The Peculiar Institution, by Kenneth M. Stampp
Current American historiography is atavistic. Revisionists reject the findings of historians of their fathers’ generation, only to assert truths that would have seemed commonplace to their grandparents. After angrily demolishing Charles A. Beard’s economic interpretation of the Constitution, Robert E. Brown has left us with a surprisingly conventional view of the Critical Period;1 an expert recently commented that George Bancroft’s is still the best account of that era. Because they so emphatically reinforce 19th-century stereotypes about the Old Man Eloquent, Samuel Flagg Bemis’s two lovingly written volumes on John Quincy Adams have seemed to some an exercise in ancestral piety. The moral issue as a cause of the Civil War, which last generation’s revisionists decently buried, has been resurrected in a manner that would greatly have pleased H. E. Von Hoist, and other writers are now finding that their grandparents were right in thinking highly of the Radical Republicans during Reconstruction.2 The masters of American business are no longer considered robber barons but, just as in 1890, industrial statesmen, and one expects any day William McKinley to be defended as a major conservative statesman.
The latest example of this historiographical traditionalism is Kenneth M. Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution, an elaborate and comprehensive history of Negro slavery in the antebellum South. Mr. Stampp, a young professor of history at the University of California, already well known for two previous excellent books on the Civil War generation, rejects completely the work which has, for a generation, been the standard study in this field. Ulrich B. Phillips’s American Negro Slavery, first published in 1918, was written by a Southerner who had an abiding affection for his native region and who thought of Negroes amiably but condescendingly as an inferior race. Plantations seemed to Phillips “the best schools yet invented for the mass training of that sort of inert and backward people which the bulk of the American negroes represented.” In his view slavery was only in part a labor system; it was a way of life and a pattern of race adjustment. Not economically advantageous to the South as a whole, or even to the owners of Negroes, slavery “kept money scarce, population sparse and land values . . . low . . . . But . . . it maintained order and a notable degree of harmony in a community where confusion worse confounded would not have been far to seek.” Though it produced “injustice, oppression, brutality and heartburning,” it also encouraged “gentleness, kind-hearted friendship and mutual loyalty” between the races. Phillips concluded that “it is impossible to agree that its basis and its operations were wholly evil, the law and the prophets to the contrary notwithstanding.”
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