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The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (Hardcover)
Winner of the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction Shortlisted for the 2014 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature
From the revered historian, the long-awaited conclusion of the magisterial history of slavery and emancipation in Western culture that has been nearly fifty years in the making.
David Brion Davis is one of the foremost historians of the twentieth century, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Bancroft Prize, and nearly every award given by the historical profession. Now, with The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, Davis brings his staggeringly ambitious, prizewinning trilogy on slavery in Western culture to a close. Once again, Davis offers original and penetrating insights into what slavery and emancipation meant to Americans. He explores how the Haitian Revolution respectively terrified and inspired white and black Americans, hovering over the antislavery debates like a bloodstained ghost, and he offers a surprising analysis of the complex and misunderstood significance of colonization—the project to move freed slaves back to Africa—to members of both races and all political persuasions. He vividly portrays the dehumanizing impact of slavery, as well as the generally unrecognized importance of freed slaves to abolition. Most of all, Davis presents the age of emancipation as a model for reform and as probably the greatest landmark of willed moral progress in human history.
This is a monumental and harrowing undertaking following the century of struggle, rebellion, and warfare that led to the eradication of slavery in the new world. An in-depth investigation, a rigorous colloquy of ideas, ranging from Frederick Douglass to Barack Obama, from British industrial “wage slavery” to the Chicago World’s Fair, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation is a brilliant conclusion to one of the great works of American history. Above all, Davis captures how America wrestled with demons of its own making, and moved forward.
About the Author
David Brion Davis is Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University, and founder and Director Emeritus of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. He has written and edited sixteen books, the most recent of which was Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. He is also a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. He lives outside New Haven, Connecticut.
Praise for David Brion Davis and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation:
"Less a political historian than a moral philosopher . . . his analysis . . . is subtle, wide-ranging and consistently judicious . . . Moral progress may be historical, cultural and institutional, but it isn’t inevitable. All the more reason this superb book should be essential reading for anyone wishing to understand our complex and contradictory past." —Brenda Wineapple, The New York Times Book Review
"With this book, David Brion Davis brings to a conclusion one of the towering achievements of historical scholarship of the past half-century. . . Davis is fully aware of the moral ambiguities involved in the crusade against slavery, the process of abolition and the long afterlife of racism. Nonetheless, in a rebuke to those historians today who belittle the entire project of emancipation, he insists that the abolition of slavery in the Western Hemisphere was one of the profoundest achievements in human history, “a crucial landmark of moral progress that we should never forget.” His monumental three-volume study helps to ensure that it will always be remembered." —Eric Foner, The Nation
"Davis has spent a lifetime contemplating the worst of humanity and the best of humanity—the terrible cruelty and injustice of slavery, perpetuated over centuries and across borders and oceans, overturned at last because of ideas and ideals given substance through human action and human agency. He concludes his trilogy by contemplating whether the abolition of slavery might serve as precedent or model for other acts of moral grandeur. His optimism is guarded. ‘Many humans still love to kill, torture, oppress, and dominate.’ Davis does, after all, describe the narrative of emancipation to which he has devoted his professional life as ‘astonishing.’ But even in his amazement, he has written an inspiring story of possibility. ‘An astonishing historical achievement really matters.’ And so does its history." —Drew Gilpin Faust, The New York Review of Books
"In the years since The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, Mr. Davis has published nine books, including Inhuman Bondage (2006), a synthesis of the rise and fall of New World slavery. . . His former students can be found at virtually every major research institution in America, in disciplines ranging from law and literature to history, political science and public health. Now, almost 50 years after the first volume appeared, Mr. Davis concludes his trilogy with The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation. A brilliant capstone, the book extends Mr. Davis's story still further—to encompass the growing anti-slavery agitation in 19th-century America and the efforts of free blacks to urge forward the cause of abolition and equality even as the forces of reaction sought to protect the status quo. Like its predecessors, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation is deeply researched and possesses great narrative power." —John Stauffer, Wall Street Journal
"Davis’s slavery investigation grows from a question: Why, at a certain moment in time, did people begin to recognize a great moral evil to which they had been blind for millennia? To understand the antislavery story, Davis traces a confluence of forces: religious dissent, coming especially with the Quakers; a shift in economic relations, with the Industrial Revolution; political revolutions, which rearticulated the meaning of freedom. In a discipline often constrained by geography and epoch, Davis’s books cross both. . . A feat of intellectual tenacity. . . a book that feels more personal and essayistic than its predecessors." —Marc Parry, The Chronicle of Higher Education
“This book is the capstone of a remarkable scholarly project, the fruit of an equally remarkable career. . . . David Brion Davis has taught his readers to see how rich, perplexing, and morally challenging the historical study of slavery ought to be. His work and that of the scholars whom he has inspired to take up the subject have transformed the understanding of slavery and the desperate effort of men and women spanning over a century to do away with slavery and to vindicate the humanity of those who were enslaved.” —R. B. Bernstein, Law and History Review
"Remarkable erudition . . . the continuing engagement with Davis’s most important insight — that the emergence of an abolitionist movement in the 18th century amounted to one of the most astonishing moral transformations in human history. . . Rather than drift with the scholarly tide, he swam against it. . . Unfailingly subtle and insightful . . . The shimmering achievement of Davis’s great trilogy." —James Oakes, The Washington Post
"Nowhere are Davis's gifts as an intellectual historian better displayed . . . Davis's body of work has shown repeatedly that ideas and individuals matter in the struggle to transform morals. . . a timely reminder that the legacies of slavery require ongoing discussion and engagement." —Louis P. Masur, The American Scholar
"Davis's work will continue to resonate with an audience far beyond his field." —Scott Spillman, The Point Magazine
"Beginning with understandings of what it meant to be human in light of a developing culture of dehumanization, with its principals and practices of treating slaves as though they were domesticated animals, Davis unravels the moral and physical struggle--the debates, the rebellions, the wars--that produced what he considers ‘probably the greatest landmark of willed moral progress in human history’ . . . Another must read from Davis for any generally informed reader interested in the development of the modern Atlantic world or of the Western concept of humanity. Serious students will necessarily pore over this volume for decades to come." —Library Journal
"Davis, a Pulitzer Prize winner, explores the underappreciated role of former slaves in the push for abolition and the influence of religion in the debate about the morality of enslavement. This is a well-researched and broad historical and global analysis of the complex motives and actions on all fronts, highlighting the transcontinental tension between efforts by white society to dehumanize and the fight by freedmen and slaves for freedom, full humanity, and citizenship." —Booklist (starred)
"A distinguished historian brings his monumental trilogy to a stirring conclusion... the triumph here is the sympathetic imagination he brings to the topic... Deeply researched, ingeniously argued." —Kirkus Review
"This magisterial volume concludes... Davis’s three-volume study of the intellectual, cultural, and moral realities of slavery in the West since classical times... In stately prose and with unparalleled command of his subject, he offers a profound historical examination of the termination of servitude in the West... this is a book of surpassing importance. —Publisher's Weekly, Starred Review
“Concluding his magisterial trilogy on slavery, David Brion Davis discovers, questions, and provokes, with the philosophical as well as historical acuity that has made him one of America’s few truly great historians.” —Sean Wilentz “David Brion Davis has completed his distinguished trilogy on the problem of slavery in Western culture with a powerful and provocative analysis of the process of emancipation in societies as dissimilar as Haiti, the British West Indies, and the United States. His chapters on colonization projects and on the Anglo-American antislavery movements are full of fresh insights and richly textured interpretations.” —James M. McPherson
“This third and concluding volume on slavery and abolition continues the monumental work of scholarship that Davis began more than one-half century ago. As always, the author’s interpretations of the historical events and his insights into them are superb and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation is truly pathbreaking in its extensive discussions of the important role played by free blacks and by slaves.” —Stanley L. Engerman “No scholar has played a larger role in expanding contemporary understanding of how slavery shaped the history of the United States, the Americas and the world than David Brion Davis.” —Ira Berlin