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Problem of Slavery in Western Culture Book Review

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David Brion Davis, The problem of slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1966)

David Brion Davis in his book 'The Problem of Slavery In Western Culture' has given an historical research of societies attitude towards slavery. In no ancient society was the distinction between slave and free man so sharply drawn in America. Although European morals had progressed in the age of enlightenment, the slave trade in America gave a constant stimulus to the worst vices and passions of mankind. Davis attempted so much in order to compare the problem of slavery in different cultures. Davis dealt more on pre-1776 writing a lot in this book. It is a great book for history majors but it is not recommended for casual readers. Davis book is an apt summary tracing the roots of slavery and the abolitionist movement. He believed that racism caused the enslavement of African people and explains the opinion and arguments of several other prominent historians in the subject.

Davis began the book by demonstrating that slavery has always been a source of social and psychological tension, but that in Western culture it was associated with certain religious and philosophical doctrines that gave it the highest sanction. African slaves arrived in the New World as early as 1503; they played an instrumental role in the commerce of Spain and Portugal. Competition between all maritime European powers made the slave trade more lucrative. Slavery was indispensable to the economic growth of the New World. What was once considered a mild and domestic institution (slavery) became a harsh and depraved global phenomenon. Slavery grew exponentially. If history was progressive, America retrogressed.

He moved on to a comparative analysis of slave systems in the Old World. Abolitionist argued that American slavery was unique, harsher than its predecessors, whereas proslavery forces argued that American slavery was similar to other forms of bondage throughout history. No slave system in history was quite like that of the West Indies and the Southern State of America. The Negro slave also found his life regimented in a highly organized system. Hammurabi code in Babylonia defined a concept of chattel slavery that served as a way of classifying the lowliest and most dependent workers in society. Under the Hammurabi code, a man who killed someone else's slave was merely required to pay compensation to the owner. A Jewish owner might be liable to punishment if his slave died within three days of chastisement. Davis excluded, for the most part, the question of Negro Bondage in America in Chapters three and four. "For some two thousand years men thought of sin as a kind of slavery. One day they would come to think of slavery as sin", Davis made reference to the Old Testament in order to establish the fact that slavery also existed in the bible where Moses liberated the Israelites from bondage. For Plato and Aristotle who were Greek philosophers, slavery was a system whereby enlightened men cared for and controlled their inferiors. Freedom, accordingly, was for the elite; the stoics associated slavery with the world's imperfections. A slave body, according to the stoics, belonged to his master but his soul was his own. Because early Christian associated slavery with sin, the disappearance of slavery meant a disappearance of fundamental aspect of Christian doctrine. Augustine and others urged Christians to treat slaves as brothers in Christ. Aquinas suggested that slavery was part of nature's pattern of governance, but he also claimed that slavery was against nature. Christianity held in the medieval era that slave had to be manumitted to be baptized. A slave of a Jewish master generally could not be baptized. In the medieval era generally, marriage between a slave and a free person was permitted only if the free person understood the legal status of the slave.

Subsequent chapters considered early attitudes towards American Slavery, and are particularly concerned with problems and conditions that might aid or impede the rise of antislavery thought. In the late seventeenth century, Louis XIV, with slight reservations about climate and cost, sanctioned the import of slaves into Canada. But Canada's efforts at slavery were unsuccessful because it could not compete with economies in warmer regions, which enjoyed more commercially viable opportunities. This did not stop Canada from trying, in the early eighteenth century, to mimic the slave systems in the West Indies. On the one hand, American society believed that slavery was the cornerstone of its economy; it believed that slaves undermined cultural safety and solidarity among colonist. Slavery in America could not compete with slavery in West Indies. Even in places like Virginia, the ballooning institution of slavery was deflated by fears of overproduction, debt and market instability.

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