Printer Friendly

Slavery and human progress.

When Henry Ford said history is bunk, he had it backward. History, especially great history, is the art of debunking. It restores our sense of perspective, perhaps even our sense of humility, and puts us on guard--for the "cunning of history" moves in ways we can rarely anticipate or fully approve.

By all accounts, David Brion Davis is a great historian. His work has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, he has been a fellow of the prestigious Center for Advanced Studies at Stanford and he has lectured at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris. He holds a Sterling Professorship at Yale. Yet his admirable studies of slavery and its opponents have not been widely read--even within the academy.

Part of the reason for this is the formidable bulk of Davis's work. The first volume of his projected trilogy on the problem of slavery in Western culture began with the ancient Greeks, surveyed world history to the eve of the American Revolution and numbered more than 500 pages. The second volume, also some 500 pages, picked up the story from there but carried it only fifty years further, to the 1820s, while narrowing the focus from Western culture in general to the Anglo-American world. Davis has a playful intellect. He likes to size up ideas, view them from several angles and spin out their implications--habits that make for splendid scholarship but not necessarily easy reading. Reviewers raved, but faced with ten pounds of closely argued text, all but the most committed readers reached for a good novel instead. Davis's prodigious scholarship was quickly becoming the most commonly cited but least read of all modern history. But now, before closing in on the final volume of his trilogy, to be titled The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, Davis has taken time out to deliver a more accessible view of his work.

Slavery and Human Progress is both more and less than a summary of Davis's first two volumes as well as a projection of the themes that will figure prominently in the third. In some measure, it recapitulates many of the ideas from the earlier works: Davis's insistence that the contradiction inherent in the idea of the slave as both person and thing has been ubiquitous in Western history; his notion that the first stirrings of the antislavery movement marked a significant break in world history; and his linking of those first assaults on slavery to the growth of industrial capitalism. In other ways, it anticipates themes Davis will doubtless develop more fully in the final volume--notably, the connection between abolition and imperialism.

But Slavery and Human Progress is no mere abridgment. It moves beyond the bounds of Western society to discuss the roles of Moslem and Hebraic cultures in the development of both slavery and antislavery. It also pushes the story into the twentieth century. Most important, the single interpretive volume liberates Davis from the demands of the trilogy and allows him to articulate and extend his major ideas without sacrificing their richness and subtlety.

Few ideas now receive more universal assent than the notion that slavery is wrong, that the attempted reduction of persons to property and the accompanying physical and psychological brutality constitute one of the great crimes of history. Nowhere is this more true than in the United States. Our language, our politics, our identity as a people revolve around the duality of freedom, good/slavery, bad.

In a cynical age, the idea of progress hardly carries the weight it once did. Yet whatever progress means (and Davis wisely admits that he is not sure) few today would defend slavery as a progressive institution or a source of human betterment. At best, some historians have suggested that slavery, however brutal, inefficient and wastefuly, was a stage, perhaps even a necessary stage, in human development. Yet Davis maintains that through most of history, slavery was considered a progressive institution. Jewish, Moslem and Christian savants justified it as a means of bringing God and superior civilization to pagans and infidels. In the modern period, he finds that the spread of slavery from the Mediterranean to the New World was closely tied to the expansion of European trade, technology and religion:

Plantation slavery, far from being an aberration invented by lawless buccaneers and lazy New World adventurers, as nineteenth-century liberals often charged, was a creation of the most progressive of peoples and forces in Europe--Italian merchants; Iberian explorers; Jewish inventors, traders and cartographers; Dutch, German, and British investors and bankers.

In short, by every standard--moral, political and technological--slavery was a progressive institution, advancing the tide of civilization.

tracing the development of slavery through the Roman, Islamic and Iberian empires, Davis explores the firm link between slavery and progress. His long view helps explain the evolution of modern Afro-American slavery. For example, he argues that Moslems equated slavery with black skin, sin, danger and fears of The Other--an equation which later figured prominently in Western thought. He shows how Jewish ideas of servitude that derived from antiquity and from the Diaspora of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries helped push slavery across the Atlantic. Perhaps most important, he suggests the way in which the general crisis of Christianity that followed the Enlightenment fused evangelical Christianity and abolition.

In the modern period, Davis finds a remarkable coincidence between slavery and technological innovation, commercial expansion, cultural enlightenment and--above all--the spectacular accumulation of private wealth and power that accompanied the transfer of slavery from the Old World to the New. In the New World, the most productive and prosperous colonies rested on slave labor. By the middle of the eighteenth century, this connection was so obvious as to be commonplace. The majority of policy-makers and commentators regularly equated slavery with wealth and national greatness.

Toward the end of that century, this equation underwent a dramatic and unmistakable change. The institution that had been universally depicted as the harbinger, if not the cause, of human betterment suddenly came to be viewed in a different light. Slave colonies, according to this emerging view, were lands of tyranny and decadence where vice banished virtue and led to degeneracy, demoralization and degradation for slave and master alike. Rather than stoking the engines of human improvement, slavery poisoned the wellsprings of progress.

By any measure, this was an enormous change--perhaps, as Davis argues, one of the most extraordinary in human history. The rapid triumph of this new view was even more extraordinary. Within a few decades, slavery was everywhere condemned as a throwback to some bygone age of barbarism, an offense to Christianity and an intolerable obstacle to virtue and human progress. So broad and universal was the assault on slavery that within a century, the institution that had stood unchallenged since antiquity had been consigned to oblivion. Slavery fell in the British empire in 1833; the French and Danes declared for freedom in 1840, the Dutch, in 1862; the Russians liquidated serfdom in 1861; and the terrible swift sword of the American Civil War followed soon after. Mopping-up operations continue to the present day, but the battle had been won. Slaves and free people joined together to celebrate the Great Jubilee, permanently fusing the idea of free labor to the notion of mankind's progress.

It is not simply the destruction of slavery that concerns Davis but the consequences of its demise. Winning the war against slavery, abolitionists transformed freedom. In explicating the origins of this new dispensation, Davis goes over old ground. But his reweaving of the ideological threads--Enlightenment ideas, evangelical religion, revolutionary republicanism, Smithian economics--that connected abolition to the rise of the capitalist order gives those ideas greater clarity and power.

Everywhere emancipation did more than free the slaves. It endowed the emancipators--British at first, and then American--with extraordinary new authority. In The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, Davis showed how that authority helped the emancipators rationalize the radically new exploitation that accompanied industrial capitalism. The same Parliament that freed slaves in the British West Indies enacted a poor law that incarcerated paupers at home, separating husbands and wives and assuring that both men and women would be forced into slavelike labor. In Slavery and Human Progress, Davis presses the connection between abolition and the expansion of capitalism still further. He delineates the way in which the moral authority gained from emancipation--the certainty that history was on their side--enabled and encouraged the British to carry the Union Jack to all corner of the globe.

Opposition to slavery not only provided a pretext for British intervention in the affairs of so-called backward and primitive peoples and allowed the installation of British commercial and political hegemony but also provided the basis of the British belief that they acted on behalf of humanity. Indeed, it was not long before the French, the Germans and even that archimperialist King Leopold had transformed the humanitarian banner into a lever to jimmy open Africa for the rankest economic exploitation. Dark-skinned people all over the world found that emancipators could be as coercive and oppressive as enslavers. Africa, as Davis notes, was not colonized and subjugated by enslavers but by liberators.

Emancipation thus became a form of enslavement, and the meaning of freedom became as elusive as the meaning of slavery. In reminding us of this, Davis performs the most important function of a historian. He tells us that things are not always what they seem.

But Davis's work also provides another lesson. Certainly few slaves--in any age--believed their condition to be evidence of human progress. Lest he be thought to view history from only one end of the lash, Davis is quick to interject that "the very idea of progress owes much to ancient bondspeople who made manumission or escape the universal symbols for deliverance, redemption, resurrection, and divine mission." This reminder is no codicil. Progress--like the relationship of freedom and slavery--had very different meanings to the slaves and enslavers. If Davis's largest argument warns of profound ambiguities and contradictions in the certitudes of another age, the slaves themselves provide another message--and to be forewarned is to be forearmed.
COPYRIGHT 1984 The Nation Company L.P.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Berlin, Ira
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 17, 1984
Previous Article:Lives of the poets: six stories and a novella.
Next Article:Iacocca: an autobiography.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters