Where David Brion Davis fits in the historiography of slavery

tags: slavery, racism, Civil War, David Brion Davis, Drew Gilpin Faust

Drew Gilpin Faust is the president of Harvard University and a historian. 

Since the middle of the twentieth century, our understanding of the American past has been revolutionized, in no small part because of our altered conceptions of the place of race in the nation’s history. And that revolution has taken place largely because of a remarkable generation of historians who, inspired by the changing meanings of freedom and justice in their own time, began to ask new questions about the origins of the racial inequality that continued to permeate our segregated society nearly a century after slavery’s end.

Published in 1956, just two years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision called for school integration, Kenneth Stampp’s pathbreaking The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South turned prevailing wisdom on its head. His history, written with a premise of fundamental black and white equality, yielded insights about slavery quite unlike the conclusions of earlier writings based on unquestioned assumptions of black inferiority. The leading early-twentieth-century historian of slavery, Ulrich B. Phillips, had portrayed a benevolent system designed to uplift and protect benighted Africans. Stampp, deeply affected by the emerging civil rights movement, painted a very different picture. With vivid archival detail, he demonstrated that slavery was harsh and exploitative of those who, he explained in words that rather startlingly reveal both the extent and limits of midcentury white liberalism, were after all “white men with black skins, nothing more, nothing less.”

But the outpouring of research and writing about slavery in the years that followed went far beyond simply changing assumptions about race and human equality. It yielded as well an emerging recognition of the centrality of slavery in the American experience—not just in the South, but in northern society too, where it persisted in a number of states well into the nineteenth century. It also fundamentally shaped the national economy, which relied upon cotton as its largest export, and national politics, where slaveholding presidents governed for approximately two thirds of the years between the inaugurations of Washington and Lincoln....

The new scholarship that placed slavery at the heart of American history and that recognized race as a central and enduring dimension of the American experience was the creation of prodigiously talented scholars who both argued and collaborated, at once learning from and disputing with one another, at times bringing especially vehement scholarly debates to prominent attention in the national media, to magazine covers and television talk shows. For me, a southern historian, a graduate student and assistant professor in the 1970s, it was a heady time, when history mattered so intensely to contemporary life and when brilliant scholars produced a stream of weighty volumes, each one of which required revised understanding and prompted—even mandated—new directions for research. They included such individuals as Kenneth Stampp, Stanley Elkins, Eugene Genovese, Herbert Gutman, John Hope Franklin, Lawrence Levine, Leon Litwack, John Blassingame, Orlando Patterson, Robert Fogel, and Stanley Engerman. And prominent among them, David Brion Davis. Davis did not focus his primary attention on the experience of slaves or the details of the institution of slavery, but about what he defined in the title of his influential Pulitzer Prize–winning 1966 book The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (PSWC): slavery as a problem and contradiction in human thought and human morality, not just in American history but across both world history and geography from the Greeks onward.

Davis’s book and his subsequent work would become a major influence in the emergence of a comparative history of slavery and abolition, in essence a global history well avant la lettre. It would, among other achievements, powerfully influence traditional approaches to intellectual history by embedding ideas in social and political action and institutions. This was historical writing with a scope and ambition that would shape scholars and scholarship for decades to come....

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