The History of the History of American Slavery

Arlington Confederate Monument
The 1914 dedication of Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery

Why are we still fighting over the history of slavery and the Civil War? One possible answer is that history is mutable. It is written, after all, by people who are intimately wrapped up in all the social and cultural ways of thinking of their times.

A century ago, the major American historian of the South supported slavery. His name was Ulrich B. Phillips, and his American Negro Slavery, first published in 1918, was “central to proslavery historiography.” So writes scholar Gaines M. Foster in his exploration of the history of the notion that Southern slaveholders felt guilt about slavery even as they maintained it.

Phillips was born in Georgia in 1877. He earned his doctorate at Columbia and taught at Tulane, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan, and Yale. He was “a leader in systematically researching plantation records, census data, and other primary sources,” says the New Georgia Encyclopedia. He was not a proponent of what Foster calls the “guilt thesis,” which started being discussed in the academy in the mid-twentieth century. Instead, Phillips critiqued slavery as an unprofitable economic system, but one that had value in both civilizing “savage Africans” and training a white planter elite for leadership.

Ulrich B. Phillips’s racist work remained “the standard text on slavery” into the early 1950s.

Foster reminds us that Phillips’s racist work remained “the standard text on slavery” into the early 1950s. In the ‘teens and twenties, allegedly “scientific” concepts were used to defend commonplace racism and eugenics. The South was busy putting up memorials to Confederates. Anti-radical and anti-immigrant hysteria lead to restrictive immigration laws. Jim Crow and segregation were firmly entrenched. It’s little wonder that Phillips was not only read and lauded, but that he was so influential.

Foster writes that W.E.B. Du Bois, John Hope Franklin, and Richard Hofstadter, among others, all challenged Phillips’s dominant perspective. But according to Foster, it was Kenneth M. Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution (1955), which replaced American Negro Slavery “as the authoritative account of slavery.” After four decades of the Phillipsian take, Stampp “abandoned the benign view of slavery as a school for civilization and showed it to be a harsh institution that sought, but never fully achieved, the degradation of the slave.”

Is it an accident that Stampp published at the beginning of the Civil Rights struggle? Probably not. As Foster says, “social as well as intellectual developments” play a role in the adoption of historical perspectives.

A larger question might be: since most Americans aren’t history majors, how does all this scholarly history actually filter through society? After all, Gone With the Wind probably had much more cultural influence than any academic text (both book and movie versions of GWTW certainly fit well into the Phillipsian worldview). The answer may be: how does historiography not permeate through the society it comes from? Historiography suggests we can’t separate the writers of history from their own history.


JSTOR Citations

Guilt Over Slavery: A Historiographical Analysis

By: Gaines M. Foster

The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Nov., 1990), pp. 665-694

Southern Historical Association

Matthew Wills

Matthew Wills has advanced degrees in library science and film studies and is lapsed in both fields. He has published in Poetry, Huffington Post, and Nature Conservancy Magazine, among other places, and blogs regularly about urban natural history at matthewwills.com.

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