The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, by David Brion Davis

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation is the final volume of David Brion Davis’s slavery trilogy. It covers the period from roughly the 1820s through the Civil War.

Of the three volumes, this one struck me as the deepest. All three contain a mixture of, on the one hand, recitations of seemingly every public figure who ever spoke or wrote about slavery and what they had to say about it, and, on the other hand, analysis and discussion of the issues raised in these primary sources. But the first two volumes seemed more heavily weighted toward the former—cataloguing all the positions taken on slavery by religious leaders, politicians, intellectuals and such—while this third one has the most analysis.

There was a gap of 39 years—from 1975 to 2014—between when the second volume was published and when this one was, whereas the gap between the first and second had been only nine years—from 1966 to 1975. Davis was in his 80s when he finally completed the trilogy. Maybe that’s why this final volume has a more reflective feel to it, like his intent is to digest all three of the volumes—and all the other writing he’s done on slavery and related topics—and draw some conclusions of what it all means.

One of the important themes in this volume, which was present to a lesser extent in the second volume as well, is the contention that blacks may be unfit to function in freedom.

Not everyone maintaining that based it on the alleged inherent inferiority of the black race. Some contended that when people are treated so horrifically over such an extended period of time, it’s to be expected that they will develop in certain perverse ways as a result of the damage. (Think of how prison nowadays can take even people who may not have been fully committed to the criminal lifestyle and brutalize them into hard core criminals.)

So the question becomes, when you have this massive number of people who have not been afforded any experience with mutual respect, fair play, or the autonomy to make their own life decisions, who have every reason to be angry and bitter, and who are mostly illiterate and lack whatever skills and values that would make good—or even tolerable—citizens, what in the world do you do with them when slavery ends?

For during the period that this book covers, most people saw the writing on the wall and knew that slavery couldn’t last much longer. Whether that was an outcome they applauded or opposed, they expected it to come, and many didn’t see any realistic way all the ex-slaves could be absorbed into the general population without it being irreparably harmed.

I don’t see this concern as ridiculous, nor as necessarily insincere. I don’t think it’s the sort of position that could only be taken up by people looking for an excuse to avoid or at least delay ending slavery.

But I do have a couple of thoughts in response.

One is, what’s the alternative? If ending a certain form of oppression will likely have the negative consequence of providing very damaged people an opportunity to harm others, what alternative course of action would have better consequences overall? Do you continue the oppression forever? Is there some plausible transition stage you can concoct between the oppression and its full removal that would somehow mitigate the problem?

Sending the blacks back to Africa was one proposed solution—that was the idea behind the whole Liberia thing—but that was a flop. And even if somehow the plan had succeeded in getting the bulk of the freed slaves to re-cross the Atlantic, that’s not a solution to the problem so much as a NIMBY-style geographic relocation of the problem.

It may be like the Churchill quote about democracy, how it’s both a bad political system and better than the rest of them. Freeing the slaves and granting them the rights of American citizenship no doubt was a move that would have plenty of predictable and unpredictable bad consequences. But doing anything else under the circumstances would likely have been even worse.

My second response is that while I concede some plausibility to concerns about how oppression perverts the oppressed and makes them less likely to develop a strong moral character, the skills necessary for responsible autonomy, etc., why isn’t there equal or greater concern for how oppression makes worse people of the oppressors?

Experience should have taught us long ago that “power corrupts.” If you want to see monsters who have been driven by environment away from any semblance of sanity and basic humanity and compassion for others, look not, or at least not only, at the dregs of society. Look at the people on top.

You have countless people today who, with no sign it troubles their conscience in the slightest, will lie, scheme, and manipulate to enable them and their ilk to so despoil the environment and alter the climate as to cause unimaginable avoidable suffering and death to present and future generations for no reason beyond that it will put more money and power in the possession of those who already have the most money and power.

Oppression may create tattooed, gun-wielding, gang-banging thugs with no respect for human life, but it also creates Koch brothers, and in the long run which do more total damage?

I think people were right to worry about how to deal with the fact that slavery reduced slaves to the status of brutes, but shouldn’t they have been equally or more worried about what it did to slave owners, and to the political officeholders, law enforcement personnel, and others who participated in enforcing the whole violent apparatus of slavery?

Speaking of brutes, Davis notes that equating slaves or black people in general with animals, both domesticated and wild, sometimes as denigration and sometimes as faint praise, was commonplace in the debates about slavery. But he also observes that though such verbal dehumanization can certainly facilitate many kinds of ill treatment, if you examine cases of out and out genocide like the Holocaust you’ll find that animal metaphors are rare compared to metaphors involving insects, germs, and the like. Classifying people with animals makes it easier to think of them as inferior, deny them their rights, etc., but actual extermination seems to require classifying them with the sorts of dangerous and disgusting pests we routinely seek to exterminate.

I did enjoy learning that already in the 1800s, and no doubt before, there was a nervous fear and acknowledgement of the supposed sexual prowess and huge penis of the black man, and what a challenge it was to keep “our” women away from such virile beasts (a fancy which is responsible for one of the more delightful porn genres to this day, so maybe slavery wasn’t all bad after all).

Davis contends that the so-called Underground Railroad has been overrated, perhaps because it makes the actions of sympathetic whites and Northerners in combatting slavery seem more frequent and consequential than they really were. Outside of the work of some recent revisionist historians, the organization and efficiency of the Underground Railroad has been overstated, the number of fugitive slaves it assisted has been wildly exaggerated, and the role of free blacks in running it and bringing about its limited success has been largely ignored.

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, and the whole Davis slavery trilogy, is hugely valuable to any serious student of slavery, and is at least somewhat accessible to lay readers with an interest in the subject.

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