David Brion Davis’s surprise finding was that it wasn’t rationalists who undermined slavery’s defense, but Christians

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, and the winner of the Lincoln Prize in 2000 for "Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President and in 2005 for Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America."

David Brion Davis’s career as a historian can be said to have begun on the day in early June 1945 when he was drafted out of high school and, on the basis of a few high-school German classes, sent to Germany as a military policeman to participate in the sorting out of postwar Germany’s rubble. It was not a high-profile role—hustling black-marketers, arresting minor criminals, rooting out from hiding the occasional low-level SS officer. What disturbed him much more was the appalling racism displayed by his fellow white soldiers toward black soldiers in what was then still a segregated U.S. Army—black soldiers packed like sardines into the bottom of a troopship, black soldiers shot by whites enraged to find them dancing with white German girls. He could not reconcile a war fought to prevent the assertion of Aryan racial dominance with the casual brutality of Americans asserting racial dominance over other Americans, and when he finally matriculated at Dartmouth in 1947, he hoped to find the answers to this lethal conundrum in the history of race in America. He did not get much of an explanation. The course he took on post-Civil War Reconstruction was “deeply racist in outlook,” and featured a “humorous picture of the Ku Klux Klan” as neighborhood peace-keepers. It was not until Davis arrived at Harvard for graduate work that he finally found someone who was willing to confirm his suspicions that race in America was seldom what it seemed. That was a visiting professor from the University of California, Kenneth Stampp, whose almost-finished book on The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (1956) would overturn the history of race in America. 

For a generation, the controlling view of America’s racial past had been supplied by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips’s American Negro Slavery (1918). A Georgian and a graduate of the University of Georgia, Phillips was deeply influenced by the dean of Progressive historians, Frederick Jackson Turner, and wrote his Ph.D. dissertation in 1902 under another Progressive star, William Archibald Dunning of Columbia. Like the Progressives, Phillips spoke of the Civil War as a “calamity of misguided zeal and blundering” made worse by the Radical Republicans’ attempt to impose a Northern capitalist ideology on the South. Phillips was not an apologist for the Confederacy or for slavery, but he did see the plantation South as a sunny, pre-modern patriarchal society that had been victimized by Northern economic imperialism (which he stigmatized as “the Republican programme of negro incitement”). What elevated Phillips above a mere “Lost Cause” apologist for the Old South was the meticulous research he did in Southern plantation records. (Phillips’s two-volume collection, Plantation and Frontier Documents: 1649–1863 [1909] is still a rich source of plantation accounts, slave sales, and diaries.) His command of the sources allowed him to assert beyond much challenge that slavery had been unprofitable, harmless, moribund, and “borne with light-heartedness, submission and affection by a huge number of the blacks.” ...

Davis taught briefly at his Dartmouth alma mater, then at Cornell until 1970, and then as the Sterling Professor of History at Yale until his retirement in 2001. His published work has had few of the political overtones implicit in Eugene Genovese (with his echoes of Antonio Gramsci) or the “cliometric” preoccupation with economic productivity that shaped Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974). Davis’s undergraduate major at Dartmouth had been philosophy rather than politics or economics (or history, for that matter), and his curiosity about slavery was distinguished from other historians’ by his interest in how the institution had come to be defined. His first major book on slavery, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), was, in effect, an intellectual history, tracing “patterns of continuity” in human bondage from the ancient world, through the medieval and early modern eras, to the startling emergence of anti-slavery thought in the 18th century. Startling, because in many senses slavery had been for so long understood as simply one aspect of the human condition that the appearance of a determined and organized critique of slaveholding was itself remarkable. But Davis had still more surprises up his sleeve, since he severely discounted the self-congratulatory role that secularism and modernism might have claimed to play in the unfolding of anti-slavery movements in the West. “[T]he traditional justifications for slavery had survived the scrutiny of Humanists and seventeenth-century rationalists,” Davis wrote. “Famous philosophers had shown that a defense of slavery could be reconciled with belief in abstract natural law and natural rights.” Instead, the roots of anti-slavery were planted in the soil of Christianity, which equated slavery with bondage to sin, and therefore considered slavery as a blight from which one should seek escape. Only with the arrival of Lockean natural law philosophy did the Enlightenment finally produce a secular natural rights version of anti-slavery, and even then it was mottled with pseudo-scientific “theories of racial inferiority.” ...

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