Wednesday, April 17, 2019

A Tribute to David Brion Davis

[We are grateful to Steven Wilf, the Anthony J. Smits Professor of Global Commerce at the University of Connecticut Law School, and Richard Ross, the David C. Baum Professor of Law and Professor of History at the University of Illinois, for this tribute to a great historian.]

David Brion Davis passed away on April 14th at the age of 92.  Although not technically a legal historian, his work was largely about the unjust law of slavery.  David's most celebrated work was a trilogy that traced slavery from its ancient beginnings through its critique in the midst of the eighteenth-century age of revolutions to its unravelling through emancipation.  He was a comparative historian focused largely on the North Atlantic when most scholars hewed to an American history set apart from the rest of the globe.  He was an intellectual historian who began in opposition to Charles Beard's economic determinism and later to popular trends in social history.  But his intellectual history was really cultural history-encompassing political movements, changes in sensibilities, and the importance of socio-economic factors in shaping ideology.  He was at his very best when describing what Raymond Williams called the structure of feelings-competing ways of thinking that are not yet crisply articulated by historical actors.

David often told his story about how he came to write for over six decades about American slavery.  He described how little was available on the subject when he began his research.  Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy (1944), authored by a Swedish Nobel-Laureate economist, had just been published.  It unsettled an American belief in their own moral rectitude by underscoring the role of pervasive racism.  Not unexpectedly, it was written by an outsider. David described an important encounter with the young scholar Kenneth Stampp at Berkeley who was just beginning his own investigations into bound servitude.  But it was the personal stories that always received the most attention.  As a young security officer in the army during World War II, David was asked to go below to the hold of a troop transport en route to Europe where to his astonishment he discovered a large number of African Americans in a segregated, claustrophobic part of the ship. It evoked images of the transatlantic slave trade.  In Europe he met displaced persons freed from concentration camps and Nazi forced labor.  David called this his encounter with evil.

Moral revulsion against slavery animated David's scholarship, while an acute awareness of the limits of moral outrage tempered that scholarship and gave it additional depth.  He was influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr's suspicion of moral posturing-and this, of course, was related to David's famous critique of abolitionist opponents of chattel slavery who simultaneously promoted wage slavery for the working men of the Northern states.  Niebuhr called the faith in one's own moral stance the Promethean Illusion.  David, who embraced Niebuhrian irony throughout all his writings, treated slavery with outrage and emancipation with skepticism-skepticism about its shortcomings, compromises, and checkered motivations.

David was a student of moral philosophy often filtered through religious writings.  In conversation, he would speak of the influence of German émigré social philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Hussy who taught him at Dartmouth.  Rosenstock-Hussy, a Protestant theologian who converted from Judaism, was part of an intellectual circle that included Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber which found inspiration in the complex layering of prophetic speech. At around the age of 60, David began studying for his conversion to Judaism.  At his bar mitzvah in June 2007, it gave him special delight to chant about the new month since-as he pointed out-it represented change in process.

A number of us members of the legal historian tribe are students of David or immeasurably influenced by his work.  And, as this is a day when in particular we think about cathedrals and loss, it is difficult to resist the epitaph inscribed on the gravestone of Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul's Cathedral in London: Si monumentum requiris circumspice-if you seek his monument, look around you.  David was part of a cohort of scholars, living through the early decades of the civil rights movement, who put slavery at the center of the research and teaching of American history.  Yet David's legacy is not only a deepened understanding of slavery.  This historian of sensibilities left us, through personal example, a sensibility-his peculiarly heady tonic of insisting upon the moral obligations of the historian while simultaneously never abandoning a sense of irony.