David Brion Davis, scholar of slavery, dies at 92

NEW YORK — David Brion Davis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Yale University professor who documented the centrality of slavery in Western culture through a landmark trilogy that made him among the world’s most respected and influential scholars, died Sunday. He was 92.

Starting in 1967 with ‘‘The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture,’’ Mr. Davis traced the evolution of how the West regarded human bondage from ancient times to the present. He drew upon the Bible, Greek philosophy, and political and economic debates to show how the West defended, rationalized, and fought for slavery before beginning to turn against it in the 18th and 19th centuries.

He explored debates over whether the Bible justified or condemned slavery, how revolutionary leaders in the United States and France supported slavery even while fighting for their own freedom, and how even some abolitionists advocated sending freed slaves to a foreign country.


‘‘I became convinced that the problem of slavery transcended national boundaries in ways that I had not suspected,’’ he wrote. ‘‘In Western culture it was associated with certain religious and philosophical doctrines that gave it the highest sanction.’’

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His other books in the trilogy were ‘‘The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution,’’ in 1976, and ‘‘The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation,’’ which came out in 2014. It was an epic study that took a half century to complete, ran for some 1,500 pages, and brought Mr. Davis the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle prize, and the Bancroft Prize.

He was praised for the thoroughness of his research, the originality of his thinking, and prose that elegantly synthesized a vast range of time and thought. Eric Foner, himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of books about slavery and racism, would credit Mr. Davis with enlightening future generations.

‘‘Previous historians, especially in the United States, had tended to see slavery as an exception, a footnote in a teleological narrative of progress,’’ Foner wrote in The Nation in 2014. ‘‘But Davis demonstrated that slavery became the key institution in the European conquest and settlement of the New World.’’

Mr. Davis’s admirers also included a current Yale professor, David W. Blight, whose biography of Frederick Douglass won a Pulitzer Prize on Monday. In statement through Yale, Blight called Mr. Davis a ‘‘deeply spiritual man who saw the historian’s craft as a search for the minds and souls of people in the past.’’


Mr. Davis wrote several other books, including ‘‘Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World,’’ ‘’Slavery and Human Process’’ and ‘‘Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery.’’ He also wrote essays and reviews, edited a handful of anthologies, and made a strong effect on the classroom, mentoring such future historians as Sean Wilentz, Jackson Leers, and John Stauffer.

‘‘To a really extraordinary extent, David Brion Davis’s students dominate the history profession,’’ said one former pupil, University of Texas historian Steven Mintz. ‘‘David elicited a kind of fondness and affection and loyalty that one rarely sees. He was very humble and very modest and deeply interested in ideas. He had a way of criticizing people’s work that they only viewed as opening up new possibilities.’’

Mr. Davis was married twice, most recently to Toni Hahn Davis, and had five children.

His early life helped inspire his scholarship. His mother, the former Martha Wirt, was an artist and writer of mystery stories; his father, Clyde Brion Davis, was a journalist and novelist. The family moved frequently, and Mr. Davis attended five high schools before being drafted into the Army and trained as an infantryman.

He was serving in the military police in occupied Germany when, in 1946, his interest in history blossomed. In the study of the past, he sensed, lurked an explanation — and perhaps a cure — for the discrimination he witnessed against black soldiers, and for the wreckage of cities that ‘‘smelled of death.’’


‘‘It strikes me that history, and proper methods of teaching it, are even more important at present than endocrinology and nuclear fission,’’ he wrote in a letter to his parents. ‘‘I believe that the problems that surround us today are not to be blamed on individuals or even groups of individuals, but on the human race as a whole, its collective lack of perspective and knowledge of itself. That is where history comes in.’’

Mr. Davis studied at Dartmouth College on the G.I. Bill, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1950. He was working toward his Ph.D. at Harvard, nearing completion on a dissertation about homicide in American fiction, when he met Kenneth Stampp, a visiting professor who was completing ‘‘The Peculiar Institution,’’ his influential book about slavery. Mr. Davis resolved ‘‘to do for the neglected subject of American antislavery what Stampp had done for slavery.’’

A Guggenheim grant enabled him to start the trilogy in 1958.

‘‘I have long interpreted the problem of slavery as centering on the impossibility of converting humans into the totally compliant, submissive, accepting chattels symbolized by Aristotle’s ideal of the ‘natural slave,’ ’’ he wrote in the ‘‘The Problem of Slavery In the Age of Emancipation.’’

‘‘If my friends and I were suddenly stripped of our 20th century conditioning and plummeted back to Mississippi in 1860, we would doubtless take for granted our rule over slaves. So an astonishing historical achievement really matters. The outlawing of chattel slavery in the New World, and then globally, represents a crucial landmark of moral progress that we should never forget.’’

Material from the Washington Post was included in this obituary.