David Brion Davis, the celebrated historian whose works challenged the accepted wisdom about slavery, radically repositioning the brutal practice at the very heart of Western development, died Sunday at the age of 92. Yale University, where Davis taught for decades, said Monday that the scholar died of “natural causes.”
“Over the course of his prodigious and extraordinary career, Professor Davis transformed the study of slavery and abolition and inspired generations of historians beyond his own field,” university President Peter Salovey said in the statement. “His willingness to ask new questions and seek larger truths inspires us still.”
Davis wrote or edited 16 books — none more influential than his seminal trilogy, The Problem of Slavery, an opus that took 38 years from the publication of the first volume to the last. All told, the series — which broadly examined slavery’s central role and complex legacy in the West — earned Davis a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award, among many others.
By the time Davis concluded the trilogy, with the publication of The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation in 2014, he had achieved the feat of “reshaping our understanding of history.” That’s according to the citation for the National Humanities Medal, the highest honor awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which Davis received from President Obama the very same year.
“A World War II veteran, Davis has shed light on the contradiction of a free nation built by forced labor,” the citation explains, “and his examinations of slavery and abolitionism drive us to keep making moral progress in our time.”
In the first volume, 1966’s The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, Davis traced the evolution of ideas and arguments that have defined the West’s perspective on human bondage — from the Bible and Ancient Greece through the tumultuous era that saw the practice, once accepted without question, become reviled and eventually widely abolished.
In the second volume, published roughly a decade later under the title The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, he linked that intellectual revolution with the industrial one unfolding around the same time. The 19th-century rise of capitalism, Davis asserted in this volume, can’t be separated from radical shifts in beliefs about what kinds of labor are acceptable and their unintended consequences.
And in the finale, released as Davis was approaching his 90s, he focused on the role played by the slaves themselves in bringing about their freedom.
Eric Foner, professor emeritus at Columbia University, told NPR’s Lynn Neary that Davis’ work “shook up the field of history and set many, many scholars on this path of studying slavery in different countries.”
“It’s hard to remember, but when he was starting out, sure there were some people who wrote about slavery, but it was considered a minor piece of the history of the United States or the Western Hemisphere. And Davis kind of shattered that idea,” he said. “In a sense, rather than any one particular insight, it’s simply forcing historians to put slavery at the center — that’s his most enduring legacy, I think.”
Davis, who taught at Yale for decades and earned the school’s highest faculty honor, a Sterling Professorship, also served as the founding director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. And he leaves behind a host of students so devoted, they caught the attention of The Chronicle of Higher Education a few years ago.
“He devoted his life and career to understanding the place of the inhumane but profoundly important and persistent practices of slavery and racism in the world,” the center’s current director, David W. Blight, said in a statement released Monday — the same day Blight won a Pulitzer Prize of his own. “He was a philosopher at heart, a lyrical writer, and defined why we do history. We stand on his shoulders.”