For nearly half a century two historians have dominated the field of slavery studies, broadly conceived. David Brion Davis has been the preeminent historian of ideas about slavery in the Western world since the early modern period and has completed two volumes of a projected trilogy: The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823.1 He has now taken time out from work on the third volume in this sequence to produce a general history of slavery and antislavery in the Americas, especially in the parts of it colonized by the English.
Eugene Genovese has been the foremost authority on the political economy of antebellum Southern slavery and on the emergent ideologies or worldviews of both masters and slaves. His greatest achievement in dealing with these subjects is his book Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.2 Now he has written, with his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (who has also made important contributions to slavery studies3 ), the first of a projected series of volumes on “the mind of the master class.” These books are meant to increase our respect for the intellectual abilities and acuity of the Old South’s slaveholding elite. This first volume concentrates on their ideas about history and religion and makes only passing references to what is generally considered to be the slaveholders’ major intellectual preoccupation—the development of a proslavery argument to counter the attack from Northern abolitionists. This subject, we are told in the preface, will be covered more fully in a subsequent volume.
In a way, these two books show the authors’ reversal of direction. Much of the previous work of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese has drawn on Marxist theory to illuminate class relationships and the cultural concerns and ideologies arising from them. In the current volume they produce the kind of intellectual history that some might consider old-fashioned because it concentrates almost exclusively on the ideas themselves rather than on the external circumstances that may have shaped their content and given them salience. On the other hand, Davis, a leading practitioner of intellectual and cultural history, has now gone far beyond the history of ideas and attempted to study New World slavery in all its ramifications, social, economic, and political, as well as intellectual and cultural. Whereas the Genoveses have narrowed the scope of their inquiry to the discourse and habits of mind of a relatively small number of planter intellectuals, Davis has widened his perspective to encompass the history of slavery and the opposition it engendered in Great Britain and its New World colonies, as well as in the United States.
Precisely because of its breadth, Inhuman Bondage defies summary; much of it draws heavily on the more specialized work of other scholars. From start to finish Davis stresses the racial aspect of New World slavery, both as its distinguishing feature and the source of its particularly brutal and dehumanizing character when compared to most other forms of bondage…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.