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…

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