David Brion Davis

The Old New Thing

The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History By Samuel Moyn (Belknap Press, 337 pp., $27.95) In 1807, in Yorkshire, activists hit the campaign trail for William Wilberforce, whose eloquent parliamentary fight against Britain’s slave trade had won surprising success. “O we’ve heard of his Cants in Humanity’s Cause/While the Senate was hush’d, and the land wept applause,” they sang.

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The other day, as I was walking to the grocery store, I strategically moved toward the far edge of the sidewalk to put distance between myself and a pile of large, black trash bags haphazardly stacked against the side of a building. This sight is common in downtown Manhattan, as was the rustling I heard among the bags, which nevertheless made me start. Rats or mice, I thought, as I instinctively crossed the street to avoid them, but it was still light out, too early, it seemed to me, for these nocturnal creatures to be rummaging for food.

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Thomas Jefferson a film by Ken Burns (PBS) The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800 by Conor Cruise O'Brien (University of Chicago, 367 pp., $29.95) Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy by Annette Gordon-Reed (University Press of Virginia, 279 pp., $29.95) American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis (Knopf, 351 pp., $26) I. Especially during his troubled second administration, Thomas Jefferson received a lot of hate mail.

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