David Brion Davis
Sterling Professor of American History, Emeritus; Director, Emeritus, Gilder Lehrman Center
Intellectual Trajectories Talk: How I Came to Be a Historian of New World Slavery
David Brion Davis came to the department from Cornell in 1970, and retired from full-time teaching in 2001. He is widely recognized as one of the foremost authorities on the history of slavery and abolitionism, as well as one of the most influential cultural and intellectual historians of his generation, as both a teacher of graduate students and as a writer and scholar. He was the founding director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, established at Yale in 1998. In 1978, he was awarded a Sterling Professorship in recognition of his groundbreaking work in bringing slavery to the forefront of the study of American history.
Davis is most known for his Problem of Slavery trilogy. Beginning with the Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Cornell University Press, 1966, then republished by Oxford University Press), Davis sought to analyze the place of slavery in the intellectual life of the West, and argued that it presented an enduring problem, but also an enduring companion to the formation of the modern world. In particular, he argued that the New World, from the moment of contact, was intertwined with slavery, and it has been one of the enduring themes of American history. This book won him the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1967, as well as two other awards. In the Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Cornell University Press, 1975, then republished by Oxford University Press), Davis took up the intellectual and social ferment of the 18th and early 19th century, and sought to account for the advent of antislavery in Western Europe and America at a time of social upheaval and profound economic change. This book also won him three awards, including the Bancroft Prize, and the National Book Award in History and Biography in 1976. In his most recent book, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), Davis concludes his work by looking at the meanings, problems, and possibilities of emancipation in the Atlantic world, focusing particularly on the role of black abolitionism.
In 2006, Davis published his synthetic history of the rise and fall of slavery in the New World, bringing together generations of international scholarship on slavery, entitled, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford University Press, 2006). Like the first two volumes of the trilogy, this work also won three important awards.
Davis has served as the president of the Organization of American Historians (1988-1989), as well as holding the Harmsworth Professorship at Oxford University, the French-American Foundation Chair in American Civilization at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, as well as numerous prestigious fellowships. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Antiquarian Society, and the American Philosophical Society, and holds numerous honorary degrees from institutions such as Dartmouth College, the University of New Haven, and Columbia University.
Davis has been a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, and the author of many other seminal works in American history. Some of these include Homicide in American Fiction, 1798-1860: A Study in Social Values (Cornell University Press, 1957), Slavery and Human Progress (Oxford University Press, 1984), (co-author) The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation, ed. Thomas Bender (1992), Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery (Harvard University Press, 2003), In the Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery (Yale University Press, 2001), and as a contributor to the text book, The Great Republic [“Part III, Expanding the Republic, 1820-1860”] (D.C. Heath, 1977, 1981, 1985), and The Boisterous Sea of Liberty: A Documentary History of American from Discovery Through the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1998).
Davis earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University in the Program in the History of American Civilization in 1956, and his B.A. studying Philosophy from Dartmouth College in 1950. He lives in Orange, Connecticut.