The Contradiction of a Free Nation Built By Forced Labor

The Georgia Historical Society is launching a new and exciting initiative soon, and in preparation for it I’ve been reading deeply in the literature of race in American history.

I’ve been reading about this topic for almost 40 years, but my current course of reading in this subject actually began a couple of years ago, when I embarked on a project to actually read many of the books that I had been assigned in graduate school—big, important works that I was supposed to read but didn’t, at least not as closely as I would have liked. Books like E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, Lawrence Goodwyn’s Democratic Promise, David Montgomery’s The Fall of the House of Labor, and Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, to cite just a few. These were all important, magisterial works that deserved to be read in full.

They’re also very big books, most of them clocking in at well over 600 pages, which explains why I didn’t read them as closely as I should have at that time. For the uninitiated, it was not uncommon in grad school to be assigned two books of that size every week—along with several lengthy articles—in each and every class. Speaking strictly for myself—but as every history grad student surely knows—there was simply no way to read every word of every book, to read all those articles, and also keep up with all the writing tasks and the grading or teaching assignments one might also have. Learning to read by skimming but still discerning the argument in every book is the first art of history graduate school.

All of which explains why for the better part of the 1990s my diet was terrible, I rarely saw the inside of a gym, and my cultural knowledge of TV shows and movies from that era is practically non-existent. I was simply trying to keep my head above the proverbial floodwater of pages.

Two years ago this week, when historian David Brion Davis died on April 14, 2019, at the age of 92, I read his obituary and realized that his monumental book, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, was one of those books I had unjustly skimmed all those years ago. I resolved then and there to rectify that.

Davis was a towering scholar of slavery in the Americas, a long-time professor at Yale, and the founding director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition. Ira Berlin, himself an award-winning historian of slavery, said of Davis: “No scholar has played a larger role in expanding contemporary understanding of how slavery shaped the history of the United States, the Americas, and the world than David Brion Davis.”

In 1998, at my first academic conference as a newly minted Ph.D., I read a paper on slavery in Charleston during the American Revolution, based on my dissertation research. The first person who came up from the audience afterward to commend my work was an older gentleman who was humble, modest, and gracious. I thanked him, looked down at his nametag, saw “David Brion Davis,” and was rendered speechless. The man who was arguably one of the most important historians in America took the time to offer kind words and encouragement to an eager but green-as-a-granny-smith-apple rookie who had done nothing important at all. It was a lesson and a moment I never forgot.

As his obit pointed out, Davis began his career in post-war America when “most historians espoused the ‘moonlight and magnolias’ myth, in which slavery was viewed as a paternalistic, mutually beneficial relationship between slaves and overseers. The Civil War was largely unrelated to slavery, most scholars said at the time, and the system was inefficient and marginal and would have ended on its own without a war.”

Davis was one of the pioneering scholars who stormed the ramparts and helped to dismantle that view. “Slavery, he demonstrated, was an economic engine no less productive or efficient than a 20th-century Detroit factory line. It was also a horror to enslaved Africans and marked a vexing paradox in American life.”

Davis’s scholarly monument is his “Problem of Slavery” trilogy. The series included the aforementioned The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), which won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction (beating out Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood); The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975), which received a National Book Award and the Bancroft Prize for American history; and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (2014), which won a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Eric Foner called the trilogy “one of the towering achievements of historical scholarship in the past half-century.” “No one,” Foner said, “did more to inspire the revolution in historical understanding that places slavery at the center of American history and indeed the history of the West.”

In addition to his trilogy, Davis published Slavery and Human Progress (1984) and Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006), which Ira Berlin in the New York Times called a “tour de force of synthetic scholarship.” In that book, Davis wrote, “We must face the ultimate contradiction that our free and democratic society was made possible by massive slave labor.”

President Barack Obama awarded Davis the National Humanities Medal in 2014 and hailed him as a scholar whose lifetime of achievement “has shed light on the contradiction of a free nation built by forced labor, and his examinations of slavery and abolitionism drive us to keep making moral progress in our time.”

So it was that in the late summer of 2019, more than 25 years after I had first been assigned the book in a graduate seminar, I sat down to read—patiently and with great attention—Davis’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture.

Davis was interested in the development of anti-slavery thought in the 18th and 19th centuries: when and why did slavery become a moral problem, when it had existed since antiquity without anyone raising objections to it? As Davis phrased it, “Why was it that at a certain moment of history a small number of men not only saw the full horror of a social evil to which mankind had been blind for centuries, but felt impelled to attack it?”

In this and in subsequent volumes, Davis traces ideas about slavery from its Judeo-Christian origins through emancipation, and unequivocally places the institution squarely at the center of the New World, and the creation of the American Republic.  

Indeed, Davis called slavery “the central fact of American history,” an assertion deeply troubling to many Americans who would rather celebrate the past than confront the enormity of the history and legacy of bondage.

Davis’s work is more important and timely than ever. Many people in this country frequently ask why we still talk about slavery. Can’t we just move on? Slavery’s been over for more than 150 years, they say, what good can possibly come from our constantly bringing it up? And what of those historians and teachers, they ask, who insist on placing it at the heart of the American experience? Surely, they insist, they’re wrong to do that. Aren’t they over-stating the importance of an institution that only momentarily cast a dark shadow over the American past? Shouldn’t we be celebrating the American story instead of focusing on something so negative?

David Brion Davis answered this question head on: Man is the only animal, he said, that has the “ability to transcend an illusory sense of now, of an eternal present, and to strive for an understanding of the forces and events that made us what we are.” As those who opposed slavery in previous centuries demonstrated, people “are not compelled to accept the world into which they are born.”

For Davis, a greater and deeper understanding of slavery and its legacy should bring not despair but hope: “A frank and honest effort . . . to face up to the darkest side of our past, to understand the ways in which social evils evolve, should in no way lead to cynicism and despair or to a repudiation of our heritage. The more we recognize the limitations and failings of human beings, the more remarkable and even encouraging history can be.”

As the United States approaches its 250th anniversary as an independent and mature nation, we have reached another important crossroads in our national development. America is once again grappling very publicly with difficult and tangled questions of racial injustice. Will anything really be different this time?

A historian who spent his entire professional career peering into the darkness saw light ahead: “The development of maturity means a capacity to deal with truth.” We can only hope that he was right.

2 thoughts on “The Contradiction of a Free Nation Built By Forced Labor

  1. georgelamplugh

    Although I finished in History grad school a quarter of a century (!) before you did, Dr. Deaton, your introductory remarks suggest that things hadn’t changed that much in the interim! Oh, and your take on Professor Davis is right on–I especially was struck by your treatment of how Davis dealt with those annoying questions that *still* refuse to go away, like my favorite, “Can’t we just move on?”. Keep up the great work!


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