David Brion Davis: An Appreciation

August 26, 2014 Yale Gilder Lehrman Center Opinion 
Forced Labor, Academia

On July 28, President Obama awarded the National Humanities Medal to eminent historian of slavery David Brion Davis. This is no small achievement. The Medal is the highest honor bestowed by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a prize that “honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects.”

David Brion Davis is undeniably a worthy recipient. He is in many ways the founder of the study of the history of slavery in the New World, and its leading voice. He has, as the Medal citation states, “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.” Professor Davis dedicated his professional life to studying questions of humanity and morality, which he explored deeply through slavery and “the revolutionary shift in moral perception” that resulted in its legal abolition.[1] His writing continues to inspire scholars and his commitment to bring the history of slavery, resistance, and abolition to the broader public lives on through the institutions he built. Davis is among the rare historians about whom it can be said that he not only changed the landscape of ideas, but changed the world by practicing history. And few if any historians have engaged as deeply and as skillfully the profound impact of religious ideas and spirit in human affairs.

David Brion Davis

Over the years, David Brion Davis has written and spoken at length about the moving personal experiences that turned his gaze to the study of race and slavery. He points to formative experiences as a teenager in the army. In articles, books and lectures, Davis has recounted his training in Georgia for an impending invasion of Japan, subsequent journey by boat to postwar Europe, and a year in the Security Police in what was until very recently Nazi Germany. He saw the aftermath of war but did not dwell on “the pulverized cities and urban rubble” or the “thousands of Displaced Persons and death camp survivors.” Rather, as he put it, “for a teenage white policeman… the most disturbing reality was American racial conflict.”[2]

On the heels of his first exposure to the Jim Crow South while at Camp Gordon, Georgia, Davis was sent to the deep hold in his ship across the Atlantic to make sure the black soldiers weren’t gambling. “I had not even realized that there were black troops on board,” he recalled. “But after winding down many circular, ladder-like stairways, I came upon what I have always remembered as a modern slave ship. Hundreds—it seemed like thousands—of nearly naked black men were crushed into a hot, fetid space.”[3] At a critical moment, Davis encountered the segregated South and military, and openly racist white soldiers policing the American color line more than the German occupation. It was here that Professor Davis was introduced to a United States unwilling “to face up to the cancerous racial division and exploitation that has festered at the core of American society since the founding of the Republic.”[4] These formative experiences, along with a year spent with Kenneth Stampp prior to the publication of The Peculiar Institution, set Davis on a path to study slavery and abolition.[5]

Receiving the National Humanities Medal coincides with the recent publication of The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, the final volume of Professor Davis’ trilogy on slavery and abolition in Western culture. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966) won the Pulitzer Prize, and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975) won the Bancroft Prize and the National Book Award. While principally known as a scholar of Atlantic slavery, he has published numerous books and articles and supervised nearly sixty dissertations on a very wide range of intellectual history topics. His interests and influence extends throughout the academy and well beyond it. He not only changed the scholarly study of slavery, but also demonstrated the how essential its practice and economy were to the creation of the modern world.

His path-breaking work carried him from Cornell to Yale, where he is Sterling Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University. In 1994, Professor Davis delivered a lecture in New York entitled “The Origins and Nature of New World Slavery.” Businessmen and history enthusiasts Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman were so impressed that they commissioned Davis to teach an annual summer seminar for high school teachers. This initial seminar grew into the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which now offers more than 40 summer programs for primary and secondary school teachers featuring some of the nation’s leading scholars, including annually David Blight, John Demos, and Jonathan Holloway of Yale. In 1998, Davis founded the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University, the first academic research center dedicated to the investigation and dissemination of knowledge concerning all aspects of slavery and its destruction.

The GLC continues, under the leadership of Director and Class of 1954 Professor of History David W. Blight, to foster the understanding of the integral roles slavery and abolition played in the founding of the modern world. Each year, the GLC awards fellowships and hosts slavery scholars from a variety of disciplines—history, anthropology, political science, law, the arts—more than 100 over the last sixteen years. Critically, the GLC promotes exchange between scholars writing about slavery and abolition, and the teachers and public historians who convey it to students and the broader public. And the exchange is dynamic and mutual, producing more informed scholarship that considers its presentation in classrooms, museums and historic sites, and lessons plans, textbooks, and exhibits informed by the newest and best academic work. All GLC programs are rooted in academic inquiry with an eye to spreading the word to the largest audience possible.

This exchange takes many forms, including workshops for high school teachers focused on teaching slavery, and seminars for public historians addressing issues related to interpreting slavery through exhibitions and education programs. The GLC annually awards the Frederick Douglass Book Prize for the most outstanding nonfiction book in English on the subject of slavery and/or abolition and antislavery movements. The Center sponsors publications, including Arming Slaves, a recent collection on Indian Ocean Slavery, as well as the highly acclaimed Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Nearly every week during the academic school year, it hosts brown bag and evening lectures. And the GLC stages an International Conference every fall on topics such as slavery and abolition in Brazil, legacies of slavery in Jamaica, and images of slaves in British art this fall.

In recent years, the GLC has turned its attention to the study of human trafficking and modern slavery. The 14th Annual International Conference, entitled Abolition, Past and Present, brought together distinguished historians and activists and practitioners to help forge a field of study about the origins and nature of modern human trafficking and bonded labor. The GLC awards an annual Human Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery Fellowship to promote and sustain study in this burgeoning field. An increasing portion of its programs and events explore connections between slavery in the past and contemporary forms of domination and exploitation, as well the growth of movements to challenge the systems that make slavery possible.

The parallels are clear. David Brion Davis writes:

The global outlawing of chattel slavery has already become an important precedent for abolishing human trafficking and other forms of coerced labor—as we read the shocking estimates of the number of women and men held today in different kinds of bondage. But as for any inevitable moral “progress,” when we view the present state of the world with respect to human nature, there is less cause for optimism. Many humans still love to kill, torture, oppress, and dominate. Moral progress seems to be historical, cultural, and institutional, not the result of a genetic improvement in individual human nature… If my friends and I were stripped of our twentieth-century conditioning and plummeted back to Mississippi in 1860, we would doubtless take for granted our rule over slaves. So an astonishing historical achievement really matters. The outlawing of chattel slavery in the New World, and then globally, represents a crucial landmark of moral progress that we should never forget.[6]

Human impulses remain the same, but the moral perception of human bondage shifted in the age of abolition. History can serve as a powerful model for current abolition efforts, and the connections between past and present beg further investigation, but persistent commitment is necessary to succeed as abolitionists did in the nineteenth century. Few historians have ever taught us as much about the deep, intertwined relationship between the darkest and the best impulses in human behavior.

In this space in the coming months, you will see a series of posts written by scholars from all over the globe working on various aspects of slavery, abolition, and their legacies. Some will relate the history of exploitation, some will offer stories of abolition leaders or efforts of the enslaved to throw off the shackles of oppression, and others will discuss current sex trafficking networks or legal efforts to eradicate forced labor. All will be motivated, as David Brion Davis was, by personal experience and moral sense of right and wrong that compel action. Perhaps we choose to dedicate our lives to the academic study of the problem of slavery, as Professor Davis has. Perhaps we choose to challenge injustice through law, or human rights activism, or investment in organizations that attack exploitation in every corner of the globe. The struggle takes all kinds. Contributors to and readers of endslaverynow.org will sustain the “revolution of moral perception” that began in the 18th Century, continue to draw attention to human trafficking and bonded labor, and work to end it.

This blog written by David A. Spatz, Assistant Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University

[1] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), p. 336.

[2] David Brion Davis, “World War II and Memory,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 77, No. 2 (September 1990), p. 581.

[3] David Brion Davis, In the Image of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 7-8.

[4] David Brion Davis, “World War II and Memory,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 77, No. 2 (September 1990), p. 587.

[5] David Brion Davis, In the Image of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 6-7. Stampp was a visiting professor at Harvard in 1955 as Davis finished his dissertation on homicide in America. The Peculiar Institution was published in 1956.

[6] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), p. 336-337.


Topics: Forced Labor, Academia

About the Author

Yale Gilder Lehrman Center

The Gilder Lehrman Center strives to make a vital contribution to the understanding of slavery and its role in the development of the modern world. While the Center's primary focus has been on scholarly research, it also seeks to bridge the divide between scholarship and public knowledge by opening channels of communication between the scholarly community and the wider public. In collaboration with secondary schools, museums, parks, historical societies, and other related institutions, the Center facilitates a locally rooted understanding of the global impact of slavery. Staff includes David W. Blight, David Brion Davis, David Spatz, Thomas Thurston and several visiting fellows.