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Apologia (1954)
to The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade
  — W.E.B. Du Bois

Du Bois, W.E.B. "Apologia." Pp.327-329 in Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870. NY: The Social Science Press, 1954.

Online Source:
1. The start page (p.327) of the "Apologia" is viewable online at the Hathi Trust Digital Library.
2. The entire e-version of Suppression is available for online reading at the Hathi Trust Digital Library: catalog page.

Robert Williams' Notes:
1. When the Social Science Press reprinted in 1954 W.E.B. Du Bois's 1896 work, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, Du Bois wrote what he called an "Apologia". In it he examined the theoretical dimensions of the book that he had researched and published decades earlier. The "Apologia" was placed after Appendix D.

2. The "Apologia" is presented below verbatim and in its entirety.
— Robert W. Williams, Ph.D.  [Bio]  

As I read again this work of mine written over sixty years ago, I am on the one hand gratified to realize how hard and honestly I worked on my subject as a young man of twenty-four. As a piece of documented historical research, it was well done and has in the last half century received very little criticism as to accuracy and completeness.
There are, however, certain criticisms which are evident. One relates to the monographic method which sets a man to segregating from the total flow of history a small part for intensive study; when he knows nothing or little of the mass of facts of which his minute study is a part. This fault would tend to limit special research to men of wide knowledge, such as I certainly did not have in 1896, if even now; and might thus confine monographs to a very few writers. I was fortunate that the bit of history which I selected was unusually susceptible to segregation without too much danger of misinterpretation from lack of broader understanding.
There is, however, another area of criticism which I have not seen voiced but which disturbs me. That is my ignorance in the waning nineteenth century of the significance of the work of Freud and Marx. I had received at Harvard excellent preparation for understanding Freud under the tutelage of William James, Josiah Royce and George Santayana. At this time psychological measurements were beginning at Harvard with Munsterberg; but the work of Freud and his companions and their epoch-making contribution to science was not generally known when I was writing this book, and consequently I did not realize the psychological reasons behind the trends of human action which the African slave trade involved.

See Hugo Münsterberg's "Psychological Laboratory of Harvard University" (1893) (online at York University); and "Harvard Psychological Studies, Volume 1" (1903) (online at Project Gutenberg).
Trained in the New England ethic of life as a series of conscious moral judgments, I was continually thrown back on what men "ought" to have done to avoid evil consequence. My book's last admonition was "to do things at the very moment when they ought to be done." Some knowledge of Freud would have made my conclusion less pat and simple.
While Harvard's department of Philosophy was perhaps the best in its day, certainly in America, the teaching in the social sciences was poor and as a scientific field unrecognized. Our best known professor of economics was absorbed in a re-interpretation of the Ricardean "Wages Fund" and never mentioned Marx. Some of the young, new instructors like Edward Cummings in fields now included in Sociology, mentioned Marx but only in passing and did not stress his significance. In Germany I heard much more of Marxism but in rebuttal of his theories rather than in explanation. I got the idea that his teaching already had been superceded and consequently gave little time to first hand study of his work.
This was important in my interpretation of the history of slavery and the slave trade. For if the influence of economic motives on the action of mankind ever had clearer illustration it was in the modern history of the African race, and particularly in America. No real conception of this appears in my book. There are some approaches, some illusions, but no complete realization of the application of the philosophy of Karl Marx to my subject. That concept came much later when I began intensive study of the facts of society, culminating in my Black Reconstruction in 1935.

DuBois's book, Black Reconstruction, was not italicized here.
Naturally in my study of the slave trade I noted economic facts and influences. In my preface I said: "facts and statistics bearing on the economic side of the study have been difficult to find, and my conclusions, are consequently liable to modification from this source." I mentioned the economic motives behind the signing of the Asiento, and the declaration of the British in the 18th cenrury that the slave trade was the "very life of the colonies," but how could I or my advisers have neglected that classic word of Marx on the colonies as the source of primary capitalistic accumulation? I saw that the farming colonies restricted slavery because it "did not pay." I noted the profits of the trading colonies from the slave trade. I saw "that vast economic revolution in which American slavery was to play so prominent and fatal a role." Nevertheless, in examining the motives behind the attempt to stop the slave trade during the Revolution, I seemed to have missed the strength of the economic reasons for its failure, although I mention them.
I still saw slavery and the trade as chiefly the result of moral lassitude—"the policy of laissez-faire, laissez-passez." I wanted the young nation to call "the whole moral energy of the people into action" instead of accepting a "bargain" on "one of the most threatening of the social and political ills" which faced the nation. But apparently I did not clearly see that the real difficulty rested in the willingness of a privileged class of Americans to get power and comfort at the expense of degrading a class of black slaves, by not paying them what their labor produced.
When the slave trade and slavery were debated in the early sessions of Congress I recorded the way in which "property" was stressed by the South in a new way, and how the reopened slave trade meant "fortunes to the planters and Charleston slave merchants." Nevertheless when the Cotton Kingdom was rising to power after 1820, and I studied the Economic Revolution, the new inventions and the rise in cotton sales and prices, I still seemed to miss the clear conclusion that slavery was a matter of income more than of morals. I do say "that this problem arose principally from the cupidity and carelessness of our ancestors. It was the plain duty of the colonies to crush the trade and the system in its infancy; they preferred to enrich themselves on its profits." Yet I conclude: "No persons would have seen the Civil War with more surprise and horror than the Revolutionists of 1776; yet from the small and apparently dying institution of their day arose the walled and castled Slave-Power. From this we may conclude that it behooves nations as well as men to do things at the very moment when they ought to be done."
What I needed was to add to my terribly conscientious search into the facts of the slave trade the clear concept of Marx on the class struggle for income and power, beneath which all considerations of right or morals were twisted or utterly crushed. Yet naturally it is too much to ask that I should have been as wise in 1896 as I think I am in 1954. I am proud to see that at the beginning of my career I made no more mistakes than apparently I did.
W.E.B. Du Bois
New York, N. Y.

[End of original text.]  

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