- Historic Sites
The Central Fact Of American History
It was the nation’s biggest business, it was well organized as a Detroit assembly line, and it was here to stay. It was slavery. David Brion Davis, A lifelong student of the institution, tells how he discovered—and then set about teaching—its vast significance.
February/March 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 1
I began to sense the momentous neglect of the importance of slavery only when I became acquainted in the spring of 1955 with Kenneth Stampp, Harvard’s visiting professor from Berkeley who was then completing his revolutionary book The Peculiar Institution, a point-by-point rebuttal of Phillips. I was no doubt more open to Stampp’s approach as a result of the shocking racial conflicts, including a bloody firefight, I had seen in early 1946 as a military policeman in Germany in the segregated army of occupation. But it would take nearly two decades for the insights I absorbed from Stampp to become widely accepted in the historical profession, despite a groundbreaking early article on the Civil War by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in 1949. It was only in the 1950s that evidence even began to show that slavery, far from being economically backward, was an extremely efficient and productive form of labor, and that the organization of large plantations anticipated in many ways the assembly line and modern factory production. Only in fairly recent years have we learned that the greatest concentration of rich pre-Civil War Americans lived in the Deep South, and that in 1860 the market value of slaves exceeded that of the nation’s railroads and factories combined; and that if the South had been a separate country, it would have been more prosperous than any European nation except England. We can now see that Abraham Lincoln, in his debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, had some reason to predict that any peaceable abolition of slavery would take at least a hundred years. He was thinking of what we now term the civil rights era.
In 1600 or even 1700, if you could have asked the ordinary Englishman what came to his or her mind when the word slavery was mentioned, the response almost certainly would have been a fellow Englishman seized at sea, or even on the English coast, by Barbary corsairs. We now know that between the mid-sixteenth century and 1800 Muslim raiders captured and enslaved well over a million Europeans, including even some 400 Icelanders. Similarly, if we were to pose the same question today to the average American, the answer would very likely point to an African-American slave picking cotton in the pre-Civil War South. But as early as 1944 Gunnar Myrdal’s monumental study An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, the first comprehensive sociological study of American racism, criticized the tendency of Americans “to localize and demarcate the Negro problem.” It was bigger than we thought. Few Americans know that by 1820 nearly 8.7 million slaves had departed from Africa for the New World, as opposed to the 2.6 million whites, many of them convicts or indentured servants, who had left Europe. Thus by 1820 African slaves constituted almost 77 percent of the enormous population that had sailed toward the Americas, and from 1760 to 1820 this emigrating flow included more than five African slaves for every European.
For centuries these Africans performed the most arduous and exhausting work, clearing forests, hewing and splitting wood, plowing the soil, planting and harvesting the exportable crops—sugar, coffee, cotton—that founded prosperous economic systems which eventually attracted untold millions of free immigrants. And if black slaves provided the basic power that drove the interconnected economies of the entire New World, some of their sacrifice is reflected in the fact that as a result of mortality and negative growth rates (not in North America), by 1825 blacks constituted only about 18.6 percent of the New World population, of which 39.4 percent was now white, 18 percent mixed, and 24 percent Native American.
While no New World colony began with a blueprint for becoming a slave society, the entire hemisphere had become implicated in the paradox of trying to reconcile racial slavery with aspirations to escape the sins of the Old World. When teachers tell their students about the forming of “a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” how many note that in 1775 the slavery of blacks was legal in all 13 colonies? That it continued to be legal in New York until 1827, in Connecticut until 1848, and in New Jersey until 1865?
Even most history texts fail to convey the extent to which the American government was dominated by slaveholders and pro-slavery interests between the inaugurations of Washington and Lincoln. Partly because of the clause in the Constitution that gave the South added political representation for three-fifths of its slave population, Southern leaders increasingly challenged restrictions on the westward expansion of slavery and the creation of new slave states. Southern slaveholding Presidents governed the nation for roughly 50 of those 72 years. Slaveholding Presidents, senators, congressmen, and Supreme Court justices also lived and ruled in a national capital deliberately placed in a slaveholding and slave-trading region, where, unlike Philadelphia, for example, their human property would be safe and secure. Moreover, none of the six Northern Presidents in that time dared challenge slaveholding interests.