Where Historians Disagree - The Character of Slavery
No issue in American history has produced a richer literature or a more spirited debate than the nature of American slavery. The debate began even before the Civil War, when abolitionists strove to expose slavery to the world as a brutal, dehumanizing institution, while southern defenders of slavery tried to depict it as a benevolent, paternalistic system. That same debate continued for a time after the Civil War; but by the late nineteenth century, as the historian David Blight revealed in an important 2002 book, Race and Reunion, with white Americans eager for sectional conciliation, both northern and southern chroniclers of slavery began to accept a romanticized and unthreatening picture of the Old South and its "peculiar institution."
The first major scholarly examination of slavery was fully within this romantic tradition. Ulrich B. Phillips's American Negro Slavery (1918) portrayed slavery as an essentially benign institution in which kindly masters looked after submissive, childlike, and generally contented African Americans. Phillips's apologia for slavery remained the authoritative work on the subject for nearly thirty years.
In the 1940s, as concern about racial injustice increasingly engaged the attention of white Americans, challenges to Phillips began to emerge.
In 1941, Melville J. Herskovits challenged Phillips's contention that black Americans retained little of their African cultural inheritance. In 1943, Herbert Aptheker published a chronicle of slave revolts as a way of challenging Phillips's claim that blacks were submissive and content.
A somewhat different challenge to Phillips emerged in the 1950s from historians who emphasized the brutality of the institution. Kenneth Stampp's The Peculiar Institution (1956) and, even more damningly, Stanley Elkins's Slavery (1959) described a labor system that did serious physical and psychological damage to its victims. Stampp and Elkins portrayed slavery as something like a prison, in which men and women had virtually no space in which to develop their own social and cultural lives. Elkins compared the system to Nazi concentration camps during World War II and likened the child-like "Sambo" personality of slavery to the distortions of character that many scholars believed the Holocaust had produced.
In the early 1970s, an explosion of new scholarship on slavery shifted the emphasis away from the damage the system inflicted on African Americans and toward the striking success of the slaves in building a culture of their own despite their enslavement. John Blassingame in 1973, echoing Herskovits's claims of thirty years earlier, argued that "the most remarkable aspect of the whole process of enslavement is the extent to which the American-born slaves were able to retain their ancestors' culture." Herbert Gutman, in The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom (1976), challenged the prevailing belief that slavery had weakened and even destroyed the African- American family. On the contrary, he argued, the black family survived slavery with impressive strength, although with some significant differences from the prevailing form of the white family. Eugene Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974) and other works revealed how African Americans manipulated the paternalist assumptions at the heart of slavery to build a large cultural space of their own within the system where they could develop their own family life, social traditions, and religious patterns. That same year, Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman published their controversial Time on the Cross, a highly quantitative study that supported some of the claims of Gutman and Genovese about black achievement, but that went much further in portraying slavery as a successful and reasonably humane (if ultimately immoral) system. Slave workers, they argued, were better treated and lived in greater comfort than most northern industrial workers of the same era. Their conclusions produced a storm of criticism.
Other scholarship on slavery has focused on the role of women within it. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese's Within the Plantation Household (1988) examined the lives of both white and black women on the plantation. Rejecting the claims of some feminist historians that black and white women shared a common female identity born of their shared subordination to men, she portrayed slave women as defined by their dual roles as members of the plantation work force and anchors of the black family.
In recent years, historians have given particular emphasis to the changing character of slavery over time. The most prominent of such scholars has been Ira Berlin, whose two books—Many Thousands Gone (2000) and Generations of Captivity (2004)—trace a series of distinct forms of slavery in different periods of its history, which were a result of the changing character of the South and of the changing expectations and experiences of the slaves themselves.
http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/modules/slavery/historiographical_essay.html - Slavery: Historiographical Essay
http://cghs.dade.k12.fl.us/slavery/interpretations_of_slavery_in_U.S/phillips_stampp.htm - Interpretations of Slavery: Phillips and Stampp
http://edweb.tusd.k12.az.us/uhs/APUSH/1st%20Sem/Articles%20Semester%201/Artiles%20Semester%201/Philips.htm - "White Man's Country," Ulrich B. Phillips
http://edweb.tusd.k12.az.us/uhs/APUSH/1st%20Sem/Articles%20Semester%201/Artiles%20Semester%201/Stampp.htm - "A Troublesome Property," Kenneth Stampp
http://edweb.tusd.k12.az.us/uhs/APUSH/1st%20Sem/Articles%20Semester%201/Artiles%20Semester%201/Elkins.htm - "Slavery," Stanley Elkins
http://www.laep.org/artsonline/mrc/elkins/index.html - "Elkins and the Problem of Sambo"
http://slate.msn.com/id/9089 - "Sambo Returns," David Greenberg
http://edweb.tusd.k12.az.us/uhs/APUSH/1st%20Sem/Articles%20Semester%201/Artiles%20Semester%201/Genovese.htm - "The World of the Slaves," Eugene Genovese
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/tguide/tgsocw.html - "Slavery and the Origins of the Civil War," Eric Foner
http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/historyonline/con_economic.cfm - "Was slavery the engine of economic growth?"
http://www.geocities.com/uelandrew/slavery1.htm - "Approaches to the Economics of Slavery," Andrew Smith (student paper)
http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/black_voices/voices_display.cfm?id=20 - "What was life like under slavery?"
http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/black_voices/voices_display.cfm?id=22 - "Slave Family Life"
http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/black_voices/voices_display.cfm?id=23 - "Slave Culture"
explore our Web site. To report a technical problem with this Web site, please contact the