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The Scholar Who Shaped History

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Granger Collection
‘Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia’; painting by Eyre Crowe, 1861

Since the middle of the twentieth century, our understanding of the American past has been revolutionized, in no small part because of our altered conceptions of the place of race in the nation’s history. And that revolution has taken place largely because of a remarkable generation of historians who, inspired by the changing meanings of freedom and justice in their own time, began to ask new questions about the origins of the racial inequality that continued to permeate our segregated society nearly a century after slavery’s end.

Published in 1956, just two years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision called for school integration, Kenneth Stampp’s pathbreaking The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South turned prevailing wisdom on its head. His history, written with a premise of fundamental black and white equality, yielded insights about slavery quite unlike the conclusions of earlier writings based on unquestioned assumptions of black inferiority. The leading early-twentieth-century historian of slavery, Ulrich B. Phillips, had portrayed a benevolent system designed to uplift and protect benighted Africans. Stampp, deeply affected by the emerging civil rights movement, painted a very different picture. With vivid archival detail, he demonstrated that slavery was harsh and exploitative of those who, he explained in words that rather startlingly reveal both the extent and limits of midcentury white liberalism, were after all “white men with black skins, nothing more, nothing less.”

But the outpouring of research and writing about slavery in the years that followed went far beyond simply changing assumptions about race and human equality. It yielded as well an emerging recognition of the centrality of slavery in the American experience—not just in the South, but in northern society too, where it persisted in a number of states well into the nineteenth century. It also fundamentally shaped the national economy, which relied upon cotton as its largest export, and national politics, where slaveholding presidents governed for approximately two thirds of the years between the inaugurations of Washington and Lincoln.

At the same time, the burgeoning study of slavery was revolutionizing the practice of history by significantly expanding the kinds of sources scholars thought to employ in their effort to illuminate the elusive past. In order truly to understand slavery, it seemed imperative in the post–civil rights era to have a far richer understanding of the experience and perspectives of the slaves themselves. Yet by law throughout the South, slaves had been prohibited from reading and writing and thus prevented from leaving the written records on which history traditionally so largely depended.

In order to create the new history of slavery, scholars ventured into unaccustomed fields of research—demography, quantitative analysis, which came to be dubbed “cliometrics,” oral history, folklore, music, material culture, archaeology, and comparative history, to name a few. These modes of inquiry have now become staples in historical fields well beyond the study of America’s peculiar institution. In developing a new history for slavery over the past half-century, scholars have at the same time contributed to fundamentally changing the ways history is done, significantly expanding the kinds of remnants of the past that might be tapped as sources of historical understanding.

The new scholarship that placed slavery at the heart of American history and that recognized race as a central and enduring dimension of the American experience was the creation of prodigiously talented scholars who both argued and collaborated, at once learning from and disputing with one another, at times bringing especially vehement scholarly debates to prominent attention in the national media, to magazine covers and television talk shows. For me, a southern historian, a graduate student and assistant professor in the 1970s, it was a heady time, when history mattered so intensely to contemporary life and when brilliant scholars produced a stream of weighty volumes, each one of which required revised understanding and prompted—even mandated—new directions for research. They included such individuals as Kenneth Stampp, Stanley Elkins, Eugene Genovese, Herbert Gutman, John Hope Franklin, Lawrence Levine, Leon Litwack, John Blassingame, Orlando Patterson, Robert Fogel, and Stanley Engerman. And prominent among them, David Brion Davis. Davis did not focus his primary attention on the experience of slaves or the details of the institution of slavery, but about what he defined in the title of his influential Pulitzer Prize–winning 1966 book The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (PSWC): slavery as a problem and contradiction in human thought and human morality, not just in American history but across both world history and geography from the Greeks onward.

Davis’s book and his subsequent work would become a major influence in the emergence of a comparative history of slavery and abolition, in essence a global history well avant la lettre. It would, among other achievements, powerfully influence traditional approaches to intellectual history by embedding ideas in social and political action and institutions. This was historical writing with a scope and ambition that would shape scholars and scholarship for decades to come.

Now, in 2014, David Brion Davis, age eighty-six, has published the final volume in the trilogy he inaugurated with PSWC and continued with The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823 (PSAR) in 1975. In the years since, he also has written or edited twelve other books, and he has published in these pages a continuing account of slavery scholarship, contributing some three dozen essays since the 1970s. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, which he began in 1980, completes the trilogy and is, he writes, “the fulfillment of a career.” This career has produced not just extraordinary scholarship and numbers of graduate students who are now leading historians in their own right. Davis has also been dedicated to extending and disseminating a true understanding of the place of slavery in American history by founding and then leading the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale and by offering a course on slavery for high school teachers each summer for nearly a decade.

Davis came somewhat indirectly to slavery studies. An undergraduate philosophy major at Dartmouth and then a graduate student in Harvard’s program in the History of American Civilization, he was interested in how ideas are refracted through real human problems in the everyday world. History, Davis believed, could serve as a “source for disciplined moral reflection.” In his dissertation and first book, the problem he chose to consider was homicide—how a human being can come to deny and obliterate the humanity of others. But his inquiry into the nature of dehumanization soon shifted its focus to the injustices of race and slavery that had been under increasing academic and public discussion in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Davis had himself experienced something of an epiphany on these issues during his military service at the end of World War II. A peripatetic childhood had taken him to five high schools across the North, yet he had never shared a classroom with an African-American. A training camp in Georgia introduced him to the injustices of southern segregation, but an incident on a troop ship carrying him to Germany at the very conclusion of the war made an even more forceful and lasting impression. Ordered to descend into the hold and enforce the prohibition against gambling among those quartered below deck, Davis discovered with dismay hundreds of black soldiers—whom he had not even known were on board—segregated in conditions he believed not unlike those of a slave ship. Davis’s experiences in the army introduced him to the realities of racial prejudice and cruelty that he had never imagined existed in America’s twentieth-century democracy. The shock of recognition rendered these impressions indelible, but it was a chance circumstance of his graduate school years that seems to have transformed them into a scholarly commitment.

In his time at Dartmouth and Harvard, slavery and race occupied almost no place in the curriculum. The work of the great scholar W.E.B. DuBois, for example, Harvard’s first black Ph.D., was not a part of the historical training offered by his own alma mater. But during Davis’s last spring in Cambridge, as he was finishing his dissertation, he encountered Kenneth Stampp, a visiting scholar on the verge of publishing The Peculiar Institution. Davis came to see that slavery and its abolition offered an extraordinary vehicle for examining how humans shape and are shaped by moral dilemmas and how their ideas come to influence the world.

Historians are interested in change, and the history of slavery provided Davis an instance of change in human perception of perhaps unparalleled dimensions and significance. Understanding and explaining that change became his life’s work. Why, he wondered, did slavery evoke essentially “no moral protest in a wide range of cultures for literally thousands of years”? And then, “what contributed to a profound shift in moral vision by the mid- to late eighteenth century, and to powerful Anglo-American abolitionist movements thereafter?”

PSWC launched Davis’s inquiry with a focus on the “problem” at the heart of the institution in all its appearances across time and space: “the essential contradiction in thinking of a man as a thing,” at once property and person, object and yet undeniably an agent capable even of rebelling against his bondage and destroying the master who would deny his agency. Grappling with this contradiction vexed every slave society, but only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did these inconsistencies begin to yield substantial opposition to the institution itself. After tracing the cultural heritage of these ideas from Plato and Aristotle, through the evolution of Christianity, into the thought of the Enlightenment and the seemingly paradoxical strengthening of both rationalist and evangelical impulses in the course of the eighteenth century, the first volume of Davis’s trilogy introduces the origins of modern antislavery thought.

In PSAR, Davis then explores the implications of this intellectual legacy and emerging antislavery consciousness in the social and political milieu that both enabled and circumscribed their impact. The second volume of Davis’s trilogy seeks to demonstrate the “points of intersection between ideals and social action” and succeeds in situating intellectual history in a world of action and consequence. It is hard to think of any scholar who has made a better case for the proposition that ideas matter and can even override power and wealth, as Davis makes clear in his oft-repeated point that emancipation ultimately triumphed even though slavery was in fact flourishing economically in the nineteenth-century world that abolished it.

During the three decades he worked on The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, Davis altered its original plan as he took up parts of the story in other books, most notably in a study of the changing relationship of slavery to ideas of human progress and in a volume based on his lectures to high school teachers that chronicles the rise and fall of slavery in the New World. These projects have permitted him to craft PSAE as a “highly selective study” focused on abolitionism in Britain and the United States, while employing what he has characterized elsewhere as “a wide-angle lens” on bondage more broadly. Unlike its predecessor, PSAE does not include dates in its title, but the “Age” Davis discusses reaches from the 1780s and the post-Revolutionary emancipationist impulse in the United States to the 1880s and the abolition of slavery in Brazil.

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