Obituary: David Brion Davis, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning historian, Yale emeritus professor

Barack Obama presents the  National Humanities Medal to David Brion Davis in 2014(Picture: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Barack Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to David Brion Davis in 2014(Picture: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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David Brion Davis, historian. Born: 16 February 1927, Denver, Colorado, United States. Died: 14 April 2019, aged 92

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 on 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, rationalised 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 synthesised 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. 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 the Second World War.

Stationed on a troopship 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.

“I have long interpreted the problem of slavery as centering on the impossibility of converting humans into the totally compliant, submissive, accepting chattels symbolised 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.”

HILLEL ITALIE