David Brion Davis, a distinguished professor and the award-winning author of a magisterial and revelatory trilogy on the history of slavery in the Western world, died on Sunday in Guilford, Conn. He was 92.
His son Adam confirmed the death, at a care facility. Professor Davis, who lived nearby in Madison, Conn., had been Sterling professor of American history emeritus at Yale University, where he taught for more than 30 years.
Professor Davis wrote or edited 16 books, but paramount were the three that examined the moral challenges and contradictions of slavery and their centrality in American and Atlantic history.
The first, “The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture” (1966), won a Pulitzer Prize and was a National Book Award finalist. The second, “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823” (1975), won the National Book Award as well as the Bancroft Prize, one of the most prestigious in the study of American history.
The last book of the trilogy, “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation,” was published in 2014 as Professor Davis approached 90. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
In a review of that final volume in The Nation, the Columbia University historian Eric Foner called the trilogy “one of the towering achievements of historical scholarship in the past half-century.” President Barack Obama presented Professor Davis with a National Humanities Medal in 2014 for “reshaping our understanding of history,” as the citation said.
The fundamental problem of slavery, Professor Davis wrote, “lay not in its cruelty or exploitation, but in the underlying conception of man as a conveyable possession with no more autonomy of will and consciousness than a domestic animal.”
The first book of the trilogy, on slavery in Western culture, began with slavery’s foundations in Judeo-Christian thought and explored why, after so many centuries, a view of slaves as human — and thus of slavery as a sin — emerged in the late 18th century.
The second, on slavery during the Revolutionary period, showed its contribution to the prosperity of the Anglo-American New World.
That accumulation of wealth was increasingly driven by international trade. As Professor Davis later wrote in The New York Review of Books, “There is now impressive evidence that the economic importance of slavery increased in the 19th century along with the soaring global demand for such consumer goods as sugar, coffee, tobacco and cotton textiles.”
The second volume was particularly noteworthy for its nuanced discussion of the relationship between emerging antislavery sentiment and a new commercial and industrial class. Some abolitionists in England and the United States were motivated by capitalist interests, he wrote, seeing slavery as stagnating the South economically in an increasingly mechanized world.
“The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation” examined the rise of abolitionist sentiment in England and the United States more fully. It included a surprising four chapters about the colonization movement, which aimed to resettle free black people and emancipated slaves on the west coast of Africa. Professor Davis located the reasons for its appeal, to both black and white people, in the movement’s evocation of the Exodus narrative.
Professor Davis also argued for the centrality of free blacks like James Forten, Samuel Cornish and Frederick Douglass to the development of radical abolitionism in the United States. They were “the key to slave emancipation,” he wrote, not only in their contributions to the movement but also because their lives demonstrated that the “dehumanization” of slavery had not made blacks unfit for freedom.
In these books Professor Davis “captured as no other scholar has the sweep of what he has called inhuman bondage and its abiding legacy,” the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, one of Dr. Davis’s students, wrote in an email.
Dr. Foner called Professor Davis “one of the most influential historians of his generation.”
“No one,” he wrote, also in an email, “did more to inspire the revolution in historical understanding that places slavery at the center of American history and indeed the history of the West.”
As Professor Davis himself wrote in “Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World” (2006), “We must face the ultimate contradiction that our free and democratic society was made possible by massive slave labor.”
David Brion Davis was born in Denver on Feb. 16, 1927, to Martha (Wirt) Davis and Clyde Brion Davis. His mother was an artist and writer, his father a journalist and novelist.
After Army service in postwar occupied Germany, he received a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy from Dartmouth College in 1950 and a Ph.D. in American history from Harvard in 1956. He taught at Dartmouth and Cornell before moving to Yale in 1970. He was awarded a Sterling professorship in 1978 and retired from teaching full time in 2001.
Professor Davis was the founding director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale in 1998 and was president of the Organization of American Historians in 1988-89. He was a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books.
When Professor Davis was in college and graduate school, the Civil War was usually seen as a conflict over states’ rights; historians, for the most part, viewed slavery uncritically. A meeting in 1955 with the historian Kenneth M. Stampp, who was working on “The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South” (1956) — the first serious challenge to this prevailing benign view — was crucial to Professor Davis’s awakening interest in the subject.
So was an experience he described in the preface to “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation”: As an 18-year-old Army draftee aboard a troop ship headed for occupied Germany in 1945, he was handed a billy club and told to go below decks to stop the black soldiers there from gambling.
“After descending a long winding staircase, I came upon what I imagined a slave ship would have looked like,” he recalled. “Hundreds and hundreds of near-naked blacks jammed together, many of them shooting craps.”
In Germany, as an Army security policeman, he was exposed to racist occupying troops and encountered concentration camp survivors. Writing home in 1946, he told his parents that he wanted to study history because he hoped that a knowledge of the past might “make people stop and think before blindly following some bigoted group to make the world safe for Aryans, Democrats or Mississippians.”
So many of Professor Davis’s perceptions are now part of the accepted historical narrative that it is possible to forget how groundbreaking they were. The Haitian slave rebellion (1791-1804), the successful campaign against the slaveholding colonial French, is familiar today, but it was eye-opening when Professor Davis wrote about it in “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution.”
He was also a powerfully influential teacher, though he was modest in demeanor, almost shy. He reached out to high school teachers through professional development workshops and lectures, exposing them to the finest scholarship. Over the years he taught thousands of undergraduates and directed some 60 dissertations. His students now populate many faculties on American campuses.
This “Davis diaspora,” as Marc Parry called it in The Chronicle of Higher Education, even extends to the students of the students of Professor Davis.
His first marriage ended in divorce. He married Toni Hahn in 1971. Ms. Hahn Davis, a former associate dean for alumni and public affairs at the Yale Law School, survives him. In addition to her and their son Adam, Professor Davis is survived by another son from his second marriage, Noah; three children from his first marriage, Martha Davis Beck, Sarah Brion Davis and Jeremiah Davis; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
His other books include “Homicide in American Fiction, 1798-1860: A Study in Social Values” (1957), “Slavery and Human Progress” (1984) and “In the Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery” (2001).
Joan Shelley Rubin, a professor of history and director of the Humanities Center at the University of Rochester, recalled that for a student, Professor Davis’s “brilliance and breadth of knowledge could be daunting.”
“But he combined his erudition and intellectual rigor with compassion and great kindness,” she said. “As he taught us that recovering the past was a moral endeavor, he exemplified the humane values that guided his scholarship: fairness, empathy and a belief in justice and dignity for all people, so that we learned not just how to write but also how to live.”
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the number of great-grandchildren who survive Professor Davis. It is two, not one.
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.
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