The American Historian

David Brion Davis (1927–2019)

Adam Rothman

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It is hard to imagine American history without David Brion Davis, who died on April 14, 2019, at the age of 92. Professor Davis was one of the great post-World War II historians of slavery and antislavery, a scholar who thought deeply about the moral dimensions of history and human progress. His pathbreaking trilogy, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823 (1975), and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (2014), and numerous other writings, brought scope and subtlety to the study of one of history’s elemental horrors.
                                                                                                                  Photo by David Shapiro/Yale University
David Brion Davis was born in Denver in 1927. His parents, Martha and Clyde, were both writers. At eighteen, as the war ended, Davis enlisted in the army. Though he was too late for combat, military service exposed him to American racism. He witnessed Jim Crow during his training in the South. As he recounted in the opening pages of The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, the troopship that transported the young soldier to Europe reminded him of a slave ship. Ordered to keep the black soldiers down in the hold from gambling, Davis hid away, fearful and seasick, for hours. Someone taunted him, “What you doin’ down here, white boy?” In Europe, Davis watched white soldiers attack black soldiers for dancing with German girls, and he listened to “incredibly racist speeches” from American officers.
After this formative education, Davis went on to the more genteel schools of Dartmouth, where he majored in Philosophy, and Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D. in the Program in the History of American Civilization. He dedicated his first book, Homicide in American Fiction, 1798–1860: A Study in Social Values (1958), to his Harvard mentor, the literary historian Howard Mumford Jones. A review in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review predicted that Davis’s innovative use of literature and social science in the book “may excite some younger minds even if it pains some older ones.” Conversations with Kenneth Stampp, whose landmark book The Peculiar Institution came out in 1956, inspired Davis to switch from murder to slavery beginning a fifty-year quest to understand how people can treat each other as mere things, and how the moral revolution of antislavery arose.
Davis began his teaching career at Cornell, where he wrote The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1967. For Davis, the “problem of slavery” was the impossibility of reducing people to objects, reflected in the various ways that western thinkers justified slavery, from Aristotle’s “natural slave” to the later idea of race. But he also traced a revolutionary shift from the idea of sin as form of slavery, which was deeply woven into Christianity, to the idea that slavery was itself a sin, which first emerged among radical sects of dissenting Protestants. The book concludes with a “turning point in Western culture” in the mid-18th century, signified by the Quaker John Woolman’s antislavery Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (1754). There is something poignant and perhaps autobiographical in Davis’s conclusion that what Woolman contributed was “his conviction that he shared the profound guilt of all America.”
After moving to Yale University in 1970, Davis published The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823, which won the National Book Award and Bancroft Prize. Yale appointed Davis Sterling Professor of American History on the heels of this achievement. It was in this book that the new ideas challenging slavery dovetailed with the political and economic revolutions that upended the old colonial order across the Americas. Though Davis later wrote that he was concerned with the problem of “dominance and submission” inherent in slavery, as well as the translation of the “shift in moral perception” into effective antislavery policies, perhaps the key debate that book provoked concerned the relationship between antislavery and capitalism. Did the antislavery movement buttress the rise of capitalism by legitimating a bourgeois conception of freedom?
Davis’s career at Yale flourished with more books and honors. Between The Age of Revolution and The Age of Emancipation Davis wrote Slavery and Human Progress (1984), Revolutions: Reflections on American Equality and Foreign Liberations (1990), In the Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery (2001), Challenging The Boundaries of Slavery (2003); and Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006), perhaps the best one-volume synthesis of the history of slavery in the Americas. He held the Harmsworth Professorship at Oxford University and the French-American Foundation Chair in American Civilization at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and served as the President of the Organization of American Historians in 1988–1989. Collaboration with Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman led to a series of summer teaching workshops and the creation of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition in 1998. “Dr. Davis has shed light on the contradiction of a Union founded on liberty, yet existing half-slave and half-free,” said President Obama as he awarded Davis the National Humanities Medal in 2014, “and his examinations of slavery and abolitionism drive us to keep making moral progress in our time.”
Professor Davis was a dedicated teacher. I know this first-hand because I was one of his undergraduate students at Yale in the early 1990s. I took his lecture course on antebellum America, and then his seminar on slavery in global perspective. That seminar was a memorable experience for me not only because it was my introduction to the rich historiography of slavery (I first read Slavery and Social Death and Roll, Jordan, Roll in that class), but because of the amazing group of students who took that class along with me. One was Dylan Penningroth, now a Professor of Law and History at Berkeley. In an email to me, Penningroth recalled that Davis “had grace, and gravity, and a palpable enthusiasm for the craft of history.” He launched us both into academic careers; we were eager to follow in his footsteps. To glance at the long list of historians whom Davis mentored is to grasp his pervasive influence on our profession.
Writing to his parents from Stuttgart in 1946, David Brion Davis expressed a hope that understanding history “would make people stop and think before blindly following some bigoted group to make the world safe for Aryans or democrats or Mississippians.” He committed his scholarly career to that unfulfilled goal.
We extend condolences to his wife, Toni Hahn; his daughters, Martha Davis Beck and Sarah Brion Davis; his sons, Adam, Noah, and Jeremiah Davis, and their families.