Blog post

Robin Blackburn's The American Crucible reviewed in The Nation

Chris Webb15 August 2011

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.

Among the many virtues of the text is Blackburn's nuanced understanding of abolitionist thought. Cautioning against the idea of a preordained "irresistible advance" toward emancipation, or the popular notion that historical chains were torn apart by the lofty ideals of the founding fathers, Blackburn turns instead to the rich history of slave revolts in the periphery and political crisis in the centre. Foner summarizes Blackburn's position succinctly:

High ideals alone did not abolish slavery. And while not neglecting slave agency, Blackburn argues that the concessions and customary rights wrested by slaves from their owners over a long period of day-to-day struggle did not pose a fundamental challenge to the system. Rather, he insists, emancipation emerged from specific historical circumstances-a nexus of slave resistance, ideological conflict and political crisis.

On the topic of human rights, the book's third element, Blackburn places the slave uprisings in Haiti and St. Dominique at the centre of his analysis—rather than the genteel anti-slavery thought of European abolitionists. These rebellious slaves profoundly affected Atlantic political culture and the idea of universal human rights, as Foner notes:

Ironically, if "the West" is to celebrate the idea of universal human rights as one of its distinctive contributions to modern civilization, part of the credit must go to the mostly African-born slave rebels of Haiti.

Visit The Nation to read the review in full.

Filed under: reviews