A distinguished historian brings his monumental trilogy to a stirring conclusion.
Throughout a lifetime of scholarship devoted to the subject, Davis (Emeritus, History/Yale Univ.; Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, 2006, etc.) has more than established his bona fides as a leading authority on slavery. Here, he considers the decades between the 1780s and the 1880s and the moral achievement of the eradication of human bondage. He eschews a survey in favor of a “highly selective” study of aspects of the Age of Emancipation, particularly as manifest in Britain and the United States. As a predicate, Davis discusses the dehumanizing of slaves (and the scientific racism that perfected this notion), a sordid piece of work that impeded any thought of immediate emancipation, and the Haitian revolution, an example of self-emancipation that horrified whites and was a source of unending pride and hope to abolitionists like Frederick Douglass. The author’s treatment of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade and its emancipation act and America’s grappling with the problem of slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War and the 13th Amendment rests on the impeccable scholarship we’ve come to expect, but the triumph here is the sympathetic imagination he brings to the topic. For example, his thorough and intriguing discussion of the American Colonization Society and the colonization movement, a phenomenon derided by many modern historians, helps us understand how the notion arose, how it attracted right-thinking individuals from Jefferson to Lincoln, and how it became discredited, in no small part due to the efforts of free blacks. In a memorable passage, Davis places himself in the minds of a free black abolitionist and a white abolitionist in the antebellum North to articulate attitudes and illustrate the tensions, even among allies, in a noble struggle.
Deeply researched, ingeniously argued.