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The Importance of History

by David Brion Davis

I’m concerned with the erosion of interest in history — the view expressed by even some leading teachers and intellectuals that we should “let bygones be bygones,” “free” ourselves from the boring and oppressive past, and concentrate on a fresh and better future.

I’m passionately committed to the cause that distinguishes us from all other animals — 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. Such an understanding is the prerequisite, I believe, for all human freedom. In one of my works on slavery I refer to “a profound transformation in moral perception” that led in the eighteenth century to a growing recognition of “the full horror of a social evil to which mankind had been blind for centuries.” Unfortunately, many American historians are only now beginning to grasp the true centrality of that social evil –- racial slavery — throughout the decades and even centuries that first shaped our government and what America would become.

The goal of much of my work since 1994 and what led me to write my current book, Inhuman Bondage, is to “de-localize” the central AMERICAN, not Negro, problem; to find ways of envisioning and understanding what I term THE BIG PICTURE.

In order to appreciate the importance of correcting profound misconceptions regarding American slavery, I should at least mention the “moonlight and magnolias” mythology that I was taught as an undergraduate, a mythology propagated by respected historians, in popular literature and by major films such as “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind.” In this mythology, the slaveholding South counteracted its military defeat by winning the ideological war — or in other words, the way the twentieth-century American public understood racial slavery and the Civil War.

To summarize some of the points concisely: by the 1930s a strong consensus had emerged to the effect that the Civil War had little if anything to do with slavery. One school of thought held that the war had been waged over economic issues and resulted in the triumph of Northern capitalism. A second school argued that the war had been a needless and avertable tragedy, brought on by abolitionist fanatics and a few Southern extremists. Virtually all American whites agreed that slavery had been an inefficient, backward institution, increasingly marginal to American life; and though maintained as a form of racial control, it would have soon ended, without a war, since slavery contained its own economic seeds of extinction.

And to give you a concrete example, my very liberal-minded but self-educated parents were delighted in 1936 or 1937 by a new, well-written, and immensely popular survey of American history, written by W. E. Woodward (no relation to the great and late C. Vann Woodward). According W. E. Woodward’s A New American History:

The slave system did incalculable harm to the white people of the South, and benefited nobody but the negro, in that it served as a vast training school for African savages. Though the regime of the slave plantations was strict, it was, on the whole, a kindly one by comparison with what the imported slave had experienced in his own land. It taught him discipline, cleanliness and a conception of moral standards.

Despite some little-known works by African-American and Marxist historians, the views I’ve summarized persisted well into the 1960s, even among some of the most respected white historians. When, thanks to the GI Bill, I joined Dartmouth College’s undergraduate class of 1950, I took a course on post-Civil War U.S. history which was deeply racist in outlook. We learned that Reconstruction was a disaster, since hoards of carpetbaggers and scalawags quickly corrupted the ignorant Negroes and even put them in state legislatures. The professor presented a humorous picture of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization needed, he claimed, to keep the peace by scaring the highly superstitious Negroes as the hooded Klansmen would knock on a black family’s door and then hoot out the sounds of ghosts.

Things were not much better when I attended Harvard Graduate School from 1951 to 1953. Lecture courses on American social history, on the history of immigration to America, and on the history of religion in America, gave little attention to slavery and antislavery, though they were excellent in other respects.

The most brilliant and intellectually exciting teacher I ever had was Harvard’s great Perry Miller, whose final masterpiece, The Life of the Mind in America from the Revolution to the Civil War, was published in 1965. I recently discovered that the index to this monumental work, highly acclaimed by the major historians of the time, has no entries for “slavery,” “Negro,” “slave trade,” “abolitionists,” “antislavery,” or any other topic referring to the central issue that divided the nation “from the Revolution to the Civil War.” And this was in 1965! No other example could dramatize so powerfully the way that Miller’s generation repressed and marginalized racial slavery in the New World.

On the course syllabi, the major recommended work on what I now call “inhuman bondage” was Ulrich B. Phillips’s deeply researched but highly racist book of 1918, American Negro Slavery. One must remember that in 1954, at the time of Brown v. Board of Education and eighty-nine years after the Thirteenth Amendment, blacks in much of the South were, as Bob Herbert has reminded us, “expected to step off the sidewalk or cross to the other side of the street if whites were approaching.” [The New York Times “Regressing on Integration,” April 26, A19, 2004]

I only began to sense this momentous omission of slavery when I became acquainted in the spring of 1955 with Harvard’s visiting professor from Berkeley, Kenneth Stampp, who was then completing his landmark and revolutionary book, The Peculiar Institution, a point-by-point rebuttal of Phillips. I was no doubt more open to Stampp’s approach as a result of the shocking racial conflicts and even a shoot-out I had seen in early 1946 as a U.S. Army policeman in the segregated occupation force in Germany.
Let me stress that it was only in the 1950s that evidence began to show that slavery, far from being economically backward, was an extremely efficient and productive form of labor; that the purchase of slaves was an excellent investment; and that the organization of large plantations anticipated in many ways the assembly line and modern factory production. Only in fairly recent years have we learned that the richest pre-Civil War Americans lived in the Deep South, which also had the country’s highest per capita wealth; that in 1860 the market value of slaves exceeded that of the nation’s railroads and factories combined. We can now see that Abraham Lincoln, in his debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, had good reason to predict that any peaceable abolition of slavery would take at least one hundred years! He was thinking quite prophetically of what we now term the civil rights era.

Partly as a result of our long denial of slavery’s centrality in American history, few Americans know that Columbus transported hundreds of enslaved Indians back to Spain. Or that by 1820 nearly 8.7 million slaves had departed from Africa for the New World, as opposed to the 2.6 million whites who had left Europe. Thus by 1820 African slaves constituted almost 77 percent of the enormous population that had sailed toward the Americas, and from 1760 to 1820 this emigrating flow included over five African slaves for every European migrant.

For centuries these Africans performed the most arduous and exhausting work, clearing forests with axes or saws, hewing and splitting wood, plowing the soil, planting and harvesting the exportable crops, such as sugar, coffee, and cotton, that founded economic systems that prospered in ways that eventually attracted untold millions of free immigrants from Europe, Asia, and Hispanic America. As a result of mortality and negative growth rates, by 1825 blacks constituted only about 31.6 percent of the New World population, of which 40.3 percent was now white and 28 percent Native American. And from 1820 to 1880 the African slave trade, even when illegal, continued to ship off nearly 2.3 million slaves from Africa, mainly to Brazil and Cuba.

While no New World colony began with a blueprint for becoming a slave society, the entire Hemisphere had become implicated in the paradox of trying to reconcile racial slavery with aspirations to escape the sins of the Old World. When teachers tell their students about the American Revolution, how many note that in 1775 the slavery of blacks was legal in all thirteen colonies? That it continued to be legal in New York until 1827, in Connecticut until 1848, and in New Jersey until 1865?

And even most history texts fail to convey the extent that the American government was dominated by slaveholders and proslavery interests between the inaugurations of Presidents Washington and Lincoln. Partly because of the clause in the Constitution that gave the South added political representation for three-fifths of its slave population, Southern leaders increasingly challenged restrictions on the westward expansion of slavery and the creation of new slave states. Southern slaveholding presidents governed the nation for roughly fifty of those seventy-two years. Slaveholding presidents, senators, congressmen, and Supreme Court justices also lived and ruled in a national capital deliberatively placed in a slaveholding and slave-trading region, where, unlike Philadelphia, for example, their human property would be quite safe and secure. Moreover, none of the six Northern presidents dared to challenge slaveholding interests and four of them catered in subservient ways to Southern proslavery policies.

I should stress that there were strong economic reasons for the broad national reach of American slavery. Southern slave-grown cotton was the nation’s leading and most valuable export. It powered textile-manufacturing revolutions in both New England and Europe, and paid for American imports of everything from steel to capital. Accordingly, in the nineteenth century slave values more than tripled. For a considerable time the fortunes of New England manufacturers and New York merchants depended on a northward flow of cotton, a fact that carried the deepest implications for politics as well as banking, insurance, and shipping. It should be no surprise, therefore, that abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison were portrayed as a lunatic fringe, and most Northerners long agreed that the Constitution prevented any interference with slavery. The gag rules of the 1830s and 1840s prevented Congress from hearing thousands of petitions calling for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. This clear violation of the First Amendment did not faze a government that sanctioned the destruction of antislavery mail addressed to the South.

The extremely unpredictable and, in many ways, astonishing emancipation of over four million American slaves had an enormous impact on slavery in Cuba as well as Brazil. A frank and honest effort in classrooms 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 development of maturity, in individuals and societies, connotes a capacity to deal with truth. And the more we recognize the limitations and failings of human beings, the more remarkable and even encouraging history can be. Acceptance of the institution of slavery, of reducing humans to something approaching beasts of burden, can be found not only in the Bible but in the earliest recorded documents in the Mesopotamian Near East. Slavery was accepted for millennia, virtually without question, in almost every region of the globe. Yet the history of New World slavery and antislavery shows us that people can change course, that they are not compelled to accept the world into which they are born.

Davis_inhumanbondage_9780195140736David Brion Davis is Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and Director Emeritus of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, also at Yale. He has won numerous prizes, including the Pulitzer and the Bruce Catton Prize for Lifetime Achievement. His latest book, Inhuman Bondage, examines slavery from a global perpective but concentrates on the role of racial slavery in building the New World.

Recent Comments

  1. Envelope Of Sound

    thanks for the article and will have to find time to read the book! Cheers!

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