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Review: David Brion Davis completes sweeping trilogy on slavery

Published Feb. 13, 2014

David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor of History at Yale University, is the author or editor of 16 works on slavery and abolition, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966) and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (1975). He has now written the last book of his three-volume series, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, a penetrating analysis of slavery from the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 to the total emancipation of Negroes in the United States at the end of the Civil War in 1865. Throughout this book Davis sees the problem of slavery as historically one of "moral perception" rather than as one of the strictly economic or political imperatives of the times.

Always taking a long view toward the past to develop his points, Davis first examines Aristotle's dictum in Politics that "from the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjugation, others for rule." The philosopher goes so far as to liken slaves to beasts of burden. To Aristotle, notes Davis, this was nature's intention.

As put into practice by Southern plantation owners in 18th and early 19th century America, Aristotle's philosophy, which Davis dubs "animalization," takes on an even more brutal expression. He writes that the extreme form of Southern dehumanization incorporated making slaves live with livestock and treating them like livestock. This, Davis maintains, was what really "severed ties of human identity and empathy and made slavery possible." To elucidate his point, the author cites 1930s WPA interviews of elderly former slaves who told of being treated like their masters' four-legged chattel.

Davis also delineates the growth of the abolitionist movement in Great Britain and the United States. The event that caught the world's attention and, according to Davis, began to alter the moral perception of slavery was the Haitian Revolution. Davis devotes a large portion of his book to the importance of this revolution, in which the centerpiece of the New World slave system, the prosperous "pearl of the Antilles" French colony of Saint-Dominique, was racked by one of the most horrifically bloody slave insurrections the world had ever seen. The revolution was led by Toussaint Louverture, a freed slave who became Haiti's general and leader.

The origins of the revolution, as Davis describes it, were complex. It was not just a simple slave uprising — blacks against whites — but also had to do with the rights of free blacks who, to the growing alarm of white colonists and masters, had become too powerful, and therefore too dangerous. As the savage insurrection unfolded, however, the situation did deteriorate into a black-white melee in which Napoleon's veteran troops, called upon to aid the French colonists, were sickened by yellow fever and malaria and were summarily routed by Louverture's revolutionaries. The British and Spanish armies were also defeated.

Davis tells us how, ultimately, Toussaint Louverture's constitution of 1801 "abolished slavery forever, prohibited distinctions according to color, and affirmed equal protection of the law." A free, self-governing, black Haiti had survived. The rest of the world couldn't believe it.

Davis is also concerned with the black colonizing movement. He informs us how the American Colonization Society in the early 1800s appealed to blacks, through the Old Testament story of Israelites returning to the land of Canaan, to return to Africa, specifically to Liberia. Six hundred miles of West African coast had been settled by African-Americans by 1880. Unfortunately, those free black colonists proceeded to enslave native Africans.

Davis explains how the Haitian Revolution, the activities of the various Anglo-American abolitionist movements and the published stories of fugitive slaves all contributed to the alteration of the world's "moral perception" of slavery. He also illuminates the complications of Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the crucial importance of the 13th, 14th and 15th antislavery and voting rights amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Davis' book is a profound, perceptive capstone to his towering trilogy.


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