THE PROBLEM OF SLAVERY IN THE AGE OF EMANCIPATION. By David Brion Davis. Knopf. 448 pages. $30.
David Brion Davis' Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture" appeared almost 50 years ago, in 1966, making a timely intervention in the midst of the Civil Rights struggle.
Now 87, Davis's new book "The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation" completes his trilogy on the history of slavery and emancipation in the Western world - from Aristotle's philosophy to Barack Obama's presidency - at an equally timely juncture, as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the end of the Civil War, and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments that finally ensured the end of slavery in the United States.
And Davis does not let us forget what a momentous achievement that was. The "problem of slavery" (a historical euphemism if ever there was one) had, after all, beset Western culture for millennia. Ending, or at least outlawing, slavery - establishing it universally as an infringement of the most basic of human rights - is an "astonishing achievement," writes Davis. The final sentence of this book, the final word of Davis's trilogy and the summation of his half-century study of slavery, comes down to the ringing affirmation that "The outlawing of chattel slavery in the New World, and then globally, represents a crucial landmark of moral progress that we should never forget."
Even at this time of remembrance, however, when the anniversaries of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment have spurred popular interest in the history of slavery and abolition, much has been forgotten. One criticism of the blockbuster Hollywood movies, Stephen Spielberg's "Lincoln" and Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave," has been that they portray the opposition to slavery as pushed by morally driven white abolitionists. Even PBS's generally outstanding 2013 series "The Abolitionists" picked only one African-American, Frederick Douglass, to highlight in its promotional material.
One of the most salutary central themes of Davis' narrative is consequently his emphasis on black abolitionists, not just Douglass, and other well-known figures such as Harriet Jacobs, and not just on the final years of American slavery only, but on the lasting campaign against slavery in the Atlantic World from the end of the 18th century on. As Davis points out, Douglass himself stressed that when Francois-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and their revolutionary armies, however precariously, established Haiti as an independent nation, "they struck for the freedom of every black in the world."
The meaning of Haiti's revolution - as, later, the meaning of the emancipation of the former slaves in the British Caribbean - was of course contested from the outset.
Pro-slavery advocates suppressed the event as much as possible, fearing that news of the world's first successful slave rebellion might be dangerously contagious, while simultaneously using accounts of its violence as arguments against emancipation. Even among white abolitionists the idea took hold that Haiti indicated that formerly enslaved blacks could not peacefully coexist with former white slaveholders; the best way to overcome this perceived problem was to establish a colony in Liberia along the lines of the colonies of freed former slaves established by the British in Sierra Leone.
In describing the various positions of the white promoters of colonizationism and of African-American opponents, Davis does a strikingly effective job of explaining the importance of early black journalism and pamphleteering in the United States. He focuses on the relationship of community leaders such as Paul Cuffe and James Forten and pioneering African-American journalists John Brown Russwurm and Samuel Eli Cornish. In the 1820s, in particular, these men provided the large free black populations of Philadelphia and Boston with media in which to express their opposition to colonization and their well-founded suspicion that "slaveholders wanted to get rid of them so as to make their property more secure."
Even with the gradually worsening situation for blacks, free and unfree, throughout the U.S. from the 1830s on, therefore, it was, says Davis, black public opinion that moved the national debate away from colonizationism and gradualism to the more radical call for immediate change generally associated with William Lloyd Garrison and his journal The Liberator.
If Haiti and Liberia are important to the story of slavery and abolition in the U.S., so, too, is the example of Jamaica. South Carolina's own John C. Calhoun described Britain's emancipation of its enslaved Caribbean subjects as a "suicidal policy," and Davis points out that the economic collapse of Britain's sugar industry was regularly used by the pro-slavery lobby to argue against emancipation in the U.S.
Davis's final two chapters intriguingly discuss the complex political overlaps between African-Americans lobbying for emancipation in the U.K. with the local campaigns there for social and political reform. Davis points out the irony that monarchical Britain was supposedly the beacon of freedom, while the democratic U.S. was still passing legislation in defense of holding people as property.
When all is said and done, "The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation" is a remarkably optimistic and uplifting read. Even though Davis acknowledges that slavery and human trafficking have not been eradicated, and even though emancipation in the U.S. was achieved only through the extraordinary cost of the Civil War, his swansong narrative celebrates freedom and the power of moral conviction.
Human beings are not just political or economic animals, but moral beings: since most of the abolition of the slave trade and of chattel slavery went against economic self-interest, emancipation "probably stands," says Davis, as "the greatest landmark of willed moral progress in human history."
As we move towards the 150th anniversary of the end of America's most terrible conflict, we should all heed that essential message.
Reviewer Simon Lewis directs the program in the Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World at the College of Charleston. He is the co-editor of "The Civil War as Global Conflict: Transnational Meanings of the American Civil War."