Ready to Be Free

The end of the peculiar institution


The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, by David Brion Davis, Knopf, 422 pp., $30

David Brion Davis has been studying slavery for more than half a century. In 1966, he published The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, and in 1975, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. The books received the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, respectively. Now, after nearly 40 years, we finally have the trilogy’s conclusion.

It is not as if Davis has been idle in the intervening decades. Both Slavery and Human Progress (1984) and Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006) allowed him to work out the ideas that form the foundation for this new volume. Somewhere along the way, he decided that rather than write a full narrative history of how slavery came to be abolished in Haiti, Britain, the United States, and Brazil, he would offer a selection of deeply researched essays on the shift in Western moral perception and the pivotal role played by Anglo-American abolition movements in the destruction of slavery.

Davis begins with a learned discussion of dehumanization and animalization. His account of the intellectual gymnastics necessary to reduce humans to chattel includes Biblical texts that sanctioned slavery, as well as Aristotle’s theory that some people are slaves by nature. As Davis points out, “the slaveholder’s dehumanizing methods could lead to some internalization” on the part of the enslaved. These same methods led whites to view slaves either as savage beasts or docile children.

The roles played by abolitionists, particularly free blacks and fugitives, in humanizing the enslaved form the core of Davis’s book, whose title might well be reversed to read “the problem of emancipation in the age of slavery.” Even as they condemned slavery, commentators on both sides of the Atlantic fretted about what to do with freed slaves. Accordingly, Davis devotes five chapters to the issue of the colonization movement, which encouraged blacks to migrate to Africa or settlements elsewhere in the Americas.

Support for this, Davis shows, was far more complicated than most modern scholars acknowledge and “embraced a variety of contradictory motives, interests, hopes, and visions.”  After all, the Old Testament’s Exodus narrative has served for millennia as inspiration for exiles everywhere, whether to escape from actual slavery or to break free from other forms of political and social degradation. Drawing upon stories of deliverance from slavery, 19th-century black activists such as Henry Highland Garnet, Martin R. Delany, Paul Cuffe, and Alexander Crummell argued on both biblical and nationalistic grounds for an African or Caribbean homeland.

But many other black abolitionists opposed colonization. Davis offers compelling portraits of minister Richard Allen, businessman James Forten, and editor Samuel Eli Cornish, whose Freedom’s Journal was the first African-
American newspaper. These men argued that the United States was their “mother country,” that their ancestors’ “blood and sweat” had built the nation, that free blacks would never abandon their enslaved brethren, and that blacks were not, as proponents of colonization sometimes argued, “a dangerous and useless part of the community.”

This last point was significant. Abolition was tied to countless debates about “the ongoing status of blacks who had already been emancipated.” The bloody revolt that ended slavery in Haiti was never far from the thoughts of white Americans. Facing the cultural assumption that slaves were depraved, black and white abolitionists engaged in an extensive “campaign for racial uplift as an instrument for slave emancipation.”

davisNowhere are Davis’s gifts as an intellectual historian better displayed than in his discussion of the ambiguities and complexities of abolitionist arguments for what Frederick Douglass called “moral, social, and religious advancement.” Davis refuses to see this as simply paternalistic or racist. Instead, he dissects the tensions in the arguments of activists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Sarah and Angelina Grimké. By portraying slavery as monstrous, they were in effect fighting for the emancipation of “dehumanized humans” while simultaneously having to defend slaves’ potential to become “responsible free citizens.” At the same time, calls for education and industriousness offered a means of “black empowerment” that would help equip former slaves to succeed in American society.

Given those assumptions, Americans looked for lessons in the British emancipation act of 1833. Of course, freeing some 800,000 slaves in distant colonies differed dramatically from freeing four million slaves in the United States. To counter stories from the British emancipation of blacks who refused to work, antislavery writers publicized reports of former slaves embracing wage labor. But no matter how energetically American abolitionists argued the success of previous emancipations, Davis concludes “there was an element of ‘failure’ in all the emancipations, from Haiti to the Northern American states, the British and French colonies, the American Civil War, and on to Cuba and Brazil in the 1880s. In no case did emancipation lead to a prosperous, racially egalitarian society.”

It is unfortunate that, except for a brief epilogue, Davis does not examine the abolition of slavery in the United States. He recognizes, of course, the centrality of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Many of the activists from the 1830s and 1840s continued their labors through the 1860s and 1870s, and one wishes Davis had traced their continuing intellectual development after emancipation. Freedom, it turns out, poses its own set of problems, different from but related to slavery. Davis’s body of work has shown repeatedly that ideas and individuals matter in the struggle to transform morals. This challenging final volume serves as a timely reminder that the legacies of slavery require ongoing discussion and engagement.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Louis P. Masur is Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University. This essay is adapted from his new book,The Sum of Our Dreams: A Concise History of America.


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