David Brion Davis is Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale and Director Emeritus of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. He is the author of Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World.

How They Stopped Slavery: A New Perspective

Eastman Johnson: The Ride for Liberty, the Fugitive Slaves, circa 1862
While historians have long countered the myth that slavery was not the central cause of the Civil War, they have clung to the view that the Union’s opposition to slavery developed very slowly and almost reluctantly, largely due to the Republicans’ commitment to the constitutional ban on “interference” with slavery …

Should You Have Been an Abolitionist?

Hale Aspacio Woodruff: The Underground Railroad, 68 3/16 x 123 1/2 inches, 1942; from the exhibition ‘Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College,’ at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, June 9–September 2, 2012. The catalog, by Stephanie Mayer Heydt, is published by the museum and distributed by University of Washington Press.
In 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence and “all men are created equal,” racial slavery was a legal and thriving institution from Canada all the way south to Argentina and Chile. The transatlantic slave trade was moving toward its peak in the 1790s and would continue for ninety-one …

Honor Thy Honor

Kwame Anthony Appiah, November 2010
When I told four knowledgeable friends that I was writing on Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Honor Code, they all agreed that the very idea of “honor” is now virtually obsolete. They were highly skeptical when I mentioned Appiah’s claim that it was a sudden transition from old to new forms …

The Universal Attractions of Slavery

John Henry, right, an escaped slave who joined the Union Army as a servant, 1861–1865
If I were to ask most Americans what comes to mind in response to the words “slave” and “slavery,” I would probably get an image of an African-American picking cotton in Mississippi or Africans being jammed into the hold of a slave ship. But if an Englishman had been asked …

He Changed the New World

The Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804, mostly led by Toussaint Louverture, may well have been the most important single event in the history of New World slavery. Despite the revolution’s relatively small scale, its historical influence for some sixty or seventy years can even be compared to that of the 1917 …

Blacks: Damned by the Bible

In Mark Twain’s still underappreciated novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, Roxy, a recently freed Missouri slave who acts and speaks like a black even though “only one-sixteenth of her was black,” shocks her arrogant grown son Tom Driscoll by informing him for the first time that she is his true mother: “Yassir, …

Catching the Conquerors

When we remember such events as the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 and consider current reports on the “detainees” at Guantánamo Bay and the prisoners of war in Baghdad, it becomes clear that the era of America’s global dominance is also an era of American and foreign captives. But those …

The Terrible Cost of Reconciliation

Americans could never have won their national independence in 1783 without the naval and military aid of France. Similarly, the Union could not have been preserved in the Civil War if England and France had carried out a tempting and much-debated proposal to recognize the Confederacy and impose a truce …

Slavery——White, Black, Muslim, Christian

The origins of African slavery in the New World cannot be understood without some knowledge of the millennium of warfare between Christians and Muslims that took place in the Mediterranean and Atlantic and the piracy and kidnapping that went along with it.[^1] In 1627 pirates from the Barbary Coast of …

The Other Revolution

Writers have long attached the word “revolution” to technological innovations such as the now current e-commerce, biotech, and information “revolutions.” When we think of “real revolutions” we are still inclined to envision guillotines, barricades, Bolsheviks, and the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and the Romanov family. Yet the revolution of all revolutions has been the relatively recent, peaceful, and still-continuing equalization of men and women.

C. Vann Woodward (1908–1999)

C. Vann Woodward, who died on December 17 at age ninety-one, was the most respected, honored, and influential American historian of the post- World War II era. He led the way in desegregating the history of his native South and in demolishing a deeply rooted mythology that dominated white Americans’ …

Jews and Blacks in America

In 1963, at the time of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, it was assumed by many American liberals that Jews and African-Americans were natural allies, a belief seemingly confirmed when a disproportionate number of Jewish students participated in the Freedom Summer of the following year. Yet by 1995, …

A Big Business

By limiting their attention to nation-states, especially the United States, historians have usually fragmented and obscured our understanding of the multinational Atlantic slave system. When most Americans hear the words “African-American slavery,” they immediately think of the South and the Civil War. The story supposedly begins in Virginia, in 1619, …

White Wives and Slave Mothers

Life in Black and White is an impressive example of the kind of local and regional history that for the last generation has transformed our understanding of the past. Brenda Stevenson has immersed herself so deeply in the private letters, diaries, school records, newspapers, and census schedules of Loudoun County, …

At the Heart of Slavery

As even Aristotle acknowledged, natural slavery—the bondage of people who are born to be slaves—is different from other varieties of servitude which Aristotle admitted might sometimes be unjust, such as slavery forced upon the conquered by the conqueror. Yet the condition of slavery itself has not always been the most …

Southern Comfort

The easiest way to approach Eugene D. Genovese’s fascinating recent work on Southern conservatism is to compare the two lost causes that he has long admired. For in his view the slaveholders’ ideology, theology, and political theory, which culminated in the Southern Confederacy of 1861–1865, and the Marxist-Leninist ideology, which …

The Slave Trade and the Jews

The ghastly slave trade from Africa to the Atlantic sugar islands such as Madeira and São Tomé and then to the Western Hemisphere began in the mid-1400s and flourished for four centuries. Though historians continue to debate the numbers, it now seems probable that from twelve to fifteen million Africans …

The Triumph of the Country

Except for the 1860s, no decade in American history has been as dangerous, as divisive, and as formative as the 1790s, which Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick have aptly termed “The Age of Federalism.” Beginning in 1789, American leaders implemented and began to interpret the new Constitution. They enacted most …

Terror in Mississippi

“The Negro,” Frederick Douglass proclaimed at the beginning of the Civil War, “is the key of the situation—the pivot upon which the whole rebellion turns.” Investing his hope in the “desperate insurrectionary movements of slaves,” Douglass saw that his belief in the centrality of racial justice was hotly contested in …

The American Dilemma

In 1854 a perceptive Scottish bookseller, publisher, and promoter of public knowledge named William Chambers addressed the following question: did the United States “contain within itself the germs of dissolution?” Chambers was not thinking of a civil war between slaveholding and nonslaveholding states. Recording his impressions after a tour of …