develop a general interpretation of the antislavery impulse do not lead to a neglect of the special contribution made by distinctive groups like Anglo-American Quakers and New England Calvinists. Indeed the greatest strength of the book arises from its ability to provide a convincing general interpretation while doing full justice to a variety of historical experiences and perspectives.

It would be possible to question a few of the specific points that Davis makes. (His effort, for example, to play down the importance of race prejudice as an obstacle to emancipation in the post-Revolutionary United States is not entirely persuasive.) But his book is generally so impressive and convincing that such criticism would amount to mere quibbling. It is hard to imagine anyone going over the same ground for a long time. In a few years he will presumably finish a third and final volume covering the problem of slavery in the age of emancipation. If it is of the same quality as the current work, it will be well worth waiting for. I particularly look forward to Davis’s treatment of the American abolitionism of the 1830s and 1840s. So far no one has been able to provide a convincing social or “class” interpretation for this crucial phase of American antislavery. If Davis can deal with the ideological implications of the later American movement as successfully as he has with the British abolitionism of the Age of Revolution, he will have brilliantly consummated one of the most ambitious scholarly undertakings of our time.

  1. 1

    For a good theoretical discussion of ideology see Clifford Geertz, “Ideology as a Cultural System,” in David E. Apter, ed., Ideology and Discontent (Free Press, 1964), pp. 47-77.

  2. 2

    The World the Slaveholders Made (Pantheon, 1969).

  3. 3

    Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (Oxford, 1970).

  4. 4

    The classic statement of the economic determinist position is Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (University of North Carolina Press, 1944). One of the many works which stress the intellectual influences of an age of humanitarianism is Arthur Zilversmit, The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North (University of Chicago Press, 1967).

  5. 5

    This is done brilliantly in E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Random House, 1963).

  6. 6

    Cornell University Press, 1966.

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