Religion, Morality, and History: John Ashworth and David Brion Davis

Paul Harvey

Sitting on a sofa on this Sunday afternoon, I came across this nice sentence from Edward Rugemer, "Explaining the Causes of the American Civil War," a review of the two massive John Ashworth volumes Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum American Republic, a huge project which gives a sophisticated class-based interpretation of the coming of the Civil War:

It must also be mentioned that Ashworth completely ignores religion in his explanation of antislavery. This is like writing maritime history without reference to the sea

This piece, from the indispensable (for American historians, anyway) journal Reviews in American History, is appreciative of the synthetic accomplishments of these two volumes, but the second sentence above struck me. The author continues:

Religion was central to antislavery and it cannot be ignored. The need to validate wage labor with the attack on slavery may have been important to the broadening of the antislavery appeal, but it did not 'generate' antislavery; rather, it was a contributing factor in the popularity of antislavery

When we get into what generated antislavery and other humanitarian crusades, of course we enter David Brion Davis land, so how appropriate that a personally reflective essay (a reprinted talk, actually) appears as the last piece in this issue (March 2009)  of Reviews in American History. In a Historiography class a couple of years ago, I assigned Davis's then just-published book Inhuman Bondage, a remarkable survey of a huge range of issues regarding slavery and antislavery in world history, and one that probably only could have been authored by Davis. What struck me in reading the book is how much antebellum American antislavery seemed to have been a response to the market revolution generally (quite the opposite of Ashworth's argument, I think). After tracing his experience in Germany after World War II, where he saw the somber results of human evil all around him, Davis reflects on his career as a student in the subsequent years, and his tutelage under the influence of reading Reinhold Niebuhr's books:

. . . in view of Niebuhr's passionate attacks on pride and arrogance, I've often pondered the paradox of his supposed influence on the "Camelot" group that was around JFK -- the "best and the brightest" who were really responsible for the Vietnam War. . . ironically, as Niebuhr points out, the attempt to maintain one's own pride and self-respect by holding others in contempt leads to an uneasy conscience, to the general insecurity, which the attitude of contempt is meanto alleviate. Various religons have nourished this idolatry by feeding delusions of divine saction, holy alliances, . . . The archetype of this sin of pride and contempt for others, I later concluded was human slavery, especially racial slavery.

The central problem Davis grappled with in his multi-volume "Slavery and Western Culture" series was how anti-slavery ever arose in the first place, and why it did when it did. And, how much do structural changes (such as the market revolution and the rise of a free labor economy), over and above any exercise of individual will or morality, account for these fundamental moral shifts? 

I didn't say I had an answer. I'm just asking. Perhaps more to the point, Davis's short piece is a fascinating exploration of how personal biographies interact with what become research interests. 


Brad Hart said…
Dr. Harvey writes:

***"What struck me in reading the book is how much antebellum American antislavery seemed to have been a response to the market revolution generally."***

Couldn’t we argue the opposite as well? As Charles Sellers states:

The southern subsistence culture's extension across the lower Northwest strengthened it at home. Evangelical farmers' flight to free soil both relieved demographic pressure and drew off the white South's most conscious opponents of slavery. Quaker/Methodist/Presbyterian abolitionism waned as the most antinomian departed and the least antinomian were caught up in the advancing cotton boom.