One of the things I’ve come to realize is the central importance of African slavery not only in the history of the United States, but of the whole New World and the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese empires.
My understanding has been greatly helped by the historian David Brion Davis. He wrote about slavery as a moral issue—how it was justified in the first place, and how the Western world came to turn against it.
I’ve read his principal books—The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975), Slavery and Human Progress (1984), Inhuman Bondage: the Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006) and his latest book, which I finished reading last week, The Problem of Slavery in The Age of Emancipation (2014).
Slavery is a problem because in Western culture because of the heritage of the Greeks and Romans, who regarded freedom as necessary to human dignity, and because of the Christian religion, which taught that all human beings are equally children of God.
In the ancient Mediterranean world, there were two kinds of slaves—debt slaves and war captives. Selling yourself or your children into slavery was the ultimate form of bankruptcy, and it exists in the world today. I read somewhere that the world’s largest concentration of slaves are debt slaves in India.
Ancient armies did not have facilities for keeping prisoners of war. Their choices for dealing with defeated enemies were to kill them (or at least kill all the adult males) or to enslave them.
When the Atlantic slave trade began, the rationalization was that the African slaves had been defeated in war in their own homelands and already forfeited their lives.
The first white opponents of Western slavery were the Quakers and other peace churches. Since war was anti-Christian, the Quakers believed, then slavery, as the fruit of war, also was wrong.
Quakers were leaders of the anti-slavery movement in both Great Britain and the United States; many and maybe most white members of the Underground Railroad were Quakers.
Another strain of opposition to slavery came from the rationalistic thinkers of the 18th century, who opposed hereditary privilege and believed that government should should be based on recognition of human rights.
They were not as wholehearted as the Quakers. Slaveowners such as Thomas Jefferson admitted that slavery was in theory a great evil, but insisted that the times and conditions for emancipation weren’t right.
The invention of so-called scientific racism was in part a response to qualms of people like Jefferson. If black Africans are not as human as white Europeans, then slavery does not have to be justified. There is no reason not to treat enslaved people as if they were livestock.
This argument did not touch the Quakers and other religious opponents of slavery because they opposed slavery on moral grounds, not scientific grounds.
Black people, both free and enslaved, meanwhile fought for their own liberation, in slave uprisings and in appeals to white people for the abolition of slavery. Without their struggle, the majority of white people might have been able to ignore the moral issue indefinitely.
Davis wrote in several books that the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies was one of history’s great triumphs of morality over self-interest. No white Briton stood to make any economic gain from abolishing slavery. It was the result of a religious and philosophical belief that slavery was wrong.
Somebody might object that the British deserve no special credit for ceasing to do something that was wrong in the first place. Be that as it may, the path of least resistance was to continue in the wrong, and they chose voluntarily to turn back from that path.
The British example inspired abolitionists in the United States, although in the U.S. case, slavery was more than a moral issue. Free white workers objected to competing with slave labor out of self-interest, not necessarily out of a belief in universal human rights.
As in these earlier books, Davis wrote in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation that the successful rebellion of slaves in Haiti was the pivotal event in the history of New World slavery. It showed that the continuation of slavery could not be taken for granted. It gave hope to enslaved people and aroused fears of slave owners.
One of the arguments against slavery was that it caused the moral degradation of the slaves. Slaveowners and overseers deliberately tried to keep slaves in a state of psychological dependency, and to deny them any control over their own lives. Enslaved women were often raped sexually abused. These conditions created as much or more indignation among the Christian public than the physical hardships of the slaves.
But this argument was a two-edged sword. If slaves were actually degraded, then there was a risk in letting them go free. Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln (prior to 1860) and others doubted it was possible for black and white people to coexist on a basis of equality, and advocated colonization of black Americans in Liberia or some Caribbean or Central American country.
Davis devoted two chapters of his latest book to the history of Liberia, where sadly but understandably, the African-American settlers treated the native African population as European settlers treated the native American population and African slaves.
I say, understandably, because average human beings will pattern themselves on what they’re familiar with unless they have a compelling reason not to.
It was by no means inevitable that slavery would be abolished when it was. Hardly anybody, certainly not Lincoln, foresaw in 1860 that not only would slavery be abolished throughout the United States, but that the Constitution would be amended to grant the former slaves full rights of citizenship.
Given the backlash in the South against equal rights for black people, it is entirely possible that, if things had turned out slightly differently, slavery could have persisted for another 50 or even 100 years.
As it was, the example set by the United Kingdom and the United States led to the outlawing (I won’t say abolition) of slavery throughout the whole world. This history is a reason for belief that other struggles for human freedom are not hopeless.