The historian Eric Foner begins his review of Robin Blackburn's The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights with a welcome dig at Niall Ferguson's Civilization television series and its neglect of slavery as a pivotal force in western ascendancy and dominance.
Only after forty-five minutes of the one-hour show did Ferguson mention the existence of slaves—the majority of South Carolina's population. When slavery was finally discussed, it was presented not as a crucial structural feature of early American society but as a moral dilemma, an "original sin" expiated by the election of Barack Obama.
More than any other institution, it was the slave plantation and the massive extractions of wealth from exploited black labor that led to the West's dominance over the rest of the world. "Without slavery there could have been no colonization," is the starting point for the evolution of Blackburn's historical narrative. Calling it an "Atlantic or transnational history," Foner praises Blackburn's work for its broad international approach and careful attention to local circumstances.
The American Crucible takes its place alongside David Brion Davis's Inhuman Bondage as one of the finest one-volume histories of the rise and fall of modern slavery.
Greg Grandin reviews Robin Blackburn’s latest books for the Guardian. Grandin describes Blackburn’s The American Crucible not as “the capstone of an influential career” but rather as “a catching of breath and a continuation of arguments initially made by the great original theorists of the Atlantic World system.” In this monumental new book, Blackburn explores some of the historical conceptions and misconceptions of the complex system which sustained slavery and its economy in the Americas, with a new focus on the Haitian revolution:
The centrepiece of The American Crucible is Blackburn's measured reconstruction of the chronology of the Haitian revolution and its influence on freedom movements in the United States, Spanish America and Brazil, a persuasive rebuttal of scholarly assessments that the revolution was exceptionally bloody or that its leaders instituted a new form of anti-European racism.
Reviewing The American Crucible in the Independent, Stephen Howe highlights the originality of Robin Blackburn's contribution:
If the thousands of historians who have written about Atlantic slavery and its abolition, only a handful have ever given us a really original perspective on that vast subject. Even fewer have proposed a satisfying, or stimulating, general theory about it, an attempt at explaining the rise, fall and enduring consequences of the entire New World slave system across the centuries and continents. Robin Blackburn is prominent—even pre-eminent—among those few. He has tackled the task in a formidable body of work beginning in the late 1980s; but in a rather idiosyncratic way.