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David Brion Davis. Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery.

David Brion Davis. Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003. 115 pp. $18.95.

This small book, a series of mutually engaging essays that are based on the Nathan I. Huggins lectures, is bold in its method and large in its scope. Looking at Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery as a whole, we have a remarkably illuminating study of the ecology of slavery: its boundaries of time and space reviewed so that what is understood is slavery in its terrains, economies, and confluences. These topics form the armature of much American history and social thinking making Davis's book valuable for its reach and authority. His exposition is breathtaking and we should keep his words about his method in mind, for the book's pattern is that of a literal poetics of slavery, a "making" of the idea of slavery both for those who were caught in its web and for those who wish to understand its significations. As Davis puts it, "I hope in this short book to present an unconventional experiment in imagining, defining, and challenging certain boundaries related to the history of American slavery. I refer to boundaries in geographic space, in human social and political relations, and in status." As a result, the book is much like a mosaic, each chapter composing an aspect of the whole and understood in a yet larger context. In many ways, it is tempting to see the influence of modern literary experimentation and method upon this volume: multiple foci and indeed seemingly discrete events ingathered to form a larger pattern--so that paradox and congruence are given due weight as central to the history and presentation of American slavery.

Davis calls his first chapter, "The Origins and Nature of New World Slavery," a "Big Picture" of the institution of slavery. This is a magisterial essay in itself, Davis moving from the origins of slavery to New World slavery to part of its role in American history. As he points out, although slavery knew no color in its origins, it came to be "indelibly linked" with "people of African descent"--and that only in North America did the "concept of 'Negro' ... [take] on the stigma of slave heritage." After treating such topics as the development of slavery and its alliances with the growth of law, anthropology, European and Ottoman political and social life, as well as the economy of sugar, Davis opens the book's national horizons: "To balance the soaring aspirations released by the American Revolution and later by evangelical religion, slavery became the dark underside of the American Dream--the great exception to our pretensions of perfection ... the single manifestation of national sin." The "so-called Negro" was "the Great American Problem."

Chapter Two, "1819; Signs of a New Era," covers examples of federal and intellectual challenges to slavery. This year is a matrix for new opportunities redefining national power over both states and individuals. Seen against the young nation's economic and physical expansion, leading to the "Missouri Crisis" are John Marshall's decision in the McCulloch v. Maryland case and a forward-looking theological interpretation of humanity's duties, exemplified in the "Baltimore Sermon" that William Ellery Channing preached for the installation of Jared Sparks. As Davis puts it, "Nothing would ultimately generate more fear and determined resistance in the South than what these two documents of 1819 symbolized: John Marshall's vision of a powerful federal government, immune from state laws or regulations, coupled with a Constitution so open to flexible and liberal interpretation that it might be turned against slavery itself; and ... Channing's religious mentality that would convert the Bible into an engine of reform that would be catastrophic for slaveholders."

The third chapter, "African-American Abolitionism and Southern Fears," deals with the influence that anti-slavery adherents and upheavals--in part events in Haiti and the Caribbean--exercised upon the psyche and politics of Southern leaders. This chapter studies the ironic situation of Southern slave powers: Fearing the rise of abolition as well as slave rebellions in the Caribbean, the South responded militantly to over-estimated but nonetheless deeply perceived threats to its existence.

Yet these synopses do not reveal the multiple patterns of power and its negotiations that Davis presents. To get an understanding of the book's remarkable compression and method, let us look at Davis's own synopsis of a chapter. Regarding the third chapter, Davis says he "will discuss the African-American impact on American abolitionism and then present a thesis regarding the slaveholding South's response to British and French abolitionism and the supposedly disastrous consequences of anti-slavery provocation in the Caribbean. Since the South essentially dominated the federal government from the time of Washington to the time of Lincoln, one must somehow explain the overreaction of Southern leaders to the feeble white and black abolitionist movement in the North. It was their fixation on the Caribbean, I will argue, that led Southerners to escalate their demands, even crossing the boundary of states' rights with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, until neutral and moderate Northerners began to fear a true nationalization of the now 'peculiar institution.'" This summary is fact-laden and theoretically complex in itself. It is also a sign of the command over his subject that propels him from one event to another in order to suggest that "Ironically, by continually overreacting to a somewhat neutral, complacent, and racist North, Southern militants created an antislavery North in the sense that many Northerners felt personally and justifiably threatened by an undemocratic Slave Power."

Clearly, the power of this slender book is its gift for discerning the origins and confluences of events. Yet confluences are not causalities, and at times, or so it seems to me, the parade of events are suggestively relational. For example, writing about Reverend William Ellery Channing's May 5, 1819, sermon on the "Holy Scriptures," Davis quotes Channing's words that "We reason about the Bible precisely as civilians [that is, practitioners of civil law] [sic] do about the constitution under which we live; who, as you know, are accustomed to limit one provision of that venerable instrument by others, and to fix the precise import of its parts by inquiring into its general spirit, into the intentions of its authors, and into the prevalent feelings, impressions and circumstances of the time when it was framed." Davis, with much feel for the rhetoric and nuance of Channing's sermon, observes that "There was a certain strategic brilliance in drawing this parallel between the Bible and the Constitution in Baltimore, the recent battleground of McCulloch v. Maryland. Like Marshall, Channing was not only reinterpreting a sacred text but redefining intellectual boundaries and arguing for a flexible view of necessary and proper means." Yet Channing's words make just as much sense if interpreted in the swell of religious hermeneutics, both in New England and abroad. Did Channing's words enhance the significance of McCulloch v. Maryland, and were they understood as such? Do both events suggest a pattern of American political and intellectual history, or do they demand a study of their consequences?

Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery is a public teaching. Its shifts from large to small and back, its capacious ingathering of intellectual and political history, make it as rewarding as it is challenging.

Lewis Fried

Kent State University
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Author:Fried, Lewis
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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