Harriet Jacobs was 15 years old when her master began making sexual advances toward her. As his slave, Jacobs was supposed to submit. “He told me I was his property,” she recalled in her harrowing autobiography, “that I must be subject to his will in all things.”

David Brion Davis does not quote this particular passage in his own moving account of Jacobs’s life as a slave, but it confirms the central theme of his new book, indeed of nearly all his books. Ever since 1966, when Davis published his magisterial, Pulitzer Prize-winning survey of “The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture,” the “problem” that has preoccupied him is an appalling paradox — the impossible attempt to dehumanize a human being, to define a person as property.

With “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation,” Davis completes the trilogy he embarked upon nearly half a century ago. Yet Davis’s goal is not to survey the process by which slavery was abolished throughout the hemisphere in the 100 years after the American Revolution. Other scholars have already done that, and his themes often overlap with theirs.

British historian Robin Blackburn, for example, sees the Haitian revolution as the pivot on which all subsequent emancipations turned, and Davis agrees. He endorses American historian Seymour Drescher’s important observation that, far from decaying, the plantation systems of the New World were highly profitable when slavery was abolished. But while Blackburn’s and Drescher’s books are chronological overviews, Davis’s reads more like a collection of essays organized around a series of engaging biographical miniatures and closely linked themes.

The most important of those themes is race. Distinct chapters examine the history of degrading racial stereotypes, the significance of free blacks in the process of slavery’s destruction, the psychological function and effect of racism, and especially the intellectual problems raised by the various proposals to colonize free and emancipated blacks outside the United States. In a sense, the problem Davis examines here is not slavery as such, but racial slavery. He believes that race — more than the wealth and power of slaveholders, more than a Constitution that protected slavery in the states — was the single greatest obstacle to emancipation in the United States.

’The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation’ by David Brion Davis (Knopf)

The familiar hallmarks of Davis’s scholarship are on full display. There is the remarkable erudition that enables him to draw apt comparisons among slave societies that span centuries and continents. There is the particular emphasis on the ties between British and American abolitionists. There is his depiction of the troubled relationship between radicals who denounced chattel slavery and those who attacked “wage slavery.”

Above all there is the continuing engagement with Davis’s most important insight — that the emergence of an abolitionist movement in the 18th century amounted to one of the most astonishing moral transformations in human history. Nobody had ever really liked slavery, but as Davis showed us decades ago, nearly everybody accepted it as a normal part of human society. Not until the Age of Revolution did significant numbers of Englishmen and Americans turn against slavery and begin calling for its complete destruction. Why they did so was the question Davis took up in the second volume of the trilogy, “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution,” published in 1975.

The consistency of Davis’s focus has steeled him against some of the less persuasive trends that have come and gone among historians of American slavery. In the 1970s, for example, some scholars argued that Southern slavery was fundamentally paternalistic and that masters thought of their slaves as members of a larger plantation family. But Davis understood too well the dehumanizing core of slavery and never lost sight of the fact that slaves were the master’s property, not his relatives. Rather than drift with the scholarly tide, he swam against it.

In his later books, especially “Slavery and Human Progress” and “Inhuman Bondage,” he focused ever more sharply on the tendency to brutalize slaves by likening them to animals, in particular farm animals. He opens “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation” with a devastating barrage of metaphors and similes — from travelers, abolitionists and slaveholders themselves — equating slaves with beasts. But above all, he quotes from former slaves and free blacks who consistently denounced the way the system reduced — or attempted to reduce — slaves to the level of mere brutes. Harriet Jacobs assailed this tendency among slave mistresses whose husbands had sired children with their slaves. The mistresses “regard such children as property,” Jacobs explained, “as marketable as the pigs on the plantation.”

Davis likewise resisted the tendency to underestimate the economic vitality of plantation slavery. It was central to the paternalist thesis that slavery, in the words of historian U.B. Phillips, “made fewer fortunes than it made men.” In fact, as Davis points out, slavery made plenty of fortunes. Gigantic fortunes. Not surprisingly, the economic failure of abolition in Haiti and Jamaica was one of the most potent arguments slaveholders made against emancipation. Say what you will about the limits of abolition, it cannot be explained as a rational response to economic interests.

Yet Davis never romanticizes the abolitionists. Penetrating in their exposure of the exploitation of slaves, they were often silent or even oblivious to the exploitation of wage laborers in the mines and factories of a rapidly industrializing England. Acutely sensitive to the brutalization of slaves, abolitionists could also be patronizing toward free blacks. But neither the shortcomings of abolitionism nor the calamitous economic consequences of slavery’s destruction blind Davis to the genuine achievement that emancipation represented. Surveying the various abolitions of slavery throughout the hemisphere — in the United States, the Caribbean and Brazil — he notes that in “no case did emancipation lead to a prosperous, racially egalitarian society.” Yet he still thinks the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass was right to celebrate abolition in the British colonies because the emancipated blacks “were immensely better off than under slavery.”

In all these ways Davis’s enduring sensitivity to the problem of slavery serves him well. But in other ways his concluding volume reflects the tenacious hold of the intellectual climate in which the trilogy originated. Beginning in the early 1960s, historians began to argue that racism was so deep and widespread in pre-Civil War America that they lost sight of the intense political conflict over racial equality raging through the 1850s. Without conflict as an explanation, Davis instead resorts to the tropes of Freudian psychoanalysis to account for racist backlashes. He sees racism as a pathology and seems reluctant to abandon the idea that many blacks were psychologically damaged by racist dehumanization — an argument popularized by historian Stanley Elkins in 1959. Davis is unfailingly subtle and insightful when dealing with the various aspects of racial thinking, but does colonization deserve five of 11 chapters? Or is this another holdover from the 1960s, when historians began ascribing far too much significance to William Lloyd Garrison’s ostentatious conversion from colonization to radical abolition?

But these are mere quibbles that cast no lasting shadow on the shimmering achievement of Davis’s great trilogy. For who can doubt that the problem of slavery resides in the terrible question Davis first asked us to consider half a century ago: What does it mean to dehumanize a human being?

James Oakes teaches at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. His most recent book is “Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865.”


By David Brion Davis

Knopf. 422 pp. $30