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Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World

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Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, by David Brion Davis

Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, by David Brion Davis

The mass enslavement of millions of Africans is one of the greatest moral evils committed by both European civilization generally and America in particular - it was America, after all, which benefited so extensively from the enslavement of so many human beings. Just as with the Holocaust, though, it's difficult for many today to conceive of how a system dedicated to the creation of such suffering could have developed or been sustained by people who must have understood right from wrong.

Summary

Title: Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World
Author: David Brion Davis
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0195140737

Pro:
•  Ties together a number of historical, philosophical, and sociological issues
•  Generally very readable and informative
•  Includes background information on Western slavery in general

Con:
•  Narrative is a bit disorganized at times and wanders in some places

Description:
•  History of American slavery and the issues surrounding it
•  Describes slavery as a process of dehumanization, based largely on the example of the domestication of animals

There are a lot of books on slavery in America, so it would be difficult to single out any one volume above the rest. David Brion Davis' Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World does, however, have a few things which recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. The title itself gives a hint to one of the main things and one of the reasons why this book stands out from others.

"Inhuman" bondage describes the very nature of America's race-based slave system because it was designed at every level to take away the humanity of those enslaved and thereby reinforce the humanity - not to mention superiority - of those who did the enslaving. Davis even argues that the enslavement of human beings relied in many ways on concepts and ideas taken from the domestication of animals.

Dehumanization was the defining factor of slavery generally throughout the world, but it had special meaning for America's slave system. This may have been because, unlike many slave systems around the world, America's was permanent and racial. Other societies enslaved "outsiders," but in America the outsiders were permanently marked by the color of their skin. In this, America's slave system was supported by American religion: the Bible informed Christians that slaves weren't fully equal humans but descendants of Cain and Canaan, marked by God to be inferior and servants of others.

Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, by David Brion Davis

Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, by David Brion Davis

There is a lot in Christianity which should have prevented Christians from becoming the masters of an extensive and dehumanizing slave system. Abolitionists recognized this and drew upon those aspects of Christian tradition very heavily. At the same time, there is nothing about Christianity which required an abolitionist position - the Old Testament openly endorses slavery while the New Testament tacitly accepts it. Ultimately, slavery is probably more compatible with the text of the Bible than abolition. Understanding this is key to understanding how "Good Christians" could, like "Good Germans" nearly a century later, become deeply complicit in inhuman horrors.

There may be more comprehensive and detailed histories of American slavery available, but if you are looking for a readable and accessible history that offers an interesting perspective on the issue, I can easily recommend this book for you.

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