NEW YORK — David Brion Davis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who documented the centrality of slavery in Western culture through a landmark trilogy that made him among the world’s most respected and influential scholars, has died.

Davis, a professor emeritus at Yale University, died Sunday at age 92. Yale announced that he died of natural causes.

Starting in 1967 with “The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture,” Davis traced the evolution of how the West regarded human bondage from ancient times to the present. Davis drew upon the Bible, Greek philosophy and political and economic debates to show how the West defended, rationalized and fought for slavery before beginning to turn against it in the 18th and 19th centuries. He explored debates over whether the Bible justified or condemned slavery, how revolutionary leaders in the United States and France supported slavery even while fighting for their own freedom and how even some abolitionists advocated sending freed slaves to a foreign country.

“I became convinced that the problem of slavery transcended national boundaries in ways that I had not suspected,” he wrote. “In Western culture it was associated with certain religious and philosophical doctrines that gave it the highest sanction.”

His other books in the trilogy were “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution,” published in 1976, and “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation,” which came out in 2014. It was an epic study that took a half century to complete, ran for some 1,500 pages and brought Davis the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle prize and the Bancroft Prize. He was praised for the thoroughness of his research, the originality of his thinking and prose that elegantly synthesized a vast range of time and thought. Eric Foner, himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of books about slavery and racism, would credit Davis with enlightening future generations.

“Previous historians, especially in the United States, had tended to see slavery as an exception, a footnote in a teleological narrative of progress,” Foner wrote in The Nation in 2014. “But Davis demonstrated that slavery became the key institution in the European conquest and settlement of the New World.”

Davis’ admirers also included a current Yale professor, David W. Blight, whose biography of Frederick Douglass won a Pulitzer Prize on Monday. In statement through Yale, Blight called Davis a “deeply spiritual man who saw the historian’s craft as a search for the minds and souls of people in the past.”

Davis wrote several other books, including “Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World,” ‘’Slavery and Human Process” and “Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery.” He also wrote essays, reviews, edited a handful of anthologies and made a strong impact in the classroom, mentoring such future historians as Sean Wilentz, Jackson Leers and John Stauffer. In 2013, he received a National Humanities Medal for shedding “light on the contradiction of a free nation built by forced labor.”

Davis was married twice, most recently to Toni Hahn Davis, and had five children.

His early life helped inspire his scholarship. A native of Denver whose family lived in several states, he never had a black classmate while in high school and only learned of the “appalling racism of the Jim Crow South” while training for combat in World War II. Stationed on a troopship headed to Europe, he discovered that hundreds of blacks were crammed in the lower quarters, and remembered “armed and bloody conflicts” between black and white soldiers.

After the war, he majored in philosophy at Dartmouth College and attended graduate school at Harvard. “Deeply shocked” that so little was being taught about slavery, inspired by the historical writings of visiting Harvard professor Kenneth M. Stampp, he vowed not to neglect slavery once he was a teacher and to write about the rise of the abolitionists. A Guggenheim grant enabled him to start the trilogy in 1958.

“I have long interpreted the problem of slavery as centering on the impossibility of converting humans into the totally compliant, submissive, accepting chattels symbolized by Aristotle’s ideal of the ‘natural slave,’” he wrote in the “The Problem of Slavery In the Age of Emancipation.”

“If my friends and I were suddenly stripped of our 20th century conditioning and plummeted back to Mississippi in 1860, we would doubtless take for granted our rule over slaves. So an astonishing historical achievement really matters. The outlawing of chattel slavery in the New World, and then globally, represents a crucial landmark of moral progress that we should never forget.”

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(4) comments


Growing up in northern New York we did not have any blacks in our school. During the 1800's there were homes in town to hide run away slaves, on their way to Canada. This even though it would cost $1,000, if caught. More money than they could hope to earn in ten years. But no one was going to turn them in.

All of my ancestors fought on the side of the North. One was at Antietam and Fredicksburg. Another was wounded in the hand at the Battle of Fair Oaks, outside of Richmond. A third was captured at the Battle of Brice Crossroads, taken to Georgia and died there two months later. He is buried at Andersonville National Cemetery.


Interesting article and a person in factual research. Slavery was questionable in the USA back a century and a half ago burt racism then and that followed was not needed. We have slavery today with people from another Country coming in working for bread crumbs but had to leave a home, born in, for a better future with benefits but still it shows their here under false pretenses. These people again are working at slave wages now like it was then picking cotton for businesses not wanting to pay a decent wage for homegrown people and the organizers of this slave placement can be found at 430 South Capital St SE #3 Washington DC 20003 phone # 202-863-8000 so please, please call or contact them in some way to put an end to it.


Spoken like a true liberal. [lol]


Chattel slavery?

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Engage ideas. This forum is for the exchange of ideas, insights and experiences, not personal attacks. Ad hominem criticisms are not allowed. Focus on ideas instead.
Don't threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
No trolls. Off-topic comments and comments that bait others are not allowed.
No spamming. This is not the place to sell miracle cures.
Say it once. No repeat or repetitive posts, please.
Help us. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.