In this engaging book, David Brion Davis offers an illuminating perspective on American slavery. Starting with a long view across the temporal and spatial boundaries of world slavery, he traces continuities from the ancient world to the era of exploration, with its expanding markets and rise in consumption of such products as sugar, tobacco, spices, and chocolate, to the conditions of the New World settlement that gave rise to a dependence on the forced labor of millions of African slaves. With the American ...

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In this engaging book, David Brion Davis offers an illuminating perspective on American slavery. Starting with a long view across the temporal and spatial boundaries of world slavery, he traces continuities from the ancient world to the era of exploration, with its expanding markets and rise in consumption of such products as sugar, tobacco, spices, and chocolate, to the conditions of the New World settlement that gave rise to a dependence on the forced labor of millions of African slaves. With the American Revolution, slavery crossed another kind of boundary, in a psychological inversion that placed black slaves outside the dream of liberty and equality—and turned them into the Great American Problem.

Davis then delves into a single year, 1819, to explain how an explosive conflict over the expansion and legitimacy of slavery, together with reinterpretations of the Bible and the Constitution, pointed toward revolutionary changes in American culture. Finally, he widens the angle again, in a regional perspective, to discuss the movement to colonize blacks outside the United States, the African-American impact on abolitionism, and the South's response to slave emancipation in the British Caribbean, which led to attempts to morally vindicate slavery and export it into future American states. Challenging the boundaries of slavery ultimately brought on the Civil War and the unexpected, immediate emancipation of slaves long before it could have been achieved in any other way.

This imaginative and fascinating book puts slavery into a brilliant new light and underscores anew the desperate human tragedy lying at the very heart of the American story.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Posner is unique in the world of American jurisprudence, a highly regarded U.S. appellate judge and a prolific and controversial writer on legal philosophy (The Little Book of Plagiarism). Opinionated, sarcastic and argumentative as ever, Posner is happy to weigh in not only on how judges think, but how he thinks they should think. When sticking to explaining the nine intellectual approaches to judging that he identifies, and to the gap between legal academics and judges, and his well-formulated pragmatic approach to judging, Posner is insightful, accessible, often funny and a model of clarity. When he charges off into longstanding arguments with fellow legal theorists (liberal commentator Ronald Dworkin, for one) or examines doctrinal discrepancies in the opinions of Supreme Court justices, he writes for a far more limited audience. For the record, although Justice Scalia is a favorite target, none of the Supreme Court nine escapes Posner's lethally sharp pen. Posner's two major points-that to a great extent judges make decisions based not on theory but on who they are, their gender, education, class and experiences, and that "the Supreme Court is a political court" regardless of what theory of constitutional interpretation justices claim-are well worthwhile and deeply rooted in common sense and experience. (Apr.)

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Dallas Morning News
The issue of slavery in American history has never been as clear-cut as some would prefer, and no one has done more to explain its ironies, contradictions and complexities than David Brion Davis. In this slender, beautifully written book, he explores the origin and eradication of the peculiar institution based on boundaries imposed by men and events, in the process giving us yet another classic.
History Today
A brief, but illuminating, account of the ways in which slavery crossed a kind of psychological barrier to place black slaves outside the dreams of liberty and equality.
New York Review of Books
In Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery [Davis provides] brief but incisive reflections on slavery in American and world history.
— George M. Fredrickson
American Historical Review
The three chapters of this short book offer smart apercus, insightful nuggets from the master historian of comparative slavery...Davis proves here that his mind is as subtle and vigorous as ever. This reader eagerly awaits more works from the greatest living historian of comparative slavery.
— Philip D. Morgan
Journal of American Studies
Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery is an insightful and engaging piece of work. It intertwines macro and micro histories concerning the origins and abolition of the Atlantic slave system and presents a sophisticated and complex historical synthesis that broadens the current debate and suggests new ways of thinking about the factors shaping the course of slavery in American history...This book emphasizes the fact that questions regarding slavery were intimately connected to wider debates and discourses in antebellum America concerning issues such as national character, economics and expansion. In incredibly lucid and articulate terms Davis weaves these strands together and impresses upon us the significance of slavery to the American past.
— Rebecca J. Griffin
Journal of Southern History
Few scholars equal Davis's breadth and depth of knowledge mastered during his long career. Indeed, few would fault Davis if he merely took the opportunity to retrace old ground in his lectures, but it is a hallmark of this distinguished historian that he continues to recast his material, engage new sources, and think out loud in productive fashion about the meaning of slavery in the western world...By marking his retelling of the abolition of slavery with new signposts, by casting new actors in leading roles, and by proposing the existence of a much more elaborate historical context, Davis once again prompts his readers to think anew about not only the history of slavery but also the history of the United States.
— Michael J. Guasco
International Journal of the Classic Tradition
Perhaps the world's foremost authority on slavery...has made yet another contribution to our understanding of an ancient institution that was once ubiquitous but is now considered peculiar. With his usual clarity and concision, Davis summarizes the history of slavery from its prehistoric origins to its abolition in the United States in 1865...Davis's small volume is filled with fascinating facts...[This] masterful work... is an ideal introduction to the history of slavery for general readers and is illuminating even for scholars. The writing is clear, concise, informative and insightful.

— Carl J. Richard

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674030251
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 6/30/2009
  • Series: Nathan I. Huggins Lectures
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 128
  • Sales rank: 859,256
  • File size: 137 KB

Meet the Author

David Brion Davis is Sterling Professor of History Emeritus and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University.

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Table of Contents


1. The Origins and Nature of New World Slavery

2. 1819: Signs of a New Era

3. African-American Abolitionism and Southern Fears



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