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Last time I wrote about the centennial of the birth of my father. Today I’m reflecting on the death last month of one of my Doktorväter, David Brion Davis. To be clear, Professor Davis was only an official reader of my dissertation, not its director. Still, that gave me the direct benefit of his council and instruction.
A more fundamental influence, however, came from his life-project of analyzing the role of, rationalizations for, and eventually resistance to slavery in the West, especially in the Americas. In that great work Professor Davis was at the center of a revolution that has come to infuse all domains of American history writing, including my own specialty of American religion. Leaving a field enriched and ready for new use is one thing fathers do. So is leaving an example of how to work. David Brion Davis excelled at both.
Slavery at the Center
Professor Davis wrote or edited sixteen books. Most of them orbited around an epochal trilogy that explored the subject of slavery from start to finish: The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (1975), and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (2014). A fourth volume, Inhuman Bondage, recounted The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006). Between them the books garnered the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize, a National Book Award, and a National Book Critics Circle Award. A lifetime achievement award came from President Barack Obama in 2014 in the form of the National Humanities Medal. Professor Davis treasured a picture of him receiving this highest of accolades from (besides the president) a descendant of people who had been caught up in the epochal tide he studied, Michelle Obama.
Davis’s work constituted a revolution in two senses. First, he revived and re-focused a moribund subject. Said Alan Mikhail, chair of the department of history at Yale, where Davis taught for over thirty years: “It is not an exaggeration to say that there was the study of slavery before Davis and the study of slavery after him. He was just that important.” Secondly, Professor Davis’s work was key to putting the fact and ramifications of slavery at the heart of the post-1492 history of the Western Hemisphere, and at the heart of U.S. history as well. This has now become a central theme in the guild, but it was nowhere near that when I first encountered Professor Davis as a rookie graduate student at Yale in 1971. Slavery was then regarded as a fringe theme, a sad exception to America’s real story of liberty and progress. Davis, along with fellow Yale historian Edmund Morgan, demonstrated instead that liberty and progress came not in spite of but in tandem with slavery, deeply dependent upon it economically and riding main currents of Western thought.
Three aspects of Professor Davis’s craft as a historian stand out for me—three, that is, beyond his incredible tenacity and staggering command of the literature. (He once had me in to translate some Dutch reviews of his book; he was particularly charmed by the article het.) First, he could handle the complexities and paradoxes of the subject with remarkable balance and clarity—something of a Bach in the library. Thus, the tangled skein of the oppressive and liberatory in both the biblical and classical Greco-Roman traditions come through clearly in his first volume, with neither heritage the good or bad guy in the story. Likewise with the 18th-century Enlightenment and evangelicalism in volume two.
Secondly, Davis was masterful at the interplay between theme and context. In explaining the rise of antislavery thinking around the turn of the 19th century, he handled the highly controverted relationship between the simultaneous rise of abolitionism and industrial capitalism without falling into the familiar options of Marxian reductionism on the one hand or moral hagiography on the other. In the third volume, on emancipation proper, he put the contributions of black abolitionists at the head of the story, but also properly measured the appeal of colonization schemes (sending African-Americans “back” to an Africa they had never known) not only to white racists and establishment politicians (President Lincoln was mulling the notion as late as 1862!) but also to some black nationalist leaders.
Third, Professor Davis was in command of virtually unerring historical judgment. I think that owed in part to a personal quality well articulated by one of his successors at Yale, David Blight (who himself won the Pulitzer Prize this year for his biography of Frederick Douglass—in fact, received it on the day Davis died). “He was a deeply spiritual man,” Blight said of Davis, “who saw the historian’s craft as a search for the minds and souls of people in the past.” Davis cut the French saw in two—he did understand all about his subjects without forgiving all. After demonstrating in seminar the most remarkable understanding of how and why people slaveholders saw the world as they did, he would end with a short, unambiguous: “of course, they were wrong.” A judgment has to be well earned not to be judgmental, and there Professor Davis was a master.
The Moral Center
Over the long haul and 1500 pages of his project, one judgment emerged as Davis’s final conclusion, a conclusion of hard-earned triumph. From Aristotle on Western thinkers, and Western Hemisphere slaveholders, aspired to regard the enslaved as mere property “with no more autonomy of will and consciousness than a domestic animal.” The enslaved finally and simply proved that wrong, maintaining and asserting human dignity amid relentless forces to the contrary. This constitutes a story of genuine moral progress, Davis always insisted, and these sorts of victories are not to be taken for granted or forgotten.
I sensed something of this moral depth in Professor Davis, though he could seem quite forbidding at first glance—or when you were stuttering to explain in seminar what exactly was wrong with Reinhold Niebuhr’s “realism.” Actually, Davis turned out to be kind and shy and, although professing no religious belief, did find himself at the edge of the 1950s tribe of “atheists for Niebuhr.” “Atheist” he would regard as far too confident a claim and opposed to his own sympathies, whatever his theology. Upon his second marriage he converted to his wife’s Judaism, and there were rumors of some Mormon roots in his family tree.
Entering big-time academe as a 21-year-old with a severe case of imposter’s syndrome, I never availed myself of possibilities for carrying business conversations with Professor Davis to a deeper level. I really regret that. Had I known, I could have taken heart from the way he came upon his vocation. As he later told it, he left home in 1945 as an 18-year-old U.S Army recruit assigned to occupation duty in postwar Germany. On the way over his ship carried a large contingent of African-American troops who liked to shoot craps below decks. Davis was assigned, billy-club in hand, to go down there and make them stop. “After descending a long winding staircase, I came upon what I imagined a slave ship would have looked like. Hundreds and hundreds of near-naked blacks jammed together. ‘What you doin’ down here, white boy?’” one of them challenged. Young Davis answered by keeping quiet over in the corner. He made a career and a singular contribution to our historical understanding by bringing that story above board.
Alav ha-shalom, Professor Davis. The memory of the righteous is a blessing.