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David Brion Davis (visit museum at

Intellectual Trajectories: How I became a historian of slavery* by David Brion Davis**

. . . I was drafted into the army, and in the late spring and summer of 1945, I went through rigorous combat training in armored infantry for the planned invasion of Japan in the fall.  In the early weeks, the ongoing battle in Okinawa gave us a rather frightening foretaste of what to expect when we hit the beaches of Japan.  Being trained in Georgia, I got a view of the appalling racism of the Jim Crow South in 1945.  Then, very suddenly and unexpectedly, the war was over.

In the fall I found myself on a large troop ship bound for Le Havre, and though seasick, an officer gave me a club, and ordered me to go down a circular ladder-like stairway to the lowest hold where I was told that I had to prevent the “jiggaboos”—that is the African Americans—from gambling!

Until then I had had no idea there were any black soldiers on board.  When I got to the bottom, the scene looked like what I now would think of as a slave ship.  When some nearly naked blacks asked me what I was doing down there, I said I was merely following orders and then I found a shadow in which to hide for four hours or so on so-called duty.

Then a few weeks later, for five days, I was jammed into a railroad boxcar that seemed identical to the one my Dad had described in France in World War I.  We moved through France very slowly and finally got to the American zone of occupied Germany.  And because I had taken two years of high school German, I soon became a policeman in what was called the Sicherheitspolizei, or the American Security Police in Mannheim.  And eventually I moved to the headquarters of the U.S. Constabulary in Stuttgart.

In Mannheim I was actually speaking more German than English.  I had to learn a lot quickly.  But I was deeply shocked by the bitter conflict between black and white troops in Germany.  And I was especially outraged by the racist speeches we heard repeatedly from Major General Ernest Harmon—an officer who actually helped to lose the Battle of Kasserine Pass in North Africa.  But he used the “N” word repeatedly and declared to us that the “Ns” were far worse a problem than the Germans.  He attacked the U.S. government for having ever sent blacks to Europe in the war.  The tension was increased greatly because many German girls seemed to have no Nazi prejudices against dating black American soldiers.

On one occasion we were called out in battle gear in the middle of the night, rushing in armored half-tracks to the site of a bloody racial shootout.  This was probably the scariest event in my life.  We arrived at a dancing club where some white and black American soldiers had fought over the issue of blacks dating Germany girls. Blood spattered the sidewalk and dance floor.  Our commander was a West Point second lieutenant, that is, the lowest real officer you can be, who was a virulent racist.  He got in a face-to-face shouting match with a superior black first lieutenant, who said, “Don’t you call me nigger!”  He was in command, I think, of at least a dozen or more black troops.  And as far as I remember, they were not armed.  But our lieutenant ordered us to pull back the bolts of our submachine guns, so we were ready to fire into this crowd of blacks.  At the last minute, a tasseled white major, who had been pulled out of bed somewhere, came stalking in and there was, a call of “A-tten-tion!” and he diffused the situation.  But this was a very, very close call.

Since at ages 18 and then 19, I was also exposed to concentration camp survivors, Displaced Person camps, and cities reduced to piles of rubble with even smells of death—in  Mannheim, most Germans were still living in underground bunkers—this year’s experience in 1945 and 1946 exerted a profound impression on my views of humanity and history, and thus on my choice of a career.  On October 9, 1946 I wrote my parents from Stuttgart, and I’m going to read part of the letter:

Dear Mother, Daddy, and Gam [Gam was my grandmother who lived with us and who was old enough to remember Lincoln’s assassination], I’ve been thinking over the idea of majoring in history, continuing into post-graduate research, and finally teaching in college, of course, and have come to some conclusions which may not be original, but are new as far as I’m concerned.  It strikes me that history and proper methods of teaching it are even more important at present than endocrinology and nuclear fission.  I believe that the problems that surround us today are not to be blamed on individuals or even groups of individuals, but on the human race as a whole—its collective lack of perspective and knowledge of itself, and that’s where history comes in.  Now, there’s been a lot of hokum concerning psychoanalysis, but I think the basic principles of probing into the past, especially the hidden and subconscious past, for truths which govern and influence present actions, is fairly sound.  Teaching history, I think, should be a similar process.  An unearthing of truths long buried beneath superficial facts and propaganda; a presentation of perspective and an overall, comprehensive view of what people did and thought, and why they did it.  When we think back into our childhood, it doesn’t do much good to merely hit the high spots and remember what we want to remember. To know why we act the way we do, we have to remember everything.  In the same way, it doesn’t help much to teach history as a series of wars and dates and figures, the good always fighting the bad, and the bad usually losing.  Modern history especially should be shown from every angle.  The entire atmosphere in color should be shown as well as how public opinion stood and what influenced it.

Perhaps such teaching could make us understand ourselves.  It would show the present conflicts to be as silly as they are.  And above all, it would make people stop and think before blindly following some bigoted group to make the world safe for Aryans, democrats, or Mississippians.

During the 1930s, there were many advances in methods of teaching history.  The effect cannot be overemphasized.  After talking with many GIs, young GIs who mostly all had been in the Battle of the Bulge and many in Normandy, I’m convinced that the recent course in modern European history that they had did more good than any other single high school subject.  And that’s just the beginning.

There are many other angles, of course, but I’m pretty well sold on the history idea at present.  It is certainly not a subject, as some think, which is dead and useless.”

Then in February 1947, two months out of the army, I began my three and a half years of GI Bill-funded college education at Dartmouth, a school my non-college-educated parents had selected for me after they encountered Hanover’s isolated beauty on a lovely summer day.

Though revolted by the dominant fraternity culture, which involved heavy drinking and a blasé attitude towards study, and thus made it much easier for me to graduate in the class of 1950 Summa Cum Laude, I soon made contact with knowledgeable non-fraternity seniors who recommended the outstanding courses in philosophy, on Dante, political theory, and comparative literature.  Though I had originally intended to major in history, I found that Dartmouth’s history department was surprisingly weak and old-fashioned.  So I chose a philosophy major.

The single professor who did the most to shape the foundation of my entire future career was the philosophy professor, Francis Gramlich.  The  capstone of the course—as in the great Perry Miller’s year-long course on the history of religion in America, which I took a few years later as a graduate student at Harvard—was Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man, later supplemented by Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History.  Now, I was by no means alone in being intellectually and spiritually transformed by Niebuhr, who also gave spellbinding lectures at Dartmouth.  His influence extended from Martin Luther King  Jr. and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. to Felix Frankfurter, Lionel Trilling, W. H. Auden, Hubert Humphrey, and Perry Miller, and to some of the brain trust that later surrounded President John F. Kennedy. . . .

I still think that Niebuhr’s insights and arguments point to the heart of our problem as human beings.  As evolved animals, he argued, we are above all finite. . . . Yet we are, as Niebuhr put it, self-transcendent even in our finiteness.  He succeeds, I think, in distinguishing this existential human dilemma from the many dualisms of the past.  He would grant that all our capacities are rooted in cellular matter.  He does contend, however, that the tension between our self-transcendence and finite reality creates an inevitable “anxiety,” to use his word, an anxiety that is the source of all human sin.  Thus, to escape such anxiety, many humans deny, at least temporarily, their capacity of self-transcendence and become immersed in the sin of sensuality.  This sensuality is much intensified by our repeated yearnings for infinitude and immortality.  Much worse, other humans, one thinks especially of Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, deny their human limits, their finitude, and carry the sin of pride to the point of self-deification.  Accordingly, their own ends come to justify the most ghastly means.  And ironically, Niebuhr points out, the attempt to maintain one’s own pride and self-respect by holding others in contempt leads to an uneasy conscience, to the general insecurity which the attitude of contempt is meant to alleviate.

Various religions have nourished this idolatry by feeding delusions of divine sanction, holy alliances, or the arrogance symbolized by the “Gott mit Uns” logo on the belt buckles of German soldiers in World War I.  The archetype of this sin of pride and contempt for others, I later concluded, was human slavery, especially racial slavery.  If Niebuhr has remained a major influence on my own historical work, and one could say that my studies of homicide, slavery, and major historical shifts in “moral perception” have been ways of examining Niebuhr’s “rediscovery of sin” . . . .

Perhaps as a result of this background, I became increasingly dissatisfied as a student in Harvard’s History of American Civilization Program, . . . . Especially as I became more aware of the leading anthropologists and other social scientists of the 1950s, particularly Talcott Parsons, Clyde and Florence Kluckhohn, John Dollard, Eric Fromm, and David Riesman, I became taken by the notion of studying concrete human problems as a way of tracing, within social and cultural frameworks, broad shifts in beliefs, moral values, assumptions, and ideology.  I turned first to homicide as a universal human problem. . . .

In the spring term of 1955, while completing my dissertation, and before taking a full-time assistant professorship in history at Cornell in the fall, I had the immense good fortune to become acquainted with Kenneth Stampp—who was then a visiting professor at Harvard on leave from Berkeley.  Stampp was finishing his groundbreaking book, The Peculiar Institution, which was the first full-scale challenge to Ulrich B. Phillips’s  openly racist, but deeply researched American Negro Slavery, published in 1918.

In the early to mid-1950s, Phillips’s book was still the standard work on the subject of slavery, and appeared on the course syllabi at Harvard and other leading universities (from 1929 to his death in 1934 Phillips was a professor at Yale).  Though his book still contains useful information gathered from a wide range of plantation records, Phillips frankly affirmed that blacks were inferior to whites, and that Southern slavery had been a benign civilizing force for “easy going, amiable sturdy light-hearted savages from Africa.”  This had been the message conveyed by popular films like Gone With the Wind (1939), as well as by popular books like W. E. Woodward’s New American History (1936), which was considered a “liberal” work (this Woodward was no relation of C. Vann Woodward’s).  W.E. Woodward also affirmed that slavery served as a vast training school for African savages.  Though the regime of the slave plantation was strict, according to Woodward, 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.”

Only after long talks with Kenneth Stampp, . . . did I begin to realize how the crucial subject of racial slavery had been repressed and marginalized in my courses both at Dartmouth and at Harvard.  Indeed, in 1953-1954, I had taken a year’s leave from Harvard Graduate School in order to accept a Ford Foundation teaching internship, as it was called, at Dartmouth.  This proved to be an invaluable experience in helping me to learn how to teach, but one of my mentors, a seasoned professor of American history, saw the Civil War as a needless tragedy, maligned Radical Reconstruction, and presented the Ku Klux Klan as a harmless group that used humorous tricks and devices to “put the Negro in his proper place.”

Like most college teachers in the 1950s and early 1960s, I was required in an American history survey course to use the most highly respected textbook, Henry Steele Commager and Samuel Eliot Morrison’s, The Growth of the American Republic. While in most respects an excellent work, it declared that the  American slave, or “Sambo,” as Morrison called him, “was adequately fed, well cared for, and apparently happy.”  In the early twenty-first century it is so very difficult to recapture the consensual white views on slavery and race, in the 1940s and 1950s, that I’ve begun several public lectures in recent times with the startling and I think defensible affirmation that in terms of ideology regarding race, the South won the Civil War.

But by 1955-1956, I could not have been more excited by the importance of Kenneth Stampp’s work on slavery, based on the bedrock assumption that blacks were inherently equal to whites.  By then, I was already familiar with Gunnar Myrdal’s great volume, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem in Modern Democracy (1944), as well as the shocking report published by President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights, called To Secure these Rights (1947).  Those were, I think, real landmarks for students in those times. . . .

Having had my first book and various articles published by 1957, I discovered that Cornell’s library contained an immense collection of American and especially British antislavery writings.  This elicited the dream of doing for antislavery what Kenneth Stampp had done for American slavery.  But as matters developed, I found that to understand antislavery, I needed to learn a great deal more about related reform movements and about slavery itself.  I’ve long been firmly convinced that any serious student of the abolitionist movements must learn as much as possible about the diversities of human bondage itself.

The central question, the absolutely central question that fascinated me was, given the fact that slavery evoked virtually no moral protest in a wide range of societies and cultures for literally thousands of years, how could we explain the emergence of a new moral perception by the mid-to-late eighteenth century? Suddenly, by the late 1780s, New World slavery was not only widely condemned in Britain, America, and France, but hundreds of thousands of ordinary Britons signed petitions against the Atlantic slave trade. This central question acquired more importance in view of the new broad consensus among historians that New World slavery was not declining economically, that its abolition was a version of what the historian Seymour Drescher has later termed “econocide,” the destruction of a highly profitable and economically successful system.  Abraham Lincoln was probably not exaggerating when he predicted in 1858 that the peaceful abolition of U.S. slavery would take at least one hundred years.

The word slavery can mean many things.  For example, we can be “enslaved” to love, or alcohol, or drugs, or our own work.  But despite the amazingly late appearance of the first attacks on the institution, the term “slavery” has almost always had negative connotations even when the institution was not being attacked.  Thus, in the King James Bible you have the repeated use of “servant” or “maid servant,” even though the Hebrew and Greek words clearly meant “slave.” Many Southerners used the words “servant” or “maid servant,” and some came up with politically-correct euphemisms like “warranteeism” to replace the negative term slavery.  “Slave,” unlike “servant,” has almost always referred to the most degrading, humiliating, dehumanizing condition a human being can suffer.  In the 1770s the American colonial rebels repeatedly explained that they were fighting a war for independence because the English were determined to “enslave” them.  And when a typical Englishman of 1600 or even 1700 thought of “slavery,” he or she pictured the thousands of English sailors and even people living in the coastal west country of England whom the Barbary corsairs had captured from ships or raids on the coast and had converted into galley slaves or construction workers of various kinds in North Africa.  And, as Frederick Douglass summed up the actual experience of being what he called “broken in body, soul and spirit,” by the “Negro breaker,” Edwin Covey: “My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died, the dark night of slavery closed in upon me, and behold a man transformed into a brute!”

Now, Douglass’ testimony shows how enslavers have sought above all to extinguish or deny a person’s capacity for self-transcendence, which Niebuhr identified as the essence of being human.  In other words, the ideal slave, as both Aristotle and Frederick Douglass affirmed, would be a wholly finite person, incapable of rational reflection, a mere “instrument” of his or her master’s will. From Dio Chrysostom to Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, philosophers perceived enslavement as a substitute for killing prisoners of war.  Instead of executing prisoners, a common practice from the Bible to Homer, it was more humane and useful to enslave them, especially as people moved from a life as pastoral shepherds to labor-intensive agricultural societies. The killer literally reduces a human into a non-being, removed from the flow of time.  The enslaver reduces a human being to a state of “social death, to use Orlando Patterson’s phrase, in which the captive is defined as an object, a thing, without history.  And if enslavement was originally modeled on the domestication of beasts of burden, as I suggest in a widely reprinted essay, and if humans had really been “domesticated” and genetically transformed into the kind of “natural slaves” Aristotle envisioned, they would have been incapable not only of reflection and analytical thought, but also of Niebuhrian sin.

Ironically, the Hebrew word ‘ebd, the Greek word doulos, and the Latin servus, carried no ethnic connotations and were sometimes used for “servant,” as well as slave.  Yet the West European words, slave, esclave (French), sklave (German), esclavo (Spanish) all derive from the Latin term for “Slav” (esclavus), that is, a Slavic person.  Beginning in the tenth century, a disproportionate number of slaves were taken from the Balkans, and then from the thirteenth to the late fifteenth centuries tens of thousands of so-called Slavic slaves from the Cuacasus and Black Sea regions were shipped to markets throughout the Mediterranean. Ironically, I have found that in Sicily notaries making records in Latin referred to the “sclavi negri,” literally “black Slavs,” from Africa, who by the 1490s outnumbered white slaves on the island.

I was extremely fortunate to publish the first edition of my book, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, in 1966, a time when the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to stimulate a re-examination of the very foundations upon which New World societies and economies were built.  Still, most teachers of American History continued to regard “Negro Slavery” as a branch of local U.S. Southern history.  It was only in 1969 when Phillip Curtin’s first serious effort to compile an accurate census of the entire Atlantic slave trade that an increasing number of historians began to grasp the intercontinental breadth and importance of the subject.

In the 1960s, however, I really had no intention of devoting my entire scholarly career to the history of slavery.  I was employed at Cornell in 1955 to teach what was called “American Intellectual History” (along with the traditional American History Survey Course).  And in 1969 Yale also hired me as an American Intellectual Historian, who happened to write about slavery and antislavery as examples of largely intellectual and cultural change. . . .

As my own published collections of essays indicate, I’ve tried to maintain a variety of interests even as my own teaching and writing became increasingly devoted to the problem of slavery.  I have tried to do a great deal to reach a wider public in my attempt to convey some sense of the big picture regarding the place of New World slavery in creating not just America but the entire modern world.  Thanks to the aid of two very wealthy Yale alumni, Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman, both of whom love history, I taught from 1994 to 2000 an intensive course for New York City high school and middle school teachers on the origins and significance of New World slavery.  Then in 1998 I founded and served as director of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.  I stepped down from that position at the end of June 2004, but happily Gilder and Lehrman seem committed to the Center’s continuation.

My experience teaching the Gilder Lehrman seminars led me to create a new lecture course on slavery and abolition, for Yale undergraduates.  And that extremely rewarding experience then led me to convert the lectures into a new book. This was no easy task, as I have discovered over the past seven years.  But on April 1, 2006, Oxford University Press published this work, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, which received extremely laudatory reviews in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The London Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, and even a small paper for the homeless in Washington, D.C. Some knowledgeable readers have told me that Inhuman Bondage is better than my earlier books that won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, a National Book Award, a Bancroft Prize and other honors.  It is my first effort to reach a truly broad general audience, and I can only hope it will help disseminate more important knowledge about a somewhat repressed part of our heritage, the darker underside of the American dream.

*Excerpted from a talk originally given at Yale’s Koerner Center, October 13, 2004, also appearing in Reviews in American History, Vol. 37, No. 1 (March, 2009).

**David Brion Davis is a Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and Director Emeritus of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, which he founded in 1998 and directed until 2004.


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