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David Brion Davis (born February 16, 1927) is a principal authority on slavery and abolition in the Western world. He is the the Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale Universitymarker and founder and Director Emeritus of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. He is a foremost intellectual and cultural historian. The author and editor of sixteen books, and frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, Davis has played a principal role in shifting the focus of historical study toward the way historical events are experienced, perceived, structured, and understood. Especially important in his interpretations of history are religion, the way that most individuals have, for millennia, sought to understand their place in the world and the meaning and direction of history, and ideology, which he regards as the link between material conditions, political interests, and the individual. Ideology, in his view, is not a deliberate distortion of reality or a façade for material interests; rather, it is the conceptual lens through which groups of people perceive the world around them.

Davis taught at Yale from 1970 to 2001 after serving on the Cornell Universitymarker faculty for 14 years. He has been the Harmsworth Professor at Oxford Universitymarker and a resident fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, and held the first French-American Foundation Chair in American Civilization at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Socialesmarker in Parismarker.

One of the history profession’s most honored members, he served as president of the Organization of American Historians and has received the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction, the National Book Award for History and Biography, the (AHA) American Historical Association's Albert Beveridge Award in 1975 for The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823. Davis also received the AHA's Award for Scholarly Distinction, the Bancroft Prize, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award from the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and the Society of American Historians' Bruce Catton Prize for Lifetime Achievement. In 2009, he received Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Centennial Medal.

Early life

Born in Denver in 1927, the son of the journalist, novelist, and screenwriter Clyde Brion Davis and the artist and writer Martha Wirt Davis, Davis lived a peripatetic childhood in Beverly Hillsmarker, Buffalo, New Yorkmarker, Carmel, Denvermarker, Hamburgmarker, New York Citymarker, and Seattlemarker. He never spent more than three years in a single house and attended five high schools in four years. This experience left a lasting legacy, encouraging him to pursue reading and the life of the mind, and instilling an awareness of the role of contingency in individual lives and history. Fortuity marked his high school experience. During the eleventh grade, he briefly attended a vocational high school, the Straubenmueller Textile High School in Manhattanmarker before transferring to Bronx High School of Sciencemarker. Entering after the term began, he lagged far behind the other students and became convinced that he would fail. Fortunately, his mother succeeded in getting him admitted to the McBurney School, a private day school run by the YMCA where one of his fellow students was the future investment banker Felix Rohatyn. When he graduated, he won the school's Robert Ross McBurney Gold Medal for achievement, the school's highest honor and his first major award (which was no doubt crucial in helping to get him admitted to Dartmouth College after World War II.

He nearly enlisted in the Marines in December 1943 while still in high school. After graduation in June 1945, he was drafted and trained as a combat infantryman in preparation for a fall 1945 invasion of Japan. At basic training in Georgiamarker, he learned how to fire mortars and flamethrowers and disarm booby traps. After Japan surrendered, he was sent to Germanymarker where he served until late fall 1946, first as a member of the U.S. Security Police in Mannheimmarker and later in the Third Constabulary Brigade.

Following military service, he attended Dartmouth Collegemarker where he majored in philosophy with a focus on evolving conceptions of human nature. In the summer of 1947 he worked as a laundry truck driver and gardener and then, in 1950-51, before enrolling in the Program in American Civilization at Harvard, worked for most of a year scheduling and supervising the flow of parts to the main assembly line at Cessna Aircraft in Wichita, Kansasmarker. He attended Harvard for only three years, 1951-53 and 1954-55 and taught full time at Dartmouth in 1953-54, as a Ford Foundation Teaching Intern. In 1955, he joined the history faculty at Cornell, and in 1970, moved to Yale where he taught until 2001. Davis founded Yale's Gilder Lehrman Institute for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition in 1998 and directed it until 2004.

Davis married Toni Hahn Davis on Sept. 9, 1971; she currently serves as Associate Dean for Alumni and Public Affairs at Yale Law School. They have two children, Adam Jeffrey and Noah Benjamin. Davis also has three children by a previous marriage, Jeremiah Jonathan, Martha Davis Beck, and Sarah Brion Davis, and three grandchildren.

Becoming a historian

Instrumental in Davis’s decision to become a historian were his experiences during the post-war occupation of Germany when he encountered many of the issues involving moral evil and racism that would dominate his later scholarship. Among his most vivid memories was his apprehension in Mannheim of a Polish guard who raped and gave gonorrhea to a 6-year-old German girl.

Several incidents involving racial conflict stood out in his contemporary letters and memory. On a troopship bound for Germany, he was given a billy club and told to make sure that the black troops aboard the ship “weren’t gambling.” Until then, he had not realized that there were some two thousand black soldiers below deck; the sight struck him as resembling the hold of a slave ship. He subsequently witnessed an armed confrontation between black and white U.S. troops outside a GI club. As he later wrote, the early years of the occupation served as “a microcosm of the racial and civil rights struggles that would dominate America in the 1950s and 1960s,” giving African American troops a racial freedom that they had never experienced at home while laying bare the “semi-fascist racism” of many white officers and enlisted men.

It was in a letter to his parents dated October 9, 1946 and postmarked Stuttgart that he first articulated his interest in history:
I've been thinking over the idea of majoring in history, continuing into post-graduate research, and finally teaching, in college, of course, and have come to some conclusions which may not be original, but are new as far as I'm concerned. It strikes me that history, and proper methods of teaching it, are even more important at present than endocrinology and nuclear fission. 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.

There has been a lot of hokum concerning psychoanalysis, but I think the basic principle of probing into the past, especially the hidden and subconscious past, for truths which govern and influence present actions, is fairly sound. Teaching history, I think, should be a similar process. An unearthing of truths long buried beneath superficial facts and propaganda; a presentation of perspective and an overall, comprehensive view of what people did and thought and why they did it. When we think back into our childhood, it doesn't do much good to merely hit the high spots and remember what we want to remember--to know why we act the way we do, we have to remember everything. In the same way it doesn't help much to teach history as a series of wars and dates and figures, the good always fighting the bad, the bad usually losing. Modern history especially, should be shown from every angle. The entire atmosphere and color should be shown, as well as how public opinion stood, and what influenced it.

Perhaps such teaching could make us understand ourselves. It would show the present conflicts to be as silly as they are. And above all, it would make people stop and think before blindly following some bigoted group to make the world safe for Aryans or Democrats or Mississippiansmarker.

Cultural historian

In a seminal essay in the 1968 American Historical Review entitled “Some Recent Directions in American Cultural History,” Davis urged historians to devote more attention to the cultural dimension to enhance understanding of social controversies, political decision-making, and literary expression. At a time when social history was ascendant, and cultural history was associated with the study of the arts, taste, and popular culture, and intellectual history with the study of abstract ideas largely divorced from specific social contexts, he called for a history that focused on beliefs, values, fears, aspirations, and emotions.

His revised dissertation, Homicide in American Fiction (1957), which located literary treatments of murder against shifting legal, psychological, and religious notions of personal responsibility, the nature and origins of evil, and mental and emotional abnormality, anticipated later works in the new cultural history and the new historicism. By situating popular and canonical literature against a backdrop of developments in early psychiatry, jurisprudence, moral philosophy, and theology, he explored the intricate connections between intellectual developments—such as evolving conceptions of the unconscious; social phenomena—such as the shifting roles and status of women; and the “free floating” fantasies of literature, where authors worked out, on an imaginative level, the implications of social and intellectual transformations.

In succeeding works on American cultural history, including Antebellum American Culture (1979), The Boisterous Sea of Liberty (1999), The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un-American Subversion from the Revolution to the Present (1971), Revolutions: Reflections on American Equality and Foreign Liberations (1990), and The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style (1970), Davis underscored the significance of the cultural dimension in understanding American politics and society. Antebellum American Culture, a panoramic look at the cultural discourse surrounding ethnicity, gender, family, race, science, and wealth and power in the pre-Civil War United States, advanced the argument that American culture needs to be understood in terms of an ongoing “moral civil war,” in which diverse groups of Americans debated “what was happening, who was doing what to whom, what to fear and what to fight for,” and in which a relatively small group of Northeastern writers, preachers, and reformers ultimately succeeded in defining a set of middle class norms regarding education, taste, sex roles, sensibility, and moral respectability.

In The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style and The Fear of Conspiracy, Davis explores the role played in American history by fears of conspiracy and subversion, and highlights the American tendency to search for subversive enemies and to construct terrifying dangers from fragmentary and highly circumstantial evidence. In Revolutions, he analyzes Americans’ highly ambivalent responses to foreign revolutions—-from ecstatic celebrations of foreign peoples’ embrace of American ideals of democratic self-government to apocalyptic fears of foreign subversion. In addition to asking how a nation forged in revolution became, in the twentieth century, “the world’s leading adversary of popular revolutions,” he looks at how foreign revolutions at times expanded and sometimes constricted conceptions about the possibilities for reform at home.

Study of slavery

University of Maryland historian Ira Berlin has written that “no scholar has played a larger role in expanding contemporary understanding of how slavery shaped the history of the United States, the Americas, and the world than David Brion Davis.” In a series of landmark books, articles, and lectures, Professor Davis has moved beyond a parochial view of slavery that focuses on individual nations to look at the “big picture,” the multinational view of the origins, development, and abolition of New World slavery. Instead of seeing slavery simply as an aspect of the history of the U.S. South or of African American history, he see slavery as a key to the making of the modern world, the construction of modern conceptions of race, the creation of dynamic New World economies, and the rise of the world's first system of multinational production for what emerged as a mass market -- a market for slave-produced sugar, tobacco, coffee, chocolate, dye-stuffs, rice, hemp, and cotton. In addition, he depicts slavery as a central theme in American history, shaping the meaning and outcome of the American Revolution, the creation of the U.S. Constitution, the growth of competing political parties, and the escalating sectional conflictions that resulted in civil war.


A central question that Davis has addressed in his scholarship is why it was that only at a particular moment in time—-the mid- and late-eighteenth century-—that the first collective protests against slavery, an institution whose origins date to prehistory, emerged. Central to his interpretation is a shifting understanding of sin. Slavery, which had long been regarded as a part of the natural order ordained by God and as a penalty for sin, came to be seen as an outrage to human benevolence, a deterrent to economic growth, and as the very embodiment of sin. A convergence of forces, including a crisis within the Society of Friends precipitated by the Seven Years War and the growth of Evangelical and Enlightenment thought, contributed to the sudden growth in antislavery sentiment.

Davis has also asked why antislavery became a mass movement in Britain at a time of political reaction. His answer focuses on the ways that antislavery helped to legitimate an emerging free labor ideology.


His doctoral students include such prize-winning historians as Karen Halttunen, T.J. Jackson Lears, Lewis Perry, Joan Shelley Rubin, Christine Stansell, Amy Dru Stanley, Steven Mintz, John Stauffer, and Sean Wilentz.

His distinguished undergraduate students include Nancy F. Cott, Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History and Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard, and David M. Oshinsky, George Littlefield Professor of History at the University of Texas and the author of Polio: An American Story, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in history.

Davis’s students have honored him with two festschrifts, Moral Problems in American Life, edited by Karen Halttunen and Lewis Perry, and The Problem of Evil: Slavery, Freedom, and the Ambiguities of Reform, edited by Steven Mintz and John Stauffer.

Moral thinker

In his scholarship, David Brion Davis has been preoccupied with questions of evil, from homicide to slavery and racism. He has analyzed the historical circumstances and ideologies that gave rise to history's greatest horrors. He has sought to understand the ways cultures have "demonized" the Other; the bureaucratization of enslavement; and the relationship between collective violence and utopian and messianic ideals.

As a scholar and teacher, he has championed a conception of history built around five basic commitments. The first is that history without a moral dimension is antiquarianism. He regards history as a moral enterprise, which seeks to understand the circumstances that allow evil to happen, how people as moral and intelligent as us could participate in the most horrendous moral evils, and how at certain historical moments individuals were able to rise above their circumstances, address evil in fundamental ways, and expand our moral consciousness. In his teaching as well as his scholarship he has focused on various forms of oppressions, subtle as well as glaring, and the way that these have been rationalized and masked.

A second commitment is to a conception of culture as process—-a process involving conflict, resistance, invention, accommodation, appropriation, and, above all, power, including the power of ideas. Culture, in his view, involves a cacophony of voices but also social relations that involve hierarchy, exploitation, and resistance. This perspective has led many of his students to focus not on elites or intellectuals but on the values of slaves, artisans, working class women, and the way they resisted economic and cultural oppression.

A third commitment is to the centrality of ideas. His is a history that emphasizes perception and meaning, both the meanings that people assigned at the time, and the meanings ascribed in retrospect. He pays especially close attention to religious ideas as the way most people throughout history have made sense of the world and their place in it.

At a time when the hegemony of social history was nearly complete, he continued to defend the importance of intellectual history. He rejected the idea that ideas should be treated as free floating entities that can be studied without reference to their social, economic, and political setting. But he insisted that ideas are indispensable to studying the past, because human beings have minds.

His fourth commitment is toward overcoming the parochialism of national histories. Only by bridging the boundaries of continents, nations, and time can we understand how the history of the United States fits into the large process of modernization. Only by resituating American history in a broader multinational frame and seeing the “big picture” can we understand broader issues of power and exploitation, the construction of race, and the nature and limits of social reform.

Fifth and finally, Professor Davis sees the problem of slavery as lying at the core of any thorough understanding of the process of modernity. Slavery was not only indispensable to the emergence of modern consumer societies and the settlement and development of the New World, it was also connected to the rise of new notions of liberty and equality. He demonstrates that the struggle against slavery was part of a much broader revolution in intellectual and moral life, giving rise to new conceptions of autonomy and exploitation. In condemning slavery, abolitionists developed new notions of contract that radically reshaped attitudes toward poverty, labor relations, the Bible, and even marriage.


  • Homicide in American Fiction, 1798-1860: A Study in Social Values, Cornell University Press, 1957; paperback ed., 1968.
  • The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, Cornell University Press, 1966. History Book Club selection, 1967, paperback ed., 1969; Penguin British ed., 1970; Spanish and Italian translations; Oxford University Press, revised ed., 1988. A new Spanish edition appeared in 1996 and a Brazilian Portuguese edition in 2001.
  • Ante-Bellum Reform (editor), Harper and Row, 1967.
  • The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style, Louisiana State University Press, 1969. Paperback ed., 1982.
  • Was Thomas Jefferson an Authentic Enemy of Slavery? (pamphlet), Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1970.
  • The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un-American Subversion from the Revolution to the Present(editor). Cornell University Press, 1971; paperback ed., 1972.
  • The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823, Cornell University Press, 1975; paperback ed., 1976. History Book Club and Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selections. Oxford University Press edition, with a new preface, 1999.
  • The Great Republic, “Part III, Expanding the Republic, 1820-1860,” a two-volume textbook by Bernard Bailyn and five other historians; D.C. Heath, textbook, 1977. History Book Club selection, 1977. Second ed., wholly revised, 1981. Third ed., wholly revised, 1985. Fourth ed., wholly revised, 1992.
  • Antebellum American Culture: An Interpretive Anthology,Antebellum American Culture: An Interpretive Anthology, D.C. Heath, 1979; new edition, Pennsylvania State Press, 1997.
  • The Emancipation Moment (pamphlet), Gettysburg College, 1984.
  • Slavery and Human Progress, Oxford University Press, 1984. History Book Club alternate selection. Paperback ed., 1986.
  • Slavery in the Colonial Chesapeake (pamphlet), Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1986.
  • From Homicide to Slavery: Studies in American Culture, Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Revolutions: Reflections on American Equality and Foreign Liberations, Harvard University Press, 1990. German translation, 1993.
  • Co-author, The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation, ed. Thomas Bender.” University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.
  • The Boisterous Sea of Liberty: A Documentary History of America from Discovery Through the Civil War, co-editor Steven Mintz, Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • In the Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery, Yale University Press, 2001.
  • Challenging The Boundaries Of Slavery, Harvard University Press. 2003.
  • Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, Oxford University Press, 2006


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