The Idea of Slavery

The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture

by David Brion Davis
Cornell, 505 pp., $10.00

In the year AD 61 the prefect of the city of Rome, Pedanius Secundus, was murdered by one of the slaves in his town house. Under the law, not only the culprit but all the other slaves in the household had to be executed, in this instance numbering four hundred. There was a popular outcry and the Senate debated the question. Some senators rose to plead clemency, but the day was carried by the distinguished jurist, Gaius Cassius Longinus, who argued that all change from ancestral laws and customs is always for the worse. When a mob tried to prevent the sentence from being carried out, the emperor personally intervened on the side of the law, though he rejected another proposal that Pedanius’s ex-slaves should also be punished by banishment. That, he said, would be unnecessary cruelty.

The emperor was Nero and it has been suggested that one of the unsuccessful advocates of mercy may have been his closest adviser, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, in whose writings there are some powerful passages calling for the treatment of slaves as fellow-humans. Not once, however, did Seneca suggest that the institution itself was so immoral that it ought to be abolished. For that radical idea the western world still had to wait more than 1500 years, while philosophers, moralists, theologians, and jurists—save for an isolated voice here and there to whom no one listened—discovered and propagated a variety of formulas which satisfied them and society at large that a man could be both a thing and a man at the same time. This ambiguity or “dualism” is the “problem of slavery” to which Professor Davis has devoted a large, immensely learned, readable, exciting, disturbing, and sometimes frustrating volume, one of the most important to have been published on the subject of slavery in modern times.

THE GENESIS OF THE BOOK was a modest one. Professor Davis set out to make a comparative study of British and American antislavery movements. Gradually he began to appreciate that “the problem of slavery transcended national boundaries” in ways he “had not suspected.” Slavery was brought to the New World at a time when it had disappeared from most of Europe; yet there were no hesitations, no gropings, because the heritage of the Bible, classical philosophy, and Roman law provided a readymade set of regulations and a readymade ideology. Differences within the New World, between the Anglo-Saxons in the north and the Latins in the south, between Protestant and Catholic colonies, appeared, on closer examination, to be tangential and far less significant than “their underlying patterns of unity.” On this particular topic Professor Davis has now come forward with powerful support for a recent trend in scholarship running counter to the romantic idealized image of Latin American slavery, and in particular of race relations in the southern hemisphere, which had long prevailed, a view perhaps best known from the works of the Brazilian Gilberto Freyre and from Frank Tannenbaum’s seminal little book Slave and Citizen. In…

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