In this engaging book, David Brion Davis offers an illuminating perspective on American slavery. Starting with a long view across the temporal and spatial boundaries of world slavery, he traces continuities from the ancient world to the era of exploration, with its expanding markets and rise in consumption of such products as sugar, tobacco, spices, and chocolate, to the conditions of the New World settlement that gave rise to a dependence on the forced labor of millions of African slaves. With the American Revolution, slavery crossed another kind of boundary, in a psychological inversion that placed black slaves outside the dream of liberty and equality--and turned them into the Great American Problem.
Davis then delves into a single year, 1819, to explain how an explosive conflict over the expansion and legitimacy of slavery, together with reinterpretations of the Bible and the Constitution, pointed toward revolutionary changes in American culture. Finally, he widens the angle again, in a regional perspective, to discuss the movement to colonize blacks outside the United States, the African-American impact on abolitionism, and the South's response to slave emancipation in the British Caribbean, which led to attempts to morally vindicate slavery and export it into future American states. Challenging the boundaries of slavery ultimately brought on the Civil War and the unexpected, immediate emancipation of slaves long before it could have been achieved in any other way.
This imaginative and fascinating book puts slavery into a brilliant new light and underscores anew the desperate human tragedy lying at the very heart of the American story.
Davis' brief but insightful analysis of the forces leading to the rise and fall of New World slavery is more than a precis of his past writing on the subject, as the author highlights movements and moments seldom linked to slavery or abolition. However, even an expert historian cannot thoroughly review world slavery in one chapter, and Davis's 30-page first section "The Origins and Nature of New World Slavery" contains some glaring omissions. His survey of human bondage features an important discussion of "white" and Muslim slavery, but Ira Berlin, Ronald Segal and others, including Davis himself, have performed much more thorough dissections of the institution's complex history. In his second chapter, "1819: A New Era," Davis parses two seeds of abolition: Justice Marshall's decision in McCulloch vs. Maryland, which limited state's rights, and William Ellery Channing's "Baltimore Sermon," which laid out a reformist, liberal vision of Christianity that encompassed human perfectibility. Finally, Davis traces American abolitionist thought from the American Colonization Society through Garrison to Lincoln, and outlines the fearful southern reaction-which set the stage for the Civil War-in defense of their sacred institution. However, these chapters ignore the contribution of late-18th century Quakerism, which is cited in many other works, including Davis's own, as the wellspring of American abolitionism. Many readers will also feel he overstates slavery as a casus belli. Still, Davis is an accessible writer who effortlessly blends oft-overlooked demographic trends with oblique micro-histories, and his short book certainly is a useful and enjoyable companion to his other, more comprehensive studies of the "Great American Problem."
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Harvard University Press
April 29, 2006
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