- The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation by David Brion Davis
In this sweeping conclusion to a trilogy begun in the 1960s, David Brion Davis examines the contingent nature of abolition in the United States, stressing that emancipation represented an “incredible moral achievement” that had to overcome the “animalization” of enslaved people (xiii). Abolition in the United States, which a few generations earlier few realistically imagined occurring, built upon antislavery movements in Britain, Haiti, and the Caribbean. These examples were necessary because antebellum southern slavery was flourishing and even “anticipated the efficiency and productivity of factory assembly lines” (325). The systemic animalization of African Americans also made the path difficult for whites and blacks to imagine widespread emancipation. The road to the Thirteenth Amendment, as many scholars have noted, was a long, treacherous, and complicated one.
Perhaps no scholar has had a larger influence over the modern interpretation of slavery than has Davis. His trilogy encapsulates a lifetime of achievements that include virtually every award a historian can receive. By exploring the intellectual history of slavery in cultures across the West, his Pulitzer-winning The Problem of Slavery in the Western Civilization (1966) established Davis as the voice of a generation. He reminded readers that slavery stood uncontested for generations before it came under assault for its moral depravity. In the process, Davis established the analytical thread that unites the trilogy: “The abolition of slavery depended on a fundamental change in the Western moral perception of the institution” (xv). Comparative and expansive in scope, the volume placed slavery and antislavery into conversation like no other had before. In The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823 (1975), Davis extended his study to explore how the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions unleashed an unparalleled intellectual critique of slavery. Although these forces could episodically abolish slavery, the institution remained stronger than ever. Most white Europeans and Americans, he explained, held fast to a belief that Africans were incapable of freedom; thus, slavery endured, contradictions and all.
The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation continues this story into the nineteenth century to explore how a crescendo of free black and white abolitionist [End Page 91] voices rejected centuries of dehumanization to offer a new vision of freedom. The process was a slow one because “for blacks as well as whites, the essential issue was how to recognize and establish the full and complete humanity of a ‘dehumanized people’” (305). Davis joins other contemporary scholars by emphasizing the central role that African Americans had in their ultimate emancipation. They were the “key to slave emancipation” (xiv). Extending his earlier writings, Davis focuses on the “animalization” of enslaved people and its pernicious implications that “severed ties of human identity and empathy and made slavery possible” (9). In prose reminiscent of Stanley Elkins’s, Davis contends that many slaves internalized these beliefs; their recollections of slavery include specific animal references as they discuss how they were fed, treated, worked, sold, and beaten. Many white abolitionists similarly accepted the rhetoric of animalization and thus saw colonization as the only viable way to eradicate slavery. Emancipation required African Americans to reject this premise and demonstrate their ability to perform as freedpeople in American society.
Whereas the first two volumes were more hemispheric (if not global) in scope, this one has a more constrained geographic dimension. It focuses largely on the United States because it had “by far the largest, most productive, and expanding slave population in the New World; because the example of freeing the slaves in all the Northern states raised the central issue of whether and how large numbers of freed blacks could coexist in a white world . . . ; and because the unexpected Civil War led to the sudden freeing of some 4 million slaves” (xiii). Even so, Davis pays close attention to outside forces that shaped this history. The Haitian Revolution and transatlantic connections to the British abolition movement play especially important parts in this narrative. These important...