The Central Fact Of American History

May 2017

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.


I have long believed that what most distinguishes us from all other animals is our ability to transcend an illusory sense of now, of an eternal present, and to strive for an understanding of the forces and events that made us what we are. Such an understanding seems to me the prerequisite for all human freedom. In one of my works on slavery I refer to “a profound transformation in moral perception” that led in the eighteenth century to a growing recognition of “the full horror of a social evil to which mankind had been blind for centuries.” Unfortunately, many American historians are only how beginning to grasp the true centrality of that social evil throughout the decades and even centuries that first shaped our government and what America would become.

As a college undergraduate in the late 1940s I was taught the “moonlight and magnolias” mythology of slavery, a mythology propagated by respected historians as well as by popular nonacademic books and by influential films from the time of The Birth of a Nation to Gone With the Wind and beyond. This mythology existed because the slaveholding South had counteracted its military defeat by winning the ideological war—or in other words, the way the twentieth-century American public understood slavery and the Civil War. The effects of this victory on our racial history are brilliantly documented by the 2001 masterpiece by my Yale colleague David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.

By 1820 nearly 8.7 million slaves had departed for the New World from Africa, as opposed to the 2.6 million whites who had emigrated from Europe.

By the 1930s a strong consensus had emerged to the effect that the Civil War had little, if anything, to do with slavery. One school of thought held that the war had been waged over economic issues and resulted in the triumph of Northern capitalism. A second school argued that the war had been a needless and avertable tragedy, brought on by abolitionist fanatics and a few Southern extremists. Virtually all American whites agreed that slavery had been an inefficient, backward, and increasingly marginal institution that had contained the seeds of its own economic destruction and which would have soon ended without a war. This was the view of the nation’s leading expert on slavery in the 1920s and 1930s, the Yale professor Ulrich B. Phillips.

My very liberal-minded but self-educated parents—both of them first journalists and then productive writers of friction and nonfiction—were delighted in the mid-1930s by a new, well-written, and immensely popular survey of American history by W. E. Woodward (no relation the great C. Vann Woodward). According to his New American History, “the slave system did incalculable harm to the white people of the South, and benefited nobody but the negro, in that it served as a vast training school for African savages.”

Such views persisted well into the 1950s, even among some of the most respected white historians. As a member of Dartmouth College’s undergraduate class of 1950, I took a course in which we learned that Reconstruction had been a disaster, since hordes of carpetbaggers and scalawags had quickly corrupted the ignorant Negroes and even put them in state legislatures. The professor presented a humorous picture of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization needed, he explained, to keep the peace by scaring the highly superstitious Negroes (the white-hooded Klansmen would knock on a black family’s door and then hoot out the sounds of ghosts).

Things were not much better when I attended graduate school at Harvard from 1951 to 1953. Lecture courses on American social history, on the history of immigration to America, and on the history of religion in America, taught by world-famous professors, gave little attention to slavery, though they were excellent in other respects. The major recommended work on the course syllabuses was Ulrich B. Phillips’s deeply researched but highly racist 1918 book American Negro Slavery. One must remember that in 1954, at the time of Brown v. Board of Education and 89 years after the Thirteenth Amendment, blacks in much of the South were, as Bob Herbert recently reminded us in The New York Times, “expected to step off the sidewalk or cross to the other side of the street if whites were approaching,” while “in the national imagination, blacks were typically janitors, maids, chauffeurs or bootblacks.”

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.

There were strong economic reasons for the broad national reach of American slavery. Southern slave-grown cotton was the nation’s leading export. It powered textile-manufacturing revolutions in both New England and Europe and paid for imports of everything from steel to capital. Accordingly, in the nineteenth century, slave values more than tripled. By 1860 a young “prime field hand” in New Orleans would sell for the equivalent of a Mercedes-Benz today. For a considerable time the fortunes of New England manufacturers and New York merchants depended on a northward flow of cotton, a fact that carried the deepest implications for politics as well as for banking, insurance, and shipping. It should be no surprise, therefore, that abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison were portrayed as a lunatic fringe and that most Northerners long agreed that the Constitution prevented any interference with slavery. The gag rule of the 1830s and 1840s prevented Congress from hearing hundreds of petitions calling for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, for restrictions on the interstate slave trade, and for limits on the expansion of slavery into Western territories. This clear violation of the First Amendment did not faze a government that sanctioned the destruction of antislavery mail addressed to the South.

A crucial and final point: a frank and honest effort in classrooms to face up to the darkest side of our past, to understand the ways in which social evils evolve, should in no way lead to cynicism and despair or to a repudiation of our heritage. The development of maturity means a capacity to deal with truth. The more we recognize the limitations and failings of human beings, the more remarkable and even encouraging history can be. Acceptance of the institution of slavery can be found not only in the Bible but in the earliest recorded documents in the Mesopotamian Near East. Slavery was accepted for millennia, virtually without question, in almost every region of the globe. Even in the nineteenth century there was nothing inevitable or even probable about the emancipation of black slaves throughout the Western Hemisphere. This point is underscored by the appalling use of coerced labor in the twentieth century, especially in various forms of gulags or concentration camps. Yet the history of New World slavery and antislavery shows us that people can change course, that they are not compelled to accept the world into which they are born.