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A History Blog by W. E. Skidmore II

Davis, Drescher, and Blackburn: Comps

David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)

Seymour Drescher, Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Robin Blackburn, The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation, and Human Rights (New York: Verso Press, 2011)

Hello everyone!  I have returned to my blog once again, this time to write down a few thoughts about some of the books I am reading for my comprehensive exams.  In this post, I am exploring three historians that have and will continue to play an important role in my understanding of slavery and abolition in the New World.

Transnational Framework:

In recent decades, historians have made an effort to write the history of slavery and abolition in either a transnational or global framework.  These transnational or global histories, especially those focusing on the Atlantic World, have continued reaffirm national boundaries and focus on the English-speaking regions of the Atlantic.  As Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra laments in Puritan Conquistadors, historians of the United States and British Empire, despite “their greater global awareness,” continue to develop Atlantic histories that remain “very much British” (218).

Thomas Bender has espoused a similar criticism in his edited volume Rethinking American History in A Global Age.  He shows how the nation often remains central in histories dealing with “transnational” or “international” topics.  Bender encourages historians to try and “imagine a world community consisting of individuals, groups, their ideas, activities, and products interacting with one another in myriad ways” (51).  He admits that nation-states have their own histories, and even suggests we think about two worlds: The first consisting of sovereign states and the other a “putative global community, a product of forces of globalization” (53).  Bender is not calling for the end of national histories, but an understanding of the nation as a social unit that interacts with a number of other worlds, which are both larger and smaller than the “nation.”

I should mention that several scholars have attempted move away from this Anglo-centric approach (which I will examine in later posts), but the criticisms presented by Cañizares-Esguerra and Bender highlight important ideas to think about when examining the master narrative of New World slavery and abolition (if there is such a thing).

David Brion Davis:

Davis provides an important starting point for examining the transnational history of slavery and abolition in the Atlantic World.  In The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, he posed the question: why did people in the late eighteenth century suddenly attack slavery as an immoral institution after more than two centuries of justifying its existence in religion and law?

Davis has provided many answers to this question.  In The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, he presents an overview of the history of slavery, starting from biblical times.  IN this work he established the intellectual and cultural developments (Quakerism; ethic of benevolence; evangelicalism/instantaneous conversion; secular Enlightenment; etc.) that converged during a period of Atlantic Revolutions, which was centered on democracy and equality.  This developed the foundations for the Anglo-American Anti-Slavery Movements.

In The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, Davis establishes his main thesis that runs throughout most of his other works, especially in The Anti-Slavery Debate and Inhuman Bondage.

Capitalism was linked to anti-slavery, but not in terms of financial interest (Eric William’s Capitalism and Slavery), but instead, in the form of changing social relations of labor.  Quakers were deeply involved in new capitalist ventures: banking, shipping, mining, insurance, and industry.  Attacking slavery did not hurt them financially, but instead fortified their new bourgeois social order.  “The desire to dignify and honor labor—a need and desire that made the British public in the early industrial era far more receptive to antislavery appeals,” Davis writes (Inhuman Bondage, 248).  By attacking slavery, Quaker elites were able not only to legitimize wage labor, the cornerstone of their own personal wealth, and create of wellspring of British working-class support for their anti-slavery enterprise.  In a rather brash way, anti-slavery focused on the visceral coercion of slave labor, while veiling the coercion of industrial wage labor.

Although the rise of anti-slavery depended on a fundamental change in Western moral perception, which grew with the rise of capitalism and wage labor, Davis argues that in the context of the United States, it was free blacks that “provided the key to slave emancipation” (Age of Emancipation, xiv).  In the conclusion of Davis’ trilogy of works, he examines how the role of free blacks in the movement to abolish slavery in the American South.  By presenting themselves as “industrial enterprising, thrifty, and intelligent,” free blacks demonstrated they ability or fitness for freedom.  Free blacks played an important role in sustaining American anti-slavery agitation, overcoming colonization, starting the radical immediatist movement.  Unlike his previous work, Davis focuses heavily on black agency in the movement to abolish slavery in the United States.

Davis’ entire catalogue of works focuses heavily on the Anglo-Atlantic, and although he mentions France, Central, and South America, he does little to develop how these regions helped develop a movement against slavery, which swept throughout the New World during the nineteenth century.

Seymour Drescher:

Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery: Drescher is widely known for challenging Eric William’s decline thesis.  Williams privileged “economic forces” over “political and moral” ideas as the main motivation behind British abolitionism.  William used data from Lowell Joseph Ragatz’s The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean 1763-1783.

Drescher’s Econocide (1977): This work opened up an entire new dialogue over the economics of slavery in the Atlantic.  “Econocide” defined by Drescher is “the radical termination of a profitable trade by a newly empowered political movement that finally sentenced the British transoceanic slave trade to death” (p. xxvii).  Although Econocide has, as David Brion Davis commented in the forward to the 2010 edition, “totally destroyed the belief that the British slave system had declined in value before Parliament outlawed the slave trade” (p. xv), Drescher also establishes his arguments that political intervention and the power of public opinion were critical for the abolition of slavery.

In 1986, Drescher published Capitalism and Antislavery, which continues his examination of political anti-slavery.  For Drescher, political intervention was necessary for the abolition of slavery.  For him, “the key to the timing of slavery’s ultimate demise in the Western economy lies not in its economic functions but in its social peculiarity” (5).  Drescher sets up a dualism between the metropole and colony.  In the metropole, slavery did not exist and was not challenged until the working class of England took up the cause.  Drescher flips Davis’ argument by suggesting that anti-slavery grew from workers’ resistance to the capitalism, not the bourgeois elites attempting to justify its new social order (abolition as “social control”).  Slavery was a violation of workers’ moral economy, and grew in popularity during the early stages of industrialization, but later fell off with the hardening of class lines.

In Abolition, Drescher expands his exploration of abolitionism in his work on the rise and fall of slavery in the New World.  He expands his assessment of British Atlantic slavery by showing how every abolitionist victory in the New World came at a time when the respective institution of slavery was lucrative, expanding, and powerful.  He presents British abolitionism as the leader in the movement against slavery.  Although unlike Chris Brown’s Moral Capital, he argues that the American Revolution was not the reason for Britain’s movement against slavery.  Throughout this work, Drescher stresses the importance of mass mobilization and how pockets of freedom pressured various regions to relinquish slavery and adopt “free labor” practices.  He downplays slave resistance, while highlighting the importance of political intervention and public opinion.

James Oakes, Freedom National

This idea is similar to James Oakes’ approach in his recent work Freedom National.  Instead of the British Empire, however, Oakes explores the development of American “antislavery policy from its prewar origins to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment” (xxii).  He examines how anti-slavery politicians in the United States made freedom national.  “Antislavery constitutionalism,” in short, was the “platform on which Abraham Lincoln ran for president, and on which he won” (48).

Robin Blackburn:

Like Davis and Drescher, Blackburn also has written a number of studies on the history of slavery and abolition in the New World.  For this post, I will focus on his recent monograph, The American Crucible.  Blackburn’s tour de force focuses heavily on a number issues, but one of his larger themes is that emancipation came from a nexus of anti-slavery developments which included: slave resistance (Haitian Revolution); ideological currents (religious, humanitarian, economic); political crises (French Revolutions, Spanish American Wars of Independence, American Civil War); and state-building (abolition gave the state moral legitimacy and power over local authorities).

Blackburn, in short, suggests that slavery and abolition in the New World “were linked to the overall evolution of society, culture and economy in and beyond the Atlantic World” (3).  He also spends much more time with Iberian World compared to the Drescher and Davis’ works.  Blackburn also pushes historians to acknowledge the importance of the Haitian Revolution and its influences on the development of the Atlantic political culture and human rights consciousness.

All three historians provide interesting approaches to the history of slavery and abolition in the New World.  Each scholar offers an important perspective to consider, and as I move forward with my comprehensive exams and dissertation, these works provide the foundations for my research into the global history of slavery and abolition.

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