The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823, by David Brion Davis

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823 is the second of David Brion Davis’s trilogy of works tracing the history of slavery, and especially the history of attitudes and opinions concerning slavery. I am reading them in order, and thus had previously read and written about the first, The Problem of Slavery in the Western World.

The books of this trilogy are very much academic works. Imagine spending year after year poring over everything available that has been written about slavery, taking detailed notes on it all, and then spending additional years summarizing that material in over a thousand pages, heavy on quotations and footnotes, with a certain amount of thoughtful analysis along the way.

Because this is an academic project, a lot of it is not scintillating reading. Overall I found The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution to be slightly more interesting and accessible to a lay reader than The Problem of Slavery in the Western World, but it’s still the kind of recitation of thousands of facts of who wrote what in response to whom on what occasion that I know as I’m reading I won’t retain more than 5% of after I close the book.

It’s an extraordinary research achievement, but obviously no single work—or in this case three works if you want to count them that way—on this complex and controversial a subject can be the “last word.”

For certain aspects of slavery—e.g., the debates over the years concerning its moral status and economic effectiveness—it’s probably the only source that more than 90% or 99% of people wanting to learn more about slavery would need to satisfy their interest, though even here there’s room for differences of interpretation and analysis. But there are whole other areas of slavery where this trilogy would only take you a very short way and would need to be supplemented.

These areas would include, for instance, personal experience, i.e., what was it like to live as a slave?, what was it like to come to America on a slave ship?, what was it like to live where you were greatly outnumbered by another race of people who were held as slaves where you could never be completely confident how secure or tenuous was your people’s hold on them?

It also would be interesting to know more about public opinion and how it changed over the years, though I would think our access to such information now would be extremely limited. After all, it’s not like we can consult detailed, mathematically well-designed polls of the general public in 1780. Of necessity, when books like these by Davis purport to convey the changing beliefs and values concerning slavery throughout history, they’re really addressing elite opinion, not general opinion, as we only have access to what happened to be written down. So if you want to know what a certain Quaker theologian, American Founding Father, or British Member of Parliament wrote about slavery, then you’ll very likely be able to find out from The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, but if you’re interested in what American farmers, British workers, or indeed slaves themselves thought of this or that aspect of the subject, then your curiosity will likely remain unsatisfied.

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution is not solely about slavery in the United States. In fact, there are probably about the same number of pages devoted to Great Britain—parliamentary debates about slavery in the West Indian colonies and such. There’s some material on France and its colonies as well, though substantially less than the United States or Great Britain. There’s very little about other countries, such as slavery in Spanish and Portuguese colonies.

Thomas Jefferson does not come off particularly well in this book. He’s not presented as a villain, or an unusually bad person, but he’s far from the heroic defender of human rights and human liberty that one might wish.

Certainly he was a blatant racist. (If you’ve ever wondered why black men prefer white women over black women, Jefferson helpfully pointed out that it was for the same reason male orangutans prefer black women over female orangutans.)

He was somewhat anti-slavery in the abstract, but very timid about doing or saying too much in opposition to slavery. When he was pushed by younger allies in personal correspondence to please take more of a lead in the fight against slavery, he typically responded lamely that while surely their side would win in the end because they were right, the time wasn’t ripe to push it. He told them that they would be the ones to lead any such battles, not older, established figures like himself, as attitudes changed with the generations. When they persisted and told him how inspirational his leadership could be as such an important figure in the founding of the nation and one of its first presidents, he continued to demur.

Davis’s take is that Jefferson was very much a product of his class (of wealthy Virginia planters), and that while he was willing to be at the liberal end of the mainstream of that class, he wasn’t willing to go to a radical extreme outside that mainstream. He didn’t want to lose face in the eyes of his class peers, to push for more than they would countenance. He only “led” on issues where most of those people in his elite that he respected and wanted to be respected by were already on the same side.

Other than the Quakers, most religious people were no better on slavery than were their secular peers, and many were worse. The various religious groups typically were either pro-slavery, or even if they were anti-slavery in some sense they wimped out and did little to threaten the slave system in the South. In some cases they initially took some promising steps toward condemning slavery and acting against it, but then they quickly pulled back when they met any resistance.

Most of the denominations made their peace with the institution of slavery by taking the position that bodily freedom was far, far less important than the kind of spiritual freedom represented by having the correct theological beliefs. So to them, freeing black people from slavery was either not desirable at all, or it was a very low priority compared to getting black people (and everyone) to accept Jesus as their savior and avoid sin. In fact, this focus became a selling point to slave owners, as they were assured that given that it was a Biblical sin for a slave to not be always docile and obedient as a slave, Christianity was a win-win for both masters and slaves.

Not that the Quakers were all that great on slavery, just better than the other denominations. As Davis notes, “The Quaker commitment to bear collective testimony against slavery came surprisingly late and coincided with the publication of secular antislavery arguments from jurors, philosophers, moralists, and men of letters. Quaker writers did not play a conspicuous part in creating this international body of antislavery literature.”

It’s interesting that although a slave owner’s authority over his slave was in many respects absolute, the one thing that was often limited was his right to free his slave. Laws against private manumission were common in most jurisdictions with slavery.

Evidently the idea was that it was the business of the community as a whole that there not be free Blacks walking around. There really wasn’t a place for them. It wouldn’t be like a white indentured servant completing his indenture, or being released early, because a white person like that could then become an ordinary member of the community. Servitude for whites was a contingent, temporary condition, like a prison sentence. Blacks were considered a different type of being entirely, where it would be an insult to the white people to have Blacks living among them in some status other than servitude.

That’s one of the reasons even the few people advocating freeing the slaves back then often coupled it with the proposal to send them back to Africa or somewhere else.

It also relates to the concern many people on both sides of the slavery question had—some sincerely, some not—that Blacks were in no condition to function as non-slaves. Some thought Blacks were inherently inferior and left to their own devices couldn’t live at a level above that of savages, and some attributed their alleged incapacity to the effects of being habituated to slavery from birth and to the hostility directed toward them by whites. So even many anti-slavery people preferred some sort of delayed or gradual manumission, giving society some time to figure out what to do with these damaged, childlike, semi-human folks before they were loosed into the community.

With attitudes like that, it’s not a surprise that even many people who had compassion for the slaves decided the best thing to do for them was not to destroy the institution of slavery itself or free them from it, but to teach them to accept their lot and be good Christians within that institution.

One of Davis’s themes in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution is expressed in his Preface: “The justifications for slavery had long been interwoven with the justifications for more widely accepted forms of dominion and subordination. Hence an attack on Negro slavery might open Pandora’s box, successively discrediting the cultural sanctions for every traditional form of exploitation; or, if contained, the attack might give at least temporary moral insulation to less visible modes of human bondage.”

A few—too few—anti-slavery advocates took the position that slavery was a horrific affront to human dignity and freedom and that other forms of oppression like the way urban workers, including children, were treated during the Industrial Revolution were horrific affronts to human dignity and freedom, and that all such oppression should be vigorously opposed. On the other hand, many defenders of slavery basically took the position that “Countless workers, farmers, soldiers, sailors, and so on lead miserable, short lives with as much or more total suffering as the typical slave experiences, and we all recognize that that’s just the way life is and there’s nothing to be done about it that wouldn’t make things even worse, so quit your whining about the slaves.”

In the end, though we’ll learn more about this in the third book of the trilogy, these concerns were largely decoupled. Gradually enough people turned against slavery that it could be eradicated, whereas capitalism and other oppressive isms still have more than their share of vehement defenders and still torment the world.


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