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Spreading the News

Slavery and Human Progress

by David Brion Davis
Oxford University Press, 374 pp., $25.00

Since World War II professional history in America has become more sophisticated and analytical, more European, than ever before. The great historians of the Thirties and Forties, Samuel Eliot Morison, Henry Steele Commager, Allan Nevins, Garrett Mattingly, and the young Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., were largely cast in the traditional nineteenth-century mold of narrative historians and biographers. Their works were powerful, informative, often original, and they reached out far beyond the confines of the profession to a wide national audience. Perhaps because America had no medieval history, indeed the United States has little sixteenth-century history, the influence of European scholars such as Henri Pirenne, Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, and other luminaries of the “new history” of the Twenties was slow to take root. The slogan of this school, in Febvre’s phrase, was, “No problems, no history.”

Historical problems naturally occur more frequently in complex, well-defined, long-continuing societies; less frequently in the simple colonizing societies on a largely empty continent. At least one huge problem, however, has confronted all historians of the United States of America—the question of slavery continuing in a society founded to protect liberty and secure freedom. Historians of distinction had recognized this problem before World War II, but immediately afterward numerous articles and monographs, many of exceptional distinction, poured from the American presses.

Young American historians were stimulated by Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (1944), a wrongheaded but stimulating Marxist interpretation by an outstanding Caribbean scholar, and by European studies, particularly Charles Verlinden’s L’Esclavage dans l’Europe médiévale (Vol. 1; Bruges, 1955), a brilliant and original work which created vast interest in what was virtually a new field of European history, but one which had close links to the first century of American slavery in the Spanish colonies. Non-American contributors to the history of slavery have continued to enrich the subject, but for the last twenty-five years it has been dominated by American scholars of exceptional brilliance—C. Vann Woodward, Edmund Morgan, Eugene Genovese, Winthrop Jordan, Orlando Patterson—one might go on listing names as numerous as those on the tree of Jesse.

The intellectual content of some of these studies, particularly in those of Genovese, has been strengthened by Marxist influences. No doubt the fading of McCarthyism in the 1960s also helped to produce a freer and livelier intellectual climate. Other historians have turned for enlightenment to other disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, and psychology; others to music as well as myth; the econometric historians of slavery, dominated by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, have attempted to turn the economics of slavery, upon which so much historical interpretation depends, upside down. Their Time on the Cross argued that black slaves in the pre-Civil War South were psychologically and culturally deprived, but that the institution of slavery was nevertheless economically beneficial to masters and slaves alike.1 A book with many defects, dubious in statistics and unacceptable in argument, it nevertheless created new insights as well as new problems for the historians of slavery.

The work goes on and will go on for perhaps another decade before it begins to subside, as subside it will. It can hardly be a coincidence that American historians’ preoccupation with slavery has coincided with the growth of the civil rights movement. As that movement achieves its goals, so, I expect, will interest in slavery diminish. But that prospect lies well in the future and this year has seen two more major works on the subject. Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death, a book of magnificent scholarship, originality, and penetrating analysis,2 and David Brion Davis’s Slavery and Human Progress.

At the beginning of his career Davis set himself one of the most difficult of historical problems. How, Davis asked, did the ideas of an elite become a widespread social attitude? How, in particular, did the antislavery views of a few Quakers and Evangelicals during the second half of the eighteenth century become the automatic belief of hundreds and thousands of men and women within two generations? This dramatic change in opinion can be illustrated by the following advertisement published in the Liverpool Chronicle on December 15, 1768:



of about 4 feet 5 inches tall of a sober, tractable, human Disposition, Eleven or Twelve Years of Age, talks English well, and can Dress Hair in a tollerable Way3

Ironically, while the newspaper at this time was giving its support to “Wilkes and Liberty,” the advertisement provoked no comment of any traceable kind. Twenty years later even a Liverpool newspaper would scarcely have dared to publish such an advertisement, and had it done so it would have led to public outrage, vigorously expressed.

In twenty years the social attitude to slavery in England had changed dramatically. To many—particularly nineteenth-century liberals—revulsion against slavery seemed both natural and sanctioned by the Christian religion. This revulsion is now so generally felt that it is hard to remember that until the late eighteenth century slavery had been acceptable to all societies, except among a few intellectuals, and practiced by most of them since the dawn of history.

What is remarkable is not that slavery existed but that it was ever abolished. How did this happen? To this problem Davis has devoted his professional life—his views are enshrined in two books, both among the highest achievements in slavery studies—The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. No simple answers emerge from either of the two books. They delineate the complexity of the problem rather than suggest easy solutions to it.

Slavery and Human Progress begins with a survey of the views on slavery that have been held since antiquity, but the book is, for the most part, an analysis of how the notion of progress worked to transform those views—particularly through the changes in sensibility and thought that led the British to abolish the slave trade in 1807 and emancipate the West Indian slaves in 1833. Davis argues that the abolitionist movement originated largely in the great Quaker revival of the mid-eighteenth century. He describes how English and American Quakers and Evangelicals, such as Freeborn Garrettson, the Methodist preacher who traveled through the South in the late eighteenth century, and the British Evangelical politician William Wilberforce, succeeded in arousing public opinion against slavery. Some of these thinkers, he claims, saw their abolitionist agitation as part of an effort to reconstitute “Christian culture in the wake of the French Revolution and in the face of the rising tide of industrial capitalism.”

Of course, Davis also notes that Enlightenment philosophers such as Rousseau and Condorcet had undermined the traditional justification of slavery as sanctioned by the Bible, and that social theorists like Adam Smith had come to see slavery as an institution that had become an anomaly in the capitalist arrangements of the new industrial revolution. By the 1830s slavery was widely regarded as both immoral and anachronistic.

Davis is exceptionally perceptive, both in his earlier books and in this new one, in the stress he places not only on religious belief but on the commitment to the antislavery movement in both Britain and America among Quakers and Methodists and Evangelicals who believed deeply in personal salvation. Almost all the leading protagonists of the first campaign against the slave trade and slavery were, as Davis shows, deeply religious men and women, converted more by their hearts than by their heads. Often such conversions resulted in dramatic action—such slave owners as Freeborn Garrettson freed their slaves; slave traders such as John Newton gave up their trade and preached the horrors of their sinful earlier lives with the fervor of St. Francis.

Certainly the development of a deeply moral and emotional commitment to antislavery was new. What voices had been raised before had been largely intellectual and only occasionally religious. But even so, the quick, almost overwhelming, response and momentum that the antislavery movement achieved required other and more complex social and economic factors to explain it. Ideas rarely convince by themselves; there is usually a pressure to believe. As Davis shows, along with this moral vision went the conviction, which grew steadily in the early decades of the nineteenth century, that free labor was likely to be more productive because it was free, that a man was more likely to work harder when he had wages to dispose of as he wished. Benjamin Franklin and David Hume thought that when large tracts of land had to be cultivated and other sources of labor were absent, slavery might be highly efficient. But when these conditions did not obtain, Davis points out, they “took it for granted that slave labor was less efficient and normally more expensive than free labor and that slave societies inhibited the growth of population and thus of industry and national wealth.” Indeed the belief that slavery was an outmoded and incompetent means of production was so pervasive across the political spectrum by the early nineteenth century that it could take contradictions in its stride.

The abolitionists, for example, opposed Cuban sugar on two grounds: first, that it had been grown with blood; second, that its low price, which undercut the market, was owing to cheap but highly productive slave labor. The fact that the second reason contradicted one of their major convictions did not perturb them. Here we may recall that the belief that slavery was not as profitable as free labor has been so deep-rooted that when Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross appeared, it was greeted with outrage. But the book led to more careful assessment of the economics of slavery, and although no one would agree whole-heartedly with its statistics or conclusions, subsequent research has shown that slavery could be very profitable, even as late as the 1860s.

Although it is true that slavery was often very profitable, most thinking men, whether radical or conservative, by 1860 had come to regard it as an antiquated institution, a phase in the history of human society that should be abolished as soon as possible. Even the slaveholders of the southern states, of Cuba, or of South America were, almost to a man, defensive about the peculiar institution. Davis cites James Hammond, a pre-Civil War governor of South Carolina, who wrote a public letter to prominent English abolitionists in which he favorably compared slavery in the South with the results of laissez-faire capitalism in English mines and factories. By 1860 the slave-holding societies were beginning to collapse from within, feeling helplessly that they belonged to an antique world. Profitability is not the only factor likely to create social buoyancy in institutions.

At this point, I believe, Davis fails to do justice to another great change in social attitude that took place between 1760 and 1830, one every bit as profound and as momentous as the change in the attitude toward slavery: indeed I regard it as a trigger to that change. Davis considers the influence of science and rightly points out that the attitude of many scientists, particularly social scientists, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, actually strengthened the intellectual case for slavery by arguing that blacks were an inferior subspecies of humankind. They were held to be less intelligent, more emotional, without innate moral sense, and at the mercy of their sexual drives—a stage further back than whites in the evolution of mankind. Hume, he notes, advanced the “suspicion that blacks were ‘naturally inferior to whites.”’

But Davis does not sufficiently consider the new social attitudes that science had been breeding for a century and that were now taking hold of society. Technological development and the rapid growth of man’s power over nature had bred an astonishing acceptance of the idea of “modernity”—the belief in growth and change, the appetite for the new—which had little to do with the specific ideas of scientists. It pervaded most of the education of the British middle and lower middle classes. The belief that the betterment of mankind would come by acceptance of man’s rationality and control over nature was widespread, even in religious circles.

I cannot here examine the complex interrelationship between these two contradictory social attitudes, but there is no doubt that the steadily growing belief that slavery was an outmoded as well as an immoral institution, left over from antiquity, was fortified by the remarkable acceptance of the idea of modernity.4 Of course, Davis is well aware that many people regarded slavery as an old-fashioned institution and that this was a powerful factor in the antislavery campaign. But he does not consider the mechanisms in society that were giving power and conviction to these ideas, not only through philosophical societies but through such humble activities as animal and plant breeding and children’s toys and children’s literature.

For example, one of the earliest, most successful, and most popular pieces of scientific propaganda for children, The Newtonian System of the Universe Digested for Young Minds by Tom Telescope, published in 1761, contains a sharp denunciation of the slave trade. Nor was this an isolated view; between 1760 and 1800, an increasing number of children’s books, scientific as well as religious, in middle-class homes echoed the same theme. After all, Tom Telescope’s book sold more than thirty thousand copies in England and it was as popular in the northeastern states of America as it was in Britain. The ways by which children were taught to hate slavery, and this partly precedes the emergence of the abolitionist movement, badly needs investigation by historians dealing with the abolition of slavery.

Indeed, I wish that Davis had ranged more widely than he does over the changing world of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when quite fundamental shifts occurred in the attitude of the ruling classes toward human and social relationships. Moreover, slavery cannot, I think, be abstracted, as Davis abstracts it, from other social controls to make men work if one is to understand why slavery had been for so long an acceptable human institution and why it has—in historic terms—only recently been abolished.

Males have always been reluctant workers. In many ways the rape of the Sabine women symbolizes man’s first slave raids, raids on women for work as well as enjoyment and the breeding of more men. The deadly toil of food-gathering, the back-breaking garden cultures were women’s tasks, and the more the better, for use or abuse. The acceptance of slavery is much more easy to understand if one grasps the fact that slavery is inherent in the family.

In India, as in Papua, and throughout the underdeveloped world, the age expectation of women is lower than that of men, although biologically this should not be so. Their work kills them early. Only forms of bondage and the need to survive kept men steadily at work at tasks they would never choose for themselves. As soon as there is need for mass labor—in silver mines or salt mines—plantation-type slavery has been organized to get the work done, as in antiquity in Greece, or in Spain, or in southern Italy in early Islamic times. (In fact, as Davis points out, the importation of slaves into “Islamic lands from Spain to India constituted a continuous large-scale migration that in total numbers may well have surpassed, over a period of twelve centuries, the African diaspora to the New World.”)

Once slavery is established, of course, other aspects of human nature exploit its potentiality. It is often easier to buy sexual pleasures than to earn them; that has always been a powerful factor in chattel slavery or concubinage. Again, sometimes the conditions of slavery and the conditions of so-called free labor are uncomfortably close—domestic servants, like household apprentices, were more comparable to those of chattel slaves than we care to admit. Women and children at all times tend to be in the condition of slavery. For millennia the inherent slavery of the family made social slavery acceptable.

Except in nomadic societies, mankind has usually been short of labor or short of people willing to undertake life-destroying, repetitive toil. And although the direct influence of rapid population growth on the decline of slavery is almost impossible to demonstrate, surely it can be no coincidence that they occurred at the same time. The Tudor government in England was quite willing to reintroduce slavery into England and passed an act of Parliament making the enforcement of slavery legal, but it failed because there was an inexhaustible well of paupers to draw upon, cheaper by far than slaves, and much easier to control. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the antislavery movement was launched in the fastest-growing society in Europe in the late eighteenth century.

Surely related to this was the rapidly changing attitude to labor—and particularly, as Davis notes in passing, “capitalists views of labor”—first in Great Britain, then elsewhere. Almost everyone prior to the second half of the eighteenth century believed that the poor had to be compelled to work—like slaves. But throughout the second half of the eighteenth century there was the rapidly growing belief among industrialists that men and women could be enticed to work and work hard by rewards as well as penalties—an attitude that fitted well with concepts of modernity and helped to make slavery seem outmoded as well as immoral. And if it is remembered that middle-class education at that time was based from a child’s infancy on a similar attitude of rewards and punishments, how much easier for such an attitude toward poverty to become acceptable. It does not seem far-fetched to link the changing attitude toward slavery to the new attitude toward children (after all, for most of human history, children in most societies were in effect the slaves of parents and could be sold, discarded, or even, in times of famine, murdered with impunity), and to the less marked but discernible new attitude toward women. Industrialization provided a much more subtle and basically more humane way of getting the world’s work done.

The sense of moral regeneration in those who took up the cause of antislavery was undoubtedly a powerful, very powerful, factor in the achievement of abolition, and Davis is right to make it a central theme of his book. He is absolutely right to stress the contradiction of beliefs in many a liberal mind or attitude. I for one would have liked to see him cutting brilliant figures on the thin ice of more general speculation about the deep change in the social attitudes that led to the abolition movement. New ideas certainly require definition and dedicated leadership if they are to triumph; but they also need to be nurtured in a social compost of considerable complexity.

  1. 1

    Little, Brown, 1974.

  2. 2

    Harvard University Press, 1982.

  3. 3

    Cowburn’s Liverpool Chronicle. The only surviving run of this newspaper is in my possession.

  4. 4

    See my “The Acceptance of Modernity,” in Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J.H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society (Indiana University Press, 1983).

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