By Dave Dentel
In the past three hundred years, the kind of slavery that permits one human being to own another has gone from near universal acceptance to being all but eradicated.
Scholar David Brion Davis attempts to explain why this momentous transformation occurred in his dense and highly academic tome, Slavery and Human Progress.
Davis’s work is not so much a history of slavery and how it came to be (mostly) abolished as it is a recounting of what people have thought and said about the institution.
Though his theme is sometimes hard to follow, Davis’s book is a pleasure to read simply because the author knows so much about his topic and can comment with authority. Among the most important points he raises is in reminding us just how radical a change the abolitionists wrought and how that change is in danger of being underappreciated, especially as our society struggles to define what perfect racial justice looks like.
Equal Opportunity Oppression
The general historical principles regarding slavery that Davis does recount are illuminating.
He points out, for example, that for the vast majority of our existence human beings have accepted slavery as a common and intrinsic function of society—as common as waging war.
In fact, for millennia slavery seemed to be inexorably linked to war, as the chief way for obtaining new slaves was to conquer enemy tribes or nations. Any concept of a corporate right to freedom was reserved for one’s own people. Outsiders existed to be subdued or exploited.
At least in this way the misfortunes of slavery were meted out with a kind of barbaric equity.
In fact, slavery did not become an essentially racist enterprise until the era of European exploration and colonization.
Exploiting the Dark Continent
Several factors contributed to this change.
The Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in the fifteenth century cut off Europe from its main source for white slaves, as “the Turks soon diverted the flow of Black Sea and Balkan captives to Islamic markets.” European slavers in turn increased trafficking in black Africans, bound primarily for the plantations of the New World.
Though driven in part by market forces, this change soon took on social and religious dimensions. Even while some Christian leaders denounced the practice of enslaving white fellow believers, the trafficking of Africans was justified as a means of improving the lot of benighted savages by civilizing and evangelizing them.
Of course, by the eighteenth century this rationale was countered by a rising abolitionist movement, mostly in Britain and North America. Davis recounts how this movement was driven by a new strain of Christian evangelicals who called not only for delivering the gospel to black Africans—slave or otherwise—but for whites to then obey the command of Christ to love these converts as equal recipients of divine salvation.
Davis notes that the Christian foundation of the abolitionist creed was coupled with other arguments including a rising focus on human rights and a belief that history is ordained to progress toward equity and prosperity.
To this end reformers cited writers from the French and Scottish enlightenment and published studies purporting to show how slavery actually undermined economic growth. But ultimately, asserts Davis, abolitionists forwarded their case by presenting it as a biblical imperative: slavery tainted man’s endeavors with a demonic blight, but freeing the captives would propel society into a glorious age of jubilee.
History records that the abolitionists prevailed. By an act of parliament in 1807, the United Kingdom banned the slave trade. The emancipation of slaves throughout the British Empire (except for India) was set in motion by legislation in the 1830s.
In the United States, it took a long and terrible war to finally abolish slavery, an effort formalized by the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865.
The millenarian raptures of the abolitionists, however, did not necessarily carry over into discussions about how to integrate newly freed people into broader society. The topic certainly generated much debate, but by necessity it tended toward the finer points of policy, including things like land use, education, fiscal impact, and even logistics.
Related to this but beyond the scope of Davis’s book is how the abolitionist model lives on today. Activists against various kinds of perceived inequality often claim for their causes both a righteous mandate and the irresistible tide of human progress.
But as Western civilization has increasingly abandoned its Christian heritage, would-be reformers have had to invoke powers other than a divine judge to account for how their supposed ameliorations are to be impressed upon society.
The philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel imagined that humans engage in an epic, cyclical struggle to finally attain a “rationally ordered community.” Karl Marx forwarded as scientific certainty that economic upheaval and class warfare would ultimately bring about a communist utopia.
And a recent American president apparently believed strongly enough in the inevitability of progressive reform that he often chided his political opponents by declaring them to be “on the wrong side of history.”
Given the tendency of human nature to succumb to its darker impulses, however, can these secular theories really account for a change as remarkable as the campaign against slavery?
Perhaps the abolitionists were right—that the attempt to eradicate such an age-old blight on civilization could only happen because of divine grace. How else can we explain how human beings finally, at least in this one area, collectively agreed that enslaving others violates one of God’s fundamental tenets—to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Would it be so out of place to invoke the prophet Jeremiah, who cited this pledge from God to his people: “I will put my law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”