David Brion Davis

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David Brion Davis
Born (1927-02-16) February 16, 1927 (age 88)
Nationality American
Fields History
Institutions Yale University
Alma mater Dartmouth College
Harvard University
Spouse Toni Hahn Davis

David Brion Davis (born February 16, 1927) is an American intellectual and cultural historian, and a leading authority on slavery and abolition in the Western world. He is a Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University, and founder and Director Emeritus of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. The author and editor of seventeen books, he received the 1967 Pulitzer Prize, the 2013 National Humanities Medal, and National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction for 2014. A frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books,his books emphasize religious and ideological links among material conditions, political interests, and new political values. 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.[1]

Davis taught at Yale from 1970 to 2001, after serving on the Cornell University faculty for 14 years. He has held one-year appointments as the Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History at Oxford University, at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, and as the first French-American Foundation Chair in American Civilization at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.


Early life[edit]

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 California, Colorado, New York, Colorado, and Washington State. Despite the frequent moves, Davis was popular among his peers. In 1938, when he and his parents moved for a year to Carmel, California, his fellow students elected him president of a large sixth grade class. Three years later, he won election as president of the Hamburg, New York Junior High School, some forty-seven years before he would be elected president of the Organization of American Historians. The experience of settling in, only to move again, served to heighten his awareness of the role of contingency in individual lives and history. He attended five high schools in four years. In 1943, after moving to Manhattan from Beverly Hills, where he had done well, he transferred to The Bronx High School of Science weeks after classes had begun. Unable to catch up, he became so depressed that he considered lying about his age, and joining the Marines. Fortunately, near the end of the term his mother succeeded in enrolling him in the elite McBurney Prep School, where he initially failed some midterm examinations, but in the next three semesters succeeded so well that at graduation he won the gold Robert Ross McBurney medal, the school's highest award. That's why he was able to get into Dartmouth, the only college he applied to, when he was in the army in Germany. [2]

After graduation in June 1945, at the age of 18, he was drafted and trained as a combat infantryman in preparation for a fall 1945 invasion of Japan. With the end of the war, he was assigned to the occupation of Germany in 1945-46. There, he became a member of the army's Security Police, to police civilians, because he passed a test in speaking German, which he had studied in high school.[3]

Following his military service, Davis attended Dartmouth College, where he majored in philosophy with a focus on evolving conceptions of human nature. At Dartmouth, he was admitted to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year and graduated summa cum laude. In the summer of 1947, he worked as a laundry truck driver and gardener. In 1950-51, before enrolling in the Program in American Civilization at Harvard, Davis worked for most of a year scheduling and supervising the flow of parts to the main assembly line at Cessna Aircraft in Wichita, Kansas. He attended Harvard for three years, 1951–53 and 1954–55, where he completed his dissertation, which was accepted by his advisor Howard Mumford Jones. In 1953-54, he taught full-time at Dartmouth as a Ford Foundation Teaching Intern. In 1955, he joined Cornell's History faculty; during his first year of teaching, he had to make revisions in his dissertation to satisfy Frederick Merk of the Harvard History Department.

Becoming a historian[edit]

Instrumental in Davis’s decision to become a historian were his experiences during the post-war occupation of Germany. There he encountered many of the issues involving moral evil and racism that would dominate his later scholarship. Among his most vivid memories was his capture in Mannheim of a Polish guard who had raped a 6-year-old German girl, transmitting gonorrhea to her during the attack.[4]

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 2,000 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 US occupation of Germany 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.[5]

In a letter to his parents, dated October 9, 1946 and postmarked Stuttgart, he first expressed 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 Mississippians.[6]


Cultural history[edit]

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.[7]

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, Davis 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 such social and intellectual transformations.

In succeeding works of American cultural history, including The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style (1970), The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un-American Subversion from the Revolution to the Present (1971), Antebellum American Culture (1979), Revolutions: Reflections on American Equality and Foreign Liberations (1990), and The Boisterous Sea of Liberty (1999), Davis underscored the significance of the cultural dimension in understanding United States politics and society.

In The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style (1969) and The Fear of Conspiracy (1971), Davis explores the role played in American history by fears of conspiracy and subversion. He 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.

Antebellum American Culture (1979), his 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.” Diverse groups of Americans debated “what was happening, who was doing what to whom, what to fear and what to fight for.” He suggests that a relatively small group of Northeastern writers, preachers, and reformers in the 19th century United States ultimately succeeded in defining a set of middle-class norms regarding education, taste, sex roles, sensibility, and moral respectability.[8]

Study of slavery[edit]

The historian Ira Berlin, of the University of Maryland, 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.”[9] In a series of landmark books, articles, and lectures, Davis has moved beyond a view of slavery that focuses on the institution in individual nations to look at the “big picture,” the multinational view of the origins, development, and abolition of New World slavery.[10] He demonstrates slavery's centrality to the making of the modern world, the construction of modern conceptions of race, and the creation of dynamic New World economies. He saw it as part of the rise of the world's first system of multinational production for what emerged as a mass market—a market for sugar, tobacco, coffee, dye-stuffs, rice, hemp, and cotton, all of which were produced by slave labor. 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 conflicts that resulted in civil war.


In his scholarship, Davis has addressed the central question of why the first collective protests emerged against slavery only in the mid- and late-eighteenth century, as the institution had dated to prehistoric times. Central to his interpretation was a shifting cultural understanding of sin. Long regarded as a part of the natural order ordained by God and as a penalty for sin, slavery 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 Great Britain at a time of political reaction in society. His answer focuses on the ways that antislavery helped to legitimate an emerging free labor ideology.

Moral thinker[edit]

In his scholarship, 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 to history with a moral dimension. 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 we 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 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.[11] This perspective has led many of his students to focus not on elites or intellectuals but on the values of slaves, artisans, and working-class women, for example, 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 people understand how the history of the United States fits into the large process of modernization. Only by situating United States history in a broader multinational frame and seeing the “big picture” can people understand broader issues of power and exploitation, the construction of race, and the nature and limits of social reform.

Fifth and finally, Davis sees the problem of slavery as central to 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 marriage.


Davis taught more than a generation of students, and advised many doctoral students, who included such prize-winning historians as Edward Ayers, Karen Halttunen, T. J. Jackson Lears, Steven Mintz, Lewis Perry, Joan Shelley Rubin, Jonathan Sarna, Barbara Savage, Amy Dru Stanley, Christine Stansell, John Stauffer, and Sean Wilentz. Davis’s students have honored him with two festschrifts, Moral Problems in American Life (1998), edited by Karen Halttunen and Lewis Perry, and The Problem of Evil: Slavery, Freedom, and the Ambiguities of Reform (2007), edited by Steven Mintz and John Stauffer.

Personal life[edit]

Davis has three children by his first marriage: Jeremiah Jonathan Davis, Martha Davis Beck, and Sarah Brion Davis, as well as three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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, and three grandchildren.


In 1955, Davis joined the history faculty at Cornell University. In the 1960s, he published several works on slavery and its place in Western culture, as well as aspects of its history and reform movements in the United States.

In 1970, Davis moved to Yale, where he taught until 2001.

In 1998, Davis founded Yale's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition and directed it until 2004.



  • Guggenheim Fellow, 1958-1959
  • Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, 1972-1973
  • Fulbright Grantee, 1980
  • NEH Fellow, 1983-1984
  • Gilder-Lehrman Inaugural Fellow, 1996-1997




  • 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. online edition from ACLS E-Books
  • 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
  • The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.


  1. ^ George M. Fredrickson, "The Uses of Antislavery", New York Review of Books, 16 October 1975
  2. ^ Richard Wightman Fox, "David Brion Davis: A Biographical Appreciation," Moral Problems in American Life, ed. Karen Halttunen and Lewis Perry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998)
  3. ^ David Brion Davis, “World War II and Memory,” Journal of American History, 77, Sept. 1990; Davis, "The Americanized Mannheim," American Places: Encounters with History, ed. William Leuchtenburg (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 79-92.
  4. ^ Davis, "The Americanized Mannheim of 1945 and 1946," pp. 86-87.
  5. ^ Davis, "The Americanized Mannheim of 1945 and 1946," 79.
  6. ^ Fox, "David Brion Davis: A Biographical Appreciation," 336-337.
  7. ^ “Some Recent Directions in American Cultural History,” American Historical Review, Feb. 1968, 696-707.
  8. ^ David Brion Davis, Antebellum American Culture: An Interpretive Anthology (State College: Pennsylvania State University Press), xxii
  9. ^ Quoted in Goodman (2006)
  10. ^ Davis, David Brion. "The Central Fact of American History,"American Heritage, Feb/March 2005.
  11. ^ Davis, Antebellum American Culture, xxii-xxiii.
  12. ^ "General Nonfiction". Past winners and finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-03-17.
  13. ^ "National Book Awards – 1976". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-17.
  14. ^ Harvard University Gazette, June 4, 2009.
  15. ^ Alexandra Alter (March 12, 2015). "‘Lila’ Honored as Top Fiction by National Book Critics Circle". New York Times. Retrieved March 12, 2015. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Fox, Richard Wightman. "David Brion Davis: A Biographical Appreciation," in Karen Halttunen and Lewis Perry, eds. Moral Problems in American Life: New Perspectives on Cultural History (Cornell U.P. 1999) pp 331–40
  • Goodman, Bonnie K. "History Doyens: David Brion Davis" HistoryMusings" (May 28, 2006)

Template:Pulitzer Prize General Non-Fiction 1962–1975