• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Scholar Who Shaped History

Davis begins by introducing what he identifies as the “central theme” of the book: “dehumanization and its implications,” a theme that has indeed been central to his work since he was writing about homicide long ago. The debates over slavery in the era of the American Revolution, he had shown in the preceding volume of the trilogy, had left a perception of black “incapacity for freedom” as the fundamental justification for the perpetuation of slavery. These assumptions of black inferiority, variously characterized as innate in a discourse that allocated increasing importance to race, or acquired through the oppressions of the slave system itself, were held not only by whites. They deeply affected blacks as well, Davis writes, in a form of “psychological exploitation” that yielded “some black internalization and even pathology” but also “evoked black resistance.” As escaped slave and black abolitionist Henry H. Garnet described the “oppressors’ aim”: “They endeavor to make you as much like brutes as possible. When they have blinded the eyes of your mind,” then slavery has “done its perfect work.”

Davis’s emphasis on the centrality of dehumanization and his treatment of the internalizing of these notions of inferiority in a form of “black self-contempt” evoke historians’ bitter battles of the 1960s and 1970s over Stanley Elkins’s highly controversial portrait of “Sambo” as a model slave personality, a docile being whose psychological oppression had emasculated and infantilized him and left him without culture or community.

Objecting to such a characterization, a generation of historians set about to discover—successfully—evidence of black culture, community, family, creativity, and identity thriving within slavery. But Davis reminds us that cruelty and injustice necessarily take a powerful toll on their victims, and he cites numerous statements by nineteenth-century African-Americans—both slave and free—that acknowledge the withering and lingering effects of slavery on the heart and mind. A half-century beyond Elkins’s book and the controversy it generated, Davis asks us to embrace a more nuanced understanding of both the damage slavery inflicted on individuals and communities and the extraordinary resilience marshaled against it.

The force of these conceptions of black incapacity and their salience for the progress of emancipation lead Davis to explore how they were related to three realities that proved of critical importance for the coming of freedom: the influence of the Haitian Revolution, the movements for colonization and emigration, and the leadership and example of free blacks, who represented the “most killing refutation of slavery” and served as “the key to slave emancipation.”

When Davis began his study of the Age of Emancipation, he was struck by how little historical attention had been directed at the Haitian Revolution. His own writings have helped generate a level of scholarly interest in Haiti that has done much to mitigate that neglect. In this volume, Davis builds on that work to consider the ways Haiti influenced emancipationist efforts from the British Parliament’s 1792 consideration of outlawing the slave trade to Brazil’s abolition nearly a century later. Haiti was, in the words of Frederick Douglass, the “pioneer emancipator.” But, as Davis recounts, Haiti’s experience sent contradictory messages about the meanings of black freedom. Certainly the uprising demonstrated that slaves had not been so dehumanized as to lack the initiative and capacity to organize effective military forces and win independence. Yet at the same time, the violence and terror of the revolt reinforced white images of blacks as brutes.

In the short run, the Haitian Revolution “seriously damaged” the worldwide antislavery movement. But in the longer term, Haiti became the symbol of a polity and a society in which blacks could fully claim and exercise their freedom. In the eyes of free blacks, Haiti represented a harbinger of hope for universal emancipation in its demonstration that “bondage was not an inevitable or eternal fate.”

The obstacles that dehumanization of slaves posed for emancipation played out as well in the movements for colonization and migration that emerged in the early nineteenth century. Davis believes that colonization, the effort to free blacks and return them to Africa, has been poorly understood by modern historians, and he seeks to introduce a more complex view of its character and appeal. The founding of the American Colonization Society in 1816 was deeply influenced by fears that Haiti aroused about the potential for violence inherent in an oppressed black population, and Davis finds among colonization’s advocates the same preoccupation with the dehumanization of slaves that he identifies in discussions of the meanings of the Haitian Revolution.

Spokesmen for the American Colonization Society argued that removing blacks from the degradations of American slavery would enable them to prove their capacity for civilization and thus combat the prejudices that had grown up in response to slavery’s oppressions. White proponents of colonization, David argues, were genuinely perplexed about how to deal with racism and the conditions that had produced it. But their ideas were greeted with “vehement hostility” by free blacks who perceived the colonizationists’ purposes as racial removal rather than benevolent uplift, a conclusion encouraged by the racist remarks of such prominent advocates of colonization as Henry Clay, who called the free black population “a dangerous and useless part of the community.”

Yet some black leaders, such as Henry H. Garnet, proposed emigration schemes of their own, stressing Africa’s glorious past and envisioning an escape from white oppressions in a kind of proto–black nationalism. Davis underscores the “complex dynamic…between the white desire to expel and the black quest for independence.” But the bitter opposition of African-Americans, conveyed by publications like Samuel Cornish’s Freedom Journal, founded in 1827, and David Walker’s stirring 1829 Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, characterized colonization as itself a new form of oppression and thwarted any alliance between the movement and committed antislavery forces.

By the early 1830s a new biracial mobilization for “immediate” emancipation of American slaves emerged with the establishment of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator in 1831, with his “all-out attack” on colonization in 1832, and with the founding of the New England Anti-Slavery Society and the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1832 and 1833. Significantly, Davis points out, it was the financial support of free black Philadelphia merchant James Forten and a subscription list of which 75 percent were black readers that kept The Liberator alive. And significantly, too, it was the accomplishments of the free black community, of men such as Forten, Douglass, and Walker, that best refuted the efforts to dehumanize their race.

The “free colored man’s elevation,” Frederick Douglass remarked, “is essential to the slave colored man’s emancipation.” The “first emancipation,” the wave of manumissions that followed the Revolution, together with the ending of slavery in the North, created a substantial free black community that became the core of the abolition movement. At the same time the lingering anomaly inherent in being at once black and free sharpened the contradiction between the prejudices of race and the new nation’s commitment to citizenship and equality.

In the repudiation of gradualism, Davis sees “a token of a major shift in intellectual history.” Garrison’s voice, as Forten observed, “operated like a trumpet call.” Although Garrison himself remained committed to pacifistic “moral suasion,” there emerged what Davis describes as a “very slow and gradual acceptance of violence,” encouraged by the outrages that followed the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 and exemplified by the end of that decade in John Brown’s raid, which pointed the nation toward the violent end of slavery in the Civil War.

Davis, however, underscores the contingency of ultimate emancipation. The North could have decided not to fight; the South could have won—in which case, Davis believes, slavery would in all likelihood have continued into the twentieth century. Instead, the Emancipation Proclamation and, especially, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments established freedom and citizenship as the “culmination of the Age of Emancipation.”

Although the American Civil War ultimately proved the most significant instrument of liberation, Britain served throughout the Age of Emancipation as a “model” and “global leader,” combating the oceanic slave trade and freeing 800,000 slaves in its colonies. Its powerful abolition movement emerged in a different setting from that in the United States, however, and Davis uses the contrasts between them to illuminate each. With no slave population at home, British opposition to slavery did not stir up the kinds of fears of racial “amalgamation” and violence that challenged the American antislavery movement. The persistence of class hierarchies in Britain and its colonies made race seem a somewhat less necessary form of social division and order. Gradations of power and status contrasted with the starker American dichotomy of slave and free sustained by the boundaries of racism and legal bondage.

In both Britain and the United States, however, antislavery forces helped create the conditions for an emancipation that was, as Davis describes it, “astonishing…. Astonishing in view of the institution’s antiquity…, resilience, and importance.” Hailing this example of human beings acting so decisively against both habit and self-interest, Davis proclaims abolition to be “the greatest landmark of willed moral progress in human history.”

David Brion Davis has spent a lifetime contemplating the worst of humanity and the best of humanity—the terrible cruelty and injustice of slavery, perpetuated over centuries and across borders and oceans, overturned at last because of ideas and ideals given substance through human action and human agency. He concludes his trilogy by contemplating whether the abolition of slavery might serve as precedent or model for other acts of moral grandeur. His optimism is guarded. “Many humans still love to kill, torture, oppress, and dominate.” Davis does, after all, describe the narrative of emancipation to which he has devoted his professional life as “astonishing.” But even in his amazement, he has written an inspiring story of possibility. “An astonishing historical achievement really matters.” And so does its history.


Thackeray & American Slavery May 8, 2014

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print