How Blacks Freed Themselves from Slavery

Who should get the most credit for ending slavery in America and Great Britain? A landmark new book argues that blacks did far more for their own emancipation than previously appreciated.

Anthony Barboza/Getty

For more than two millennia, slavery was accepted as a natural part of life. Then, around the time of the American Revolution, it became a burning moral issue. Within a century, chattel slavery ceased to exist in virtually every modern nation. Explaining how that happened has been the life’s work of David Brion Davis, an emeritus professor at Yale who, perhaps more than anyone, has forced American historians to think seriously about how slavery became a problem.

Yet what’s most remarkable about his new book, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, which concludes his prize-winning trilogy begun in 1966, is the shift in Davis’s focus. The first two volumes concentrated almost exclusively on the white male leaders of the antislavery campaign. Despite ample praise, one lingering criticism has been how little credit blacks received. Not here. Free blacks in particular, Davis writes, “provided the key to emancipation.”

At the same time, Davis has always focused on the moral shift that made slavery suddenly seem problematic. But he was careful to note the importance of timing: the United States and Britain only began to take steps to end slavery when it seemed it made economic sense. No longer. In his new book, Davis stresses the now widely accepted view that ending slavery actually went against both countries’ economic self-interest. With blacks portrayed as the key players, then, Davis can say with little embarrassment that the emancipation of slavery in New World, which concluded when Brazil emancipated all of its slaves in 1888, was “the greatest landmark of willed moral progress in human history.”

Why Davis’s final installment of the trilogy—completed nearly four decades after the last—looks so different from the others has a lot to do with how our understanding of slavery has changed since he began his work. Historians have largely moved away from focusing on white men as either the villains or saints in the slavery story. And the long-held view that Britain and America ended slavery only because it was economically convenient has been brought into question by a slew of new data. Though Davis has made none of these discoveries himself, it is a testament to his intellectual generosity—and his intellectual honesty—that he has taken all the new scholarship into his account.

Until the 1830s, free blacks were barred from most abolitionist societies. But that has not stopped Davis from emphasizing their centrality to the abolition movement, beginning when it got off the ground in the 1780s. Free blacks combated claims of their inferiority when they became eloquent spokespeople for themselves, as in the case of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry from the revolutionary era. Davis goes against a recent emphasis on the humanity of slaves, however, when he stresses the dehumanization inherent in chattel slavery. Slaveholders took the same whips, chains, buying, selling and breeding techniques they developed for animals, and applied them to slaves. Slavery was as much a psychological form of torture as it was a physical one, with masters trying to make their slaves actually think they were beasts. Robert Burns, a slave freed after the Civil War, remembered his master telling him that “niggers…couldn’t go to heaven any more than could a dog.”

Davis does not shy away from the negative consequences this animalization has had on black self-esteem, even to this day. We hear from Barack Obama, in a quote take from Dreams of Our Father, where he expresses surprise at the self-loathing that still persists within the black community: “What are you so surprised about,” a black man says to a young and confused Obama, “that black people still hate themselves?” Davis’s main point, however, is not that slavery destroyed blacks’ self-esteem; it’s that blacks managed to overcome it. To explain how they did so, he goes back to Haiti.

In 1804, enslaved Haitians succeeded in beating back the French, British, and Spanish empires to establish the world’s first black republic. Haiti’s existence represents “the turning point” for the antislavery movement, Davis writes, raising the previously unthinkable prospect of immediate emancipation into a full-fledged reality. Until Haiti, abolitionists focused on either gradual emancipation, or simply ending the slave trade, not slavery itself. Haiti changed that. In the short term, however, the Haitian Revolution actually slowed the official antislavery campaign. And slavery’s defenders quickly turned Haiti into an axe to bludgeon the abolitionist movement: give slaves even the slightest bit of hope, and they’ll insist on immediate freedom.

So white Americans came up with an alternative: colonization. Davis argues that the “bloodstained ghost” of Haiti—combined with a virulent racism comparatively absent in Britain—led America’s white abolitionists to favor returning slaves to Africa rather than setting them free and having them live as equals among whites. To make that idea a reality, the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816 by a coalition of white abolitionists and Southern slave-owners, created Liberia in 1822. Northern abolitionists and Southern slave-owners may have disagreed over the morality of slavery, but what united them, Davis argues, is racism.

The problem was that blacks did not want to go. The “militant reaction against colonization, initiated by blacks themselves,” Davis writes, “gave a distinctive stamp to American abolitionism.” Initially, however, some free blacks were open to the idea, in part because they thought another black republic might bring dignity to their race, and in part because they knew racism in America was only getting worse. But the scene Davis paints from a free black Philadelphia church in 1817 says it all. When James Forten, one of the city’s most prominent free blacks, put up a vote of “ayes” for those in favor of colonization, he was stunned when “there was not a soul in favor of going to Africa,” as Forten wrote.

By the 1830s, it became clear that colonization was not a viable solution. If slavery was going to end, free blacks insisted that whites accept them as equal citizens—and end slavery immediately. The white abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison is often remembered as the most vocal proponent of immediate emancipation, but Davis reorients readers to his black backers. It was Forten’s financial support that kept Garrison’s radical abolitionist paper, The Liberator, afloat, for instance. More significantly, slave rebellions both within and beyond America’s borders, coupled with slaves’ persistent attempts to runaway, hastened the calls for immediate emancipation.

But free black Americans like Frederick Douglass ultimately forced immediate emancipation to become the only real option. Britain set the precedent when, in 1838, they emancipated all its 800,000 Caribbean slaves. But Davis argues that Britain did so only when it realized it served its “national honor.” Free black Americans, he insists, played the crucial role of bringing British abolitionist pressure to bear on America. Throughout the 1840s, Douglass traveled to Britain giving lectures denouncing American slavery, winning over a comparatively less racist British public. Popular pressure then forced British leaders to take the lead in the international antislavery crusade.

Readers may not always feel that Davis’s account warrants his description of emancipation as the “greatest landmark of willed moral progress in human history.” He judiciously Davis explains all the amoral reasons for the abolitionist campaign’s success. In Britain, for instance, officials in part took up the cause as a way to deflect attention from miserable working conditions at home. And he perhaps too enthusiastically endorses the argument that promoting antislavery went against Britain’s economic self-interest. While it is true abolition destroyed Britain’s sugar and slave-trade industries, the illicit trade continued to flourish. Meanwhile, Britain’s manufacturing industry prospered from importing slave-grown American cotton. That explains why, as Davis notes, British leaders actually supported the Confederacy until it was all but certain they would lose.

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By the end of his book, what seems clear is that slavery ended because blacks could not longer stand it. Most whites, however, understood that they could live without it. That is not quite the definition of moral progress we might expect. But it is a humbling reminder of how moral campaigns are actually won: with more than simple appeals to the heart.